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Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Order. A number of hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. Unless speeches are reasonably brief, many will be disappointed.

11.41 am

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): It is not often that I wholeheartedly agree with Labour Members. However, this morning I have heard two speeches that I admired. I would like to join other colleagues in offering my unreserved congratulations to the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) on having the courage to initiate this debate and to make her voice heard on behalf of women who are undoubtedly abused, not only in this country, but throughout the world.

If the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) is starting a campaign, perhaps she will give some consideration to talking to me about it. I would be very willing to join any campaign that would end the barbaric practices that are perpetrated against women throughout the world.

Slightly more than 50 years ago, the General Assembly of the United Nations produced the universal declaration of human rights, which followed the dark days of the second world war. Those were dark days in our own history in Europe. However, the declaration made it clear that the rights that it expounded were for all people without exception. Though much progress has been made over the past 50 years, as I am sure all right hon. and hon. Members would acknowledge, much more is needed around the globe.

The debate seeks to highlight the single gender, and I obviously have a great deal of sympathy with that. However, I say at the outset that I would not want a single gender debate to remove the highlight from human rights in general--the human rights that belong to both men and women. If we practise the politics of inclusion and believe in equal opportunities, we should not narrow our horizons and ignore 50 per cent. of the population.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): I accept what the hon. Lady says about making her remarks apply to both sexes. However, does she agree with me that nowadays, the nature of war, and especially civil war, means that women and children are disproportionately affected? Many more women have their human rights abused because of war and civil war throughout the world now than ever before. This is one of the main problems. War has become war against women, who are raped, mutilated and abducted. They are damaged far more than the male of the species.

Mrs. Gillan: I do not wish to have a disagreement with the hon. Lady because I have sympathy with her remarks.

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However, it would be narrow-minded to imagine for a moment that it is not possible to damage men, to damage boy children, to rape boy children and to rape men. I would not want to enter into a debate in which we held a competition to determine who was abused more. The abuses of civil war and war in general are well known, sadly, to all right hon. and hon. Members.

I wish to focus on the fact that there must be equality of attitude towards the debate, although at the same time, we must highlight the special and particular treatment for which women are often singled out, particularly in the name of religion.

When I was a Minister in the previous Conservative Government, I had the privilege of signing the declaration on the platform for action in Beijing. The then Government took the matter so seriously that we sent three Ministers to Beijing. It was not a jolly for the three Ministers and it was not a trip on Concorde. Three very senior Ministers went to Beijing to do a job of work, not only on behalf of the women of the United Kingdom, but on behalf of women throughout the world. I pay tribute to Baroness Chalker and my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), who attended the conference with me.

I pay tribute also to the non-governmental officers who attended the conference, in far more difficult circumstances than myself. A parallel conference for NGOs took place down the road. Due to adverse weather conditions and the poor preparation of the buildings that were to be used, many of the NGOs were up to their knees in mud. There was a tremendous spirit among the NGOs, the politicians and the representatives who had made it to Beijing to negotiate the platform for action.

Sadly, the negotiating team that I used and the equal opportunities unit within the Department for Education and Employment have now been broken up. The Government have had four Ministers with responsibilities for women in less than two years, including one who was unpaid. I believe that the message that is going out to women is completely wrong. Perhaps the Conservative Government were not quite so up-front about our policies for women. We never promised a ministry for women. I believe that the previous Government made good progress on rights for women and that the present Government have caused a great deal of disappointment throughout the country. However, that is not the main thrust of my speech.

At Beijing, I met women who took my breath away. I met women who had been tortured and mutilated. I met women whose very lives were in danger because of their presence at the conference. These were real women and real injustices. I heard stories at first hand which ranged from bride burning to female genital mutilation, and from rape to female infanticide. Sadly, we can travel around the globe and collect stories of abuses as we move from country to country.

In common with those who have already spoken in this debate, I wish to highlight three areas where crimes against women are rife and, sadly, are often committed in the name of religion, or because one religion does not tolerate another. I am grateful to Christian Solidarity Worldwide for its briefings on this subject and I have no hesitation in reading from them. I think that the House would wish to hear particular stories from India and Pakistan.

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At the end of last year, four nuns belonging to a missionary group, the Foreign Missionary Sisters, were gang raped by suspected Hindu militants in the Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh in central India. The four Catholic nuns were all under 35 years of age. They were dragged out of their convent, taken to a nearby field and gang raped by 15 to 20 men. The police claim that they have arrested four people in connection with the incident, but have declined to disclose their identity.

The assailants first knocked at the door of the convent, pretending that they needed urgent medical help for someone. The nuns were unconvinced and refused to open the door. They barricaded themselves in a chapel, but the assailants broke into the convent and ransacked the whole building before dragging the nuns from the chapel and taking them to the fields to be raped. All four of the nuns were from the state of Tamil Nadu and working for FMS, a humanitarian medical organisation which was set up to provide medical help to people bereft of medical facilities in the remote rural areas of the country.

I do not say that a nun is better than any other woman, but the incident serves my purpose in showing that people could choose women who were in the area for humanitarian purposes and that the authorities do not pursue to the nth degree the perpetrators of such a revolting and abhorrent crime.

We have heard about the situation in Pakistan. Again, Christian Solidarity Worldwide has provided me with a brief, which states:

Discrimination stretches beyond the workplace, affecting the political, legal and social status of women. Legally, the evidence of a woman is worth half that of a man. Worse still, the evidence of a Christian woman is not accepted at all in cases filed under Sharia law. However, such women can still be charged, convicted and punished under Sharia law.

Incidents of rape and violence against women are a daily news item. As we heard, the Huddood laws relating to rape require the eye-witness testimony of four adult male witnesses for rape to be proved. That is ridiculous; it denies justice to many of the victims of rape in that country. However, if rape is unproven, the unfortunate girl is charged with adultery. That cannot be right under any religion or any laws. No politician in any state could possibly endorse that.

Political representation of women remains low. Although some efforts are being made to ensure that women have seats in Parliament, their tragedy often goes unheard because they have no real voice.

Finally, I shall deal with Afghanistan, as other hon. Members have touched on the subject. For me, the present situation in Afghanistan represents some of the worst treatment handed out to women across the globe. We have heard how women are prevented from seeking employment. Women doctors are prohibited from practising their trade. Education is not permitted for female children. Women are not allowed to walk down

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the street unless accompanied by a man. Amnesty International, which collects and catalogues some of the worst abuses of human rights, came across a case only a couple of years ago in which the Taliban had a woman's thumb cut off because she wore nail varnish.

The Minister who is to reply to the debate has not been known for speaking in women's debates in the House. I welcome him to the Dispatch Box and hope that he will make a fine contribution in what, I believe, will be his first debate on women's issues. I hope that he sits on the Ministerial Sub-Committee on Women's Issues, which was started under the Conservative Government. Perhaps in the course of his winding-up speech he will tell us how many times that Cabinet Sub-Committee has met.

I urge the Minister to ensure that continuous and strong representations are made to the three countries that I have highlighted, in particular to Afghanistan and the Taliban. In their daily business of running the country and representing its interests and views abroad, Ministers should keep at the forefront of their minds the countless women and girls who die or are damaged each day from gender-based discrimination, and on every possible occasion they should support and promulgate human rights for all--men and women.

Whether distributing aid, negotiating a trade deal or making a diplomatic visit, Ministers should keep human rights in mind so that we can continue to make progress over the next 50 years, as we have over the past 50 years. Ministers should not go abroad or discuss any matter with their opposite numbers, no matter from which country they come, without attempting to draw human rights abuses to their colleagues' attention and helping to eradicate some of the worst treatment imaginable of one human being by another.

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