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11.16 am

Jackie Ballard (Taunton): I congratulate the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) on securing this important debate, and on her brave and moving speech, which I am sure will have affected everyone in the House.

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All hon. Members would agree that it is a basic human right to have a voice, and to be heard and represented. In my remarks, I shall concentrate on the issue of representation. I am sure that all hon. Members would also agree that women's voices are essential to a healthy democracy and a healthy society. I do not believe that only women can represent women, but a legislature that does not have the same gender balance as the population as a whole cannot call itself representative.

Here I must make the obvious confession: my party has failed dismally in that regard, with only three women Members of this Parliament. However, we will have a better balance in the European Parliament after June, and we have the highest percentage of women councillors in local government. The party is taking steps to address our failings in that regard.

Ms Jenny Jones (Wolverhampton, South-West): I know that we are discussing an important matter in the debate, but the hon. Lady mentioned the number of women in her party and it has not escaped our notice that her party is going through a leadership contest at the moment. Does she have it in mind that her party might deal with the problem that she has described by having a woman leader?

Jackie Ballard: I could not possibly comment on that. However, the other day, I received a document from the Council for Parity Democracy. That document, which lists every woman in the world who is head of government or head of state, or who leads business or international organisations, is only 20 pages long. There are not nearly enough women leaders around the world, and perhaps my party could make a start on changing that. One never knows.

Other parties, here and abroad, are also tackling the issue of women's participation in democracy. That is a key aspect of the British Council's work in many developing countries, with which I and some Labour Members have been involved over the past couple of years. I shall speak briefly about the institutional changes that this Government have made to improve women's lives, and then give an example from one of the countries that I have visited.

First, I was disappointed--as I am sure were some Labour Members--that the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) was suddenly moved aside from her post as Minister for Women, even though she had proved to be quite effective. That did not give a very good message about the Government's intentions with regard to women. I am not throwing any aspersions about her replacement, although the Minister for Public Health, the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Ms Jowell), has other ministerial responsibilities, which obviously make the job more difficult.

One of the concerns of the women's unit is to increase the number of women who serve on public bodies. At the moment, only 31 per cent. of appointees to public bodies are women. If one looks more closely at the figures, one finds that most of those are in unpaid posts. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has the best record, employing women in 36 per cent. of paid posts and 28 per cent. of unpaid posts in the past two years. In contrast, women fill only 26 per cent. of paid posts and 86 per cent. of unpaid posts in the Department of Health, which clearly has a long way to go.

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Only 10 per cent. of our judges are women, and there are even fewer women in the higher courts. What is the Lord Chancellor doing to redress that imbalance? He must be pushed on the issue. Male judges have shown their inability to deal sensitively with crimes against women, such as rape and domestic violence. We are told that dealing with domestic violence is a key priority of the Government, but there is still much to be done to increase resources for women seeking refuge, improve training of police officers and conduct regular monitoring of reports of domestic violence, all of which is almost non-existent.

I was recently in Mexico with the British Council, attending a seminar on work in that country on women's rights, aimed at increasing women's participation in decision making. The position of women in the societies of many countries that signed the Beijing declaration, such as Mexico, is well behind that of the United Kingdom, yet, because they start from a low base, they put in place more effective structures than we have here. In Mexico, for example, the gender and equity parliamentary commission, which plays a similar role to a Select Committee, has a remit to look at the impact of all legislation on gender and equity. We might do well to consider that model.

The Mexican Government have embarked on a programme to establish a women's unit in each of the 32 states. We might well consider such a decentralised model, in which women's units work with state and local governments to implement a programme to improve women's rights. That enables the Government to respond to specific issues in different places in different regions, where there are different rates of progress, and where large indigenous populations, ethnic minorities or rural women have different needs than women in the city.

It is more than two decades since the framework of laws was implemented in the UK to try to eliminate sexual discrimination--which has usually, but not exclusively, been against women--in education and training, employment and consumer affairs. The Equal Opportunities Commission has recently proposed reforming sex equality laws by the introduction of a single sex equality Act, which would be based on the principle of equal treatment, and which would put the onus on employers and service providers to comply with the law, rather than the complainant having to take the case to a tribunal. I hope that the Government will very soon be able to respond to the EOC proposal, and inform the House when we can expect sex equality legislation in the Queen's Speech.

I hope that the Minister will be able to say in his response to the debate when the Government will set up a human rights commission. I apologise to him that I shall have to leave a few minutes before the end of the debate, although I let him know about that earlier.

When we have a voice as women and as Members of Parliament, we should use it to the advantage of all those without a voice. Around the world, many women are held back by traditions, cultural and otherwise, which prevent them from exercising their choice. The hon. Member for Keighley described how that impacts on many women in this country. The Beijing declaration came to the clear view that women's views must be heard, that a nation's progress depends on the progress of women and that the

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strength of the political system depends on the inclusion of women. Human rights are women's rights, and women's rights are human rights.

11.24 am

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): It will come as no surprise to the hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) to hear that I agree with just about everything she said. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) on obtaining this debate and on her excellent and moving speech. Nobody should underestimate the courage that it took to make such a speech. I shall speak on many of the issues that she raised, but, given the virtual worldwide silence on women's human rights, I make no apology for doing so. Today should mark the beginning of an effective campaign to highlight the plight of millions of women and children, whose basic human rights are violated daily in the name of culture or religion.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley, I do not speak in any superior, patronising way, as I am only too well aware of the history of my country, and the crimes against women and humanity that it has committed globally and at home. In supporting this debate, my hon. Friend and I shall probably face accusations of racism or Islamophobia, but experiences, and what I have seen as I have travelled the world as a Member of Parliament, make it clear that silence is not an option any more.

Female circumcision is not just a problem in the developing world; it happens in the west. There is a case about it in Paris at the moment. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Ms Jones) will speak about what is happening in Britain. The World Health Organisation has stated:

Due to immigration, some live in Europe, Australia, Canada and the United States of America, too. It is estimated that about 140 million women and girls worldwide have suffered that dreadful practice, and that a further 2 million girls are annually at risk.

Female genital mutilation--or FGM, as it is called--comprises all procedures involving partial or total removal of external female genitalia, or other injury to female genital organs, whether for cultural, religious or non-therapeutic reasons. The procedures are always totally irreversible. They are harmful to the health of women and girls, and the effects last a lifetime. Immediate complications include severe pain, shock, urine retention, ulceration of the genital region, haemorrhage, and infection, which can often lead to death in the poorest areas of the world. Long-term consequences are horrendous, and include incontinence, painful sexual intercourse, sexual dysfunction and the possibility of HIV infection. The risk of maternal death and stillbirth is greatly increased, especially in the absence of skilled health personnel.

That is torture on a massive scale. It is committed against millions of girls and women every year, yet where is the outcry? Who is saying much about it? Insomniacs will have heard a good programme at 3 o'clock this morning on the BBC World Service, in which Dr. Olienka, a very brave Nigerian woman who has led a one-woman crusade, and other women spoke about the practice in Sierra Leone. How many Parliaments debate

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the obscenity? How many times has the United Nations Security Council, the Group of Seven or the United Nations itself debated, on a world platform, that crime against humanity? The truth is that they do not because the victims are female. The practice violates every part of the universal declaration of human rights.

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