I thank Madam Speaker for allocating time for a debate on an extremely important issue previously, I believe, unmentioned in this place, probably due to a form of political correctitude. The debate concerns mainly the treatment of Asian Muslim women by their families. I pay tribute to, and thank, my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) for giving me a great deal of support over the past 22 months on this subject and for encouraging me to call for this debate.
A few months ago, I met a couple called Jack and Zena Briggs. They had committed the unforgivable crime of falling in love and ultimately marrying. They are from Bradford, and their story has been told many times. Zena's fate had been sealed virtually from birth when her parents promised her to a first cousin in Pakistan, a young man whom she despised and regarded as arrogant, who had no English and who treated women as beneath contempt.
On the fateful day six years ago when Jack and Zena decided to run away and marry, they knew that there would be problems but hoped that, eventually, her family would accept Jack, as his family accepted her. That was not to be. To this day, a death sentence hangs over the couple, and, over the years, the otherwise decent Bradford Asian family has employed private detectives, bounty hunters and hit men to seek out their once much-loved daughter for the purpose of killing her and her husband, even stooping to punishing them by terrifying Jack's elderly mother who was dying of cancer.
Speaking of their present predicament, Zena said:
Every time there's a knock on the door your pulse quickens, not knowing who it is. Every time the phone rings, as you're picking it up and saying 'hello' you're thinking, Is this them? Have they finally found us? Is this another trick call to lure us to a rendezvous where we'll meet our deaths? When you're walking in the street and a car slowly pulls up at the side of you, you try not to freeze, as the palms of your hands begin to sweat, your breathing becomes rapid, your heart starts beating ten to the dozen. Is this someone just innocently asking for directions? Or could it be your executioner wanting to make sure it's you before he grabs you and pulls you into the car?
You have no idea how it will happen when it happens.
John McCarthy, who well understands the effects of spending years on a form of death row, wrote the introduction to their book "Jack and Zena". To put their tragedy into context, I can do no better than quote him:
It is very hard to believe that this is happening in Britain today. But it is, and the story raises important questions about how we move on as a multiracial society. How can a family be free to plan to kill a daughter and the man she loves while the establishment appears unable or unwilling to work for a resolution? It is too simple to say that her family must just be made to drop their threats. Their actions come out of a cultural tradition that needs to be understood before it can be reformed. Reformed it must be for the sake of many other youngsters who wish to take up the personal opportunities of living in a multicultural society. It is vital for us to learn from this story to be better equipped to fight against racism. It is a tragic irony that it is Jack and Zena, the victims of this awful culture clash, who are the shining light of race relations in this situation.
On the day that I met Zena, I also met Asiya, although that is not her real name. At the age of 15, she was forced into a marriage with a much older man. After a few days of appalling treatment by him, she waited for her strength
to return and, when sure that he was soundly asleep, made her escape. She phoned her mum, told her harrowing story, and asked if she could return to the family home. Her mother was completely unmoved, demanded that Asiya should go back to her husband and threatened that if she returned home, she would be killed. Asiya, now 16, is still on the run. Those two lovely, lively girls asked me to raise their tragic stories, whenever and however I could. I am unable to give any background to Asiya's story, save for the fact that she had a west Yorkshire—possibly Bradford—accent, and was too scared to give any details either to me or anyone else.
Having talked to many people in the Keighley and Bradford areas, and to female Muslim social and community workers in London, including a woman from the Muslim Parliament, I have formed the view that the increasing incidence of forced marriages, or attempted forced marriages, has little to do with religion. The question that I have asked myself and others so often over the past two years is why families are prepared to go to such lengths to force their daughters into such unsuitable marriages. The answer is often that it is their culture and that outsiders such as myself should not interfere with what are essentially community and family matters.
I cannot accept that view, nor did my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sarwar) who rescued two girls from a dreadful situation in Pakistan, which had been inflicted on them by their father. His brave, decisive actions effectively put his head on the political chopping block, a fate that I trust will not befall me and my hon. Friends who will raise similar issues this morning.
When, in 1983, I found myself unemployed for 12 months, I volunteered to become an unqualified teacher of English as a second language to young Asian women in their homes, mainly in the Highfield area of Keighley. I took on three women—Asiya, Ruqia and Ghanimat Jan—and spent every Wednesday morning with them for four years, learning a great deal more from them than they ever learned from me and, of course, getting involved—probably too involved—with family problems, disputes and celebrations. They all came here as young brides and, in common with young women entering the United Kingdom today in similar circumstances, had little, if any, English. They therefore had no knowledge of their civil or human rights. Worst of all, they had no immediate family to turn to if their in-laws were giving them a hard time.
To give an idea of what it was like for the women we were to help, we were given "Finding a voice" by Amrit Wilson, which was reprinted in 1981. One of the hundreds of quotes from Asian women sums up quite well their unhappiness at being taken to and abandoned in this very strange, cold, hostile country:
You ask me how I felt when we arrived here? Bad—I felt bad, to leave them all, everyone back in the village. Did I expect it to be like this? No, tell me, how could I? After all, I had never been here before, there was no means of knowing. I used to cry, not knowing anyone or anything, missing my own home. To live in one room after living in a country when houses are so open … It was hard, very hard.
I find the plight of those women, and their vulnerability, a greater worry than the plight of our UK Asian women. Many Bradford and Keighley women from both of those groups have good reason to be grateful to
Philip Balmforth, a retired policeman who helps Asian women escape, go into hiding and live with some degree of security. Working alongside West Yorkshire police and Bradford social services department, he helps women fleeing domestic violence who are referred to him by doctors, nurses and social workers. He also helps the growing number of younger women who approach him for help to avoid unwanted marriages or who, having gone through the marriage—unwillingly—wish to leave. Many of those women are eventually helped by the very well-regarded Manningham housing association in Bradford.
The number of referrals to Philip has gone up from 168 in 1996 to 283 in 1998. Some are Sikh, but they are mainly Muslim; and the increase is mainly among young UK women avoiding marriages. My only explanation for this growth is that there is an ever-increasing number of women reaching maturity who regard themselves as of a cross culture, with different aspirations to their mothers. Many will have much more in common with girls from the indigenous population than with male cousins in Pakistan who have no English, who have lived their lives in tiny Mirpur villages and who know only rural life and agricultural work. Yet our young women are expected to marry those men.
Since I started preparing this speech, an article in last Sunday's edition of The Observer has been drawn to my attention. It is so very relevant that I shall quote from it, as much of it ties up with the type of situations that I hear about in Keighley and Bradford. I do not know where the woman mentioned in the article comes from, nor do I know where the three girls she talks about live. The article, by Carol Sarler, is entitled "The silence of the imams … while another child dies". It states:
Take three girls, linked by nothing save their fathers' faith and the fact that I knew all of them. The first was a bright, young schoolfriend of my daughter whose parents suddenly announced, when she reached 15, that she'd be leaving school shortly to prepare for her marriage to a strange and older man. My daughter asked me, on the frightened child's behalf, if I would hide her—but, even as I weighed my conscience against Holloway prison my dilemma was removed: the child had mysteriously changed her mind about the man.
We find that that happens all the time. Neither Sarler nor her daughter ever saw the girl again. The article goes on:
The second girl was only 14 when her own family beat her, kidnapped her and imprisoned her—all designed to knock the Western stuffing out of her—and then began to plan her wedding. She escaped but was almost murdered in the process and now lives as a teenage exile far from all she ever knew.
The third was a neighbour. A darling little thing, perhaps 16, with a sweet, shy smile and a puppy dog eagerness to please the husband who had been found for her. For his part, she was there to work and breed, and she most certainly wasn't allowed to mix with anyone else. So I didn't get to know her well at all. Still I was sorry when, one lonely day, she hanged herself.
I wish to make it absolutely clear that I do not oppose arranged marriages as such. My assistant in Keighley, Shamim, has just gone through such a marriage, and is perfectly happy with the situation. My appeal to the Asian Muslim parents of Keighley—and beyond—is that they should discuss with their daughters the plans that they have for their future. If the daughters do not like their parents' choice and would prefer to marry a man from their own cultural background, then their parents only have to look around to discover that there are many eligible Muslim bachelors in West Yorkshire. Those men will also have the advantage of being able to get work and will therefore not be a drain on the daughters' families.
My other appeal is to the leaders of the Asian Muslim community. I hope that they will encourage their people to put their daughters' happiness, welfare and human rights first. If they do, their community will progress and prosper, in line with the Sikh and Hindu communities.
Because my own daughter-in-law is from an Asian family, I am not blind to the many benefits of belonging to such a family, whose members are more supportive of each other than is the rule in the west. We must also recognise that Asian women must not seek help outside their community or even family, as that is regarded as a betrayal. Therefore, the cries for help that we hear may be just the tip of the iceberg and we must remember that Members of Parliament—especially those of us who are women—are here to listen and support without being judgmental. Our Asian women constituents are perfectly entitled to expect the same human rights as are afforded to us and to our daughters. They are also entitled to expect us to help them to enjoy those human rights.
Finally, I want to touch briefly on the plight of another group of women whose every human right has been removed since the Taliban took over most of Afghanistan. That vast country, in which there are thousands of widows after years of internal and external wars, is now ruled by men who have reduced the role of women to that of child bearers. They are barred from education, medical care or any means of earning a living, which means that the children of widows are reduced to begging and scavenging for food. As and when the money is available, the widows cannot even go out to shop without being escorted by a close male member of their family: if they do not have such a relative, they leave their homes risking a severe beating.
The United States of America in particular—and this country to a lesser extent—fed the Afghan war machine over many years. It is thought that American dollars are still being used to support the Taliban. I hope and trust that that does not have even the tacit support of our Government, and that we will do all in our power to rescue Afghanistan and its women from the Taliban's culture of cruelty and human degradation.
I should also like to mention that, at a meeting in Paris about a year ago of the Western European Union, a report was presented on the situation in Afghanistan. The rapporteur was a French socialist, and he claimed that many of the Madrasas had young men from just inside Pakistan who join the Taliban forces, and were supported by money from the Central Intelligence Agency. I do not know whether that is true, and the report was disappointing in that it failed to mention the plight of Afghanistan's women. That had to be put right by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe), who did a great job in that regard.
Finally, I wish to thank the Council of Europe Equal Opportunities Committee, of which I am a member, for raising internationally, at a conference in December, the tragedy that continues to be Afghanistan. I also thank my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, for giving his time to reply to this debate.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) on securing this important debate, and on her brave and moving speech, which I am sure will have affected everyone in the House.
All hon. Members would agree that it is a basic human right to have a voice, and to be heard and represented. In my remarks, I shall concentrate on the issue of representation. I am sure that all hon. Members would also agree that women's voices are essential to a healthy democracy and a healthy society. I do not believe that only women can represent women, but a legislature that does not have the same gender balance as the population as a whole cannot call itself representative.
Here I must make the obvious confession: my party has failed dismally in that regard, with only three women Members of this Parliament. However, we will have a better balance in the European Parliament after June, and we have the highest percentage of women councillors in local government. The party is taking steps to address our failings in that regard.
I know that we are discussing an important matter in the debate, but the hon. Lady mentioned the number of women in her party and it has not escaped our notice that her party is going through a leadership contest at the moment. Does she have it in mind that her party might deal with the problem that she has described by having a woman leader?
I could not possibly comment on that. However, the other day, I received a document from the Council for Parity Democracy. That document, which lists every woman in the world who is head of government or head of state, or who leads business or international organisations, is only 20 pages long. There are not nearly enough women leaders around the world, and perhaps my party could make a start on changing that. One never knows.
Other parties, here and abroad, are also tackling the issue of women's participation in democracy. That is a key aspect of the British Council's work in many developing countries, with which I and some Labour Members have been involved over the past couple of years. I shall speak briefly about the institutional changes that this Government have made to improve women's lives, and then give an example from one of the countries that I have visited.
First, I was disappointed—as I am sure were some Labour Members—that the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) was suddenly moved aside from her post as Minister for Women, even though she had proved to be quite effective. That did not give a very good message about the Government's intentions with regard to women. I am not throwing any aspersions about her replacement, although the Minister for Public Health, the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Ms Jowell), has other ministerial responsibilities, which obviously make the job more difficult.
One of the concerns of the women's unit is to increase the number of women who serve on public bodies. At the moment, only 31 per cent. of appointees to public bodies are women. If one looks more closely at the figures, one finds that most of those are in unpaid posts. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has the best record, employing women in 36 per cent. of paid posts and 28 per cent. of unpaid posts in the past two years. In contrast, women fill only 26 per cent. of paid posts and 86 per cent. of unpaid posts in the Department of Health, which clearly has a long way to go.
Only 10 per cent. of our judges are women, and there are even fewer women in the higher courts. What is the Lord Chancellor doing to redress that imbalance? He must be pushed on the issue. Male judges have shown their inability to deal sensitively with crimes against women, such as rape and domestic violence. We are told that dealing with domestic violence is a key priority of the Government, but there is still much to be done to increase resources for women seeking refuge, improve training of police officers and conduct regular monitoring of reports of domestic violence, all of which is almost non-existent.
I was recently in Mexico with the British Council, attending a seminar on work in that country on women's rights, aimed at increasing women's participation in decision making. The position of women in the societies of many countries that signed the Beijing declaration, such as Mexico, is well behind that of the United Kingdom, yet, because they start from a low base, they put in place more effective structures than we have here. In Mexico, for example, the gender and equity parliamentary commission, which plays a similar role to a Select Committee, has a remit to look at the impact of all legislation on gender and equity. We might do well to consider that model.
The Mexican Government have embarked on a programme to establish a women's unit in each of the 32 states. We might well consider such a decentralised model, in which women's units work with state and local governments to implement a programme to improve women's rights. That enables the Government to respond to specific issues in different places in different regions, where there are different rates of progress, and where large indigenous populations, ethnic minorities or rural women have different needs than women in the city.
It is more than two decades since the framework of laws was implemented in the UK to try to eliminate sexual discrimination—which has usually, but not exclusively, been against women—in education and training, employment and consumer affairs. The Equal Opportunities Commission has recently proposed reforming sex equality laws by the introduction of a single sex equality Act, which would be based on the principle of equal treatment, and which would put the onus on employers and service providers to comply with the law, rather than the complainant having to take the case to a tribunal. I hope that the Government will very soon be able to respond to the EOC proposal, and inform the House when we can expect sex equality legislation in the Queen's Speech.
I hope that the Minister will be able to say in his response to the debate when the Government will set up a human rights commission. I apologise to him that I shall have to leave a few minutes before the end of the debate, although I let him know about that earlier.
When we have a voice as women and as Members of Parliament, we should use it to the advantage of all those without a voice. Around the world, many women are held back by traditions, cultural and otherwise, which prevent them from exercising their choice. The hon. Member for Keighley described how that impacts on many women in this country. The Beijing declaration came to the clear view that women's views must be heard, that a nation's progress depends on the progress of women and that the strength of the political system depends on the inclusion of women. Human rights are women's rights, and women's rights are human rights.
It will come as no surprise to the hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) to hear that I agree with just about everything she said. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) on obtaining this debate and on her excellent and moving speech. Nobody should underestimate the courage that it took to make such a speech. I shall speak on many of the issues that she raised, but, given the virtual worldwide silence on women's human rights, I make no apology for doing so. Today should mark the beginning of an effective campaign to highlight the plight of millions of women and children, whose basic human rights are violated daily in the name of culture or religion.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley, I do not speak in any superior, patronising way, as I am only too well aware of the history of my country, and the crimes against women and humanity that it has committed globally and at home. In supporting this debate, my hon. Friend and I shall probably face accusations of racism or Islamophobia, but experiences, and what I have seen as I have travelled the world as a Member of Parliament, make it clear that silence is not an option any more.
Female circumcision is not just a problem in the developing world; it happens in the west. There is a case about it in Paris at the moment. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Ms Jones) will speak about what is happening in Britain. The World Health Organisation has stated:
most of the girls and women who have been subjected to female genital mutilation live in 28 African countries, although some live in Asia and the Middle East.
Due to immigration, some live in Europe, Australia, Canada and the United States of America, too. It is estimated that about 140 million women and girls worldwide have suffered that dreadful practice, and that a further 2 million girls are annually at risk.
Female genital mutilation—or FGM, as it is called—comprises all procedures involving partial or total removal of external female genitalia, or other injury to female genital organs, whether for cultural, religious or non-therapeutic reasons. The procedures are always totally irreversible. They are harmful to the health of women and girls, and the effects last a lifetime. Immediate complications include severe pain, shock, urine retention, ulceration of the genital region, haemorrhage, and infection, which can often lead to death in the poorest areas of the world. Long-term consequences are horrendous, and include incontinence, painful sexual intercourse, sexual dysfunction and the possibility of HIV infection. The risk of maternal death and stillbirth is greatly increased, especially in the absence of skilled health personnel.
That is torture on a massive scale. It is committed against millions of girls and women every year, yet where is the outcry? Who is saying much about it? Insomniacs will have heard a good programme at 3 o'clock this morning on the BBC World Service, in which Dr. Olienka, a very brave Nigerian woman who has led a one-woman crusade, and other women spoke about the practice in Sierra Leone. How many Parliaments debate the obscenity? How many times has the United Nations Security Council, the Group of Seven or the United Nations itself debated, on a world platform, that crime against humanity? The truth is that they do not because the victims are female. The practice violates every part of the universal declaration of human rights.
The hon. Lady will be heartened to know that female genital mutilation was discussed during negotiations in Beijing. Does she agree that, far too often, people brush the subject under the carpet and do not want to talk about it because it is taboo and not to be discussed in the open? We have a duty, particularly as women parliamentarians, to speak out about the matter and to say that it is absolutely wrong.
I agree with the hon. Lady. The practice is a absolute violation of human rights, yet it is conducted in the name of religion or for cultural reasons, among Christian as well as Muslim women. It predates such religions, so the religions cannot claim that it is done for religious reasons. I believe that it is done to control women and to keep them under the thumb, so to speak.
Often, such practices and other human rights violations are dismissed as village Islam—just as a village in Poland might be more Catholic than the Pope. Does my hon. Friend agree that religious leaders have a responsibility to teach their flocks exactly what their religion says and not to allow ignorance to develop?
Absolutely. Such mutilation has nothing to do with the great religions of the world. It is an abuse and a violation.
I shall briefly discuss what is happening in Afghanistan. When the South African Government declared a state of apartheid—an inhuman system, which institutionalised the supposedly superior status of whites in all political, economic and social matters—the world was rightly outraged. How could the civilised world stand by and watch such an obscenity take place? That white South African state became a pariah state, and a magnificent campaign was fought, in which many of us were involved, to end that evil.
Where is the outcry against gender apartheid in Afghanistan? Who is speaking out about the human catastrophe taking place there? Where are the major debates in the United Nations? When there was apartheid in South Africa—a dreadful evil, which I helped to oppose—it was an almost weekly issue for discussion. However, since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, women and girls have been legally—under the Taliban—subjected to extreme conditions of exclusion. That wicked regime, in a country of millions of war-damaged people and widows, has denied basic human rights to all girls and women.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley said, in Afghanistan women are barred from receiving any education. They are banned from work and are not allowed to leave home unaccompanied. They are almost under house arrest. Girls are married off, quite often, to strangers much older than themselves, and in some cases just used as sex slaves.
The Council of Europe—I am grateful for the work that it has done—has studied the situation and is trying to draw attention to it. Naturally, it condemns it. The Council of Europe published a report in November 1998. Evidence had been taken from agencies and from Afghans who had witnessed at first hand the Taliban's treatment of women. Interestingly, the report says clearly that that treatment has absolutely nothing to do with Islam. It was taught by the Taliban in the camps in Peshawar. I tried to get there about eight years ago, but was turned back when I reached the camps. They said that I was a wicked woman, and I was not allowed to enter. Those camps taught that evil; the Pakistani Government has much to answer for in that.
Amnesty International has condemned the treatment that is inflicted on women and girls in Afghanistan. It now says that those women are prisoners of conscience, and that the restrictions should be lifted immediately.
Meanwhile, in Pakistan—one of the only three countries to recognise the Taliban regime—things are not very good for women. The plight of many women in rural areas is grim indeed. In 1979, Zia, then head of the military regime, introduced several ordinances dealing directly with women; those are still in force. The first and most notorious, the Huddood ordinance, deals with—among other things—rape, adultery, fornication and prostitution, and suggests punishments for all those crimes. Zina, the adultery clause, has led to thousands of women being imprisoned—and, in many cases, beaten and killed—just because someone, not necessarily the husband, accuses them of adultery. Zina-bil-jahr, the clause dealing with rape, states that four male Muslims of good character must have witnessed the crime of rape. That makes it almost impossible for any woman to bring charges. That is an outrage; the Pakistan Government should hang their heads in shame because they still allow it.
People in Pakistan are working to do something about what is happening there. The Pakistan commission on the status of women, which began its work in 1984—some of whose members I met when I was in Pakistan—submitted a report. Its findings were clear. It said:
the average rural woman in Pakistan is born in near slavery, leads a life of drudgery and dies invariably in oblivion".
The United Nations 1994 human rights development report said:
Pakistani women's participation in education, health, labour and politics is lower than many countries in the region, reflecting a major crisis in civil society".
I believe that anyone who saw the BBC "Correspondent" programme, "Murder in Purdah", shown in January, will realise that it is vital that all the nations of the civilised world speak out. The testimony of the 15-year-old girl, given 24 hours before she died from the horrible burns that she had received from her husband or his relatives, will haunt those who saw it for a long time. My hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), chairman of the all-party group on human rights, will be showing the film at 6 o'clock on Monday 15 February in one of the Committee Rooms.
The 15-year-old had been virtually sold by her father to an older man, who will probably never be punished. The film repeatedly showed how the men are allowed virtually to sell their daughters. The husbands abuse them. Quite often, if the marriage breaks down, the women end up in prison or their children are taken from them. The men who have committed the crimes walk free; they bragged about it on the documentary. A man who had shot his wife kept the gun as a trophy, and bribed his way out of prison.
We must campaign for the abolition of the Zina laws and the Huddood ordinances. The Pakistani Government cannot claim to be part of the civilised family of nations while it allows those crimes against women.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley, I should like to finish by coming closer to home. I, too, was moved by Carol Sarler's article in The Observer. I believe that every woman from every community from certain parts of the subcontinent can associate with her opening remarks, which my hon. Friend so movingly read out.
Just this week, I have had yet another case of a young woman—a very bright, well-educated young woman, born in Halifax—who, last year, was tricked into going on holiday and married against her will. As she is well educated and has spirit, she is objecting to the marriage and has decided that the young man will not be brought into this country. However, we must question the role of the institutions that should be protecting those young, in this case Yorkshire—Halifax—girls. Obviously, they are being badly let down by the institutions. The law, it seems, is not for them.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sarwar), who rescued Rifat Haq, who was 20 years old, and Nazia, who was 13 years old, who were abducted by their own father and married off. At 13, that is illegal in Pakistan as well as Britain, and we should be speaking out about it. The veil of silence should be lifted on that practice.
I want to mention Zoora Shah, a Bradford woman, who for 20 years was beaten and raped and made to sleep with other men by Mohammed Azam, the brother of Sher Azam—former head of the city's council for mosques. When that evil man tried to abuse her daughters, she poisoned him; but, because she was too ashamed, for cultural reasons, to defend herself properly, she was given a life sentence.
A few streets away in the same city, Shabir Hussain killed his sister-in-law, Tasleem Begum, in an "honour killing", because her arranged marriage had failed and she wanted to run her own life. He ran her down three times in his car and was sentenced to life for murder, but on appeal had his sentence reduced to one for manslaughter. Passing judgment, Judge Hodson said:
I accept there has been considerable pressure on you for the last few years. Something blew up in your head that caused you a complete and sudden loss of control".
That judgment was outrageous. The double standards applied in those two cases are mind-blowing—the result of the conspiracy of silence surrounding anything to do with basic human rights for Asian women. We are in danger of importing the principles of Zina and the Huddood ordinances into the streets and cities of this country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley and I intend to campaign for an end to gender apartheid. We want the victims to contact us here in the House of Commons. We intend to lobby, to harass and to ensure that all the agencies that should be protecting women to do their jobs. Lest there be accusations of racism, let me say that, like my hon. Friend, I have black grandchildren who are the absolute joy of my life. I reject any accusation of racism. I have friends whom I love in the Muslim community. I certainly was not popular politically for opposing the bombing in Iraq against ordinary Muslims. Any claims of racism are nonsensical.
I have read the United Nations universal declaration of human rights and there is no exclusion clause explaining that the declaration does not cover female genital mutilation. There is no footnote excluding Afghan women, or Pakistani women in Bradford, Halifax, Keighley, Wolverhampton or Glasgow. Universal means every man, woman and child on this planet. If we do not speak up for that, we deny human rights for millions of women and girls.
It is not often that I wholeheartedly agree with Labour Members. However, this morning I have heard two speeches that I admired. I would like to join other colleagues in offering my unreserved congratulations to the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) on having the courage to initiate this debate and to make her voice heard on behalf of women who are undoubtedly abused, not only in this country, but throughout the world.
If the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) is starting a campaign, perhaps she will give some consideration to talking to me about it. I would be very willing to join any campaign that would end the barbaric practices that are perpetrated against women throughout the world.
Slightly more than 50 years ago, the General Assembly of the United Nations produced the universal declaration of human rights, which followed the dark days of the second world war. Those were dark days in our own history in Europe. However, the declaration made it clear that the rights that it expounded were for all people without exception. Though much progress has been made over the past 50 years, as I am sure all right hon. and hon. Members would acknowledge, much more is needed around the globe.
The debate seeks to highlight the single gender, and I obviously have a great deal of sympathy with that. However, I say at the outset that I would not want a single gender debate to remove the highlight from human rights in general—the human rights that belong to both men and women. If we practise the politics of inclusion and believe in equal opportunities, we should not narrow our horizons and ignore 50 per cent. of the population.
I accept what the hon. Lady says about making her remarks apply to both sexes. However, does she agree with me that nowadays, the nature of war, and especially civil war, means that women and children are disproportionately affected? Many more women have their human rights abused because of war and civil war throughout the world now than ever before. This is one of the main problems. War has become war against women, who are raped, mutilated and abducted. They are damaged far more than the male of the species.
I do not wish to have a disagreement with the hon. Lady because I have sympathy with her remarks. However, it would be narrow-minded to imagine for a moment that it is not possible to damage men, to damage boy children, to rape boy children and to rape men. I would not want to enter into a debate in which we held a competition to determine who was abused more. The abuses of civil war and war in general are well known, sadly, to all right hon. and hon. Members.
I wish to focus on the fact that there must be equality of attitude towards the debate, although at the same time, we must highlight the special and particular treatment for which women are often singled out, particularly in the name of religion.
When I was a Minister in the previous Conservative Government, I had the privilege of signing the declaration on the platform for action in Beijing. The then Government took the matter so seriously that we sent three Ministers to Beijing. It was not a jolly for the three Ministers and it was not a trip on Concorde. Three very senior Ministers went to Beijing to do a job of work, not only on behalf of the women of the United Kingdom, but on behalf of women throughout the world. I pay tribute to Baroness Chalker and my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), who attended the conference with me.
I pay tribute also to the non-governmental officers who attended the conference, in far more difficult circumstances than myself. A parallel conference for NGOs took place down the road. Due to adverse weather conditions and the poor preparation of the buildings that were to be used, many of the NGOs were up to their knees in mud. There was a tremendous spirit among the NGOs, the politicians and the representatives who had made it to Beijing to negotiate the platform for action.
Sadly, the negotiating team that I used and the equal opportunities unit within the Department for Education and Employment have now been broken up. The Government have had four Ministers with responsibilities for women in less than two years, including one who was unpaid. I believe that the message that is going out to women is completely wrong. Perhaps the Conservative Government were not quite so up-front about our policies for women. We never promised a ministry for women. I believe that the previous Government made good progress on rights for women and that the present Government have caused a great deal of disappointment throughout the country. However, that is not the main thrust of my speech.
At Beijing, I met women who took my breath away. I met women who had been tortured and mutilated. I met women whose very lives were in danger because of their presence at the conference. These were real women and real injustices. I heard stories at first hand which ranged from bride burning to female genital mutilation, and from rape to female infanticide. Sadly, we can travel around the globe and collect stories of abuses as we move from country to country.
In common with those who have already spoken in this debate, I wish to highlight three areas where crimes against women are rife and, sadly, are often committed in the name of religion, or because one religion does not tolerate another. I am grateful to Christian Solidarity Worldwide for its briefings on this subject and I have no hesitation in reading from them. I think that the House would wish to hear particular stories from India and Pakistan.
At the end of last year, four nuns belonging to a missionary group, the Foreign Missionary Sisters, were gang raped by suspected Hindu militants in the Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh in central India. The four Catholic nuns were all under 35 years of age. They were dragged out of their convent, taken to a nearby field and gang raped by 15 to 20 men. The police claim that they have arrested four people in connection with the incident, but have declined to disclose their identity.
The assailants first knocked at the door of the convent, pretending that they needed urgent medical help for someone. The nuns were unconvinced and refused to open the door. They barricaded themselves in a chapel, but the assailants broke into the convent and ransacked the whole building before dragging the nuns from the chapel and taking them to the fields to be raped. All four of the nuns were from the state of Tamil Nadu and working for FMS, a humanitarian medical organisation which was set up to provide medical help to people bereft of medical facilities in the remote rural areas of the country.
I do not say that a nun is better than any other woman, but the incident serves my purpose in showing that people could choose women who were in the area for humanitarian purposes and that the authorities do not pursue to the nth degree the perpetrators of such a revolting and abhorrent crime.
We have heard about the situation in Pakistan. Again, Christian Solidarity Worldwide has provided me with a brief, which states:
Every morning, teeming multitudes of under-nourished women are gobbled up by the smoky brick buildings of factories and disgorged in the evening after a heavy day's labour. Millions of other women are bent in back-breaking labour in the fields and farms and in the muddy courtyards of cramped dwellings from dawn to dusk. Few women have formal work in Pakistan. However, those who do often find themselves subject to discriminatory treatment in the workplace with lower pay and poorer working conditions and security than their male counterparts.
Discrimination stretches beyond the workplace, affecting the political, legal and social status of women. Legally, the evidence of a woman is worth half that of a man. Worse still, the evidence of a Christian woman is not accepted at all in cases filed under Sharia law. However, such women can still be charged, convicted and punished under Sharia law.
Incidents of rape and violence against women are a daily news item. As we heard, the Huddood laws relating to rape require the eye-witness testimony of four adult male witnesses for rape to be proved. That is ridiculous; it denies justice to many of the victims of rape in that country. However, if rape is unproven, the unfortunate girl is charged with adultery. That cannot be right under any religion or any laws. No politician in any state could possibly endorse that.
Political representation of women remains low. Although some efforts are being made to ensure that women have seats in Parliament, their tragedy often goes unheard because they have no real voice.
Finally, I shall deal with Afghanistan, as other hon. Members have touched on the subject. For me, the present situation in Afghanistan represents some of the worst treatment handed out to women across the globe. We have heard how women are prevented from seeking employment. Women doctors are prohibited from practising their trade. Education is not permitted for female children. Women are not allowed to walk down the street unless accompanied by a man. Amnesty International, which collects and catalogues some of the worst abuses of human rights, came across a case only a couple of years ago in which the Taliban had a woman's thumb cut off because she wore nail varnish.
The Minister who is to reply to the debate has not been known for speaking in women's debates in the House. I welcome him to the Dispatch Box and hope that he will make a fine contribution in what, I believe, will be his first debate on women's issues. I hope that he sits on the Ministerial Sub-Committee on Women's Issues, which was started under the Conservative Government. Perhaps in the course of his winding-up speech he will tell us how many times that Cabinet Sub-Committee has met.
I urge the Minister to ensure that continuous and strong representations are made to the three countries that I have highlighted, in particular to Afghanistan and the Taliban. In their daily business of running the country and representing its interests and views abroad, Ministers should keep at the forefront of their minds the countless women and girls who die or are damaged each day from gender-based discrimination, and on every possible occasion they should support and promulgate human rights for all—men and women.
Whether distributing aid, negotiating a trade deal or making a diplomatic visit, Ministers should keep human rights in mind so that we can continue to make progress over the next 50 years, as we have over the past 50 years. Ministers should not go abroad or discuss any matter with their opposite numbers, no matter from which country they come, without attempting to draw human rights abuses to their colleagues' attention and helping to eradicate some of the worst treatment imaginable of one human being by another.
I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) on securing this important debate. Everyone in the House agrees that she does not lack courage in raising this important and sensitive subject.
I serve on the Council of Europe with my hon. Friend; we are both members of the equal opportunities committee there. As we have heard, the committee has been taking evidence on the situation in Afghanistan. The House might also be interested to know that last year, shortly after the committee was formed, one of the first topics with which we had to get to grips was the news that virginity testing had been re-introduced in Turkey. Thanks to the women and the men on the equal opportunities committee, we succeeded in getting that proposal widely publicised and stopped. We are very busy on the Council of Europe these days.
Last week, my constituency office received a telephone call from a distraught young woman who told my staff the story of her cousin's wife, who is a constituent of mine. My constituent, whom I shall not name for reasons that will shortly become obvious, had married a man of whom her parents did not approve. The marriage had been against their wishes. Shortly after her marriage, she and her husband decided to go to Pakistan for a family visit. She wanted to meet her husband's family there.
When the couple arrived at the village, they were both arrested and locked up in the local police gaol. It transpired that my constituent's family in Pakistan had brought charges against her and her husband. They had accused her husband of kidnapping her and they had accused her of stealing the family jewellery, which was part of the dowry. More seriously, a male relative of my constituent had stationed himself outside the gaol and said that he would shoot her if she was released.
My constituent is a British citizen. She asked to be given access to the British embassy in Islamabad and was refused. She and her husband were kept in the lock-up for almost three days before his family found out where they were. They telephoned their family in Wolverhampton, who immediately contacted my office. We immediately involved the British embassy in Islamabad.
I congratulate the official at the embassy, who took immediate action. Embassy staff contacted the police station, pointed out that a British citizen had been arrested and asked why. Negotiations took place. The police dropped the charges, which the family considered to have been trumped up. They released the couple and gave them protective custody until they could reach my constituent's husband's family where they felt safe.
Everyone concerned took seriously the threat to kill my constituent. The House will note that it was the woman, not her husband, who was to be killed. My constituent will shortly return to the United Kingdom. She has family in this country, and I am seriously beginning to wonder what will happen to her when she returns to the UK. Needless to say, I shall keep in close contact with her and her family to make sure that she will be all right.
That story shocks me, as do the others that we have heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Keighley and for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon). The stories are so shocking because the women involved are taking the sort of decision about their personal lives that all other women in this country take, but they are being forced to pay a terrible price for doing so. They are being put through hell for making choices that the rest of us take for granted.
In telling the House of my constituent's experiences, I do not point the finger at any one faith or culture. All faiths have their zealots. At present, almost every religion is grappling with fundamentalism; it is not a phenomenon associated particularly with Islam. Unfortunately, because of the press coverage in this country, fundamentalism is automatically associated with Islam, and we have indeed heard stories from Afghanistan.
However, the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) pointed out some of the effects of fundamentalist Hinduism in India. Recently, our attention has been drawn to what is happening in the United States, where fundamentalist Christians are killing people and bombing property in a campaign against family planning and access to legal abortion. We need to keep the matter in perspective. One key feature of all religious fundamentalism is the suppression of women.
Ours is an inclusive society in which we strive to understand and respect all cultures and differences, which I have often said is our strong point. But—this is a big but—we should not allow that to blind us to the practices which result in the violation of human rights of men and women. Regardless of faith and culture, it is plain wrong to kidnap and drug a woman, and to threaten or commit violence against a woman, because she wants to make a particular decision in her life.
My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax referred to female circumcision. An article in The Independent last week said that female circumcision is being practised in Britain. We all know about the case which is currently before the French courts, but that article said that a team of investigative journalists attached to a television company had discovered two Harley street doctors involved in female circumcision in Britain. If that is true, it is shocking. The House must speak out about it and investigate it. Another practice involves young girls born in Britain, and therefore British citizens, being sent to their families' country of origin for the operation—to me it is mutilation—and then returned to Britain. That must stop.
All are agreed that my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley has been courageous in raising this sensitive issue, but we must have an intelligent debate. We cannot allow ourselves to be embroiled in arguments about racism, cultural rights, traditions and so on. Britain now has the Human Rights Act 1998. As a member of the Council of Europe, I was a particular enthusiast for the incorporation of the European convention on human rights into our legislation. It is one of the best things that the Government have done. However, the House must ensure that human rights are for all our daughters, regardless of their cultural background.
I, too, sincerely congratulate the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) on bringing before the House all the important issues affecting women that have been raised today, in particular the question of forced arranged marriages and their consequences on social life in Britain.
I, too, have heard allegations of female genital mutilation being carried out in Britain, and the Select Committee on International Development heard evidence of that being carried out in Harley street. Other abuses, too, are suffered by British women, and we must be vigilant in stamping out such practices in Britain. They are against our law and human rights, and against British women. I should like to join any organisation that is established to campaign against these practices, so that those responsible are brought to justice and the practices about which we have heard are stamped out.
Speaking from a medical point of view, it would be helpful if, when we campaign for the abolition of genital mutilation, we included male genital mutilation. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that there is no medical reason for male circumcision. Many small boys are seriously damaged by that operation being done by unlicensed practitioners and people who do not know how to do it properly. It may broaden the issue and make it easier for certain cultural groups to accept if we go for both forms of operation, not just one of them.
That is an excellent suggestion. I was about to say that this should be the concern of not only women, but men and women. Evidence given to the International Development Committee suggests that the law is not necessarily the way in which to stop such practices. A law against such practices is in place in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, all of which have signed up to the Peking action programme and the Cairo action programme on sexual and reproductive health drawn up five years ago. Therefore, it is not colonial or imperialist to suggest that these practices need to be stamped out in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The House may not be aware that the International Development Committee is going to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh at the end of February and the beginning of March, and our subject is gender and development. We have purposely called it that because we must get the men on our side on this issue. It is often when the imams and other men controlling such societies agree that such practices are wrong that they are most quickly stamped out, so we must involve everyone in the crusade.
The usual population balance between the genders is 52 per cent. female and 48 per cent. male. In India, that has not only been reversed, but the female population is now as low as 45 per cent. That means that practices against female children are widespread in India. Death in childbirth is one factor, but the starving and deliberate murder of girl children on birth, and amniocentesis, which allows a female embryo to be identified and aborted, are widely practised. Apart from anything else, such practices are against nature, but they are also against the law and against human rights, to which India has signed up.
We must campaign against such abuses, which feed back into Bradford, Keighley, Wolverhampton and Southall, and we must be militant about abolishing such abhorrent practices.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) on securing this important debate. I am pleased that we are having it during the week of the five-year review of the Cairo conference programme of action which put women's rights at the heart of its agenda.
Despite many international agreements affirming women's human rights, girls and women are still much more likely than men to be poor, undernourished and illiterate, and to have less access than men to education, medical care, property ownership, credit, training and employment.
Discrimination against girls often begins before birth in the preference for sons, and in too many places continues with the denial of education and medical care, and with forced teenage or even pre-teenage marriage, sex and pregnancy.
Women may be restricted to the home, sexually and physically abused without any remedy, and denied rights to own or inherit property, receive training or credit, or to take part in political or social discourse, as is the case in Afghanistan today, which was so movingly described by my hon. Friends the Members for Keighley and for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon), and the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan). Such treatment of women is a corruption of Islam, which teaches respect and honour for women.
At puberty, in particular, girls have specific needs that should be addressed. Access to health education alleviates trauma caused by ignorance of bodily changes, and leads to improved hygiene, the lack of which often leads to infection and sometimes death. However, in Afghanistan, that education is forbidden and in many countries, it is simply not available. Girls expect only to be mothers, and are restricted in education and employment, while boys are prepared to be heads of families. Laws against domestic violence are often not enforced on behalf of women, making women vulnerable to persistent abuse, or even murder. When women defend themselves, or try to flee such violence, it is often they who are imprisoned, instead of the perpetrators.
Unfortunately, achieving gender equality in those areas requires the support of men, who exercise most of the power and who, in some countries, appear to want to keep their women in fear and subjugation. Investment in education for women and expanding their access to credit, training, property and legal rights give them options to achieve status and satisfaction in life, and liberate their economic potential. For centuries, child bearing has been women's chief source of security and status, and that remains the case, especially in countries where women are denied education, reproductive health care, secure livelihoods, and full and equal rights. Programmes that offer girls alternative life-style choices can help girls to stay in school and, consequently, delay child bearing. Such women tend to have fewer children.
Two thirds of the illiterate adults in the world are female, but where there are higher levels of women's education, there are also lower infant mortality and lower fertility. Women in developing nations are usually in charge of securing water, food and fuel, and they oversee their families' health and diet. They tend to put into immediate practice whatever they learn about nutrition, health care, and the preservation of the environment and natural resources.
The roles that men and women play in society are socially determined and often justified as being required by culture or religion. However, there can be no democracy without equality. If we judge a country by the conditions and status of its women, many would fall short, but in Afghanistan, women have no status at all and their life conditions are intolerable. The dreadful situation in which Afghan women are trying to survive is getting worse every day. Women's human rights are being violated daily, in the name of law and order and religion.
The restrictions imposed on women by the Taliban are not unique. In other countries in the region such as Pakistan, the quality of life for women, in terms of their status and the violation of their rights, is now little better than in Afghanistan, because of the resurgence of fundamentalism. The systematic attacks on women's rights in those countries should be a warning that regressive steps can occur anywhere and at any time. The international community has a duty to take resolute action to restore women's rights in Afghanistan, and to help to stop further deterioration of the quality of life and rights of women in other Islamic communities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax told us about the most pernicious form of the violation of women's human rights: female genital mutilation—a term used for a variety of surgical operations—which is carried out on healthy, female children, mainly for traditional reasons, and which is often backed by enormous social pressure. That mutilation, often carried out with unsterilised instruments and without anaesthetic, can lead to immediate health risk and often causes long-term health damage. That it is being carried out in the luxury of Harley street is no less oppressive. The practice is prevalent in north Africa, the near east and Asia, and it is not uncommon for children born in Britain to be sent abroad to be operated on. Such children often believe that they are going to visit relatives, only to be violated by people whom they trust. Where are the laws to protect those vulnerable children? No wonder the problem is being swept under the carpet.
Slavery, torture, and racial and ethnic prejudice are centuries old, and are now rightly condemned when they involve people of colour, political dissidents or ethnic groups. Violation of women's human rights must receive the same international censure. I urge the Government to use every possible forum to condemn the continuing abuse of women's human rights wherever it is perpetrated. In particular, I urge them to establish mechanisms to ensure that women and girls living in Britain are protected from female genital mutilation, either in this country or abroad.
May I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) on initiating the debate on this very important topic? We have heard a number of excellent speeches and I should particularly like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) for telling us of her experiences in these matters as a former Minister with responsibility for women. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Keighley on her courageous speech. It cannot have been easy to stand up and say what she said today. She spoke movingly and sensitively, and her comments gained the wholehearted support of everybody in the House.
It is a sad comment on the world today that, as we stand at the brink of a new millennium, it is still necessary for us to debate restrictions on human rights faced by so many women across the world. Different examples of those restrictions have been referred to in the debate. The lot of women in the UK has been improved over the years, as society has changed. Involvement in the political process has played a part in that, as an impetus for change; it is, perhaps, appropriate that we are having this debate in the week of the 70th anniversary of the extension of the vote to women.
I must say to the hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) that, although her speech might have been something of a leadership bid, I thought that she rather missed the point of the debate. Many other hon. Members raised issues of extreme importance that the Government must take seriously and on which they must act. In many parts of the world—and also, as we have heard, for women in certain communities in the UK—the treatment of many women has not improved greatly over many generations. Those women are still treated as second-class citizens, because of cultural attitudes and traditions that apply within their communities.
I want to mention one issue that has not been fully addressed. One of the key developments that can open opportunities to women and improve their position in society is access to education. As UNICEF—the United Nations Children's Fund—reported at the international conference on girls' education last May, one of the problems in the world is that girls make up two thirds of the approximately 132 million children in developing countries who are not in school. There are 900 million illiterate adults in the world, of whom two thirds are female.
Education is a key to breaking out of poverty; it empowers individuals and encourages them to become active citizens. It enables them to have access to information about choices in their lives, and provides them with the skills and understanding to make those choices. In too many places, girls are discouraged or prevented from going to school; sometimes, that issue relates to the ability to access school because of distance or the number of places available. However, all too often, girls do not go to school because they are expected to stay at home to do the chores—or to enter into an early marriage, because of early pregnancies—or simply because school is considered to be a low priority for girls.
That is a problem in particular areas, such as sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia and some parts of the middle east and north Africa. It is a particular problem in Afghanistan, although I shall not refer to that in detail, because time is short and many hon. Members have already spoken of the very real concerns about the ways in which women are being appallingly treated by the Taliban regime there.
Education is not only important for itself; it offers a key to economic freedom and employment. The previous Government supported a number of projects, within the overseas aid budget, which were designed to help women to gain access to education and employment. Such projects included the micro-credit schemes, which enabled women to borrow in order to set themselves up in employment. That scheme was started in Bangladesh, but was extended, with our support, to other countries such as Kenya. We also encouraged community projects, with a particular emphasis on learning. Another issue—to which some hon. Members referred—was the important support for the provision of contraceptive advice through our children by choice not chance programme. All those moves were aimed at providing help and support to women, to enable them to make the choices necessary to change their lives.
Whatever support is provided, one fundamental problem is faced by women in many communities: the problem of cultural attitudes. There is always tension between our right to comment on alternative cultures and the freedom of others to choose to hold to those cultures. We must be sensitive to that tension, but when we see clear violations of basic human rights, it is right that we in this House should stand up and speak out, precisely as the hon. Member for Keighley and other hon. Members have done this morning.
Although we have mentioned a number of countries where there are human rights problems for women, the issues that strike us most are where there is clear evidence of abuses taking place in the UK. Although I do not have the same degree of experience as the hon. Members for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) and for Keighley, I have had a constituency case in which an arranged marriage did not work and the woman found herself effectively detained against her will by her husband's family. For some, that is the stuff of paperback thrillers, but it happens to women in the UK.
Last year, I raised the issue of bounty hunters with the Home Secretary, and the Minister's response referred to the responsibilities of the police. The basic problem, however, lies with the community's attitude, which says that it is right to chase after young women who, as in the case of Zena, have chosen how they want to lead their lives. Their community says that that is wrong and is prepared to go to extreme lengths to prevent them from exercising the freedom of choice that we all take for granted. We expect that freedom of choice to be available to all UK citizens, regardless of their community, culture or background. I am interested to hear the Minister's response on this issue. The hon. Member for Keighley referred to the need for Asian community leaders to take that issue on board. What action are the Government taking to encourage that process, and to ensure that UK citizens are provided with the same freedom of choice and the same rights?
My hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham said that she was disappointed in the Government's attitude to women's issues. Since responsibility for women moved to the Department of Health, general women's issues have not been raised in health questions. I note that a Home Office Minister will respond to this debate. This, however, is neither the time nor the place to go into detail on that, because hon. Members have raised some serious issues and I look forward to the Minister's response.
I want to refer to the specific issue of female circumcision. Let us not call it female circumcision; female genital mutilation is the right description. It is appalling to hear what that involves for women who go through it—trauma, pain and suffering.
Members of Parliament are privileged to be able to raise these issues freely, and we have rightly exercised that privilege this morning. I congratulate the hon. Member for Keighley again on securing this debate, and I trust that the Minister will respond sensitively to the issues that have been raised.
This has been an important and good debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) on raising it.
I shall focus on the issue of forced marriages, but first I shall respond to some of the other issues that were raised. The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) asked for the Government's general position on human rights. We now have more women in Parliament and in the Government than ever before, and the Government seek to address the issues of access to education, domestic violence and child care in a cross-governmental and progressive way. We shall continue to develop our programme to enhance women's rights. She specifically asked about the human rights commission. It is an open debate and we are waiting to see how it develops once we have passed the Human Rights Bill.
My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) discussed the appalling evidence of female genital mutilation. It is unlawful in Britain and I agree with my hon. Friends the Members for Halifax and for Calder Valley (Ms McCafferty), and with the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), that we must outrightly and forthrightly condemn that barbaric practice. On behalf of the Government, I condemn it. The Department for International Development is working hard in other countries to try to stop female genital mutilation.
I shall now deal with the issue of forced marriages. I wish to state clearly that forced marriages are wrong. It is distressing to hear of instances of young people entering marriages not with joy and expectation, but with trepidation and fear. That treatment of a woman within a
marriage or a relationship is unacceptable. We cannot tolerate compulsion on individuals to marry. The Government have put human rights at the heart of their agenda, and incorporated the European convention in UK law. The United Nations universal declaration on human rights states that
marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses".
Individuals' human rights should be respected by everyone. All British citizen should have equal rights and responsibilities, and respect for women's rights is central to that. It is incumbent on men and women in every community in this country to respect their partners, sisters, daughters and wives, and support them in making choices that will lead to fulfilling lives. Respect for the choices of others is important.
Different communities have different traditions, and we are proud that Britain is a multiracial society. We are the stronger for it. Our multiracial and diverse society should give due respect to different beliefs and traditions, but not at the price of conflict with the fundamental rights of individuals or the laws of this country.
The Government must respond sensitively on those issues, but multicultural sensitivity is no excuse for official silence or moral blindness. We long ago abolished laws that treated women as chattels. We cannot shelter or tolerate bad practices under the guise of sensitivity. The Bible, the Koran and other religious texts teach respect for women; the Government's position on this issue does not conflict with those great religious teachings. We must be careful that, in highlighting aspects of laws in some Muslim countries, we do not fall into the trap of branding Muslims as fundamentalists. British Muslims are, by and large, a sensible and moderate community that forms part of Britain's mainstream religious debate. This debate is not about Muslims—as one of my hon. Friends said, all faiths have their zealots; it is about behaviour which the vast majority of British Muslims would have no part in.
It is important to keep this issue, particularly its scale, in perspective. It is difficult to be precise about the scale, and I do not believe that the number of cases is large. The vast majority of families, from whichever community, want for their children more than they themselves achieved. That aspiration may include access to education, professional achievement, or marriage and family. We must recognise and understand the pressures on some families in this country today, and the problem of young people who may be forced into marriage.
Families that brought with them their traditions and values, and blended those with their responsibilities as citizens in this country, have contributed to our society in a tremendous way over the past 40 or 50 years. Their children and grandchildren have had educational opportunities, and their families have encouraged them in that. Many of those young women may wish to take a different path in life from their parents, and a different path from that which their parents may choose for them. That is not unique to a particular community. Young men in many of our communities, particularly in areas like Yorkshire, where some of my hon. Friends come from, have suffered severely from downturns in the local economy, the closing of mills and the loss of jobs. They hold on to marriage and the prospect of marriage as fundamental to their dignity and self-pride.
Expectation of an arranged marriage may be different on the part of the parents, the young man and the young woman. When one party to the marriage still lives overseas, another factor enters the equation of whether the marriage will succeed. However, the idea of arranged marriages should be separated from that of forced marriages. Many religious and ethnic communities have a long tradition of arranged marriages, and that tradition often works well. Indeed, I am aware of no evidence that arranged marriages are less successful than marriages that involve a greater freedom of choice. I have spoken to many women whose voluntary but arranged marriages have brought them great happiness.
The concern is not about arranged marriages; it is about forced marriages. Conflicting expectations can cause marriages to break down and it is important to ensure that communities get the message that any kind of marriage needs support to ensure that it is voluntarily entered into and successful. Organisations like Women's Aid and Southall Black Sisters have made an important contribution in raising the issue of forced marriages and putting the subject on our agenda.
We have heard about the important work being done in Bradford to deal with issues such as those raised by the case of Zena and Jack, which my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley described in her speech. We also heard the story of Asiya, who is on the run at 16 years of age. Those are appalling stories. The Government seek to support the Bradford police's work. I had intended to go into that matter in more detail, and to discuss issues related to entry control and to Afghanistan, but lack of time prevents that.
The Government are aware of the issue of forced marriages. We will not retreat into silence on these matters. The communities involved should not ignore the fate of these girls. The victims may be small in number, but their voice will not be ignored. The vast majority of members of their community condemn their ill treatment, and many of them have spoken out—