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6 Mar 2003 : Column 991—continued

The Minister for Social Exclusion and Deputy Minister for Women (Mrs. Barbara Roche): I am following the hon. Lady's argument closely, in particular her words about positive action. What is the Liberal Democrat party's policy on positive action in its selection of women candidates?

Sandra Gidley: I knew that that question would come up, although I did not think that the Minister would ask it. My party debated the issue two years ago at conference, when it decided—conference decided, which is unusual in political parties these days, but our conference makes decisions that the party follows through—that it was important not to go down the route of positive discrimination. I disagreed and argued the opposite at the time. It would be foolish if I did not admit that. However, we decided to invest a lot of time in supporting, encouraging and mentoring women.

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That is a long-term strategy. I do not think that it will deliver many more women Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament at the next election, as I have said on record, but the rewards will be reaped in the election after that. I will not go into detail about the strategy, but many women are being encouraged and will be poised to get those target seats in that subsequent election. As we are gaining all the time, I am sure that the hon. Lady will agree that we will perhaps get more women MPs in that way.

I have put my efforts behind that strategy. Unless we are seen to follow it wholeheartedly, we will not know whether it works. However, there is another issue. Unfortunately, we find that we are trying to train women to perform like men, which is the wrong way to go about it. As one Labour Member said—I cannot remember which one—when we ask people to picture an MP, the image they perceive is male, middle-aged and middle-class. We have to break that mould. I welcome the Labour party's efforts in that regard, but they have not been enough to change hearts and minds. It is not that people are innately prejudiced, but they have to get over that hurdle. We need to make people more aware that more than one type of person can become a Member of Parliament.

On the report "Public Bodies 2002", in a recent parliamentary answer the Minister for Women stated

In a more recent answer, she said that she had no effective control over the matter and stated categorically that the responsibility for making those appointments lay with individual Ministers supported by their Departments, and that each Department set its own targets. Perhaps that explains the complete inconsistency between Departments and why some have targets that are less than aspirational.

The Department for International Development target for 2004 was

I think that the Minister will agree that that is a little disappointing, but it is even worse when one realises that in 2000 it had placed 27 per cent. of women in public appointments. Clearly, the Department is happy to go backwards.

On current trends only two Departments, the Scotland Office and the Cabinet Office, should reach the target of 50 per cent. of public appointments being women in time for a general election in 2005. Fewer women are now serving on a number of bodies than was the case in 2001. I could list them, but I will not.

Will the Minister look into that matter and encourage ministerial colleagues to set targets that are realistic but that have some element of ambition, and to have some sort of plan as to how they will achieve their goal, rather than merely laudable ambition? On the subject of ministerial colleagues, I must mention mainstreaming. There is little evidence that it is happening in any shape or form, which suggests that a radical overhaul of the women and equality unit is needed.

In the past year, I have asked a number of questions of Government Departments on the implementation of the Government's "better practice" agenda to mainstream

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gender equality throughout Departments. I hate using such terms—they are such a management-speak mouthful—but they are what we are lumbered with. Simply put, the responses highlight incompetence and shortcomings in a significant number of Departments, ranging from total failure to embrace gender mainstreaming to inadequate acceptance of its importance.

I asked each Department four questions, which were designed to test whether gender equality was being mainstreamed throughout government. I asked what new data series, broken down by gender, race, disability and age, had been commissioned by each Department since August 1997. I asked Departments to list the women's organisations that had been consulted over proposed legislation in various years and whether the responses had been published. I also asked if Departments had established a baseline for policy appraisal against which to measure progress on equal treatment and what progress had been achieved. Finally, I asked them to list the subject of each gender impact assessment drawn up since June 1997, indicating in each case whether the outcome had been put out to consultation or published.

I was surprised and disappointed by the results. Nine out of 15 Departments had failed to implement a gender-aware policy agenda to date. The Ministry of Defence, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Scotland Office and the Northern Ireland Office had neglected to conduct any gender impact assessments. The Wales Office and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport had not seen the need to conduct any analyses of gender mainstreaming. Five Departments would not answer one or more of the questions. A number of them had not defined any baselines for policy appraisal so far.

The Minister will be pleased to hear that it is not all doom and gloom. The Department for Education and Skills and the Department of Trade and Industry are the top-ranking Departments in demonstrating concrete evidence of mainstreaming equality. If gender awareness is not seen as a significant priority by the women and equality unit, it is difficult to imagine who will take up the initiative. Despite vast increases in resource allocation, the unit is clearly not doing its job properly and has let fall by the wayside the very object of its existence.

Finally, on the Minister's specific area of responsibility, more than two weeks ago I tabled a parliamentary question asking what percentage of her time was devoted to her role as Minister for Women. Unfortunately, to date I have not received an answer. It would be useful and nice to receive one today, but I hope that she realises that I asked the question out of frustration rather than pure mischief.

Earlier, I mentioned the large number of female Members of Parliament elected at the 1997 election. Yes, they were Labour MPs and some of them have come in for some flak, much of which is undeserved. I am convinced that having a large body of women in this place has resulted in many of the Government's policies being more women friendly and taking into account aspects of family life that were not previously so much to the fore. For example, I am convinced that the paper

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on domestic violence that is due to be published soon—it is the first paper on the subject to be published in the history of Parliament—would not have been produced had there not been so many women MPs willing and able to do their bit. I want a full-time Minister for Women to do more of that sort of thing and to ensure that other Departments come up with more policies that take the lives of women into account.

I place on record my congratulations to the Home Secretary. Last summer, I was invited to visit Cambodia to look into the problem of sex tourism, which involves many under-age girls. I was really shocked and horrified by what I saw. It was bad enough seeing young girls in brothel areas, but the extent of the problem was really brought home to me when I visited a shelter that tried to rehabilitate girls who had been rescued from brothels. One of those girls was eight years old, which is shocking by anybody's standards. At that stage, I decided that I would like to do something about it.

I mention the problem because, at the moment, people on the sex offenders register can travel abroad for less than eight days without registering with anybody. Police forces in those foreign countries are therefore completely unaware of the presence of such people. To me, that seemed completely wrong. I was pleasantly surprised by the Home Secretary's response: he said that he had been unaware of the problem, but that such people should not be allowed to go abroad at all. The statement published yesterday showed that he has taken the matter very seriously, and I want to put my thanks for that on the record.

It struck me when I was in Cambodia that the problems of women in other parts of the world are on a completely different scale to those that we perceive as problems in this country. Among the examples quoted by the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) were micro-finance initiatives. I visited a World Vision initiative, and the people running it were clear that they much preferred giving money to women because women saw the necessity of re-investing in families. One particular woman to whom I talked wanted to buy a motorbike and a plank of wood, so that she could take chickens to market. That might not sound much, but it would make a big difference to her particular community. I welcome all those initiatives, and we should launch more of them.

I am a little disappointed, although I understand the need for it, that there is a move towards money being given to Governments on the basis of good governance. If that money is given to non-governmental organisations, however, it is often spent on the heart of the problem; if it is given to Governments, they may divert it for other purposes. Again, so many things are taken for granted in the UK. Among the other truly horrific things that I saw were families foraging for food on a rubbish dump. We understand that we should not eat food covered with flies, but such a basic understanding is lost on generations of children who do not have education or role models. Another project is designed to educate those children. Such initiatives are small but very worthy, and I hope that we will support them.

I was going to talk about public health but I have digressed on Cambodia. In a similar way to the Tanzania story, when one sees such things one is very affected by them. Although MPs sometimes come in for

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criticism for visiting countries abroad, it is sometimes one of the best things that we can do to realise what a long way we have come, how lucky we are, and what we need to do to improve things in other countries, too.

I want to finish by talking about the important role that women play in post-conflict reconstruction in war-torn countries, and about war generally. The impact of war on women, and women's role in peacekeeping, are subjects that, sadly, have fairly recently come to notice on the international agenda, having traditionally been a non-subject. In October 2000, the UN Security Council passed resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. It underlines the vital role of women in conflict solution, and mandated a review of both the impact of conflict on women and their role in peace building. The resolution emphasises the importance of taking a gender perspective throughout, especially because of the adverse impact of conflict on women and girls.

The UN Secretary-General noted in his report on women, peace and security:

He noted that they

On a global scale, the figures are huge, as women and children constitute some 80 per cent. of the world's estimated 34 million refugees and other displaced persons. Although generalisations should be made only tentatively, it is widely documented that women's experiences of conflict are striking similar around the world, despite the huge differences in cultures and the character of conflicts. Women are more vulnerable, less mobile and the first to feel the effects.

One of the most unpleasant aspects of that is sexual violence. Reports from armed conflicts around the globe document how soldiers and paramilitaries terrorise women with rape, sexual and other physical violence and harassment. Combatants and sympathisers have used rape as a weapon of war, pulling communities apart and forcing women and girls to flee their homes.

I want to digress slightly and pay tribute to the V-day campaign, which has done much to highlight this and many other aspects of violence against women. Anyone who has ever heard a performance of "My vagina was my village" cannot fail to have been forced to recognise the brutality of war and its effect on women. It is a worldwide problem, which has affected women from different areas such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina—the list goes on. Women in those countries have reported mutilation and all sorts of other horrors. In many cases, perpetrators first raped, and then killed their victims. In other cases, those who survive suffer psychological trauma, permanent physical injury, and frequently are left with a long- term health reminder in the form of a sexually transmitted disease such as HIV/AIDS.

Until recently, however, many viewed violence against women as an inevitable, if regrettable, consequence of war. That attitude effectively guaranteed immunity for perpetrators and silenced women who suffered gruesome sexual and physical abuses. Indeed, it surprised me to learn that the

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recognition of rape as a war crime resulted from the war in Bosnia and was not officially internationally recognised until as recently as 1998. Since 1998, some success has been achieved, with a number of trials that have convicted certain individuals of rape, used as an instrument of genocide.

It is also pertinent to examine the post-conflict situations that face many women. Sadly, the end of war rarely signals the end of violations against women. In the post-conflict period, many women confront discrimination in reconstruction programmes. They also experience sexual and domestic violence in refugee camps, and violence when they attempt to return to their homes. It has recently been documented that, one year after the Taliban's fall, women and girls in Afghanistan still face severe restrictions and violations of their human rights. In many areas, Taliban officials have been replaced by warlords, police officers and local officials with similarly oppressive attitudes toward women. The Taliban's collapse at the end of 2001 gave hope that Afghan women and girls would soon enjoy greater rights and freedoms. Indeed, in November 2001, US Secretary of State Colin Powell stated:

A year later, however, many in Afghanistan, particularly outside Kabul, believe life has not dramatically improved. I quote one woman from the Herat province:

Women of all ethnicities in Afghanistan are still being restricted in their participation in public life. They continue to face serious threats to their physical safety, denying them the opportunity to exercise basic human rights and to participate fully and effectively in rebuilding their country. I quote from a recent Human Rights Watch report:

According to the same report:

One of the problems is that, sometimes, things are done in the name of religion that are not necessarily in line with religious edicts.

The report continues:

I find it bizarre that in a country that needs to rebuild its infrastructure people worry about whether women wear make-up or not. The report also says:

These examples of violent, oppressive and restrictive behaviour severely undermine the most fundamental rights of women and girls in many areas of Agfhanistan.

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Women's participation in the reconstruction of their country is severely constrained, leaving little hope for their broader political participation in the future. The humanitarian aid and development programmes depend on women to determine what aid is needed and ensure that the aid reaches women and children and is not diverted. If women are involved in administering programmes, aid will reach the people for whom it is intended.

As of December 2002, the US and coalition military forces in Afghanistan are continuing to pursue a strategy of entrusting general security and policing to local forces. We need to have some input into that if we are to improve things. The international community has still to offer adequate resources to expand peacekeeping or even to provide decent police training throughout the country, even though most Afghans and diplomatic officials admit that those steps are a necessary precursor to reconstruction efforts. The recent decision by the British and US Governments to deploy additional troops outside Kabul to work on security and disarmament issues is welcome, but much more needs to be done to ensure that the stranglehold on power enjoyed by the warlords who rule most parts of Afghanistan is weakened.

In Iraq, the Gulf war a decade ago resulted in the destruction of a large number of public facilities such as electricity generation stations and water purification plant and sewage treatment works. The damage has led to a rapid decrease in the health of the nation. That has affected women particularly because they are the main domestic workers and they are responsible for collecting water. In a water shortage, their workload doubles and if they collect poor water, the incidence of diseases such as typhoid fever increases. That has a severe effect on life in the country.

In 10 years, child mortality in Iraq has gone from one of the lowest in the world to the highest. The rate for under-fives is now two and a half times what it was in 1989. Maternal mortality has doubled because women are not receiving obstetric care for complications during pregnancy and childbirth.

I have cited Iraq and Afghanistan as examples of the impact that conflict has on women. I do not know what situation we will find ourselves in in the next few weeks, but I urge the Minister to do all that she can to ensure that women in post-conflict situations are empowered because they provide a vital linchpin in the rehabilitation of a war-torn country.

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