Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that improvements in the rights of women in Afghanistan will endure after British troops withdraw in 2014.
Baroness Hodgson of Abinger (Con): My Lords, I begin by declaring my interests. I am chair of the Advisory Board of GAPS, which runs the No Women No Peace campaign focusing on Afghanistan. I am a founder member of the Afghan Women’s Support Forum and a patron of Afghan Connection. “A woman’s place is in the house or the grave” was a mantra of the brutal Taliban years. Girls were unable to go to school or to work and, as one woman told me, “When the Taliban was here, I did not have a right to go out and speak to other people. I had to wear a burka and look down”.
Now, 12 years on, even though Afghanistan remains the most difficult country in the world to be a woman, there have been significant improvements. About 2.7 million women in Afghanistan are employed; 27% of MPs are women; and women hold one-quarter of government jobs. About 3 million girls are in school. There is strong evidence of a rising age for first marriages and of improved access to healthcare, while 30% of teachers are women. There are women lawyers, diplomats, pilots and soldiers, and 128 women judges. Women now have equal rights to men under the Afghan constitution. Afghanistan has signed up to CEDAW and UN Resolution 1325, and an EVAW law was brought in by presidential decree.
“it was from such a low base that even now … there is a hugely long way to go”.
Progress is fragile and change in Afghanistan has been slow. Many girls drop out of education, prevented by their families from going to secondary school. Many women in rural areas still do not have maternity care due to lack of money and distance from health facilities, and many suffer from untreated depression. Maternal mortality remains high, with one in every 50 women dying of pregnancy-related causes, and only 20% of women have access to modern contraception. It is estimated that there are 2.5 million widows, mostly young and illiterate, in a country where a woman depends on her husband. Politically, not all the women MPs support women’s rights. The underfunded Ministry of Women’s Affairs is ineffectual and the nine women on the 70-member High Peace Council are mostly ignored.
There have been many reports of women in the police being assaulted by their male commanders. The handful of women’s refuges were denounced as brothels and there was push-back on the EVAW law when it was taken to Parliament this summer. As Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch said:
The Afghan women I have met are enormously courageous. However, there is fear about what will happen after the troops leave—fear that their rights may be traded for peace with the Taliban or that they will simply be forgotten; fear about the Taliban returning; and fear of the Northern Alliance warlords and local
militias, including the police. All those women human rights defenders who have raised their heads above the social parapet are at particular risk.
Social norms prevent most women from approaching male police officers, and only a few of the police are female. Thus has been built a culture of impunity, with very few cases making it to the formal justice system and most being decided by jirgas and shuras, dominated by strongmen, while women are still prosecuted for the “crime” of running away from an abusive family.
The violence is getting worse. The 2013 UNAMA report found a 20% increase in the number of Afghan women or girls killed or injured, a trend echoed by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and the International Crisis Group. In the home, tensions have increased as girls who have learnt their rights start to push against Afghan societal norms such as forced marriage.
In the past year there has been a spate of attacks on high-profile women, including two parliamentarians. Two senior policewomen in Helmand were murdered, and a well known female author who had written about the Taliban years was dragged out of her home and shot 15 times. There are many attacks on less high-profile women too—for example, Parween, a head teacher from Laghman province, was targeted for running a girls’ school, with her son abducted and killed. I heard anecdotally that police often do not even bother logging women’s deaths. Girls going to school have been attacked with acid and school drinking water has been poisoned. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission has found that many honour killings and sexual assaults against women have been committed by the police themselves. Just last week, there were rumours that the amended penal code might include stoning to death of adulterers.
The UK Government have already committed to making violence against women and girls a priority in DfID’s Afghan operational plan. Justine Greening announced further funds last week to boost women’s voice in politics and to tackle violence through grassroots projects, and other funds are already in place to support female voter registration. I am sure that the Minister will tell us about these.
Even after the combat troops have left, the UK will have influence as a donor country, so what more can be done? We need to keep the achievements and move forward. We must ensure that women’s rights are not traded away and that female human rights defenders
are given some kind of protection in line with the UN General Assembly resolution passed last week. Good quality education for girls must be assured. We must ensure a fair presidential election with women freely voting; include women in any peace negotiations and NATO talks in line with UN Resolution 1325, as their voices need to be heard; implement laws dealing with equality; build up a capacity of women in the security sector, making sure that they are supported and protected; help more women to access formal justice; with half the population under 15, educate boys that abusing women is wrong; ring fence aid money to grassroots projects that protect and help women, including women’s refuges; and ensure easy access for smaller organisations that cannot deal with complicated proposals. In the longer term, it is by working slowly and sensitively at grassroots level that culture change will occur, and to make that happen we need to work with men too.
“No lasting peace can be achieved after conflict unless the needs of women are met—not only justice for the victims of crimes of war, but their active involvement in creating a society in which their rights are respected and their voices are heard”.
Lord Alderdice (LD): My Lords, we are indebted to the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson of Abinger, for bringing this matter to our attention. Our involvement in Afghanistan over the past number of years gives this country an especial responsibility. It is often not difficult to convince people that when things are bad they should engage. However, we must always be extremely careful that when we disengage we do not leave a situation which rebounds into something which is worse than before we got involved. One of the first principles one teaches young doctors is: first, do no harm. One of the great dangers is that we have raised the expectations of democrats in general and women in particular in Afghanistan. There is a real danger of a reaction against that, and those who followed our lead and took our encouragement being the ones who will suffer most.
One of the great anxieties for many people is that, despite the change in political institutions, the resilience of an old culture is so strong that it may overwhelm all the achievements that there have been. As the noble Baroness has pointed out, there are some things which have improved significantly: political engagement by women, even at a relatively senior level, albeit in smaller numbers than one would like to see; political involvement through elections; and, of course, education, which the noble Baroness also mentioned. Recently, when the UN Women deputy executive director for policy and programme, John Hendra, visited one of the governorships, the governor there pointed out that 12 years ago there were two girls in school in the 12 schools in his governorship, and now there were 10,000; and in the country as a whole, that number approaches 3 million, as the noble Baroness has said.
These are positive things. In fact, they are essential if there is going to be further development. At the same time, however, we are very much aware of the high level of violence; not just the almost traditional, tragically cultural, violence that there has been, but
very specifically targeted killings of, for example, senior female journalists and government officials. That makes it quite clear that any woman who speaks out or stands up is regarded as a target for those who want to turn things back and attack the position of women. This is a serious problem and the question for us must be what we can do.
The noble Baroness has pointed out that, as a donor Government we have some, albeit perhaps modest, leverage. That is one of the reasons I was rather disappointed in reading the last monthly monitoring report to which I had access, that of October 2013. Although there is mention of political and educational issues, both very positive, there is very little else about what DfID and our other government departments are doing in support of organisations which are protecting the rights of women.
Almost more troubling to me was the account of the trilateral meeting in Downing Street on 29 October, where the Prime Minister met President Karzai of Afghanistan and Prime Minister Sharif of Pakistan. Pakistan is not a country that has particularly distinguished itself as a protector of women—absolutely the contrary in recent times. So I ask myself why we are not engaging more with India. There have been difficulties and some horrific incidents in India recently, but the people, the politicians and the Government of India regard those as dreadful aberrations that must be stopped, which is a very different thing from those countries that regard them as culturally congruent.
This neglect of India as a key partner is something that goes right back to the beginning of the engagement. I remember talking to both senior American security officials and senior Indian army officials about whether we had consulted India in any way before the invasion of Afghanistan. The answer was that we never even thought about it. Here is our ally, with 1 million men under arms, just across from Afghanistan, which could make a real difference and have real leverage; but we do not seem to be engaging with it. When we leave, we may have some little leverage and involvement, but India will be there. Can the Minister say what we are doing to engage not just with Pakistan—which is perfectly reasonable and appropriate—but with India to ensure that, in the region, there is leverage there to ensure some maintenance of the possibilities for democracy in general and the position of women in particular? India, as a country, at least recognises the importance of this matter even if it does not always have a perfect record—no country does, I suppose—in dealing with these kinds of questions.
I have a real fear that that any improvements we achieve in Afghanistan and some of the other places where we have intervened may be short lived. It is not just that we might return to the status quo ante but that there might even be a reaction against them. Along with the noble Baroness, I seek reassurance from the Minister about our involvement with those who are likely to have positions of responsibility—not just those who are currently in government but those in the Taliban. Those of us who were advising engagement with the latter some years ago were told it was a nonsense, but of course in the end it was an inevitability, not a nonsense. We should try to find some way of
ensuring that they understand that, if their country is to benefit as part of the community of nations, it must measure up to some of these important requirements that the community of nations now rightly recognises, in particular on the position of women.
Baroness Jenkin of Kennington (Con): My Lords, I, too, am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, for raising this important issue. There are few in Parliament who know more about the subject, and we welcome her and her considerable expertise to the House. I also take this opportunity to salute the Foreign Secretary, the International Development Secretary and my noble friend Lady Warsi for the time, effort and focus they have all put into this very challenging problem. With the imminent departure of United States and UK combat troops from Afghanistan, and the election of a new president and provincial councils scheduled for next year, we are all too well aware that the country stands at a crossroads.
Many women’s rights around the world are still far away from where they should be in the 21st century: 70% of people living in poverty are women and a third of all women in the world experience some form of violence. However, it is Afghanistan which, despite many efforts by many people in recent years, remains the most dangerous place in the world for a woman to live.
One Afghan woman e-mailed me to say how grateful Afghans are that we, as a country, have been generous to them over the last 12 years, providing assistance in many ways, reaching out to women and promoting their cause. As the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, said, we have to do all we can to ensure that this support is not wasted. I hope that this debate will be reported in Afghanistan and that women there will know that we are on their side, and that we support and are concerned for the women there who fear for the fragile rights that they have gained.
As my noble friend pointed out in her powerful and well argued speech, there are a number of signs of appeasement of Taliban and other conservative forces by the Afghan Government. Last year President Karzai supported a new code of conduct, issued by a group of prominent clerics, which permitted the beating of wives by husbands and the segregation of men and women in offices and schools. As both my noble friends have said, there has been progress and this should be celebrated. However, this progress is at risk. As human and women’s rights activist Wazhma Frogh comments:
One new NGO, the focus of which has been on assisting women in Afghanistan to make a contribution, is Future Brilliance, of which I am proud to be a trustee. Its vision is to create stability in fragile states by offering world-class training that contributes to the nation’s prosperity through the skills, ambition, professional knowledge and participation of its people. One person whom the charity has helped is Khala Zada. It took her two months to persuade her sons to let her come to Jaipur to be trained. A 50 year-old
illiterate widow from rural Afghanistan, Zada runs a small business making jewellery by hand. The six-month course would teach her about design, techniques and sales but, as a woman coming from a country of gender inequality, she was not allowed to make the decision herself. She had to get permission from the men in her life—her adult sons. Finally, in January this year, she left her home accompanied by one of her sons and his wife to enrol alongside 35 other Afghan men and women—the ratio was two men to one woman—at the Indian Institute of Gems and Jewellery in Sitapura, Jaipur’s new jewellery quarter. The institute had hoped for more women than men, but it proved difficult for the women to get permission to travel for the training.
Zada is a pioneer in this new scheme to create a network of skilled Afghan artisans who will set up businesses and spread their knowledge. The advantage is that women jewellery-makers will be able to work from home—a key benefit should the Taliban return to power once UN peacekeeping forces pull out. She will be able to expand her business and employ more women so, in terms of maximum return on capital employed, taking just this one woman and investing in her personally is potentially huge for the economy of her local village.
Future Brilliance has recently forged an agreement with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs to distribute 7,000 tablets to young entrepreneurs and students at training and vocational colleges throughout Afghanistan by 2014, customised for use in Dari and Pashto and loaded with education, social media, and m-commerce applications—there is lots of very exciting potential in that.
As my noble friend has said, education is the silver bullet. Education for all children, but especially for girls, is the key to continued progress. In 2001 there were fewer than a million students in school, and practically none of them were girls. Today, if you were in Kabul, you would happily see girls travelling to school in their black uniforms and white headscarves. There are now more than 8 million children attending 4,000 schools across Afghanistan and nearly 40% of these are girls. This is a fantastic improvement. As Anthony Lake, executive director of UNICEF, has said:
When influenced early enough, boys and girls can grow up to be accepting of one another and to resist regressive tendencies. By educating boys and girls together in an equal environment, ensuring that they have access to the same knowledge and opportunities, the first step is taken to eliminating entrenched sexism.
I am proud that the UK has committed to supporting girls’ education in Afghanistan by giving £47 million to the DfID Girls Education Challenge fund to help 250,000 girls to access quality schooling. We have a responsibility to help these girls to reach their full potential. We also have a responsibility to ensure that boys fully comprehend the value of women and
understand that appreciating and valuing women does not distract from, or in any way decrease the value of, men.
Many women in Afghanistan today are putting their lives and those of their families at risk by fighting for the rights of women. Shaima Alkozai secretly taught girls in her home during the fear and repression of Taliban rule. Her students would pretend that they were going to a friend’s house and hide their books in flour containers. Today she is the deputy principal of Zarghona Girls High School in Kabul, responsible for the education of more than 8,000 girls. As she says:
“An uneducated person is blind. They don’t know how to live their life. It’s especially important for women, because they are responsible for their life and the lives of their children and family. The life of the nation is in the woman’s hands”.
Ease of movement for women is a key problem that also needs tackling. In public transport, women have to wait until the men get into the vehicles, there are hardly any public bathrooms for women and it is not safe for them to walk around and be out after the sunset. There are many obstacles in their way, physically and psychologically—unimaginable for any of us in this Room today.
Last week I e-mailed a contact in Kabul to ask what changes she thought would best enable progress on women’s rights in Afghanistan. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, she came back with a rather extensive list. Beyond education, which was at the top of her list, she would like to see a distinct subject of human rights included in the school curriculum and taught in all schools, mandated by the Afghan Ministry of Education. She wants the Government to require all employers to display posters on rights and respect for women. She says that the Afghan public should be exposed to effective and brief TV and radio skits and slogans demonstrating why it is important to honour women as equals. The media in Afghanistan should be used extensively to reinforce the vital role that women play in society.
Historically, women are the first to suffer in a fragile state. Without proper planning, traditionalists will gradually erode the progress that has been made at the expense of so many lives. If we are to continue to make changes or even just preserve the status quo, women’s rights must be at the centre of negotiations with the Taliban. It is only by fully integrating women into the Government’s agenda that we can protect their fragile gains. As Kofi Annan said:
There must be increased access to justice, including reparations, and access to comprehensive services for all women to ensure that they are enabled to fully participate in the democratic process. As with all long-lasting and sustainable change, this cannot be imposed by the West. It must come from the Afghan people. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments.
Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab): My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, for initiating this debate. As we have heard, over the past decade significant steps have been made to advance women’s rights in Afghanistan, such as the provision of gender equality in the new constitution and the establishment of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. Although the Afghan Government’s quashing last week of the proposal to reintroduce stoning for the offence of adultery was good news, its emergence in the first place, as we have heard in the debate, was a sign of how fragile gains in human rights over the past decade have been, particularly for women. As foreign troops head home before a 2014 deadline for the end of combat action in Afghanistan, and political attention fades with it, many fear that years of slow progress are at risk of being swept away.
This debate is a timely wake-up call for all donors to realise that if there is not constant pressure on the Afghan Government to respect women’s rights, there will be no women’s rights. As we have heard from the noble Baroness, many women have severely limited physical freedom and no political voice, and violence against women and girls is an everyday occurrence. Some 60% to 80% of all marriages are forced marriages; 57% of girls are married before the age of 16; 98% of women have no formal papers, citizenship or identity; 25% of women are in employment compared to 88% of men; and women’s life expectancy is 44.8 years. Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, stated on her visit to Kabul in 2013 that violence against women was “endemic” in Afghanistan and urged the authorities to speed up the implementation of the Elimination of Violence against Women law. I am aware that the FCO has funded a study into barriers to the implementation of the law and funded legal education in Helmand to raise awareness of women’s rights. What is the UK doing to support effective implementation of the law?
DfID is very active in funding programmes in Afghanistan. In March 2013, the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, announced that tackling violence against women and girls in Afghanistan was a strategic priority. Can the Minister give more details on how DfID will implement this strategic priority? What is it doing to achieve social norm changes towards women and prevent violence against women and girls? As we have heard in the debate, the position of Afghan women in society will remain a key challenge as the international mission draws down. Obama and Karzai’s strategic agreement stipulates that the,
“necessary outcomes of any peace and reconciliation process”,
“Afghan Constitution, including its protections for all Afghan women and men”.
However, as we have heard, even if Kabul were to draw anti-government forces into formal negotiations, it remains highly doubtful that the Taliban leadership would ever work in accordance with the Afghan constitution’s protection of,
“equal rights and duties before the law”.
said, gender gaps in Afghanistan are widespread in health, education, economic opportunities, power and political voice. A combination of traditional customs and rigid interpretation of Sharia law places serious restrictions on women’s rights. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, I welcome the Government’s confirmation that the UK will continue supporting girls’ education in Afghanistan until at least 2017. The £47 million committed to the DfID Girls’ Education Challenge fund between 2013 and 2016 has helped and will help a quarter of a million girls to access quality schooling in Afghanistan.
The FCO is jointly responsible, along with DfID and the MoD, for implementating UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, and jointly responsible for delivering the UK’s national action plan on the resolution, in which Afghanistan is a priority county. Much of the detail of Her Majesty’s Government’s support in Afghanistan is reported in the third annual review of the UK national action plan. The UK is providing funding for capacity building in the presidential and provincial council elections in 2014, including £12 million to a programme which supports female voter registration.
DfID has also given £4.5 million to the Asia Foundation parliamentary assistance programme on women’s participation in the 2014 elections and funding to increase female employment in the civil service. Through Tawanmandi, a pooled fund to which DfID has pledged £19.9 million over five years and whose purpose is to strengthen Afghan civil society, 15 of the 34 grants have gone to women-focused projects. What is the UK doing to provide long-term support to women’s rights organisations? How much of overall DfID spending in Afghanistan goes to women’s rights? The MoD is providing support and training for the Afghan National Army Officer Academy which, from 2014, will train 150 female students. What more will the UK do to ensure the participation of women in the Afghan police and army and that such participation is meaningful? What strategies will be in place to prevent sexual violence? Is there regular monitoring of women’s recruitment into the Afghan police and army?
The UK has contributed £1.4 million to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and is funding the EU policy mission to Afghanistan. Strengthening gender and human rights is one of the six strategic EU policy mission objectives and, as part of that programme, UK police officer trainers delivered the first ever training course exclusively for Afghan female police officers. DfID has contributed to an umbrella programme that supports women in developing business skills and creating an accessible market.
The EU’s human rights strategy on Afghanistan contains commitments on human rights defenders, as we have heard. The implementation of the Elimination of Violence against Women law and women’s participation were identified as key commitments in the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework. The report states that the UK will chair the ministerial review of the TMAF in 2014. Will the review take place in London? How will the UK ensure that Afghan women’s rights organisations are properly consulted ahead of it? As a co-chair, how will Her Majesty’s Government ensure
that Afghan women involved in the review will be protected? What is the UK doing to protect women human rights defenders and women in public life in Afghanistan?
As we have heard, and as the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, said, our focus should be on leaving Afghanistan stable and secure. There is an urgent need to work with Afghanistan’s neighbours, as he quite rightly said, to play a more active role as NATO forces in Afghanistan withdraw. My view is that Pakistan is crucial both to the success of the mission in Afghanistan and in the wider struggle to combat terrorism. I would be grateful if the Minister could give us more information on the FCO’s efforts in that regard.
The Senior Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government & Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Warsi) (Con): My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Hodgson for highlighting this important issue. This is a timely debate. Along with her, I had the privilege this morning of addressing the Afghan Deputy Minister for Women’s Affairs, Fawzia Habibi, and her fellow parliamentarians Shukria Barakzai, Dr Nilofar Ibrahimi and Raihana Azad at the Chatham House event on the status of Afghan women post-2014.
I share my noble friend’s deep concern—echoed, I know, by everyone who has spoken in this debate today—that the considerable progress that women have made over the past decade in Afghanistan may be eroded and some gains may be lost. The protection and promotion of women’s rights in Afghanistan is a central pillar of our activities in Afghanistan and a cause to which I am personally committed; indeed, my maiden speech many years ago was on the issue of Afghan women’s rights.
Despite having been a cynic when we first intervened in Afghanistan, I have seen the progress and the transformation that have taken place and the contribution that women are making at all levels of Afghan society. I have had the privilege to meet some of the truly inspirational women who are risking their lives and leading the way on this issue. It is a central issue against which we will be judged when we consider the sacrifices that have been made in Afghanistan and whether they were worth the state in which we leave it.
I had hoped that more Members of your Lordships’ House would take part in what I think is an incredibly important debate. All noble Lords said that the gains made must not be lost, a message that we continuously reiterate to the Afghan Government. Last week my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Development highlighted the importance of this with President Karzai during her visit to Afghanistan. My noble friend Lady Jenkin referred to the gains on education, employment and political participation. I co-chaired the joint commission on the enduring strategic dialogue between the UK and Afghanistan, and I stressed those gains when we had that meeting a few weeks ago in Afghanistan, which I co-chaired with the Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister, Mr Ershad Ahmadi. There is one female vice-presidential candidate in the forthcoming presidential elections,
Habiba Sohrabi, who is an ex-governor of Bamyan province. When I spoke with presidential candidates, I said that it is not just about having front-facing candidates but whether you have women in all aspects of your decision-making, in terms of your policy, the inner circle and the campaigning theme which is going to take these elections forward. I think I gave them some food for thought, given that at least two of the candidates could not mention a single lady.
Challenges, therefore, remain in many parts of the country, but Afghan women are starting to take control of their lives. They rightly want a voice in deciding Afghanistan’s future. Next year’s elections are a real opportunity for women to play an even greater role in shaping their society. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned, through the Asia Foundation DfID will provide up to £4.5 million to strengthen women’s political participation as candidates and leaders and in other ways.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, and my noble friend Lady Jenkin raised the issue of girls’ education. We welcome DfID’s commitment to provide education for 250,000 of the poorest girls in Afghanistan, and this complements the UK’s existing funding for education there. As my noble friend Lady Jenkin notes, virtually no women were in education in Afghanistan in 2001, and to date over 2 million girls have been educated, largely thanks to funding by international donors including DfID.
My noble friend Lady Hodgson, followed by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked about the new DfID programme announced by my right honourable friend Justine Greening. DfID will provide a further £8 million to the UNDP’s Elect II programme, bringing DfID’s total support to £20 million, and this will support the three key Afghan election institutions, including the independent election commission’s gender unit. The UK will also provide £7.5 million to strengthen political governance in two main ways: first by capacity building for parliament, and secondly by developing skills for women provincial councillors.
I was pleased that the Afghan Government reaffirmed their commitment to implement the measures included in the human rights reform agreed under the Tokyo mutual accountability framework, the TMAF. At the Afghan Government’s request, the UK will co-chair the first ministerial review of progress against the TMAF in 2014. The final timings and venue of that have not yet been fixed, but as soon as I have more information I will update the House.
Achieving lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan must be our primary aim, but we will continue to make clear that any political settlement involving the Taliban must preserve the progress made to date and respect Afghanistan’s constitutional framework, including the protections it provides for women and minorities. Reconciling the Taliban must never be at the expense of gains made in women’s rights.
It is for the Afghan Government to ensure that women’s rights are protected. We welcome their intention to publish a national action plan for the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, and the fact that UN Women and other partners, including civil society, are being consulted
in its formulation. The British Government will continue to provide assistance where appropriate. It is important that the Afghan Government ensure that a strong political will is galvanised behind implementing it fully.
With regard to women’s rights generally, I think I said this morning that we must keep them on the agenda. It will be so easy, when we have withdrawn our combat troops at the end of 2014, for this to start slipping. One way to do that is through the Afghanistan universal periodic review at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. The review will take place in early 2014, and that will provide an opportunity for us and the rest of the international community to raise our concerns, and for the Government of Afghanistan to show the strength of their commitment to safeguard women’s rights.
Afghan civil society also plays a vital role, and our support for it will have to endure. The British Government recognise their contribution through the DfID-funded Tawanmandi programme, which has been referred to in today’s debate. This includes a specific focus on women’s rights. To date, for example, 66% of grants awarded either focus specifically on gender issues, or have a strong gender component. Funding for this is going to continue until at least 2016.
We must also acknowledge that Afghanistan, as many have said, is a deeply conservative country. Substantial improvement to the situation of Afghan women is likely to take place over the long term, and progress is likely to come in short steps. Against this backdrop we should recognise the courageous efforts of all those across Afghanistan who are working to defend the rights and fundamental freedoms of others. In particular I applaud female human rights defenders, who face enhanced risks from conservative elements of their society. The Government will continue to support and defend these brave individuals who, by seeking to protect the rights of others, are challenging historic and very conservative social norms.
We continue to contribute to the work of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. We will continue to work closely with all our international partners to improve our understanding of the risks faced by human rights defenders so that they can be mitigated. Every time I visit Afghanistan—I think that I have visited four times in the past 12 months—I make a point of meeting the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and Sima Samar, an incredibly inspirational individual at its head. We will continue to raise our concerns and, where appropriate, to issue public statements condemning violence. These days, with the progress in terms of social media and being Twitter-linked to many female Afghan parliamentarians, it only takes a direct message for us to become aware almost instantaneously when things are starting to go wrong in Afghanistan.
My noble friend Lady Hodgson also raised the issue of stoning for adultery and the penal code, which of course has been in the media. The Secretary of State for International Development raised concerns about these reports in her meeting with President Karzai last week. I think that we saw some rowing-back from what was then described as a consultation. However,
even a consultation is dangerous territory for the Afghan Government to be starting to venture into. The UK opposes abhorrent practices such as stoning, which are a disturbing reminder of the type of justice carried out under the Taliban. That has no place in modern Afghanistan.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked about recruitment of Afghan women to the police. The UK agrees that the recruitment of women in the police has not been a high enough priority. The Afghan Ministry of Interior has set up a working group. The EU police commission to Afghanistan is seconding in some expertise to come up with a comprehensive approach to the role of females in the police. Its aim is to increase the number of police women by adjusting selection procedures, improving working conditions and providing better training. However, the risks are incredibly high for these individuals. I saw a tragic case. One female officer whom I had met on a recent visit to Helmand was attacked and killed by the Taliban purely for being a member of the local police.
My noble friend Lord Alderdice raised India, which, of course, is an important regional power and an important country in terms of the future of Afghanistan. It is actively involved in Afghanistan, including among other things through the development work that it does there. The Pakistan-UK-Afghanistan trilateral procedure is one of a number of forums created to try to create a better process between countries in the region in order to progress on issues such as women’s rights. Other processes are, for example, the Heart of Asia and, of course, bilateral relationships. It is not an either/or situation between Pakistan and India in terms of Afghanistan. We regularly keep the Indians updated on the trilateral process. Indeed, the Prime Minister did so on his recent visit to India when he spoke with Manmohan Singh. At the last trilateral meeting, both Afghanistan and Pakistan indicated that they would like us to continue with this and to try, effectively, to act as an annoying friend to allow the two to develop their bilateral relationship further.
My noble friend Lady Hodgson spoke about the Elimination of Violence Against Women law being a key deliverable in the TMAF. Our £7.1 million of assistance to the Ministry of Interior includes a strong focus on developing Afghan policy and promoting human rights in the security sector and protecting women from violence. The UK also supports the Afghan national police response unit, which investigates domestic violence and provides support to female victims of crime. DfID has made tackling violence against women and girls a strategic priority for its work in Afghanistan. It will make announcements in the near future on what more it can do to address this issue. As my noble friend is aware, this issue is incredibly close to the Foreign Secretary’s heart in terms of preventing sexual violence in conflict.
In conclusion, the Government have made long-term commitments to Afghanistan’s future through financial aid and political support. In return, we expect to see clear progress from the Afghan Government on a range of issues, including on human rights. UK support to the women of Afghanistan will remain long after our combat forces withdraw. Afghanistan has come a
long way since 2001 but we are not going to be complacent. We know that it still has a long way to go.
my maiden speech and I am sure that it will be part of many more speeches and debates in this House. We owe it to the women of Afghanistan to keep this matter on the agenda by ensuring that this House continues to discuss these issues.