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11.54 am

Ms Jenny Jones (Wolverhampton, South-West): I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) on securing this important debate. Everyone in the House agrees that she does not lack courage in raising this important and sensitive subject.

I serve on the Council of Europe with my hon. Friend; we are both members of the equal opportunities committee there. As we have heard, the committee has been taking evidence on the situation in Afghanistan. The House might also be interested to know that last year, shortly after the committee was formed, one of the first topics with which we had to get to grips was the news that virginity testing had been re-introduced in Turkey. Thanks to the women and the men on the equal opportunities committee, we succeeded in getting that proposal widely publicised and stopped. We are very busy on the Council of Europe these days.

Last week, my constituency office received a telephone call from a distraught young woman who told my staff the story of her cousin's wife, who is a constituent of mine. My constituent, whom I shall not name for reasons that will shortly become obvious, had married a man of whom her parents did not approve. The marriage had been against their wishes. Shortly after her marriage, she and her husband decided to go to Pakistan for a family visit. She wanted to meet her husband's family there.

When the couple arrived at the village, they were both arrested and locked up in the local police gaol. It transpired that my constituent's family in Pakistan had

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brought charges against her and her husband. They had accused her husband of kidnapping her and they had accused her of stealing the family jewellery, which was part of the dowry. More seriously, a male relative of my constituent had stationed himself outside the gaol and said that he would shoot her if she was released.

My constituent is a British citizen. She asked to be given access to the British embassy in Islamabad and was refused. She and her husband were kept in the lock-up for almost three days before his family found out where they were. They telephoned their family in Wolverhampton, who immediately contacted my office. We immediately involved the British embassy in Islamabad.

I congratulate the official at the embassy, who took immediate action. Embassy staff contacted the police station, pointed out that a British citizen had been arrested and asked why. Negotiations took place. The police dropped the charges, which the family considered to have been trumped up. They released the couple and gave them protective custody until they could reach my constituent's husband's family where they felt safe.

Everyone concerned took seriously the threat to kill my constituent. The House will note that it was the woman, not her husband, who was to be killed. My constituent will shortly return to the United Kingdom. She has family in this country, and I am seriously beginning to wonder what will happen to her when she returns to the UK. Needless to say, I shall keep in close contact with her and her family to make sure that she will be all right.

That story shocks me, as do the others that we have heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Keighley and for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon). The stories are so shocking because the women involved are taking the sort of decision about their personal lives that all other women in this country take, but they are being forced to pay a terrible price for doing so. They are being put through hell for making choices that the rest of us take for granted.

In telling the House of my constituent's experiences, I do not point the finger at any one faith or culture. All faiths have their zealots. At present, almost every religion is grappling with fundamentalism; it is not a phenomenon associated particularly with Islam. Unfortunately, because of the press coverage in this country, fundamentalism is automatically associated with Islam, and we have indeed heard stories from Afghanistan.

However, the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) pointed out some of the effects of fundamentalist Hinduism in India. Recently, our attention has been drawn to what is happening in the United States, where fundamentalist Christians are killing people and bombing property in a campaign against family planning and access to legal abortion. We need to keep the matter in perspective. One key feature of all religious fundamentalism is the suppression of women.

Ours is an inclusive society in which we strive to understand and respect all cultures and differences, which I have often said is our strong point. But--this is a big but--we should not allow that to blind us to the practices which result in the violation of human rights of men and women. Regardless of faith and culture, it is plain wrong to kidnap and drug a woman, and to threaten or commit violence against a woman, because she wants to make a particular decision in her life.

My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax referred to female circumcision. An article in The Independent last week said that female circumcision is being practised in

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Britain. We all know about the case which is currently before the French courts, but that article said that a team of investigative journalists attached to a television company had discovered two Harley street doctors involved in female circumcision in Britain. If that is true, it is shocking. The House must speak out about it and investigate it. Another practice involves young girls born in Britain, and therefore British citizens, being sent to their families' country of origin for the operation--to me it is mutilation--and then returned to Britain. That must stop.

All are agreed that my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley has been courageous in raising this sensitive issue, but we must have an intelligent debate. We cannot allow ourselves to be embroiled in arguments about racism, cultural rights, traditions and so on. Britain now has the Human Rights Act 1998. As a member of the Council of Europe, I was a particular enthusiast for the incorporation of the European convention on human rights into our legislation. It is one of the best things that the Government have done. However, the House must ensure that human rights are for all our daughters, regardless of their cultural background.

12.2 pm

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford): I, too, sincerely congratulate the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) on bringing before the House all the important issues affecting women that have been raised today, in particular the question of forced arranged marriages and their consequences on social life in Britain.

I, too, have heard allegations of female genital mutilation being carried out in Britain, and the Select Committee on International Development heard evidence of that being carried out in Harley street. Other abuses, too, are suffered by British women, and we must be vigilant in stamping out such practices in Britain. They are against our law and human rights, and against British women. I should like to join any organisation that is established to campaign against these practices, so that those responsible are brought to justice and the practices about which we have heard are stamped out.

Dr. Tonge: Speaking from a medical point of view, it would be helpful if, when we campaign for the abolition of genital mutilation, we included male genital mutilation. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that there is no medical reason for male circumcision. Many small boys are seriously damaged by that operation being done by unlicensed practitioners and people who do not know how to do it properly. It may broaden the issue and make it easier for certain cultural groups to accept if we go for both forms of operation, not just one of them.

Mr. Wells: That is an excellent suggestion. I was about to say that this should be the concern of not only women, but men and women. Evidence given to the International Development Committee suggests that the law is not necessarily the way in which to stop such practices. A law against such practices is in place in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, all of which have signed up to the Peking action programme and the Cairo action programme on sexual and reproductive health drawn up five years ago. Therefore, it is not colonial or imperialist to suggest that these practices need to be stamped out in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

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The House may not be aware that the International Development Committee is going to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh at the end of February and the beginning of March, and our subject is gender and development. We have purposely called it that because we must get the men on our side on this issue. It is often when the imams and other men controlling such societies agree that such practices are wrong that they are most quickly stamped out, so we must involve everyone in the crusade.

The usual population balance between the genders is 52 per cent. female and 48 per cent. male. In India, that has not only been reversed, but the female population is now as low as 45 per cent. That means that practices against female children are widespread in India. Death in childbirth is one factor, but the starving and deliberate murder of girl children on birth, and amniocentesis, which allows a female embryo to be identified and aborted, are widely practised. Apart from anything else, such practices are against nature, but they are also against the law and against human rights, to which India has signed up.

We must campaign against such abuses, which feed back into Bradford, Keighley, Wolverhampton and Southall, and we must be militant about abolishing such abhorrent practices.

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