Previous SectionIndexHome Page

6 Mar 2003 : Column 997—continued

2.53 pm

Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South): I am delighted to take part in the debate today in celebration of international women's day, the central theme of which, as has been admirably demonstrated, is achieving equal rights. Extending equality, tackling barriers to participation and allowing everyone to play their full part in the social and economic life of the nation have to be the central tenets of the Government's vision of a truly inclusive society in this country and in others. Naturally, I commend the Government on their efforts in that direction and welcome the forthcoming gender equality action plan and disability bill, which will be aimed at fashioning just such an inclusive society based on respect and opportunity for all.

6 Mar 2003 : Column 998

In striving to achieve equality between the sexes, it is important that we should remember those members of society for whom legislation does not adequately cater. I welcome the Government's promised legislation on the rights of transsexuals. I commend all that has been said before, but perhaps particularly the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) about women in Tanzania. I worked there myself for four years, and I recognise the accuracy of all that she has said. So I think I can say, if I remember it rightly, "Asante sana ndugu", for raising that subject so tellingly.

I also endorse what has been said about domestic violence and the importance of addressing it. It was effectively addressed a couple of weeks ago in my constituency by a federation of women's organisations which held a conference on the subject in Heswall halls. The conference also dealt with what should be done about it, and an action plan is being proceeded with.

The first person who raised with me the problems of transsexuals is now a woman, so I am taking the opportunity of raising the issue in a debate on women, although, with the necessary changes, my comments also apply to the plight of transsexuals who are now men. The problems are different, but there is much read-across. The rights of transsexuals lag far behind those of any other minority group in this country. The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 secured the legal basis of equality for women, but while similar rights for transsexuals were secured just four years ago there are still crucial gaps. It is sufficiently frustrating that three decades after achieving de jure equality, women do not enjoy in all aspects de facto equality. I sincerely hope that that precedent is not followed in the case of transsexuals. I hope that we can save our successors from having to debate these issues in a similar vein in 30 years.

Most of us are comfortable with our gender. It is not something that we think about on a daily or hourly basis, but a small minority in our society experience unending anxiety and prejudice as a result of their gender identity. Legal ambiguity and the inability to alter official documents can have a pervasive effect on the lives of transsexuals and restrain their freedom in the absence of any legal protection of their privacy. For example, a birth certificate is required when one obtains a driving licence, a passport, insurance or even a bus pass. I understand that full disclosure of one's history is also integral to the process of finding employment. Transsexuals are at present even prevented from maintaining their discretion and dignity in death, as death certificates use official gender records. In addition to such personal difficulties, transsexuals cannot marry, which brings with it the concomitant denial of rights to a partner's pension and property. I am open to correction, but I do not think transsexuals can foster or adopt. They can even have their parenthood of a child denied.

If a transsexual commits a criminal offence, the legal ambiguities surrounding them can result in their being sent to prison according to their official, rather than their assumed, identity and gender. Medication can be stopped during such incarceration, with potentially devastating physical and psychological side effects. It is perhaps, sadly, for this reason that transsexuals are one of the most law-abiding groups in society.

6 Mar 2003 : Column 999

Sue Doughty (Guildford): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that transsexuals are often discouraged from seeking basic rights such as benefits or from dealing with officialdom in any way because the people with whom they have to deal often have a dreadful habit of starting with "he" then changing to "she", perhaps giggling on the telephone and saying, "I don't know what to do now." The huge humiliation that people have to endure who have gone through such emotional pain to get to where they are now means that they often give up rather than obtain the rights to which they are entitled.

Mr. Chapman: I agree entirely. Not only legislative change but societal change is needed to address the rights of transsexuals. We need to define those rights and to define how transsexuals' privacy can be protected so that they can participate and contribute to society in a normal way. I hope that that will be achieved in the forthcoming Bill from the Lord Chancellor's Department, which I hope will be introduced quickly.

To illustrate the plight of transsexuals, I want to discuss the plight of a brave constituent of mine, Miss Janie Kirkby—who not only gave her consent to being mentioned in this debate but actively encouraged it. She regards my outlining of her plight as a way of helping other transsexuals of both sexes.

Miss Kirkby was born a man and has been uncomfortable with her gender identity for most of her life. Having made the transition and become a woman, she has found that the discrimination that she suffers substantially inhibits a normal existence. She has been unable to find gainful employment and has had to fight for her benefits—an issue that the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) raised. Being loth to subject herself to further prejudice, she has not been able to secure a passport or even a bus pass. Had she pressed the point on the bus pass, she would have found that, at least in Merseyside, we have equalised the age for bus pass issue. At 60, she could have got a bus pass, but she does not wish to go through the indignity of all that is necessary to secure it.

She has had experience of employment in cleaning and nursing and has repeatedly applied for jobs in both those areas. She has been rejected from approximately 300 posts in two years for various given reasons—often as spurious as, for example, "The people here wouldn't like you." What has happened cannot be attributed solely to malfeasance of the part of the employers. In nursing, it is legally necessary to be either a man or a woman. As a transsexual, Miss Kirkby's acquired gender is not legally recognised. She is therefore wholly unable, legally, to be employed in that area. For other positions, there is no legal basis to prevent her employment, but she is still consistently rejected. In frustration, she has pursued employment tribunals. However, it is always difficult to prove the specific reason for which one failed to get a job. Needless to say, it is not made explicit.

Miss Kirkby is a classic example of someone who has not passively accepted her fate. She got on her bike and went searching endlessly for work. However, she has consistently been rejected because of her gender identity. As she rightly says:

That is true.

6 Mar 2003 : Column 1000

Now of pensionable age, rightly, as a woman, she still experiences many daily problems. She had to fight for a pension, although, thanks to the change in the rules, she received one at age 60. However, that sort of hardship is typical of the experience of the majority of transsexuals in this country. I urge the Government to fast-track legislation on this issue. I welcome proposals that would make possible marriage for transsexuals and formal recognition of their acquired gender—including the issuing of papers that are indistinguishable from birth certificates and that mention only the present gender. I would welcome any statement on the progress of such legislation. Legal precedent has been set in the cases of I v. UK, Goodwin v. UK and Bellinger v. Bellinger. I urge the Government to act in accordance with those rulings in codifying transsexuals' rights and in recognising acquired gender roles as legally valid.

To feel that one has been born in the wrong gender is difficult for me to comprehend but it must be disturbing in the extreme. I cannot imagine the kind of emotional turmoil that would be necessary to persuade someone that they had been born in the wrong body and that they must change their sex. The liberation and joy of achieving one's right gender must be great—but perhaps not as great as the trauma that one will have suffered in the past and, to some extent for some people, will continue to suffer in future.

It behoves all of us to reduce the burden on transsexuals. As I said earlier, this issue must be addressed not only in legislation but in perceptions. Societal attitudes must change. When walking down the street can be dangerous and humiliating, it is not surprising that transsexuals become dysphoric and despondent. Transgender behaviour is a normal variation of the human condition and should be seen as such. It is not a disorder. A civilised society has a fundamental responsibility to adapt to the needs of all its members. Let us hope that the needs of transsexuals can be fully met, and soon.

3.5 pm

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove): I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman) on his explanation of the problems faced by transsexuals. I had not intended to discuss that matter today, as there are a number of other issues that I wish to raise.

As a Conservative MP, I ought to tackle one issue face on—my party's lamentable performance in attracting more Conservative female MPs to these Benches. I would dearly like to see that change. My hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) has many engagements and duties, and sadly she is not here to listen to what I have to say. She had to leave a few moments ago but I am sure that she will read the Official Report and so be fully aware of my views. As party chairman, she will be interested in these matters. I congratulate her on being the first lady in the Conservative party to reach the position of party chairman. That is an achievement. It is sad that the Secretary of State is not here to hear me say that it was a shame that, in listing the achievements of women in politics, she failed to mention that we have had a lady Prime Minister—the Conservative Margaret Thatcher. That proves that there is not really a glass ceiling in politics if one is good enough.

6 Mar 2003 : Column 1001

Nevertheless, my party's performance in attracting more women is not good enough. I suspect that I may not be among the majority on the Conservative Benches in saying this, but although my party has made some progress in attracting female candidates to seats that we hope to win from the Government at the next election, that progress has not been enough and I hope that we will embrace measures that the Government have put in place to require the selection of female candidates. I say that not because, as MP for Bromsgrove, I am here to represent women. That is not so. I am a woman but, as well as in women's issues, I am interested in men's issues and issues regarding elderly people, disabled people and people from ethnic minorities. Of course, we all are. I am also interested in people who did not vote for me; it is my constitutional duty to represent my constituents.

We are all aware that, as times change, Parliament must reflect the general public. If we look at these Benches, we should see the same eclectic group of people as we might see in work places, the pub, or while walking down the street. The public have to believe that we can understand their problems, having had some experience of them. They should not feel that we all come from one group in society and therefore ignore other groups. I hope that my party will make progress on this issue. I thought that some hon. Members might challenge me on this, so I wanted to make my position clear on the record and in front of my Whips.

I pay tribute to the British Council. I was interested in what the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) had to say. I had the honour and pleasure of having a young MP from Kenya shadow me here in the House of Commons. Sadly, I have not yet been able to go to Kenya, although I would dearly love to do so and share some of the profound experiences that the hon. Member for Bristol, West has had in Tanzania and Malawi. That may be possible in future.

It was a pleasure to welcome Cecily Mbarire to the House of Commons, where she shared her experiences with me. Her experiences are particularly relevant to the debate, because Kenya is about to hold a constitutional conference in March. I hope that it will profoundly change the role of women in that country. I very much hope that the Minister for Social Exclusion and Deputy Minister for Women will pass on to the Foreign Office a message about the need to support changes that will bolster the position of women in Kenya.

Cecily was a complete delight and a tremendous advocate for her sex and her country. I hope that she does as well in Kenyan politics as her undoubted talents deserve. She has been formidable in representing the interests of women in Kenya. She had been a Member of Parliament for only a matter of months when she visited me a few weeks ago. She was the President's nominee for one of the few positions that he is allowed to fill in the Kenyan Parliament. She is determined that she will be elected in her own right as time progresses, and she hopes that the conference will lead to several changes being made to the constitution.

The first change that Cecily hopes will be made is to provide for a gradual progression to bolster the number of female Members of Parliament in Kenya. She takes a sensible approach that is modelled on the systems that

6 Mar 2003 : Column 1002

are already in place in other African countries. A position in Parliament for a female MP is ring-fenced, in that certain seats must go to women. In a sense, they are appointed. After five years, the women are no longer allowed to stand for those seats but must stand for a fully elected post against whatever competition—it is usually a man—they might face. That is a good way of encouraging a natural process of increasing the representation of women. It gives them the chance to show that they add value and are linked to their constituents. Perhaps they work harder, and the evidence suggests that they are less corrupt than some of their male colleagues. Guaranteeing women a place in Parliament and then making them fight for it on an equal basis is an exciting and progressive approach. It is important that the Kenyan constitution be amended to allow this gradual process of change to the make-up of the Parliament to take place.

The next issue that Cecily would like addressed is domestic violence. We have heard much about the problems of domestic violence in the United Kingdom, where the figures are truly shocking. I do not know the figures for Kenya, but I fear that they are much worse. Cecily told me that a male Member of the Kenyan Parliament said in that Chamber that it was a man's right to chastise his wife in the same way as it was his right to chastise his child. Because women have the vote in Kenya, this shocking statement was related to the MP's constituents. Such were the efforts of Cecily and her female counterparts that I am delighted to say that he was not re-elected at the subsequent election. It is nice to see that, on occasions, people are suitably punished for their totally unacceptable views. Domestic violence is an enormously important issue to the women of Kenya. Their rights do not begin to match the rights of women in this country. I hope that the Minister will encourage the Foreign Office to press for the inclusion of that important issue in the forthcoming constitutional conference.

As the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) pointed out, we have come so far in this country that we can lose sight of the unfortunate position of women in other countries. It is truly shocking to realise that women in Kenya do not have property rights. They do not inherit the joint wealth of husband and wife when the husband dies. They are entitled to the kitchen implements—the pots, pans and spoons—but the rest does not go to them or to their daughters. It goes to their sons. Unless their sons are prepared to look after them, they face destitution in old age.

I hope that the Kenyan constitution will be rewritten to recognise the existence of female property rights. Cecily believes that that might create a sticking point, but it is important that women should be able to have a stake in society. As we have heard in other contributions, women are often much better at using property to bolster the family income. They invest it so as to secure a proper livelihood for the family. I very much wish Cecily, her colleagues and the male colleagues who agree with them about future progress well in the future negotiations. The conference will take place quite soon and, if I get the chance to meet her and her constituents, I hope that I will be able to join in the celebrations to mark the success of her agenda.

6 Mar 2003 : Column 1003

Cecily also raised with me the issue of female genital mutilation. We have all heard about that, but she described what it really entails as we were driving to Bromsgrove. Although the practice is outlawed in Kenya, it is not outlawed across Africa. Sadly, it still continues. I should remind the House what the practice involves. Sometimes it involves force but, for cultural reasons, many pre-pubescent girls of nine or 10 are resigned to their fate. Although it is difficult to imagine, a razor is used to cut away the female sexual organs without the use of anaesthetic. There is a profound impact in terms of pain—some girls bleed to death in the process because their wounds do not heal—and other health issues ensue. For example, women who have had such wounds inflicted on them suffer sheer agony in childbirth. It is a horrible process.

I know that progress has been made, but having more women represented in the Parliaments of sub-Saharan Africa is important in beginning to change attitudes. As my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead pointed out, it does not matter if we change the law if we do not also change attitudes. For example, Cecily told me of a young lady who had run away from home because she feared what would happen to her. Cecily's mother harboured her, but the young lady had to return to her village when she became pregnant. She had her baby but, after that, she was frogmarched out of the village and circumcised.

Next Section

IndexHome Page