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International Women’s Day

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:39 pm on 5th March 2020.

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Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Labour, Kingston upon Hull North 2:39 pm, 5th March 2020

I start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend Jess Phillips for reading out that list again. Very sadly, one of my constituents, Libby Squire, was on that list. She was a young woman at Hull University, at the very start of her university career. It is an appalling tragedy that she—and all the other women, of course—is on that list.

I was very pleased to hear the maiden speech of my hon. Friend Apsana Begum. I was a councillor in Tower Hamlets for eight years, and I recall very well the rise of the British National party, and the community coming together to crush it back in 1994. She spoke very well about the women’s involvement in Cable Street, and about the suffragettes in the east end. I am sure she will also recall the important role that the matchwomen played as grandmothers of the Labour movement—and, I think, of the Labour party. I notice that a number of us are wearing ribbons to mark the matchwomen’s strike in 1888.

I want to take this opportunity to celebrate the amazing politicians and activists who have been fighting for so long to change the injustice in Northern Ireland around abortion law. In particular, I have to mention my remarkable hon. Friend Stella Creasy. Someone once said to me that MP should stand for “must persevere”, and the perseverance that my hon. Friend has shown is remarkable. I pay great tribute to her, and to my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) and for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), and to Baroness Barker in the other place. Those changes, which will be introduced in the next few weeks, will help us in this place to think again about the law that currently applies, the Abortion Act 1967, which I think is due for a review.

We all know that the last few years have been very difficult for all MPs, but particularly women MPs, given the insults, threats and behaviours we have faced—behaviours that, when I came to this place in 2005, I had not really experienced. The last few years have been very difficult, and of course there was the tragic murder of our good friend Jo Cox. However, I know that many women around the world who put themselves forward to be politicians, journalists or human rights defenders face harassment, intimidation and victimisation daily.

Hillary Clinton coined the phrase,

“human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights”.

As it is International Women’s Day, I want to mention a few incredibly brave women around the world, and ask the Government what they are will do to support them. First I want to raise the case of the Saudi right to drive campaigners. Several brave Saudi Arabian women who campaigned for the right to drive have been arbitrarily detained since May 2018, including Samar Badawi and Loujain al-Hathloul. In November 2018, Amnesty International reported that several of those women faced sexual harassment, torture and other forms of ill-treatment during interrogation, including electrocution and flogging, leaving some unable to walk or stand properly. In one reported incident, one of the activists was made to hang from the ceiling. Can the Minister say whether the Foreign Secretary, on his recent visit to Saudi Arabia, called for the unconditional release of those women activists?

I also wanted to highlight in the Chamber the case of Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent lawyer and human rights defender in Iran. She was arrested at her home on 13 June 2018 and detained without charge for over six months. She was convicted on seven charges and sentenced to 33 years in prison and 148 lashes. Her peaceful human rights activities against being forced to wear the hijab, including those undertaken when acting as a lawyer—for example, when meeting clients—were used to build a criminal case against her. Even her insistence on choosing an independent lawyer, instead of one from the list of 20 selected by the head of the judiciary, has been cited as a criminal act. Will the UK Government call on the Iranian authorities to release Nasrin immediately and drop all charges against her?

The third case I wanted to highlight was that of Dina Meza from Honduras. She is a celebrated independent journalist committed to defending freedom of expression and information. She spent years investigating and reporting on human rights violations across the country and challenging those breaches. Dina worked at incredible personal risk, and has previously had to flee Honduras for her safety. Because of the threats she faces, she receives protective accompaniment from Peace Brigades International. What steps have the UK Government taken to help promote freedom of expression and protect women journalists in Honduras?

Finally, I want to talk about Rosalinda Dionicio from Mexico. She is the leader of the United Peoples’ Network of the Ocotlán Valley in Defence of Territory, which, since 2009, has been demanding the closure of the San Jose mine, which is owned by a subsidiary of the Canadian company, Fortuna Silver Mines. The group says the mine has caused enormous environmental destruction and water shortages in the community. Rosalinda was attacked by gunmen in 2012, but survived. Despite the attack and the subsequent threats, she continues to struggle for the rights of the indigenous communities affected. What will the Government do to help protect and improve the security of indigenous women human rights defenders in Mexico?

Those are just some examples of incredibly brave women around the world to whom we politicians need to pay tribute. We need to press our Government to stand alongside them and do whatever they can to protect them.