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Mr. Swire: Every Member of this House will agree that, in an ideal world, more women should be involved in front-line Afghan politics, but does my hon. Friend not regret the fact that, when our forces were actively engaged in Afghanistan in the aftermath of 11 September, certain Labour Members concentrated on achieving a gender balance in an Afghan government? Perhaps they should have talked more about getting the ethnic balance right.
Mrs. Spelman: We must be very careful about imposing on Afghan people a western view of how they should run their country. Until I visited that region, I did not understand the wearing of the burqa. That seems abhorrent to us in the west, but it was explained to me that women are in purdahbehind the curtainand if one
Fiona Mactaggart: For the avoidance of doubt, will the hon. Lady confirm that she thinks it abhorrent that, in Afghanistan, women were excluded from schools and women doctors were refused the right to practise? Does she agree that that is an abuse of international human rights standards that every democratic politician in the world, western or otherwise, should be concerned about?
Mrs. Spelman: I hope that the hon. Lady was listening when I highlighted the abhorrent factlet there be no doubtthat Afghanistan is the only country in the world to have banned women from secondary education. What flows from that is the closure to the professions that she describes. I was merely pointing out that it is important not to impose our norms on the culture of another country. Islamic societies do not necessarily discriminate against women, and I do not want anyone to think that I was arguing to the contrary.
In 1977, 15 per cent. of legislators in Afghanistan were women. Until the 1990s, women comprised 70 per cent. of all teachers, 50 per cent. of Government workers and 40 per cent. of medical doctors. Throughout the developing world, women can occupy positions of power and influence.
Helen Jackson: In the context of the disastrous treatment of women in Afghanistan, does the hon. Lady agree that women are often a strong and powerful force in conflict resolution at a community and a national level? If women are excluded in a country that is suffering violence, it is far more difficult to achieve a peaceful and democratic resolution.
Throughout the developing world, it is vital that women have better access to education, health care and the infrastructures that can help them to build up small businesses. In the most recent session of International Development questions, I called for microcredit to be used in Afghanistan to kick-start or re-direct production, thereby giving women the power to start their own small businesses. Aid agencies have helped immensely in that regard by establishing bakeries run by women.
I commend to the Government Africa's "Send a Cow" charity, with which the Minister is doubtless familiar. It gives women in the third world a cow to provide milk for their village, enabling them to build from that example. Women with a cow are more immediately respected, because they can nourish their children and sell their milk. Other schemes that provide water nearer to villages can also release women from the daily drudgery of walking several miles each day to get water.
Another abuse against women that has been in the news recently is the issue of Asian girls who have been brought up here being forced into marriages with men in India and Pakistan. In just 18 months, the Foreign Office has dealt with 240 cases of forced marriage, and has repatriated more than 60 young people who were taken abroad to be married against their will. I hope that the Government will tackle that issue.
One of the greatest vehicles of empowerment for women is education, both here and in the developing world. Through education comes better health, and through health and education comes opportunity for change. A report produced by the YWCA on "Poverty: the price of young motherhood in Britain", shows that young women with no educational qualifications are almost twice as likely to report having a child in their teens as those who have GCSEs. Although, nationally, girls outperform boys, among ethnic groups Bangladeshi young women are twice as likely as their white peers to be without educational qualifications at the age of 16. Research by the Policy Studies Institute reveals that Bangladeshi girls are falling behind the boys by 10 per cent., which challenges the received wisdom that girls now do better than boys at school. I support the YWCA recommendation for a special working group on girls' school exclusion and disaffection. That issue is often lost in the generalisation that girls now outperform boys.
It is true that when we compare the fate of women in the developed world with those in the developing world, we find that our lot is much happier, but violence against women by men is no respecter of race, class or colour. In this country we now have refuges for women escaping male violenceone for every 200,000 of the populationbut in the third world such luxuries do not exist. In some cultures, it is practically the norm for men to mistreat their women. According to the secretary general of Amnesty International, Irene Khan,
We need to be sensitive to the rights of women in work to encourage them to break through the infamous glass ceiling. I often speak at girls' sixth form colleges on the subject of juggling work and family life. I advise the girls to work out their priorities in advance, to be bold in asking for what they need to balance their lives and, above all, to retain a sense of humour. However, if we fail to teach
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: The hon. Lady mentioned domestic violence and refuges. Will she acknowledge that the Home Office has done a lot of work with police authorities to try to ensure that women do not have to leave their homes and flee to refuges with their children, which is what they have had to do in the past?
Mrs. Spelman: We could have a separate debate on domestic violence, and I might commend that to hon. Members, because it is an unspoken but important issue. As a new Member of Parliament, I was struck by what the police told me about domestic violence. When a case occurs, the problem is that they all too often have to send the woman back home. While the Home Office is beginning to address the issue in the domestic setting, it is vital that women have somewhere safe to go while the wider ramifications of the domestic dispute at the heart of the violence are investigated. I have learned from my surgeries that there are two sides to a story, and that an initial interview with one person does not always reveal all the aspects. If a woman has a safe place to go with her children, it can create the breathing space to consider the extent and nature of the problem.
All that we do to help women achieve the equality for which they strive must be done in the certain knowledge that it is no mere concession to political correctness. By not treating women as equals, we are missing out on a lot of talent, skills and knowledge. We must carefully scrutinise legislation to achieve our aims. We must not allow red tape protecting women's rights at work to become another tool to beat women with, or an excuse not to employ them.
Not for the first time since taking up my brief as shadow Secretary of State for International Development I have been struck by the huge gulf between what are seen as major problems in this country compared with what is happening in the developing world. That is never more true than in this debate on women and equality. As I hope I have been able to show, the lot of women in the developing world is a difficult, dangerous one. Yes, we must work to right our own inequalities, but let us not lose sight of the women of the third world who are centuries behind us and where the words "equality" and "woman" seem at present on opposite sides of a giant chasm.