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12.50 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) for her work in bringing the plight of Afghan women to public attention. I pay particular tribute to her work with the UK Women's Link with Afghan Women. I congratulate her on an excellent speech; I am sure that all Members in the House—and it is nice so see so many here at this late hour—concur.

We all agree that one of the most appalling features of the Taliban regime has been its treatment of women, including restrictions on women's access to health care and education. The Taliban were a sinister, barbarous and fanatical regime who demonstrated mediaeval cruelty, especially towards women. Their collapse has given the people of Afghanistan hope for a brighter future. Under the Taliban, women's access to health care was severely restricted and they were denied access to education. As my hon. Friend pointed out, maternal mortality rates in Afghanistan are among the worst in the world. Life expectancy is just 44 years.

When the Taliban took Kabul in 1996, they closed 63 girls' schools and more than 100,000 girls were immediately thrown out of school. They ordered that women could not teach, so 150,000 boys were forced to leave school. The university was shut down and 10,000 students, 4,000 of whom were women, sent home. As well as denying women access to education, the Taliban enforced further repressive laws affecting women. By law, they could not go outside their homes unless accompanied by a close male relative. It was made almost impossible for them to work; even their dress was regulated by law. The penalties for breaking such laws were savage. Now that the Taliban do not govern their lives, those laws are thankfully at an end.

Last week, the first step was taken on the long road towards rebuilding Afghanistan and giving women a voice in its future Government. Exceeding all expectations, the representatives of the non-Taliban Afghan factions, including women and members of Afghanistan's four major ethnic groups, agreed that an interim authority under the leadership of Hamid Karzai would take office on 22 December. The British Government have long said that we would like a broad-based, representative Government in Afghanistan. We expect any Afghan Government to recognise international human rights norms, including women's rights. We believe that adherence to international human rights norms, including

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the UN charter and the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, which the previous Afghan Government signed but did not ratify, are the key to restoring the rights of women.

One of the most encouraging aspects of the Bonn talks was the participation of women delegates. There will be women in the new Administration, as my hon. Friend pointed out—a clear indication that the new Government in Afghanistan will be very different from the old one. Dr. Shima Samar has been appointed one of the five vice-chairs of the interim Administration and Minister for Women's Affairs. Although women often served as Ministers in Governments before the Taliban came to power, Dr. Samar will be the first woman to occupy such a senior post in an Afghan Government.

Dr. Samar is from the minority Hazara group and gained a medical degree from Kabul university, where she developed a passion for women's rights. She escaped from Afghanistan after the Russian invasion and currently runs an organisation based in the border town of Quetta in Pakistan, which provides health and education services for Afghan women and children. She also provides medical training for female students at several hospitals that she runs in Afghanistan.

Dr. Samar opened 10 Afghan clinics and four hospitals for women and children, as well as schools in rural Afghanistan for more than 17,000 students. Literacy programmes established by her organisation were accompanied by the distribution of food aid and information on hygiene and family planning.

The new Minister for Public Health, Dr. Suhaila Seddiqi, as well as being a doctor, is Afghanistan's only female military general. She has served as a surgeon in Kabul's military hospital for more than 20 years. Dr. Seddiqi, an independent Tajik, stayed in Afghanistan throughout the civil war and played a key role in keeping the hospital functioning throughout the 1990s. Dr. Seddiqi managed to keep working throughout the five years of Taliban rule. After initially ordering her to stay at home, they realised how crucial she was to the running of the hospital and reinstated her as head of surgery.

As well as supporting the overall political process, and the implementation of the Bonn agreement, it is extremely important that the international community should consult the women of Afghanistan about their priorities. The UNIFEM Afghan women's summit, which my hon. Friend attended in Brussels last week, was also attended by Dr. Seddiqi and Dr. Samar, and marked a positive start.

The summit was the largest global gathering of Afghan women leaders to focus on the role of women in the new post-Taliban Afghanistan. It addressed the crucial needs of all the people of Afghanistan, focusing on health care, education, refugees and human rights. The British Government hope that the international community will support the aims of the summit declaration—for our part, we certainly will—which calls for a greater role for women in the future decision-making process in Afghanistan.

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We have long said that, while the form of the Government and constitution is for the Afghan people to determine, the future Government must be broadly based and representative of all Afghans. We hope very much that women will be involved.

Slowly, the people of Afghanistan are beginning to see real improvements in their lives brought about by the collapse of the Taliban regime. We welcome the reports that female students are beginning to re-enrol at Kabul university for the first time in five years. Access to television and to international media will allow women to become better informed about the situation in their country and in the wider world.

Improvements will take time. Better access to health care and education will afford women an improved standard of living. As they return to work, their financial situation will improve. That is especially important for all the female heads of household who were destitute when deprived of their livelihoods by the Taliban. Life for Afghan women has always been difficult. Afghanistan has more than a million war widows. Non-governmental organisations and UN-run projects to get women back to work will have a huge impact on the lives of many Afghan women and children.

The UK recognises the need for capacity building and leadership skills training and, where it is sought by Afghan women, the Government will endeavour to ensure that funds are available for that. The international community continually uses experience from past development projects to develop long-term strategies elsewhere. I am sure that the lessons learned from the Balkans and Sierra Leone will be applied in Afghanistan.

I am also sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will understand the need for any British troops in Afghanistan to be particularly sensitive to the traumatic experiences faced by Afghan women and children.

Pledges for the UN appeal for Afghanistan exceeded the $622 million identified as necessary for the UN inter-agency emergency humanitarian assistance plan. Currently, as my hon. Friend said, the UN has received 55 per cent. of the amount pledged. The British Government urge all those countries who pledged money but have not yet realised their commitments to do so as soon as possible. That is terribly important.

The meetings of the World Bank in Islamabad, and of the United Nations Development Programme in Berlin, were key to the restoration and reconstruction of Afghanistan. That reconstruction is an essential part of the effort to restore the rights of all the Afghan people and to underpin a commitment to the new Afghanistan made by the delegates at Bonn.

The international community and the UN have assisted the Afghan people to begin the process of rebuilding their nation. Their future is in their hands. We have an urgent responsibility to support the interim Administration, and we will continue to support them so as to build a brighter future for all the people of Afghanistan—a future which, I hope, the voice of women will have a major role in shaping.

Question put and agreed to.

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