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6 Mar 2003 : Column 1011—continued

3.52 pm

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): In following the hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty), I should say that I have never visited Eritrea, but in 1985 I was in Ethiopia at the behest of Oxfam. We went as far north as it was possible to go at that time owing to the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which was still raging. We visited one of Oxfam's long-term projects, which had to do with the development of corn that could survive drought-hit regions. The Oxfam officials told me that a few weeks earlier they had had a visit from a small group of people from the local Eritrean People's Liberation Front, who had, with great courtesy, albeit at gun point, requested that the Oxfam people lend them their van, which, being sensible people, they did. The van was driven to the centre of the small town, the bank was blown open, the money was extracted, and the van was returned immediately with many thanks from the Eritrean People's Liberation Front.

I found the contribution to the debate by the hon. Member for Guildford, like those of all hon. Members, intensely interesting. Essentially, what has come out of the debate so far is the enormous capacity of women to develop—to expand and to build on, by virtue of their imagination, creativity, intelligence and ability to work hard, the very small amounts of investment that are made in them as individuals or in groups.

I have also been struck by the fact that many speeches depicting the life of women—in Eritrea, in the contribution of the hon. Member for Guildford—perhaps reflect the position in this country 50 years ago. One hon. Member suggested that women should be in charge of disseminating aid, especially food aid, to countries that need it. Fifty years ago in my family, it did not matter how much or how little food was on the table, the men got it first. If there were second helpings, men were asked first whether they wanted them.

A recurring theme of the debate has been that equality of opportunity requires genuine equality of human rights. That programme must be based not only on internationally defined law and justice but the infinitely harder process of transforming hearts and minds. Female genital mutilation has been mentioned, and the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) said that a private Member's Bill on the subject has been introduced, which I am sure all hon. Members will endorse.

However, the most proactive people in insisting on female genital mutilation are women. Their history is that their capacity to function in their societies and cultures depends on their desirability. I do not use that word in a sexual context, given that female genital mutilation removes the possibility of a woman experiencing sexual pleasure. I mean that women's desirability in their society, culture and, often, religious

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framework, depends on a man's appreciation. That is hard to change. We have failed to change it in our country.

Since my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) became a Member of Parliament, she has, to her great credit, detailed the terrible experiences of women in this country whose antecedents and partners are from another part of the world, where cultural traditions are different. She spoke of the horror of honour killing. In a recent case in this part of the world, a father killed his daughter because he did not approve of the young man whom she was seeing. It also happens in our society, although it may be called something else. Under our legal system, if a woman kills her partner, provocation has to be proven. If the charge is a lesser crime than murder, she has to plead that the balance of her mind was disturbed.

I should like to consider another aspect that most speakers have mentioned: the inevitable link between women and their children. I wish that my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley had given us the name of the hon. Member who argued that women cannot be priests because they cannot be fathers. The obvious rejoinder is that fathers cannot be mothers. Many women in this country have to be mother and father to their children.

I hope that everyone is appalled by acts of violence against children. Such acts are often presented as perpetrated by a stranger who must be a monster, but the greatest damage is visited on children by members of their families. Acts of violence that strangers commit against children almost invariably receive massive coverage. A few months ago, newspapers gave intensive coverage to one such incident when two children were killed. That same week, six other children died but at the hands of their fathers. There was no question of who was guilty or of a trial. Whole families have been eradicated in that way, yet still there is a double standard that has to do with the domestic situation.

Many hon. Members have made telling contributions about domestic violence. I should not want anyone to imagine that I do not appreciate what has been done by the Government and the changes introduced by the police to stop the approach, "This is a domestic and nothing to do with us." I attended the launch, with my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), of the Metropolitan police scheme whereby every constable carries a card bearing telephone numbers and addresses that can be used by the young PC encountering domestic violence for the first time in order to obtain assistance.

Ms Oona King: They should make those cards available to MPs too.

Glenda Jackson: Yes. I appreciate the Government's actions and the work of my hon. Friend the Minister for Social Exclusion and Deputy Minister for Women. However, the resources to assist women who find the courage to flee domestic violence and take their children with them are neither adequate nor available in a sufficiently linked-up way. Only this week I have received letters from Women Against Rape—an organisation in my constituency, part of whose funding is being taken away because the Association of London Government grants committee decided that WAP does not warrant its past level of funding, but it does because the violence goes on.

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There are occasional flurries of newspaper stories and BBC programmes about domestic violence, then the topic slides from public view. There are still huge imbalances in our legal system and every other aspect of our national life that impacts against the equality and protection of women and their children.

Women and their children inevitably suffer the biggest brunt of conflict and post-conflict situations. When my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women paid tribute to the armed forces, the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) intervened to ask whether women had not made their contribution to tackling aggression. Neither my right hon. Friend nor the hon. Gentleman—I am sure that this was an oversight, not a deliberate insult—acknowledged the women who did not serve in the armed forces but who certainly kept this country running during the first and second world wars. In many instances, they paid with their lives. That was the pattern of warfare in the second half of the 20th century, and it is certainly the case now. Modern warfare inevitably means that civilians die in the greatest numbers.

I strongly endorse the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley about women's human rights in Iran, and I share her opposition to war against Iraq. Death is a form of liberation but I do not acknowledge the concept that war is a form of mass mercy killing in the way that it has been represented—as moral justification for war in Iraq. There is no moral reason for a pre-emptive strike against a nation state that affords no immediate and direct threat to ourselves or our allies.

We have seen the results of modern warfare in that part of the world. I am thinking of the first Gulf war—the Kuwaiti war. The killing was not all immediate. I have seen photographs of real horror: the war also killed, much more slowly, generations that had to be conceived at the end of it. Genetic defects were caused by the use of 21st-century weapons. The extraordinary environmental degradation, and the horrendous cocktail released by the use of those weapons, has marked generations of Iraqi children.

I regret to say that that will happen again. It seems to me almost monstrous that it should still be argued that we are defending the will of, and respect for, the United Nations in our wish to launch a pre-emptive strike against another nation state. The United Nations' reason for being was surely to prevent war. It did not come into being to serve as the world's international army; it came into being to work for, maintain and help to produce peace.

We, as a world and particularly as a country—during what seems to be an almost inevitable countdown to war—are in a situation that I find incomprehensible in many ways. Almost as incomprehensible to me are the arguments that we have been hearing. It is suggested that if we do not go to war, we shall see the destruction of the United Nations. It is said that, just as the League of Nations died because it failed to act against potential dictators, the UN will be sidelined because the present situation will be seen in a similar way.

I have my own theories on what will constitute a genuine sidelining of the UN. It has nothing to do with the League of Nations, and nothing to do with what in

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many instances seems to be a rewriting of the historical precursors to the second world war. We hear much about Abyssinia, but I think a much closer analogy is that of Guernica. There we saw an open city being blown to smithereens; here we see the possibility of a virtually open country, with little ability to defend itself, being blown to smithereens. If we, as a Parliament, as a nation and, I hope, as a Government, are genuine in acknowledging that women have not always had equal rights and, in many respects, still do not have them—and I believe that we are—we should bear in mind that their human rights are certainly one of the first things that any society will discard when it is under pressure.

In a funny way, we speak as though we had established absolute human rights for women in this country, but we know that we have not. Women's human rights play a much more practical part in other democratic societies, and in some that wish to become democratic. A major movement is taking off in the United States, attempting to overturn a woman's right to choose. It is simply not the case that once we have such rights, they are ours for ever. Here I speak entirely from a gender perspective. There is constant pressure not only for the obtaining of equal and human rights for women, but for the maintaining of those rights once they have been secured.

I was particularly touched by what my right hon. Friend the Minister said about a charismatic black woman who, at a conference, used the words "Lift when you rise". It concerns me very much that young women in this country seem to think that it has all been done, and that nothing will block their advancement, wherever they want that advancement to take them. I must tell those young women that they will have a rude awakening further down the line, because it just ain't so. And we in Parliament delude ourselves if we think that we have got it made here—although I pay tribute to the Government for beginning to prioritise the basic bread-and-butter issues that are so important to women. Almost inevitably, they involve proper, affordable child care, and proper support for women who bear most of the responsibilities at the other end of the age range.

Regional difficulties sometimes work against what the Government want. For example, child care in London is desperately expensive and there are huge variations in its provision. Reference was made to the effects of the planning system on the proper provision of child care. That is certainly true in London. Property prices are astronomical and land is not available, so the physical structural changes that are needed for the provision of child care are extremely difficult to achieve.


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