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6 Mar 2003 : Column 1006—continued

Mrs. Cryer: I thank the hon. Gentleman. An early-day motion does no harm in this case; it gives a shove in the right direction.

Glenda Jackson: Does my hon. Friend agree that the hon. Gentleman's intervention constitutes a fairly strong argument for disestablishment?

Mrs. Cryer: If we start talking about that, I shall be on my feet for another hour. There are good arguments for disestablishment. I have been in touch with Monica Furlong and other women who are involved in those arguments in the Church of England. Some of the stories that they tell me compare with stories that I can tell about imams in Bradford, in respect of the treatment of women priests in the Church of England and how they are regarded as substandard. Since I tabled that early-day motion, I have had one or two letters and one or two conversations with hon. Members. One of them—I shall not reveal who it was—said to me, "You know, Ann, a woman can no more be a priest than she can be a father." That is going a bit too far. It bears comparison with the views of imams in Bradford. I am trying to be fair and even-handed in my discussion of religions.

This afternoon, we have discussed this country's position and the likelihood of war with Iraq. I believe that we should not go to war, and that it will not help the women of Iraq one jot if we do so. As has been mentioned, we ought to look at the position of women in Afghanistan. Agencies and groups that have returned from Afghanistan say that sharia law is being reimposed in some parts of Afghanistan. I did not oppose the war in Afghanistan because I felt strongly about the Taliban and women's human rights in the country. There is a lot of unfinished business there which needs to be tidied up

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before we even think of attacking another country such as Iraq. I am not confident that the women of Iraq would benefit from our intervention. While we are looking at the area, the human rights position of women in Iran is probably far worse than that of women in Iraq. What are we going to do about Iranian women or women in Saudi Arabia, where there are very strange views about women?

Finally, everything that I have said has been pretty miserable, so I shall end on a high note. Government Members ought to celebrate legislative changes made in the past year that will again allow constituency Labour parties, where they so wish, to adopt an all-women shortlist when selecting a parliamentary candidate. I wish Opposition Members well in their determination to follow that example.

3.37 pm

Sue Doughty (Guildford): I, too, congratulate the Government on selecting this important topic for debate.

Progress on dealing with some of the worst injustices to women is still slow, but it is important that at least once a year we have an opportunity for a debate such as this one to take stock not only of what we are doing in this country but of what is happening internationally. We need to reinforce Government intentions and turn them into deeds to secure important improvements. Whatever we say today, our words must be followed with appropriate action.

Last summer, I was a representative of the Select Committee on Environmental Audit at the earth summit in Johannesburg. Having gone there to see what our Government and other Governments were doing to bring about environmental improvements and improved social justice, it was clear that many changes involved social justice for women. It is common sense that women, who make up half the population, should have reproductive health and education rights, and should also participate in the economy and other areas. For the poorest countries, that is the key to economic development, and will bring about change from dire poverty to a much more viable economy.

I was particularly interested to hear some of the arguments in Johannesburg, including an important one about access to clean drinking water. In areas without easy access to water, the people who go and get water are largely women and girls. If girls are fetching water, they are not in school, which is relevant to the argument about universal education. In discussing how we will proceed after the earth summit and the commitment to improve access to drinking water, we must consider how we will liberate women and girls to do things other than just fetching water.

I, too, have been involved in the British Council scheme, and it is worth talking about some of my experiences because the experiences of Tanzania and Kenya are different from each other and also different from those of the country with which I have become involved, which is Eritrea. Eritrea is a desperately poor mountainous country which has only recently gained independence, having been run initially by Italy, then by Britain and more recently by Ethiopia. It has, therefore, been trying to develop its own economy only in the last few years.

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There is good news about Eritrea and not-so-good news. I have been over there to help with work on developing political and economic capacity for women. It has a developing Parliament. I cannot match the good news that the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) was able to give us about Ruthie. My "twin", Tsegereda, has a full-time job, and is a Member of Parliament only one week in four. The Eritrean Parliament is much more like a council, from which its Members can claim allowances, rather than providing full-time jobs to enable them to do the kind of things that we do. It is a challenge for them to learn how to develop their Parliament and their democracy, such as it is.

Eritrea is a one-party state, and there are major issues about human rights there. It now has only one media source—the state media source—as all the others have been shut down, and several journalists have disappeared. It has a problem relating to the lack of elections, and when elections do take place, the current set of MPs will stand as independents to separate them from the one party, which will, in fact, be backing them. There is no true democracy. National service seems to be open-ended, and this affects women greatly. People go into national service and do not come out. They do not get paid, and are effectively used as slave labour to build roads and to carry out various other activities.

One of the unusual things about the Eritrean Parliament is that, although some people say that the importance that the Government accord to equality for women is, perhaps, lip service, it has recognised that women played a strong role in the liberation army and have therefore earned their right to become Members of Parliament. There is a strange situation in that some of the women MPs physically bear the scars of fighting alongside their male partners in the war. Women undertook a strong role in achieving the liberation of Eritrea. The problem now relates to their successors. There are women Ministers who were fighters, but we must now start to think about developing the successor generation of women who will come along and become representatives, whether in their local village council, a regional assembly or the national assembly. Tsegereda, my "partner", attended university and had a job. She is a role model for the kind of people that women should be bringing on as future leaders. It is important that people should see different kinds of women coming forward as leaders.

Interestingly, we commented to the women's assembly that there are fewer women Members of Parliament here than in the imperfect Parliament over there in Eritrea, 22 per cent. of whose Members are women. It also has a quota of 30 per cent., which will increase the total. Getting there has been achieved very differently from here, but it, too, has problems with getting women to come forward. The role played by Ruthie was wonderfully described, with people going to her with their problems and asking for instant decisions. Things are very different in Eritrea, where people are asking themselves what a Member of Parliament does and what power she has. One of the issues that we discussed was how to develop surgeries and to get people to come forward to comment on what the Government are doing. In some villages that is done by using a suggestion box, either because the surgeries are not yet open or because people do not want to come and discuss

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their problems. In those circumstances, they can put a note into the suggestion box—assuming that they can write, of course. So there are a lot of problems there.

I was impressed by the fact that it is recognised that if Eritrea is to build its economy and build on the fact that 45 per cent. of households are run by women because their men are away at war, doing national service or in exile—all factors that exist in a post-conflict situation—it also needs to build women into economic units. If we do not invest in the women, we will have one arm tied behind our backs. Many Eritrean women live in villages and are tied to their homes, where they are bringing up children and seem to cook all day using very primitive stoves. The stoves that they use are health hazards, as children fall over them and burn themselves. Often, they do not have any fuel or have trouble gathering it. The burning of dung is common, but it causes serious respiratory problems. Such work seems an all-day activity.

The women also have no economic independence. If a woman's husband dies, widow inheritance means that another male member of her husband's family can take her as his wife. That leads to problems in terms of the spread of HIV/AIDS, sometimes because the infection caused the husband's death.

There is also very little understanding of nutrition and the need for a balanced diet. There is not only poverty—of course, Eritrea is a very poor country—but lack of knowledge about the fact that feeding a maize porridge to children every day may itself lead to infant mortality.

On the other hand, the assemblies have been building up action plans and considering how they can quickly bring about the intermediate change that is needed to work towards greater change. Some developments have been very exciting. The National Union of Eritrean Women has been working closely with a network of people throughout the country. The trade unions are also very active. I attended a one-day course on which women discussed how they might return to their villages and influence behaviour that can lead to HIV/AIDS.

Eritrea has been a little more fortunate than some countries because it has very strong family structures. Almost everybody is religious; most people are either Muslim, Coptic Christian, Catholic or Protestant. Those structures are in place, but in any post-war situation, people will be on the move. Any development brings about more movement of people. Even the building of essential roads can mean that people have to work away from home on construction projects.

Some of the proposals that are being considered involve very low-technology ideas with which we in the more prosperous economies can help. Eritrea has some electricity, but women who are learning to grow crops so that they have a food source when the men are away can face problems in watering them. People from VSO are helping by providing teaching and a lot of things are happening, but if water is not available, crops do not grow. One solution is the use of solar energy to pump underground water. There is very little infrastructure in some areas, but such solutions are achievable and can help people to make viable arrangements for growing their own food.

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There is also some discussion about setting up insurance schemes for animals, as people whose animals are insured might take more interest in their welfare, and other developments are occurring in association with better care of animals. We have also been hearing about credit unions.

On learning to weave, Eritrea has been importing cotton from Ethiopia and India, but if women can learn to weave they can get out of their cottages and start earning as well. People who are teaching women to weave can also talk to them about nutrition. Simple schemes are often very effective. One involves giving donkeys, which can carry enough water for two days. That frees up women to do other things.

One of the most interesting developments could be called an African village Aga saga. The dreadful stoves that the women have to use fill up their rooms with smoke. That is a problem, as they cook all day to prepare bread and the meat that is eaten with it, but they designed a better stove made out of clay. It has a little damper that allows them to burn less fuel, which means that there is less smoke and wood can be used in combination with dung. Such stoves could be sold to women from other villages, who could sell back grain for brewing beer and so on. Such basic trade would be significant. We worry about money, but in some areas of Eritrea, people do not even trade. The women developed that further. They said, "Why are we working on one burner? Why don't we have three, so that we can cook our stew and treat the grain we use for beer as well as bake the bread?". So they ended up with a mini-Aga. They have a model that they take round to other women's houses to show them how they can cook while doing other things, which gets them away from doing nothing but eternal cooking and wood gathering. The British Council is considering tying the latter to a national tree day, because ripping branches off trees does not do them much good. Planting more trees would be a low-cost investment that is very effective in terms of payback.

Another project is based on giving women 25 chickens, which arrive as chicks, so one starts to see chickens running around in the yards outside the houses. That is aimed at developing mixed nutrition, getting protein into people and helping them to bring up their children to do better.

Eritrea is a one-party state and only limited information comes out. Women need to know what is happening in relation to other women. If one of us goes out there, we may be their only source of information about what is happening in other Parliaments. They do not have a lot of written material about that, so the British Council libraries and access to the internet are important ways of providing such information.

The British Council has been strong in teaching English. In Africa, English is often the language of further and higher education. It is not only important in terms of encouraging people to go beyond basic literacy; in a country with nine different languages, it is helpful to have a lingua franca for learning about veterinary skills, horticultural skills and other skills that are needed.

Good work is being done by the aid agencies, but one cannot overestimate the value of the work that is being done by the British Council, with a small level of investment yielding a disproportionate amount of

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benefit. It is there not just for the bad times and crises—it is there year after year, understanding how people work and, especially through its scheme in Eritrea, facilitating the development of women in terms of their own economy, their own rights and their own justice. I ask the Government to ensure that investment in such schemes continues and is built on, because the development of women that that encourages will lead to improved economies in those countries.


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