Human Rights Day

– in the House of Commons at 7:19 pm on 14th December 2021.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Marcus Jones.)

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth 7:20 pm, 14th December 2021

Last Friday marked the UN’s Human Rights Day and the final day of the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence. I am delighted to formally mark the day in the Chamber tonight.

As many hon. Members will know, Human Rights Day is observed annually on 10 December—the day when in 1948 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the universal declaration of human rights. The declaration is a milestone document that proclaims the inalienable rights to which every one of us, as a human being, is entitled regardless of

“race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

Its central tenet, set out in article 1—

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”— is as important today as when it was adopted just over 73 years ago.

I have a copy of the declaration in my office. I believe that its significance to humanity, having been adopted so shortly after world war two, must not be underestimated: it is the hope that we can be better than the horrors that we witnessed. However, although the declaration is recognised as part of customary international law, human rights abuses are still rife, even by countries that are signatories to the declaration.

The principles of equality and non-discrimination are at the heart of human rights, but we know that, across the world, including in the UK, the rights of women are constantly ignored. Our right to life is ignored: in some parts of the world, girl babies are seen as less important than boy babies. Our right to education is ignored: girls are still prevented from being educated, as we are seeing today in Afghanistan. Our right to marry whom we wish is ignored: forced marriage and female genital mutilation are still happening in the 21st century. So are our right to work in whatever job we wish, limited only by our abilities rather than by prejudice and discrimination; to be paid the same as a man doing the same work; and to be treated equally under the law and have domestic violence and rape recognised and responded to as the serious crimes that they are.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing the matter forward; I very much support what she is saying. Does she agree that the increase in domestic violence during lockdown has shown that, even in our great nation, there is an endemic of gender-based violence that must be addressed? One way to do that is through education at a young age, which she referred to, and through prosecution of domestic abuses to a much higher degree. In other words, we must be hard on those who are carrying out the violence.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

I agree that the rise in domestic abuse during the pandemic is a real issue. Yes, I believe that we need further strict enforcement, but I also believe that we need to educate not just the victims, but the perpetrators. Two women a week in the UK will die at the hands of a partner or ex-partner; as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, that gender-based violence has increased during the covid pandemic.

In conflicts across the world, where violence against women, including sexual violence, is used as a weapon of war, we must reaffirm and re-emphasise that women’s rights are human rights by holding those who commit such atrocities—they are atrocities—to account. As the UN has stated:

“There are deep inter-connections between ending such blatant violations of those rights, providing freedom from fear, and the right to security, dignity, equality and justice.”

To mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women last month and the start of 16 days of activism against gender-based violence, I hosted a virtual event to look at those issues locally and internationally. I was joined by activists, experts, campaigners and people from across Oldham and Saddleworth to discuss not just the issues, but what we can do to tackle violence against women and girls.

Photo of Kate Griffiths Kate Griffiths Conservative, Burton

I thank the hon. Lady for calling this important debate. I personally have been overwhelmed by the number of supportive messages I have received over the weekend since my story became public. Every one of them has been encouraging, and many have shared their own harrowing stories with me. I know that every campaign, every debate and every story that becomes public gives strength and hope to other women, and perhaps the courage that they need to seek help. Does the hon. Lady agree that belief and support from others have a crucial role in addressing gender-based violence?

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

Absolutely. I want to place on record my gratitude for the intervention, but also how amazed I am by the hon. Lady’s strength and what she is doing.

I promised I would raise in this place the issues that the people at the virtual event raised with me. I hope that the Minister can respond to some of them tonight. Nationally, there remains a massive challenge. We need to change the culture of our society, which needs strong, determined leadership driving a multifaceted strategy that ultimately not just determines what are acceptable behaviours, but shifts attitudes and beliefs.

Photo of Nia Griffith Nia Griffith Shadow Minister (International Trade)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on this excellent debate. It is such a shame that, yet again, we have made so little progress. Does she agree that the revelations in recent days about even the police having WhatsApp groups with misogynistic content are shocking, that every single institution in our country needs to act hard and quickly to explain to people how dangerous and insidious that is and how attitudes can lead to acts of violence, and that we must stamp out such behaviour?

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

I could not agree more. There is an important point about leadership, which has to come from the top, and it has to be visible that such behaviour is totally unacceptable.

Women should be paid the same as men if they do the same or equivalent jobs. They should also be protected under the law from misogynistic hate speech, online and offline, in the same way that other groups with protected characteristics are. I hope that the Government will adopt the Law Commission’s recommendations on online hate—and it is online hate—as well as today’s report from the Joint Committee on the draft Online Safety Bill, which strengthens the provisions.

Boys and girls should be brought up believing that they are equal to each other. I go every week to primary schools in particular. We talk about girls not being able to access education and the children look at me as though to ask, “Why?” We need to develop that and ensure that it is not lost as those children grow up. Our society and our laws should reflect that. Fundamentally, our children need to understand what healthy relationships look like and that violence of any sort is unacceptable.

We need to build understanding of behaviours and attitudes that are abusive and unacceptable, so that women and girls, who are disproportionately the victims in gender-based violence, are empowered not to accept that.

There is a need for a national, co-ordinated approach to education and behaviour change, but at the moment, measures feel piecemeal and ad hoc. The matter needs a whole-system, public health approach.

I welcome the recent introduction of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. However, sustainable funding is really important and currently there is no guarantee that the money will run on to next year. It also does not address the societal and cultural issues I mentioned.

There are other issues, too. The duties under the Act are restricted to support for accommodation-based services, rather than thinking about the support offer as a whole, including community-based services. Voluntary sector organisations have consistently said that the scope of the duty is too narrow. Strengthening the accommodation and support offer is really valuable, but there is also a need to better support victims and their children in remaining safe in their own home, including, for example, through practical sanctuary measures. There is also insufficient investment in behaviour change work with individuals who have perpetrated domestic abuse, which is outside the Act’s scope of funding. Better support for children is also important. The pandemic has placed greater pressures on services, and a SafeLives survey of frontline domestic abuse services found that 42% said that they were not able to effectively support child victims at risk of domestic abuse at this time. When we think of that in the context of little Arthur, we see that that really is worrying.

Support for victims with no recourse to public funds remains an issue and can be a barrier for victims in escaping abuse. The domestic violence destitution concession allows victims to access financial support for three months while they make an application for indefinite leave to remain under the domestic violence rules, but that option is available only to those who have come to the UK on a spousal visa—it is not available to those who have come on student visas, for example. Local authorities also bear the cost in the interim period before the DVDC is agreed by the Home Office. In addition, a recurrent issue for services relates to victims of domestic abuse with complex needs, including mental health issues or substance misuse issues. In some cases, their vulnerabilities and difficulties in leaving an abusive relationship may also leave them at risk of having children removed. These victims have often experienced adverse childhood experiences themselves, which gives them a legacy of trauma. In such cases, victims may often have poor engagement with support services, but because they are often determined as having “capacity” to make their “own decisions”, not accepting help to leave an abusive relationship can be treated as an “informed choice”. Instead, we could have a recognition of the impact of traumatic experiences on their ability to safeguard themselves. Developing the support offer for victims with complex needs is a key gap, and again I would be grateful if the Minister gave us her views on that. The Care Act 2014 does not accommodate this.

In Oldham, Keeping Our Girls Safe, a local charity, works with children and young people, supporting them to learn about unhealthy relationships, child sexual exploitation, grooming and other risks. I have seen its inspirational work and how it empowers these young people, giving them confidence, helping to improve their self-esteem and inspiring them to make positive life choices. It has just celebrated its 10-year anniversary. KOGS was set up to address the gaps in the statutory services available to young people, particularly on prevention and early intervention. KOGS works with young people in familiar environments such as schools and youth centres, which makes it more accessible. Over the pandemic, it has carried on working with young people. Its chief executive attended the virtual event that I held and I just want to pay tribute to her, because one of her friends had died a few weeks before and she came to the event. This friend had died at the hands of her ex-partner, and I just want to repeat Hayley’s powerful words about this. I hope I can manage this. She said:

“How many times will we look the other away

How many times will people ask why she stays

How many times will a word become a hand

How many times will we have to make a stand

How many times will we demand some action

How many times will we be shocked at their reaction

How many times will a child lose their mother

How many times will she be hurt by hands that are supposed to love her

How many times will excuses be made

How many times will the ultimate price be paid”.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Labour, Kingston upon Hull North

This is an excellent debate and my hon. Friend is making a powerful case for the international Human Rights Day. Given those moving words that she just read out, will she pay tribute to the human rights defenders around the world and in the UK, including the lawyers who defend the rights of women all around the world? I chair the all-party group on human rights, and we are putting a lot of effort into making sure that human rights defenders get the attention they deserve, particularly women human rights defenders around the world.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her timely intervention, and I could not agree with her more. This is something that I want to raise in a moment, particularly in the context of Afghanistan. I congratulate her on all the work she does in the all-party parliamentary group, and I hope that I will be joining it soon.

It is hard to follow those words, but I would appreciate the Minister’s response on the gaps in support for victims and also on the need for a public health approach with a greater focus on prevention.

Turning to human rights and women’s rights at a global level, we know that in far too many countries they are ignored. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Kashmir, I have repeatedly raised my concerns regarding the human rights issues across Kashmir, which were documented most recently in 2019 by the United Nations Human Rights Office. The UN’s reports raised concerns about women’s rights and the reported use of gender-based violence in Jammu and Kashmir. Just in the last few weeks, a prominent human rights activist, Khurram Parvez, has been arrested by the Indian National Investigation Agency after he criticised Indian security forces for killing civilians and surreptitiously burying their bodies. I would appreciate a response from the Government on this issue. I raised it as soon as I became aware of it, but to date I have received no formal acknowledgement or information on the results of the Foreign Office’s investigations, and no response to my request to the Indian high commissioner.

The human rights abuses occurring in Kashmir may be the longest running, but that is by no means the only region where there are occurring. At my virtual event, we heard harrowing testimony about how sexual and gender-based violence is consistently used as a weapon of war with impunity. We heard from Christina Lamb, who has written widely on this, describing the testimonies of survivors she had interviewed from Syria to Myanmar to Nigeria. She said:

“The first time I realised the scale of rape as a weapon of war was when I was speaking to Yazidi girls who were kept as sex slaves by ISIS. One girl I spoke with was passed on 12 times between people as if she was a goat. One of the hardest stories I had ever heard was a 16-year-old girl who was kept as a sex slave by an ISIS judge and she told me the worst night of her life was when he came back with a 10-year-old girl and he raped the 10-year-old girl and she heard the girl crying for her mother all night. This should not be going on. This is a war crime, and these women need justice.”

Again, I would appreciate it if the Minister described what the Foreign Office is doing to get justice for these women, especially given the Foreign Secretary’s recent announcement of her campaign. The Minister will be aware that we have had years of words but little action, which is why perpetrators think they can rape and torture at will. Given that the Foreign Secretary has described this as a red line, what consequences are there from the UK Government for those countries that are not acting to tackle this?

The Minister will be aware of the plight of millions of Afghan women, many of whom are at serious risk of harm by the Taliban and to whom the UK has an obligation. The plight of Fatima Ahmadi, a former Afghan police officer, is just one such example. The Taliban beat her badly and pulled clumps of hair from her scalp in front of her nine-year-old son, who was also held at knifepoint. She has since fled to Pakistan but knows that her time there is also limited.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

The right hon. Lady has a big heart, and perhaps that is the reason that we always come to support her debates. I commend her for her passion for her stories. Just today I applied to the Backbench Business Committee for a debate on the Afghan resettlement scheme, which will enable people from Afghanistan who need to move to another country to start a new life to come here. If she has the time, would she like to come to that debate in the new year?

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I would like that. I am just about to come to that subject. Given that it is now four months since the Afghan resettlement scheme was announced and it still has not got off the ground, I would be grateful if the Minister told us what is going to happen. I share the deep concerns expressed by several speakers at my event about the devastating manner in which the Taliban have rolled back the rights of women and girls in virtually every area—education, paid employment, freedom of movement and so on.

In conclusion, ultimately the issues of human rights and freedoms should not be politicised: they are universal and should be seen as such across the globe. However, the wide gap between men’s and women’s rights continues to plague our society. The 16 Days of Activism for the elimination of violence against women or one Human Rights Day is not enough to untangle the challenges we face. It is time for strong leadership advocating concrete action to ensure that it happens.

On a global level, our co-operation with countries should be based on our common interests and our common values. Co-operation with regimes that do not value individual rights and freedoms, that do not have the necessary internal legitimacy, or that are part of extremist terrorist groups is detrimental to our progress. As such, human rights need to be at the heart of UK trade policies and deals. As one contributor to the event, who has recently escaped persecution, said:

“Humanitarian aid, the protection of the rights of women and children, and the handling of the humanitarian crisis, should not be sacrificed in a game of politics and individual interests. Regimes with such discriminatory politics and policies should be held accountable for their actions towards their people internally and externally.”

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 7:40 pm, 14th December 2021

I am very grateful to Debbie Abrahams for securing this debate and pay tribute to her outstanding work to tackle violence against women and girls, and to support survivors. I also thank my hon. Friend Kate Griffiths for her bravery and wise words about the importance of support for survivors of domestic abuse.

I am privileged to lead our international efforts to eradicate gender-based violence, in partnership with Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, the Prime Minister’s special representative on preventing sexual violence in conflict. The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth raised a specific situation in Kashmir and I will ensure that she gets a written answer.

As we all know, violence against women and girls is a global crisis and I will focus my response in the given time to the work we are doing internationally. One in three women will experience physical or sexual violence in their lives, at least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone female genital mutilation, and child marriage affects one in five girls.

We know that this violence intensifies in conflict and humanitarian crisis. Around one in five refugees will experience sexual violence, and a UK-funded study in South Sudan found that one in three women had experienced conflict-related sexual violence, often many times over. Rates of domestic abuse were even higher, affecting up to 73% of women. Recent events in Tigray and Afghanistan have demonstrated yet again the urgent need to step up and tackle this problem. We also know that marginalised groups are particularly at risk, including those who are LGBT+, living with a disability, or belong to minority ethnic or religious groups. Covid-19 has intensified this “shadow pandemic” of violence.

The UK is recognised for our leadership in tackling violence against women and girls and promoting women’s rights, but we must focus on what more we can do. That is why the Foreign Secretary has announced a major push to shatter the culture of impunity around sexual violence in conflict. We will explore all options to strengthen global action, including the possibility of a new international convention. Next year, we will also host a major global conference to unite the world around preventing this violence and advancing the wider women, peace and security agenda.

We are also serious about stepping up our investments. The Foreign Secretary has confirmed that we will restore our spending on women and girls to what it was before the official development assistance reductions. Last month, we also announced over £22 million of new funding, including £18 million to help end child marriage across 12 countries. Our work has already helped to avert 25 million child marriages over the last decade.

The UK is also recognised internationally for our flagship “what works to prevent violence against women and girls” programme, which demonstrated that projects in homes, schools and communities can halve violence, and that this does not have to take generations. For example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo a project with faith leaders and community groups halved the number of women experiencing violence at the hands of their partners. The evidence from “what works”, combined with collaboration at national and international level, has led to real policy shifts, for example influencing South Africa’s national strategic plan on gender-based violence and femicide. During the 16 Days of Activism, I launched a successor programme to scale-up the approach, backed by more than £67 million over the next seven years. That is the largest investment by any donor Government in preventing violence against women globally.

We can also be proud of our leadership on ending FGM by supporting change led from within the affected communities. We know that women and girls who experience sexual violence are at greater risk of unintended pregnancies, unsafe abortions, miscarriage and stillbirth, so alongside prevention, we are investing in counselling services as part of our support to sexual and reproductive health and rights.

There is so much going on across our country network, too. When I visited Sudan a couple of months ago, I met Mama Iqbal, a brave grandmother and community leader. She eradicated FGM in her community, with help from UK aid, and now she is taking on child marriage. In South Sudan, we are supporting the progression of a Bill through Parliament to reform legislation on gender-based violence and to tackle impunity. In Syria, the UK’s funding this year has helped to provide over 1 million Syrians with services to end child marriage and gender-based violence. In Iraq, the UK is one of the first donors to support the implementation of the Yazidi survivors law, a critical piece of legislation that provides reparations for Yazidi, Shabak, Christian and Turkmen women survivors of Daesh atrocities.

These global challenges need global action too, beyond what we can do nationally, so we are stepping up our international leadership. Throughout the G7 presidency, we set a high bar. The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth mentioned online violence against women and girls, and not only are we working on our own Online Safety Bill, but under the UK’s leadership of the G7, leaders agreed to the internet safety principles and to the London interior commitments, which are a specific set of principles for tackling online violence against women and girls. We also negotiated ambitious commitments on gender equality, including girls’ education, sexual and reproductive health and rights, women’s economic empowerment and violence against women.

We co-lead the Generation Equality action coalition on gender-based violence with partners from all over the world, including the Governments of Uruguay, Iceland and Kenya. During the 16 days of activism, I co-hosted an event with Kenya to encourage others to scale up evidence-based approaches, too. On 22 November, Lord Ahmad launched the call to action to ensure the rights and wellbeing of children born of sexual violence in conflict. This was an important first step in galvanising international action for this group of vulnerable children and women. During his visit to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, Lord Ahmad met Rohingya survivors of sexual violence who have fled the persecution in Myanmar, and he heard directly from them about their needs.

Finally, on 15 November we laid the Command Paper to ratify the International Labour Organisation convention on the elimination of violence and harassment in the world of work. We are calling on and will continue to call on all countries to demonstrate their commitment to these values, and to ratify the new convention. All of this is just a small part of what the UK is doing as a leader in this very complex and deeply troubling area.

The UK continues to drive concerted action towards a world where no woman and no girl has to live in daily fear of violence—a world in which every woman and every girl can grow up safe, educated and free.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.