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12.7 pm

Ms Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) on securing this important debate. I am pleased that we are having it during the week of the five-year review of the Cairo conference programme of action which put women's rights at the heart of its agenda.

Despite many international agreements affirming women's human rights, girls and women are still much more likely than men to be poor, undernourished and illiterate, and to have less access than men to education, medical care, property ownership, credit, training and employment.

Discrimination against girls often begins before birth in the preference for sons, and in too many places continues with the denial of education and medical care, and with forced teenage or even pre-teenage marriage, sex and pregnancy.

Women may be restricted to the home, sexually and physically abused without any remedy, and denied rights to own or inherit property, receive training or credit, or to take part in political or social discourse, as is the case in Afghanistan today, which was so movingly described by my hon. Friends the Members for Keighley and for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon), and the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan). Such treatment of women is a corruption of Islam, which teaches respect and honour for women.

At puberty, in particular, girls have specific needs that should be addressed. Access to health education alleviates trauma caused by ignorance of bodily changes, and leads to improved hygiene, the lack of which often leads to infection and sometimes death. However, in Afghanistan, that education is forbidden and in many countries, it is simply not available. Girls expect only to be mothers, and are restricted in education and employment, while boys are prepared to be heads of families. Laws against domestic violence are often not enforced on behalf of women, making women vulnerable to persistent abuse,

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or even murder. When women defend themselves, or try to flee such violence, it is often they who are imprisoned, instead of the perpetrators.

Unfortunately, achieving gender equality in those areas requires the support of men, who exercise most of the power and who, in some countries, appear to want to keep their women in fear and subjugation. Investment in education for women and expanding their access to credit, training, property and legal rights give them options to achieve status and satisfaction in life, and liberate their economic potential. For centuries, child bearing has been women's chief source of security and status, and that remains the case, especially in countries where women are denied education, reproductive health care, secure livelihoods, and full and equal rights. Programmes that offer girls alternative life-style choices can help girls to stay in school and, consequently, delay child bearing. Such women tend to have fewer children.

Two thirds of the illiterate adults in the world are female, but where there are higher levels of women's education, there are also lower infant mortality and lower fertility. Women in developing nations are usually in charge of securing water, food and fuel, and they oversee their families' health and diet. They tend to put into immediate practice whatever they learn about nutrition, health care, and the preservation of the environment and natural resources.

The roles that men and women play in society are socially determined and often justified as being required by culture or religion. However, there can be no democracy without equality. If we judge a country by the conditions and status of its women, many would fall short, but in Afghanistan, women have no status at all and their life conditions are intolerable. The dreadful situation in which Afghan women are trying to survive is getting worse every day. Women's human rights are being violated daily, in the name of law and order and religion.

The restrictions imposed on women by the Taliban are not unique. In other countries in the region such as Pakistan, the quality of life for women, in terms of their status and the violation of their rights, is now little better than in Afghanistan, because of the resurgence of fundamentalism. The systematic attacks on women's rights in those countries should be a warning that regressive steps can occur anywhere and at any time. The international community has a duty to take resolute action to restore women's rights in Afghanistan, and to help to stop further deterioration of the quality of life and rights of women in other Islamic communities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax told us about the most pernicious form of the violation of women's human rights: female genital mutilation--a term used for a variety of surgical operations--which is carried out on healthy, female children, mainly for traditional reasons, and which is often backed by enormous social pressure. That mutilation, often carried out with unsterilised instruments and without anaesthetic, can lead to immediate health risk and often causes long-term health damage. That it is being carried out in the luxury of Harley street is no less oppressive. The practice is prevalent in north Africa, the near east and Asia, and it is not uncommon for children born in Britain to be sent abroad to be operated on. Such children often believe that they are going to visit relatives, only to be violated by

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people whom they trust. Where are the laws to protect those vulnerable children? No wonder the problem is being swept under the carpet.

Slavery, torture, and racial and ethnic prejudice are centuries old, and are now rightly condemned when they involve people of colour, political dissidents or ethnic groups. Violation of women's human rights must receive the same international censure. I urge the Government to use every possible forum to condemn the continuing abuse of women's human rights wherever it is perpetrated. In particular, I urge them to establish mechanisms to ensure that women and girls living in Britain are protected from female genital mutilation, either in this country or abroad.

12.14 pm

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): May I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) on initiating the debate on this very important topic? We have heard a number of excellent speeches and I should particularly like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham(Mrs. Gillan) for telling us of her experiences in these matters as a former Minister with responsibility for women. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Keighley on her courageous speech. It cannot have been easy to stand up and say what she said today. She spoke movingly and sensitively, and her comments gained the wholehearted support of everybody in the House.

It is a sad comment on the world today that, as we stand at the brink of a new millennium, it is still necessary for us to debate restrictions on human rights faced by so many women across the world. Different examples of those restrictions have been referred to in the debate. The lot of women in the UK has been improved over the years, as society has changed. Involvement in the political process has played a part in that, as an impetus for change; it is, perhaps, appropriate that we are having this debate in the week of the 70th anniversary of the extension of the vote to women.

I must say to the hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) that, although her speech might have been something of a leadership bid, I thought that she rather missed the point of the debate. Many other hon. Members raised issues of extreme importance that the Government must take seriously and on which they must act. In many parts of the world--and also, as we have heard, for women in certain communities in the UK--the treatment of many women has not improved greatly over many generations. Those women are still treated as second-class citizens, because of cultural attitudes and traditions that apply within their communities.

I want to mention one issue that has not been fully addressed. One of the key developments that can open opportunities to women and improve their position in society is access to education. As UNICEF--the United Nations Children's Fund--reported at the international conference on girls' education last May, one of the problems in the world is that girls make up two thirds of the approximately 132 million children in developing countries who are not in school. There are 900 million illiterate adults in the world, of whom two thirds are female.

Education is a key to breaking out of poverty; it empowers individuals and encourages them to become active citizens. It enables them to have access to

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information about choices in their lives, and provides them with the skills and understanding to make those choices. In too many places, girls are discouraged or prevented from going to school; sometimes, that issue relates to the ability to access school because of distance or the number of places available. However, all too often, girls do not go to school because they are expected to stay at home to do the chores--or to enter into an early marriage, because of early pregnancies--or simply because school is considered to be a low priority for girls.

That is a problem in particular areas, such as sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia and some parts of the middle east and north Africa. It is a particular problem in Afghanistan, although I shall not refer to that in detail, because time is short and many hon. Members have already spoken of the very real concerns about the ways in which women are being appallingly treated by the Taliban regime there.

Education is not only important for itself; it offers a key to economic freedom and employment. The previous Government supported a number of projects, within the overseas aid budget, which were designed to help women to gain access to education and employment. Such projects included the micro-credit schemes, which enabled women to borrow in order to set themselves up in employment. That scheme was started in Bangladesh, but was extended, with our support, to other countries such as Kenya. We also encouraged community projects, with a particular emphasis on learning. Another issue--to which some hon. Members referred--was the important support for the provision of contraceptive advice through our children by choice not chance programme. All those moves were aimed at providing help and support to women, to enable them to make the choices necessary to change their lives.

Whatever support is provided, one fundamental problem is faced by women in many communities: the problem of cultural attitudes. There is always tension between our right to comment on alternative cultures and the freedom of others to choose to hold to those cultures. We must be sensitive to that tension, but when we see clear violations of basic human rights, it is right that we in this House should stand up and speak out, precisely as the hon. Member for Keighley and other hon. Members have done this morning.

Although we have mentioned a number of countries where there are human rights problems for women, the issues that strike us most are where there is clear evidence of abuses taking place in the UK. Although I do not have the same degree of experience as the hon. Members for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) and for Keighley, I have had a constituency case in which an arranged marriage did not work and the woman found herself effectively detained against her will by her husband's family. For some, that is the stuff of paperback thrillers, but it happens to women in the UK.

Last year, I raised the issue of bounty hunters with the Home Secretary, and the Minister's response referred to the responsibilities of the police. The basic problem, however, lies with the community's attitude, which says that it is right to chase after young women who, as in the case of Zena, have chosen how they want to lead their lives. Their community says that that is wrong and is prepared to go to extreme lengths to prevent them from exercising the freedom of choice that we all take for granted. We expect that freedom of choice to be available

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to all UK citizens, regardless of their community, culture or background. I am interested to hear the Minister's response on this issue. The hon. Member for Keighley referred to the need for Asian community leaders to take that issue on board. What action are the Government taking to encourage that process, and to ensure that UK citizens are provided with the same freedom of choice and the same rights?

My hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham said that she was disappointed in the Government's attitude to women's issues. Since responsibility for women moved to the Department of Health, general women's issues have not been raised in health questions. I note that a Home Office Minister will respond to this debate. This, however, is neither the time nor the place to go into detail on that, because hon. Members have raised some serious issues and I look forward to the Minister's response.

I want to refer to the specific issue of female circumcision. Let us not call it female circumcision; female genital mutilation is the right description. It is appalling to hear what that involves for women who go through it--trauma, pain and suffering.

Members of Parliament are privileged to be able to raise these issues freely, and we have rightly exercised that privilege this morning. I congratulate the hon. Member for Keighley again on securing this debate, and I trust that the Minister will respond sensitively to the issues that have been raised.

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