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ROYAL ASSENT

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Act:

Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001

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Women (Afghanistan)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Caplin.]

12.31 am

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): Even at this late hour, I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to raise the subject of women's involvement in a post-Taliban Government in Afghanistan. I want to talk about politics and reconstruction, but I recognise that for most women and children the first and absolute priority is food aid.

I also acknowledge that I have no claim to be an expert on Afghanistan, but as a Member of Parliament I have a responsibility for what is done in my name, both by the Government and by the United Nations. As a woman MP, I also share the universal experience of women in a man's world.

Prior to 11 September, Afghanistan was the poorest country in Asia. It was the second most heavily mined country in the world, and almost a quarter of the population were dependent on food aid. We are all aware and appreciative of the determined commitment to humanitarian aid of the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), and of my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and for International Development.

I heard what my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said yesterday about the increase in the overall tonnage of food getting into Afghanistan, but I understand that of the $662 million dollars identified as necessary for the UN inter-agency humanitarian plan, almost a half is outstanding. I should be grateful for the comments of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary on that shortfall.

Since 11 September, the plight of Afghan women has received almost universal coverage, but the cruel repression of the Taliban was well documented for years by the UN and was a focus of activity by women's organisations around the world—including our own Women's National Commission. While nothing could match the Taliban's brutal determination to render women invisible, restrictions on women's full participation in society predated that regime.

Furthermore, under the Taliban, the pattern of control varied across the country, where the enforcement of edicts circumscribing women's rights was dependent on local authorities that varied in attitude. Some were willing to co-operate with aid agencies. Indeed, if that had not been the case, it is difficult to see how many women would have survived.

Despite all the best efforts of the aid communities during the past decade, the plight of Afghan women remains dire. Estimates indicate that one Afghan woman dies in childbirth every 15 minutes; one in four children die before reaching five years of age; and female literacy is less than 5 per cent.

Against that background, the idea that women might participate in a future Government seemed unlikely to most people three months ago. When I raised the matter with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on 17 October, there was a tremor of unease on the Government Benches and—I am sorry to say—hearty

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guffaws from the Opposition Benches. The next day, broadsheet sketch writers took me to task and joked about all-women shortlists in Kabul. There was an immediate assumption that I was a tiresome feminist trying to impose western values on an Islamic society. Few people realised that I was simply reflecting the views of Afghan women campaigners themselves.

Those women stood in sharp contrast to the images of burka-clad victims flitting nightly across our television screens; they were the women refugees in dozens of countries across the world, and the courageous women, organising secret schools, health clinics and beauty parlours under the noses of the Taliban. Those women came primarily from the educated elite in Afghanistan—older women who had lived through different times and their daughters and granddaughters.

The first primary schools for girls were opened in the 1920s, and women's associations were then encouraged. The 1964 constitution gave equal rights to men and women. In 1965, four women were elected to the Afghan Parliament, and seven again in 1988. According to the UN in 1977, 15 per cent. of legislators were women, and until the early 1990s, 70 per cent. of teachers, 50 per cent. of Government workers and 40 per cent. of medical doctors were women.

Following the Soviet occupation and the resulting civil wars, everything changed for women. In 1994, women were ordered to wear the hejab and chador and gender segregation began. In 1995, the Rabbani Government demanded that women be removed from the employment of UN agencies and non-governmental organisations. Violence against women became so extreme that initially the arrival of the Taliban in 1996 was welcomed. The relief was short-lived. The Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Suppression of Vice soon began its brutal denial of the most fundamental rights of women and girls.

The reaction to my first question on this issue in this House prompted me to set up a new organisation involving Afghan women resident in this country. The aims of the UK Women's Link with Afghan Women are to raise the profile of Afghan women and to campaign for women's involvement in the future Government of Afghanistan and the restoration of women's human rights. One of our first actions was to send a letter to the UN special representative for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, calling for women to be included in the Bonn talks. Some 153 women, including probably all my colleagues here tonight, from nine parties in the House of Commons and House of Lords, the European Parliament, Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly signed that letter.

Women's organisations, including Afghan women in many other countries, made similar pleas to the United States Congress and to the UN itself. Despite a notable lack of media coverage, the strategy worked. Three women delegates attended the Bonn talks, and there are two women in the interim Administration, but even before the talks started a new initiative was under way.

The European Women's Lobby organised an Afghan women's summit for democracy in Brussels on 4 and 5 December. It was an extraordinary occasion. Afghan women of different ethnic, linguistic and religious backgrounds, from inside Afghanistan and from exile, came together to discuss the future of their country. I was

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there as part of the non-Afghan support team, and we were joined by the three women delegates from the Bonn talks.

After two days of closed sessions, the Afghan women produced their blueprint. Their key demands are: the right for women to vote and to be entitled to equal pay and equal access to health care, education and employment; an emergency plan for reopening schools by March 2002 for girls and boys, including a new curriculum and teacher training; the inclusion of Afghan women lawyers in the development of a new constitution, which would include the principles of non-discrimination; the rebuilding of hospitals and provision of vital medicines, treatments and services, including psychological counselling and mother and child health care; the central inclusion of women in the Loya Jirga; and the protection of women from forced under-age marriages and sexual harassment.

I believe that the UK has an important role to play in helping to achieve the aspirations of those Afghan women. I accept that the demands were drawn up by a group of women who, despite their differences, shared a standard of education quite removed from that of the average Afghan women today, but so do the leading men in the interim Administration.

I know that my right hon. and hon. Friends have welcomed the increasing involvement of women, but I want them to do more. The Bonn agreement is a great triumph for the United Nations and the people of Afghanistan and it is welcomed by most, though not all, Afghan women's organisations.

The UK has played a major part in shaping the military action and the humanitarian relief. Will my hon. Friend pledge that the Government will do everything in their power to ensure the restoration of women's human rights in Afghanistan? Nowhere in the Bonn agreement is this explicitly stated, and I know that this is not because such a commitment was not sought. I can only conclude that there was some ambivalence among the delegates.

Will my hon. Friend state categorically that the UK Government will support the full restoration of Afghan women's rights in line with the UN charter? Legal authority exists. Afghanistan is a party to the major UN conventions on rights affecting women and a signatory, although it has not yet ratified it, to the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, which is known as CEDAW. The interim authority will take Afghanistan's seat at the UN. Does my hon. Friend agree that observance of UN conventions on human rights and ratification of CEDAW are essential to the restoration of Afghan women's human rights?

As my hon. Friend will know, the Bonn agreement provides for the interim authority to take power on 22 December. It is charged with setting up, within one month, the special independent commission for the convening of an emergency Loya Jirga, the traditional grand council. There is no mention of women's participation in the commission, but let me assure my hon. Friend that Afghan women lawyers stand ready to participate. Again, will he try to ensure that there are places for women on this most crucial body?

The Bonn agreement specifies that the special independent commission should ensure that


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This is extremely welcome, but some have sought again to label it as the imposition of western values. Afghan history does not support that argument. Women are first recorded—all 12 of them—as participating in a Loya Jirga in the 1920s.

The interim administration is also charged, together with the UN, with establishing an independent human rights commission and a judicial commission. The former's responsibilities will include human rights monitoring and investigation of violations of human rights; the latter with rebuilding the domestic judicial system. There is no stipulation that women should be involved in either body. Does my hon. Friend agree that women, who have been the prime victims of injustice, will have no confidence in these bodies unless women are members of them?

No one can be confident of progress in Afghanistan. None the less, the Bonn agreement is far reaching and ambitious. The emergency Loya Jirga will establish a transitional authority. This will convene a constitutional Loya Jirga within 18 months. It will also establish a constitutional commission to prepare a new constitution. Does my hon. Friend agree that women should play their part in drafting the constitution and will he ensure that, if UK officials are involved in any way, they will remain sensitive to the need to enshrine the rights of women in the constitution?

Let me turn now to reconstruction. Can my hon. Friend tell the House how he believes the meetings of the World Bank and the United Nations development programme in Islamabad and Berlin will impact on women in Afghanistan? Does he feel that lessons have been learned by the international community in relation to reconstruction in Sierra Leone and the Balkans that should be then applied in Afghanistan? UN gender audits and women who have worked in those areas report serious inequalities in reconstruction assistance.

I am aware of the excellent work of the Department for International Development as a leading funder of the UN development fund for women—UNIFEM. I am also aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development and non-governmental organisations such as Oxfam, Christian Aid, Save the Children, Afghan Aid and Afghan women themselves all believe that, wherever possible, local people rather than foreign nationals should be employed in reconstruction.

At the Brussels Afghan women's summit, women's international NGOs called for all reconstruction funds to be conditional first on, the participation of women in decision making on the granting of those funds; secondly, on the inclusion of women's NGOs among recipients of the funds; and thirdly, on the use of funds for implementation of the priorities of Afghan women themselves. Will my hon. Friend support such a proposition?

My hon. Friend will know that most of the top UN decision makers on the ground are men, and it is likely that macro projects for physical reconstruction will mainly provide work for men. Will he ensure that reconstruction funds provide immediate work for women, not least the estimated 700,000 widows, and that major funds are allocated for the education of girls and capacity building for women, to ensure that in the longer term women have equal access to jobs and to secondary, as well as primary, education?

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The Taliban prohibition on women working has created the impression that women never made a contribution to that economy, but in rural areas women were equally involved with men in agriculture. Even under the Taliban, NGOs such as Afghan Aid worked with rural women in seed planting and vegetable gardening. The World Food Programme also set up bakeries, largely run by widows, which provided food for half a million people. Other NGOs have been successful in employing Afghan women in a low-key way, but the majority of those women trained as teachers and health workers have had to remain at home.

There is, however, considerable room for optimism. The day after the fall of the Taliban in Kabul, six women previously employed by the UN turned up for work. They were asked to find other women to conduct a house-to-house survey to establish needs. Some 2,500 women were recruited by the UN, and already the survey is under way. Hundreds of local women doctors and nurses have also been identified, so the participation of women in the early stages of recovery is probably secure. The challenge lies in the future arrangements. Once again, the UK Government, as a member of the UN Security Council and a major donor, have a vital role to play.

The transitional authority will lead Afghanistan until such time as a Government can be elected, around the middle of 2004. If women are to stand for office, they will need not only support but work and financial assistance. In the rush for physical renewal—for food, education and health—the political process must not be ceded to men only. The many courageous women who have continued to work in teaching and health have already demonstrated their readiness to serve and to lead, but there are many others, traumatised by their experience, who will need further encouragement. Will my hon. Friend recognise that need, and ensure that the UK promotes funding for capacity building and leadership skills where it is sought by Afghan women?

Already, the Afghan women with whom I am working report renewed struggles by the women's organisation in Afghanistan. At the start of the Bonn talks, two peaceful marches for women's rights were banned by the Northern Alliance in Kabul. Attempts to regain use of a building that used to be a women's centre in the city were also rejected by local commanders. I appreciate that it is early days, and that there is not yet an overall authority in Kabul, but these are important touchstones in the rebuilding of civic society.

Afghan women welcome an international peacekeeping force. They remember only too well the terrible years of gender-based violence and, even now, fear the repeat of the rapes, beatings and abductions of the past. Will my hon. Friend accept that foreign troops deployed in Afghanistan must be particularly sensitive to the terrible trauma suffered by women and children? Will he convey to the Secretary of State for Defence the point that special training is needed for that assignment?

In conclusion, I thank my hon. Friend for his attendance tonight. All of us who have taken an interest in the events following 11 September have been on a steep learning curve. I am particularly grateful for briefings from UNIFEM, Oxfam, the UN information centre in London and the British Afghan Aid group. I also pay tribute to the

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remarkable Afghan women with whom I am working—Wahida, Sahar, Alia, Sabah, Nazifa, Assiya, Zarghona and others, who are my inspiration. The United Kingdom Government are, I know, committed to the future reconstruction of Afghanistan. While the future must be determined by the Afghan people themselves, the vast need for resources dictates the long-term involvement of the international community, including the UK.

As I said at the outset, women's organisations do not seek to impose. Our mission is to ensure that where the UN holds the ring, space is made for Afghan women. Only with the full participation of women are we likely to see the creation of a democratic, stable and peaceful Afghanistan, which, I know, we all desire.


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