My Lords, empowering women is critical to both sustainable economic development and resolving many of the world’s most challenging conflicts. I declare my interest. Many in this House will be aware of my own foundation’s work to empower widows in the developing world, so will know that I speak from some experience of the tangible benefits that arise when women are empowered, both economically and socially.
I am particularly grateful that we have the opportunity to debate this important issue today, in the run-up to the fifth UN International Widows Day on
Women are still too often the victims of unacceptable discrimination in all societies, whether this be economic, social or political. Across the developing world, women are prevented from taking leadership roles, reaching their economic potential and contributing to securing a sustainable future for their families and the communities in which they live. This is particularly problematic in post-conflict situations. In this House, we recognise that women have a right not only to live healthy lives but to play a full and equal political, economic, and social role. This is also the collective view of all countries represented at the United Nations. Indeed, there is a wealth of UN legislation to support it. But, despite welcome progress in some areas, such commitments are still too often poorly implemented and monitored. More needs to be done if the potential power of women, including widows, is to be unlocked.
Empowered women are an asset for any society. They can lead to stronger economies, greater social cohesion and a more valid and legitimate political system. This issue is not, therefore, just about women; husbands, fathers, children and communities will all benefit in a multitude of ways if women are empowered. Part of the solution to empowering women must be at the political level. Women remain marginalised from the political sphere in most countries of the world. This is the result of a combination of discriminatory laws, practices and attitudes and gender stereotypes, as well as lower levels of education, lack of access to healthcare and the disproportionate effect of poverty.
In 2013, just 20% of national parliamentarians were female, a slow but welcome increase from 11% 10 years ago. There is now significant research to demonstrate that empowering women politically at any level has tangible benefits for development. For example, research on panchayats, local councils in India, showed that the number of drinking water projects in areas with female-led councils was 62% higher than in those with male-led councils. This is not just the case in developing countries. In Norway, a direct causal relationship between the presence of women in municipal councils and childcare coverage has been identified. Imagine what could happen in the UK if this House, or indeed the other place, was to have a greater representation of women.
Political empowerment of women is therefore priority number one for ensuring development issues that affect women are on the agenda wherever they need to be. Secondly, there needs to be greater focus on the economic empowerment of women to create strong and stable societies. Investing in women’s economic empowerment directly facilitates increased gender equality, poverty eradication and inclusive economic growth. Evidence from a range of countries shows that increasing the share of household income controlled by women changes spending in ways that benefit children and families. But women still too often face discrimination, meaning that they lack the education to be able to access economic opportunities. When they access work, it is often in the low-paid and insecure sectors. I was struck by the following statistic. If women had the same access as men to productive assets, agricultural output in 34 developing countries would rise by 4%, translating to up to 150 million fewer hungry people. Economic empowerment must therefore be a priority.
Thirdly, in terms of conflict resolution, UN Resolution 1325, passed in 2000, calls for equal participation by women in the maintenance and promotion of peace and security, and for the mainstreaming of gender perspectives into conflict prevention, peace negotiations, peacekeeping operations, humanitarian assistance and post-conflict reconstruction. In 2009, the UN Security Council called for the development of global indicators to track the implementation of this resolution. Despite this, there has been a large-scale failure to make progress and there continues to be underrepresentation of women in peacebuilding processes. But women need to be involved in peacebuilding, partly as a matter of right but also because they are in practical terms crucial to creating lasting peace. As I have already outlined, women are essential to economic development, and this is even more vital where men have died or been dislocated by conflict. This requires the education of girls and the expansion of access to economic opportunities for women, for example through credit schemes and training. The exclusion of women in the peacebuilding process can lead to their economic capacities being underutilised.
Women also play a critical role in re-establishing social cohesion and political legitimacy after conflict. Women face specific threats in the aftermath of conflict. This is particularly the case with sexual violence. Where women are not involved in peacebuilding, it is more likely that their rights will be violated. Involving women in peacebuilding offers the opportunity to redress existing inequalities and to rebuild a better society in which all members feel a sense of ownership, something that surely increases the chances of lasting peace.
However, women’s involvement is being held back, partly because women are not a homogenous group, and their needs can vary dramatically in post-conflict situations. Consider the different needs of ex-combatants, victims of war crime and widows, for example. We cannot treat them all the same. This will require more time and resources to ensure that all needs are addressed and that women from different parts of society can be included in the process. As a country, we must support the implementation of the UN’s seven-point action plan on women’s participation in peacebuilding, ensuring the participation of women and girls in conflict resolution, planning processes, financial decisions, civilian capacity and political representation and ensuring legal rights and economic empowerment.
We should also support wider campaigns around violence against women, such as the UNiTE to End Violence Against Women campaign, and we must ensure that, in addressing the needs of women, men are also involved. Gender injustices will be addressed only if men also believe in them, buy into them and support them.
I want to turn to the plight of widows. No women are more vulnerable and more discriminated against than widows, particularly in circumstances of economic underdevelopment or in post-conflict situations. Widows are the victims of double discrimination: first, because they are female, and secondly because they are widowed. Becoming a widow in the developing world can have far-reaching consequences for individuals and those dependent on them. They can include: impoverishment and the intensification of existing poverty; increased health risks, including malnutrition; infectious diseases, including sexually transmitted diseases; and social marginalisation, for reasons of stigma or because the affected widow has resorted to begging or prostitution. Many widows face quite appalling physical, sexual, economic and mental abuse. According to a comprehensive report on the plight of widows worldwide, to be published by the Loomba Foundation on
This is a very significant development issue. The deprivation faced by widows and their children is a human rights issue of such magnitude that it demands recognition and action by international bodies and special consideration in development programmes. I will therefore close my contribution today with this challenge to the Government as they contribute to the UN discussions on the post-2015 development framework: the new framework should include a stand-alone goal on achieving gender equality and women’s rights and, unlike the previous millennium development goals, all future goals should specifically refer to areas such as widow’s deprivation. Only this inclusion will ensure that all women benefit in each country, including widows, who are too often invisible in such situations and in progress reporting. For the future success of sustainable development goals, making widows a particular focus will enable help to reach some of the most vulnerable women on earth, giving voice to a group of women silenced by their circumstances and without the means to make a change to their lives for the better.
Sustainable, workable and realistic future goals rely on ensuring that the people who need the help of the goals are at the forefront of their implementation. More often than not it is women who find themselves in need of the assistance the MDGs endeavour to provide. Therefore it makes sense to ensure that women are empowered to implement these goals and are in a solid position to take on the difficult task of sustaining them to make future growth and stability possible. Focusing on women, and especially widows, not only gives a voice to many who do not have one and are not able to participate in any meaningful democratic process but ensures that their voice is heard within the context of their problems and their struggles, helping to ensure success for future sustainable goals. I beg to move.
My Lords, I remind noble Lords that this is a timed debate and the time for Back-Bench speeches is 11 minutes. I would be grateful if noble Lords could keep to that time.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reminder. I am the first to thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for putting down today’s debate because we are all aware that the plight of so many women and girls in so many parts of the world is absolutely a blot on humanity. I am also grateful to my noble friend Lord Collins of Highbury and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby for taking part in the debate, because we need more men in this House and elsewhere to play a part in understanding this issue and to be determined to join in the fight for women’s empowerment.
This week I have been exchanging emails with the tireless campaigner on behalf of widows worldwide, the indefatigable Margaret Owen. She is currently touring the Middle East lecturing, listening and persuading the powers that be to address the poverty and disrespect currently suffered by so many widows in so many countries. Margaret has over the past two weeks been in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, countries where many of us fear to tread. For those who have never met Margaret Owen, my understanding is that she is in her early 80s, so for a woman of that age, never mind any other person, that is a major achievement.
Margaret emailed me details of comments made by a lecturer in Beirut regarding some of the current practices of ISIS. She reported being told of ISIS price lists for women and girls, including pre-puberty girls deemed ready for intercourse. She went on to report the practice of holding kidnapped girls, 100 at a time, described as child virgins, ready to lure jihadi recruits. From the safety of this Chamber all we can do is to make sure as many people as possible are aware of these gross violations and bring this knowledge to the attention of those in a position to change matters. We want to ensure that those in positions of influence understand that the issues discussed here, relating to women as they do, do not run alongside issues of a more general nature—or even a more male one—but are integral to our work, approaches, decisions on funding and rebuilding of countries in conflict. In other words, the Government need to address the whole question of gender mainstreaming within and across their departments.
Some good things are of course happening. I applaud the preventing sexual violence initiative taken two years ago by the then Foreign Secretary, William Hague. The PSVI and the consequent conference held last summer sent a powerful message to the world that the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war should be declared a war crime. What actions are in play to follow up on this initiative? I recognise that the initiative was from the FCO, but I hope that there is a measure of cross-departmental approach to the work.
Also, the UN special rapporteur on violence against women was invited to the UK last year to see for herself the work being done and the determination of government to eliminate this horrific crime. While she was able to meet with many senior government officials and of course Ministers, can the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, tell the House why she was not allowed to visit the women detainees in Yarls Wood detention centre? This did not send out a positive message to the rest of the world.
I turn to what gives us the real solution to this terrible problem. In February last year I initiated a debate in your Lordships’ House on the National Action Plan on Women, Peace & Security. I said then and say again that the top and bottom of the issue is about power. While women remain powerless they will not be able to extricate themselves from positions of danger or deprivation. Power must mean voice—it must mean access to decision-making, education, paid employment and influence. Government initiatives must start at a local level, must include women in rebuilding societies, and must expect that women will want to and are capable of moving on and up so that they become just as much a part of the fabric of their society as are the men. Without power, all else is lost.
Some 15 years ago our Government, along with others, signed up to the United Nations Resolution 1325. There was unanimous agreement. We must put more effort into ensuring that that resolution is translated into action in a very vigorous and positive way.
Finally, I will say a couple of words about an entirely different but linked matter. The women of Afghanistan have a tradition of writing poetry, sending two-line verses to each other by a variety of sometimes quite ingenious means. These are women who live in outlying villages. I had the pleasure last week of meeting with a woman from an organisation called Poet in the City. It engages in all sorts of ways to bring the City of London and its history alive through poetry and verse. It is promoting the Afghani women’s work and bringing it to a wider audience. That is a miniscule step in the journey which will bring confidence to women in just one part of the world where so many of them have no voice or independent rights—very soft power as part of our armoury, but still very important and much needed.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Loomba on securing this debate. I have never witnessed the work of the Loomba Foundation up close, but I have been a fan and I have watched his work from afar over these last 10 years or so, and it is deeply impressive. His ongoing commitment to the cause of widows in particular is something of which I am tremendously proud, as I hope his family are.
I am delighted to take part in today’s debate to tell noble Lords about last month when I visited a shop. I had the great good fortune to be asked by VSO to be a volunteer, and as part of my volunteering placement I visited a project in Lesotho, which is run jointly by an ex-mineworkers association and VSO and is called Phoning Out Poverty and AIDS. All across southern Africa there are women whose men went off to work in the mines of southern Africa and who have succumbed to pneumoconiosis, TB or HIV, and those women live in abject poverty. With the aid of a phone company they were given a container, in which they have established a community phone shop. It is the sort of shop that, if it were in Manchester, would be the subject of an ongoing soap documentary, because it is at the centre of the village and has all the bits and bobs.
There are three great things about it. Number one: a woman who was so ill with HIV and AIDS, having been impregnated by a teacher when she was a schoolgirl, and who had nothing and was bed-bound, has now earned enough money not only to get some furniture but to be able to afford the fares to the local clinic to get some treatment. She is back on her feet. Number two: the project has not only allowed people to make phone calls but is giving them HIV and AIDS information, and increasing the health of that village. Number three: a veritable battalion of grannies work in that shop. Grannies are unmistakable the world over. These particular grannies go to that shop and between them secure income for over 50 of their grandchildren, who were previously starving. That is the economic empowerment of young women and girls, and as the granddaughter of a former migrant mineworker it has impressed me greatly.
Part of my overall placement with VSO was to talk to and train parliamentarians across southern Africa to campaign for sex and relationship education, but in particular to end the scourge of child marriage. Child marriage and early pregnancy are two of the biggest determinants of poverty and ill health of girls across the world. Billions of young women are forced into relationships way before they are physically ready for them, and as a result are enduring lives of poverty.
Will the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, say what the current Government are doing to continue the work that was started by my noble friend Lady Northover and Lynne Featherstone in the previous Government to ensure that DfID continues to work with parliamentarians across the world to ensure a decrease in the rate of child marriage? There are areas of the world where rates of child marriage are going down. There are successful programmes, which we should be supporting and extending.
My noble friend Lord Loomba talked about the critical importance of the next few months. We all know that we are in the final run-up to the meetings at which the new strategic development goals will be determined and, crucially, the budgets—the resources—that go with them. There will be a meeting in Addis Ababa in a few weeks at which our Government will be present to talk about financing for those development goals.
It is significant that many of the international development charities, building on the work of Amartya Sen, have come to the conclusion that it is not possible to achieve overall empowerment and enrichment of societies if you do not work through the empowerment of women and girls. So will the Government, through their coming work over the next few months, ensure that there is a strong stand-alone goal on gender equality and women’s rights, that there are specific targets for increasing women’s full and effective participation, and that programmes to go behind that development goal are funded to make sure that, from small corner shops in Lesotho to national Governments and internationally, there is a coherent programme of economic development?
Finally, I commend to noble Lords a report that was published in January this year by Age International, which talks about the truth of ageing and development. It is a series of essays, one of which was written by the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross. In it, she sets out a number of points that are often overlooked about the role of gender and older women’s inequality in development. In so far as we have data, we know that women are likely to live longer but are much more likely to have longer periods of ill health due to the fact that they have had little in the way of economic or educational choices throughout their lives. That, together with poor nutrition and inattention to their sexual and reproductive health, all takes a toll in later life. Even within countries there will be some communities where the effect is disproportionate. In Serbia, for example, the overall position of older women is relatively good, but within the Roma community in Serbia there is a very difficult problem in relation to older women and poverty.
The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, draws attention to a fact about international development that I had not previously thought about, and that is the impact of dementia. Not only are women increasingly engaged in what is called family care, although it is really female care, for growing numbers of people with dementia, but occasionally, because of a lack of knowledge and awareness in communities, they become vulnerable. People accuse them of witchcraft and so on, and there have been a growing number of incidents where older women have been killed as a result. The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, opened up in her essay a new area for research, and I ask the Minister whether she will consider looking not just at gender-specific data but at age and gender-specific data to back up some of this work.
The noble Lord, Lord Loomba, was absolutely right to return our attention to this subject, and I hope that if noble Lords ever get the chance to go to Lesotho, they will drop by a very special corner shop.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for both securing and introducing this timely debate, and I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, on her appointment to DfID.
The case for empowering women is glaringly obvious but in that process we must not forget girls because, if girls are empowered from an early age, it becomes the norm. Adolescent girls in particular should be seen as valuable members of society in their own right and not just as “future women”.
Ample evidence shows that there is a link between gender inequality and violent conflict: countries with high levels of violent conflict also have high levels of gender inequality; countries with higher levels of civil and political empowerment of women have lower levels of violent conflict; and countries with higher levels of economic empowerment of women have lower levels of international violence. So the case for empowering women in developing countries is very compelling.
Our Government are to be congratulated on the priority they have given to the empowerment of women and girls and their commitment to this work. DfID’s commitment to gender equality and empowering women and girls through the strategic vision for women and girls and the International Development (Gender Equality) Act 2014, focusing on the impact of official development assistance on gender relations and gender equality, are truly welcome. Equally welcome is the FCO’s United Kingdom National Action Plan on Women, Peace & Security, which was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser.
Despite the priority given by our Government and despite a number of international agreements to include women in peacebuilding processes, women are often absent from those processes. Opportunities during post-conflict periods—that is, during constitutional reform processes, political settlements and the establishment of democratic systems and laws—are often missed. In my view, these opportunities are sometimes missed because of culturally determined gender roles and social norms, as well as the legal environment.
Therefore, any strategy to empower women and girls must focus both on building the confidence, skills and capacity of women and girls and on working towards an enabling environment which supports the empowerment of women and girls. I say that because I have taken a close interest in the work of the British Council, of which I am the deputy chair. In countries such as Nigeria and those in the Middle East and north Africa, it has a number of projects relating to stability, reconciliation and peacebuilding. In north Africa and the Middle East, it is supporting advocacy and the empowerment of women. It does this in conjunction with DfID. In Africa, particularly Kenya, it is working with the Premier League—that is, through sport—to make sure that some of the prejudices that exist between boys and girls are dealt with. In the Middle East, there is another project called Springboard, which helps people with empowerment and has been used by 10,000 women. Some of them were here last week, when I had the opportunity to talk to them. It was really heart-warming to hear how they have benefited from these projects.
I want to dwell a little on the lessons that have been learnt and why these projects are successful. That has something to do with the approach taken by the British Council. It understands the context in which it works and it has a deep knowledge of the countries so as to be able to support these initiatives. It also works with local partners. However, the most important part is that it takes a very holistic and systemic approach, and this experience reinforces what I have already said: that it is important to work at all the different levels of society if that work is to be effective and sustainable. It also tells us that the inclusion of men and boys in the change process is essential, and it is important to focus on the cultural, social and legal environment as well as on the social norms. We have to see this from end to end, starting with girls and going right through to old age. We cannot focus on particular sections of women; the focus has to be on girls, women and the elderly. The points that the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, made about the report to which the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, contributed were very pertinent.
In my view, gender equality and women’s rights are key to addressing the unfinished business of the millennium development goals and accelerating global development beyond 2015. The post-2015 framework should retain a strong, stand-alone goal on gender equality and women’s empowerment, as has already been said by the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, and as recommended by the United Nations High-level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. It should also include gender-specific targets and indicators in the other goals. I believe that this framework should take a holistic view of gender inequalities, including education, economic empowerment, health, an end to violence, leadership and influence, participation in peace and security, and the contribution to environmental sustainability. The framework should also build on the lessons that have been learnt from the work that has already been done, because I do not think that enough emphasis is put on cross-learning. It is important that we learn from the projects which are already under way and look at how the lessons from them can be incorporated.
This is a golden opportunity to finish the unfinished agenda, to accelerate inclusiveness and equality, and to make development truly sustainable. It is a unique opportunity to build on the achievements of the millennium development goals and to address the dimensions which are lagging behind, by learning from the experiences of those working on the ground. I consider that to be very important. I cannot emphasise enough—and not because I have a close knowledge of it—the work and projects carried out by the British Council with the support of DfID. There is some real learning to be had there.
I finish by saying that it would be very helpful to hear from the Minister what the Government’s approach is likely to be in the coming months. Will they be urging a more holistic and systemic approach to empowerment and encouraging people to build on the learning that we have had to date?
My Lords, I, too, want to thank Lord Loomba for securing this debate and giving us this chance to discuss with the Minister and the Government our priorities and contribution to these issues across the world.
We all know that there is a strong link between the well-being of women and girls and peace, security and development. It is in our UK national plan and is a very big part of my own experience. I am privileged to be a trustee of Christian Aid, and we deliberately prioritise investment in women and girls to secure the transformation and development of needy societies. Within my own Anglican tradition, the Mothers’ Union Worldwide does amazing work in places such as Rwanda, empowering women to transform communities. In my diocese, we have an annual harvest appeal and, for the last several years, have invested in helping women in Delhi set up recycling businesses and, this year, helped educate girls and women in Angola. It is right on the forefront of making a difference. My work on the Modern Slavery Bill opened my eyes to the appalling international abuse and oppression of women through sexual violence and exploitation.
I am very pleased that we include widows in this debate. Some noble Lords may have noticed that, in May, we had Christian Aid Week, and there was a particular focus on widows in Ethiopia. We know from work that we are already doing there that investing in cows and providing a means of a livelihood for women, and then for their families if they are widowed and become the head of the household, creates not just economic empowerment but gives people status in the community as a proper agent and therefore a much stronger position, especially for their daughters, to stand up against things such as forced early marriage or female genital mutilation. If we empower widows in that way as they head households, it has an amazing effect on the children, especially girls, in those households.
The UN estimates that one in three women suffer from beating, sexual coercion or abuse. It is an issue of confronting social norms and institutions, because it is those social values and institutions that enable this oppression and abuse just to roll on. It is very important that we do not depict women simply as victims needing help, but as contributors with a very important part to play. One critique of the millennium development goals, as you know, was that focus in this area was perhaps on symptoms rather than causes—trying to reach out to empower women in an initial way but not giving them the capacity to make a difference to cultural norms and their institutional frameworks. The danger is that women are seen as providers and consumers for the benefit of the family. That can be a cheap way into development—women provide and are consumers to develop the family.
It makes me think of the struggles in the 19th century in our own country, when Ruskin and others developed the doctrine of the two spheres. This was designed to help women by saying that women had a sphere in which they should really grow and develop—that of the home—and men dealt with the world and all the stuff outside. That was an attempt to be positive by creating space for women to grow in. However, it is such a powerful doctrine in the DNA of countries across the world that it in fact entraps women, as we know. My own Church of England has only just succeeded in the struggle, after years, to appoint a woman as a diocesan bishop. There is still an amazingly patronising, two-sphere kind of culture, not just in our church but in our country. If it is a struggle in our own culture, how on earth are we going to help contribute in developing cultures to moving away from that kind of mentality, which is so oppressive?
It is an issue of power relations, education opportunities and cultural values, and that is the most difficult thing to get transformation on. All the evidence shows that an unregulated market of goods and cultural values actually makes the situation worse for women because it gives the impression that development is happening and that there can be economic benefit. However, if we do not tackle the gender imbalance that is built into cultural values, an unregulated market makes this problem worse in development, rather than better, by giving some signs of development but, underneath, women are trapped in these very limited and oppressive spaces.
There has to be a multipronged approach involving government, business and faith groups. In Christian Aid, we work with partners on the ground that know about the pace of change and how to deliver it. I just heard a report at a Christian Aid board meeting of a seven-year project to work with communities to help the male elders begin to involve females in the leadership of their tribes. It took seven years to make any change. That local expertise and sensitivity is needed to make a social transformation that will last, rather than some great perfect plan that everybody says yes to but does not really buy.
It is the same with economic development. Christian Aid works in Malawi with women with HIV and malaria. The project is not just a medical, caring one, which is the way that development for women is often done; it involves giving people loans, facilities to develop businesses and mentoring so that the development is wholesome and the culture is challenged to change, with women taking leadership roles, across not just politics but economic activity.
I would like to finish by asking the Minister to consider four questions. The first is to add my voice to that of a number of others in this debate on the sustainable development goals. How might the Government ensure that there are targets on gender equality and women’s rights and opportunities, and widows, in those sustainable development goals? What are the Government’s plans for these last few months of negotiation?
Secondly, picking up on a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, we could do a lot more to collect data in many countries about rights, social groupings, incomes and the pattern of development. We have the wherewithal to bring data together and see new things that might identify where women are being held up and not enabled to contribute and to make a difference. How do the Government see their role in helping to enable data collection and analysis, and what contribution can this country make?
Thirdly, I told you the story about a seven-year project to get women even beginning to be involved in the political leadership of their tribes. How can the Government offer funding, through DfID, for instance, that is for the longer term and for a sustainable timeframe? What are the Government’s funding policies and priorities that will enable projects to work over seven years in a given place and not just in the short term, which is often what many deals are about?
Finally, what part might the Government play in challenging the unregulated market forces that unintentionally, I think, make the problem worse? What can the Government do to have a proper counterbias to change the gendered culture and give space for women to contribute? The market does not give space for that and the two-sphere idea is still pretty powerful in developing countries. How could the Government articulate, through DfID and its investment and support, a real gender bias to counter the inertia of that two-sphere culture that the market otherwise can just uncritically develop?
My Lords, I, too, am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for bringing this most important subject before your Lordships’ House. The empowerment of women, particularly in the developing world, has long been an interest of mine. I would also like to welcome the ministerial appointment of my noble friend Lady Verma. I have known her a long time and admire her long-standing work and commitment to empowering women.
Conflict has a significant and disproportionate effect on women and, as we have already heard, they are usually excluded from peace processes. Therefore, even after the men have stopped fighting, there is still no peace for women and they are left voiceless, to suffer in silence. This was starkly brought home to me when I visited Liberia a couple of years ago. The sexual violence of the conflict had embedded into the society and it was all too commonplace that girls as young as 12 were routinely subjected to rape. Today, warfare has moved from battlefields and into communities. Women now face the danger of conflict up close, sometimes in their own homes, and all too often without protection. It is thought that 90% of deaths in conflict today are civilian, with 70% of them being women and children, and those who survive are often subject to sexual violence, shattering lives for the long term.
The terror inflicted by ISIS today in Iraq and Syria is a shocking illustration of this. It has abducted and raped thousands of women, selling many into prostitution. Last month I visited Iraq and heard of a Yazidi girl who had been sold 21 times in Syria. At an IDP camp, I met some of the women who had fled from Mosul and Sinjar; their stories were indeed harrowing, and they were homeless with no means of support and were worried as to how they were going to feed their children.
While women are often the poorest in a society, widows are the poorest of the poor. Widowhood is one of the most neglected of all the human rights and gender issues. All the chaos and turmoil of the warfare of the last decade has created millions of widows and wives of the disappeared, who become the most vulnerable in their societies. It was recently estimated that the number of widows in Iraq alone had reached approximately 2 million. Afghanistan is a country with one of the highest proportions of widows in the world, as four decades of conflict have left millions of women without a husband.
In many of these countries, societal norms mean that women cannot function in society without a man. It may not be acceptable to walk down the street unaccompanied by a male or to work outside the home, thus family stability is destroyed and too often women and their families become destitute. In Kabul, you see widows begging beside the road and you see young boys selling food products because it is unacceptable for a woman to do so. In some countries in Africa, widows may be regarded as a chattel of the community and subjected to abuse and exploitation. They may not be allowed to inherit or own property. Thus a widow may be turned out of her home, or forcibly made to marry a member of her husband’s family. Too often, widows are held in shame, ostracised and abandoned by their communities, adding to their sadness, poverty and the stigma of widowhood itself.
Disturbingly, there are no official statistics on the number of widows in the war-torn countries. This lack of reliable data means that the plight of widows is severely neglected, impacting not only on their livelihood, but on that of their children too. Widowhood is not just the root cause of poverty and inequality, but is the reason that millions of children of widows—daughters as well as sons, vital to a society’s prosperity and future—are denied education and well-being, and this has a knock-on effect on the country’s development.
I declare an interest: during the past few years I have got to know, and at times worked with, Margaret Owen of Widows for Peace through Democracy. Following the death of her husband, she became aware of the plight of widows in conflict and developing countries and founded one of the first organisations to focus on this issue. I echo the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, about Margaret Owen. She is indeed in her 80s and, as we speak, is travelling in the Middle East. She is an incredibly remarkable woman and her ground-breaking work and tireless campaigning time and again raises the issues of widowhood. WPD, her organisation, is an umbrella and support for many widows’ organisations in countries across the world.
This year, the 59th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women focused on the Beijing Platform for Action as it is its 20th anniversary. In its declaration, the commission expressed concern that progress had been slow and that gaps and obstacles remained in the platform’s implementation. It also recognised that new challenges have emerged and committed to using all opportunities and engaging all stakeholders to achieve their aims. However, Beijing made no explicit mention of widows and, in reviewing its implementation, surely widowhood issues should be addressed.
The purpose of today’s debate is to make the case for widows, and women as a whole, to be included in conflict resolution and thus to help create long-term sustainability in countries that have been torn apart by war. This year is also the 15th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which focuses on the situation of women in conflict with its four pillars of prevention, protection, participation, and relief and recovery. However, although many countries have adopted national action plans on the implementation of UN Resolution 1325, few have allocated proper funding or resources.
Last year, the OECD reported that only 3% of peace and security funding is used with gender equality and women’s empowerment as a principal objective. A UN survey of peace agreements also illustrated that, between 1992 and 2011, women were fewer than 4% of peace signatories and less than 10% of negotiators. Excluding women from peace processes means that not only are their needs overlooked but their knowledge and experience are not utilised. Building stability in a post-conflict country needs the input of the whole of society—you cannot have true peace in a country where half the population is excluded from decision-making. So instead of seeing women just as victims, it should be recognised that women have the ability to be powerful agents for change in their communities. Surely some internationally agreed funding of women’s rights groups would go a long way towards addressing this implementation deficit. To realise the goals of Resolution 1325, dedicated budgets, with clear lines of responsibility and accountability, that actively involve and include civil society are needed.
In the context of UN Resolution 1325, I applaud the ground-breaking work done by our military. Today, often the first person a survivor of conflict will meet is a soldier. In Kurdistan last month, I met some of our military who are training the Peshmerga, not only in fighting techniques but in protection of civilians and helping survivors of sexual violence. In the DRC, our military engaged with women in communities. This not only helped with their protection, but helped with intelligence of what was going on on the ground. I hope that we can embed this work into the MoD and that other countries will follow the UK’s lead.
Women’s voices are rarely heard in the developing world, and those of widows even less. Surely this is the time to stop widowhood being a neglected issue. Widows’ needs must be addressed within the context of poverty, human rights, access to justice and the elimination of violence. When considering the millions of widows across the world today, I hope that the Minister will agree that this is a key component to the wider success of the women’s empowerment agenda. Again, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for bringing forward this debate, for it is by discussing these issues and shining a light on the needs of the poorest in society that we will help to bring about the fundamental changes that will contribute to stability in the countries which need it so desperately.
My Lords, at the outset, I, too, welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Verma. I look forward to working with her on our shared interest in international development. I also want to pay tribute to the contribution made over many years by the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, to our understanding of the strength and determination shown by women who have been widowed. They need and deserve our deep respect and support. We have heard that in a number of contributions this afternoon.
Too often, women are described as victims, but I would say that they are fighters, survivors and protectors. Recently, women’s groups in Nigeria were able to reach a compromise with oil companies that benefited the whole community. In Afghanistan, I have met women who have shown enormous courage and leadership in very difficult and dangerous circumstances. Women have a finger on the pulse of what their communities need and deserve, and it is women who can and will bring peace and stability to their communities. In every respect, women have a vested interest in the critical objectives of peace, security and reconciliation.
As we have just heard, UN Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security specifies that women must be part of seeking and managing all peace processes, but it remains the case that too often they struggle to secure their right to this role. Can the Minister reassure the House that, as the NGO Saferworld has said, more attention will be given to the conflict prevention aspects of the women, peace and security agenda, including by understanding how gender relates to the underlying drivers of conflict and violence? Regrettably, the fine words that we hear have not often been translated into real and tangible change. Women are too often portrayed as victims instead of being offered the opportunity to be fully integrated into both formal and informal peace processes to actually prevent violent conflict and sustain fragile states.
The fact is that there are examples of fine words that have been translated into real change. In Northern Ireland, South Africa and Rwanda, we can see the difference that engagement with women makes to governance and peace. Women’s engagement is not, as some might claim, with stereotypical soft issues. On the contrary, women can add skills, understanding and experience to the issues, but tragically they often struggle to hold on to their place on the political agenda.
Would the Minister care to comment on the fact that UN Resolution 1325 mandates that all states must ensure women’s full participation in all peace processes? What is the Minister’s assessment of the effectiveness of that mandate so far? Is it not the case that even after the passing of many national and international frameworks, endemic discrimination and gender-based violence remain significant barriers to achieving the 1325 goals? Increasingly, we recognise that such violence against women and girls is a defining characteristic of modern warfare and that women are being targeted as a way for male combatants to humiliate and undermine other male combatants. In many conflicts, rape is used as a weapon of war to humiliate and dominate, and to disrupt social ties. The proof of this is that we have seen 39 active conflicts over the past 10 years, but very few women have been a part of any peace negotiations.
When I see a picture of a large table of people deliberating on how to deal with conflict, I know without looking very hard that it is unlikely that women, who actually are the peacemakers and the activists, will be in that picture. They are generally ignored and will not be sitting at the table. The reality is that this neglects a rich source of skills, insight and energy, and we neglect it at our peril. A shocking statistic is that out of 585 peace treaties drafted in the past two decades, only 16% included any specific reference to women.
Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to see the work of women activists, and I can vouch for their ability to negotiate fairly and effectively. However, women need to be involved not only in post-settlement decision-making but in the nitty-gritty of negotiations aimed at resolving the root causes of conflict. Can the Minister confirm that this is a clear priority for the Government? Simply reiterating the arguments for dealing with violence will not do. It is time that we saw concerted efforts to deal with the underlying causes, which include power imbalances, systemic inequality and the effects of discriminatory social norms, to which other noble Lords have referred.
Finally, a vital element of the discussions currently taking place in New York on a post-2015 development agenda agreement must—unequivocally—include a commitment to eliminate all forms of violence, including sexual violence, by the date the delegates have set themselves of 2030.
My Lords, it is a privilege to take part in this debate. I thank my noble friend Lord Loomba for calling it and for his consistent efforts in championing widows and calling Governments to action—and, of course, for securing the UN’s support for designating
The empowerment of all women has been close to my heart since early in my life, as we lived through the war of independence in 1971. I remember all too vividly women, like my mother, endangering themselves and playing a crucial role in protecting families and fighters, when more than 300,000 women suffered rape as a weapon of war by the Pakistani army. For those women, no apologies or reparations have been made to date by the Pakistani Government.
I am all too familiar with what happens to women and their families in war and conflict, especially those who are left widowed, as members of my family were. Here at home I have had the privilege of leading and developing services for women in the East End of London since the 1980s. Many of these women’s organisations continue to serve women’s needs and their families today. I never tire of speaking about the need for us to continue to speak about women’s resilience, because progress and change are all too slow in coming.
In our parliamentary work, we often benchmark other countries’ progress by the numbers of women in Parliament and public life, so it is pleasing that for once we have a new benchmark of 191 women MPs—a jump from 22% to 29% of women in Parliament. Here I must add my welcome and congratulations in particular to new Asian women MPs, including Dr Rupa Huq,
Tulip Siddiq, Nusrat Ghani, Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh and Naz Shah. Despite this progress, women leaders remain miserably absent from the world stage. Given that we are discussing conflict resolution, the question arises about the differences that would arise if more women were on the global stage.
It is a fact that today’s world is populated by wars and conflict, with the Middle East and many parts of Africa in flames. Thus, women remain vulnerable, in many conflicts, to rape being used as a weapon of war, while the peace process historically kept women outside and on the periphery of decision-making and peacebuilding, as has been said by many noble Lords. Women and girls continue to be devalued in the wider society, while sexual violence against women and girls remains pervasive in all societies, including our own. So it should not surprise us that women and children are the major victims in conflict and wars. As we speak, women are silenced by perpetrators in Burma, Syria, Egypt, Iraq and elsewhere.
Against this backdrop, UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which calls for increased participation of women in peacebuilding and peace negotiations, has been the single most important trigger for national plans worldwide, including our own honourable contribution in the summit held here in London two years ago, ably led by our former Foreign Secretary. Since then, there has been a significant and steady shift in the number of women leading peace processes, including the fact that we currently have 39 women leading UK overseas missions—seven more than in 2010. No doubt the UK Government, through their national action plan, will continue to up the numbers of women in leadership positions to aid conflict resolution in order to make the same difference overseas.
Equally, the United Nations contribution to bringing women into the political forum in developing countries is significant. There are numerous positive examples of resilience and change. Through UN Women, Muslim women groups have taken part in the Mindanao peace process in the Philippines and have met representatives of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to discuss the provision of draft peace agreements, with the aim of resolving one of the Philippines’ protracted conflicts. The front took the unprecedented step of appointing two women to its peace panel, which is engaged in talks with the Government of the Philippines. An additional two women joined the government negotiating team, including one heading its legal unit.
In Kyrgyzstan, UN Women and the UN Peacebuilding Fund support women’s peace committees and networks of activists to engage women in peacebuilding and reconstruction in the country. Through the use of diplomacy, dialogue and mediation, women are developing skills, representing their views and seeking to find solutions for the common good. The committees regularly monitor violations of women’s rights and risks of conflict outbreaks.
Here we see a few positive steps towards gender equality and the erosion of the notion that women have no place in conflict resolution. Fortunately, that is not limited to Asia, as Senegal, Mali, Liberia and Rwanda illustrate the widespread effort to engage women in conflict resolution in Africa. Senegal created the Women’s Situation Room for the 2012 presidential elections. The team was set up with the aim of safeguarding women from election violence, and of supporting women’s protection in campaigning and voting. In Mali, women leaders are trained by UN Women to engage in dialogue and political stabilisation, ensuring that women’s rights and the issue of gender-based violence are addressed.
Courageous women in Liberia, which has been mentioned, challenged social conventions and took the opportunity to become active leaders in political, economic and civil institutions. Women there are facilitating reconciliation efforts and have secured formal roles that allow them to influence the future of their nation. They are the first in that nation to do so, as those roles were previously dominated by men. We should rightly rejoice that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the 24th president of Liberia—and a woman, for those who did not notice. That is a miracle yet to happen in the most developed part of the world. President Sirleaf has since continued the efforts of her office to challenge the levels of women’s participation in national government and other institutions.
Rwanda has put girls and women at the centre of its Government’s priorities following the tragic genocide and staggering number of cases of sexual violence. Girls and women now have their core rights and women are now seen as key to the country’s economic and political development.
“Birongonas” is a casual term used for Bangladeshi women who were raped or left widowed by Pakistani soldiers during the war of independence in Bangladesh in 1971. Among them are thousands of abandoned widows. Now they have formal recognition, are classed as war heroines and freedom fighters and share the same rights as soldiers who fought in the Bangladesh liberation war in 1971. That is a very good example of what many Governments should do. This is a true form of women’s social empowerment, as it changed the status of women from that of rape victims with no status in society to that of freedom fighters—one of the highest statuses for people in Bangladesh. This example shows categorically what is required in conflict resolution: not just legal protection but supporting and providing resources, along with accepting responsibilities, as a way to aid survivors to live beyond their traumas and devastation. Our current approach is properly emboldened by our national plans being in place, for nothing changes for those who live on beyond rape without hope and yearning for justice and whose lives are shattered for ever. Economic empowerment not only improves women’s domestic rights and the prospects of their children, it also has a positive impact on the entire nation.
Of course, education has an essential role in the empowerment of women, and there are many shining examples of girls’ education improving the lives of women and girls, including in Bangladesh, Jordan and Morocco, which I recently visited, where the presence of female leadership is clearly evident in all aspects of the community and social infrastructures. It is right that we continue our support to these countries through our 0.7% commitment to international aid. We should rightly take pride in that commitment to international aid, but we cannot bulldoze human misery by means of donations from our pockets and temporary handouts to those who have seen the massacre of their lives. I have spoken about my own experience of war as a child, and I can tell your Lordships that the temporary presence of donors does little to alleviate the scars of war.
In conclusion, we should commemorate the international commitments to supporting women’s empowerment, including the national action plan. UN Women has made leaps in progress against the discrimination of women through conventions on gender equality and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. These international efforts give us cause for hope that collectively we can work to overcome gender inequality and its pernicious impact on the economic situation of women personally and at the level of nation states.
I join others in celebrating the efforts of women and men around the world to achieve greater equality. The Minister is a great friend and I welcome her to her new brief. Will she assure the House that her department, alongside our civil society, will ensure that we commit to easing the hardship of those who have been raped in conflicts and wars, as the Bangladeshi Government have done?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for moving this debate. Further, I congratulate him on the work of the Loomba Foundation in profiling the plight of widows in parts of the world who are disowned by their families and society. This is a double discrimination.
In some societies—as we learnt from the film “Water”, directed by Deepa Mehta and made in 2005 but still so relevant today, about the plight of a group of widows and how they were forced to live—if women are spoken for and their partner-to-be dies, they are still classed as a widow. We know that this still happens. To find girls of eight and nine years pushed into homes and to live like this is a disgrace. We have to try to change that, and the work of the foundation is making that happen.
The documentary by the BBC, “The War Widows of Afghanistan” by Zarghuna Kargar in 2014 showed what it is like to be a war widow here and a war widow in Afghanistan. It was terrible. In Afghanistan you are left with nothing. You have to remain with your husband’s parents, eking out just an existence by doing laundry for a member of your husband’s family. There are more than 2 million war widows in Afghanistan. These women are truly on a life sentence. In their countries, culturally help comes through faith groups. Much as we would like to, we cannot just go in and bulldoze to change the culture of those countries, but we could see a better society. Women and girls would be empowered and it would be a safer place for girls and boys and men and women working together. That is a dream that we would all like to see.
The more we debate these issues of the empowerment of women and girls in areas of conflict, the more we see how important it is. The work of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security and the new centre at the London School of Economics starting in
September this year will make such a difference to the training of peacekeepers, which I shall come to shortly. It is really important that we do not let this off the agenda. These issues have to be at the top of the agenda because they are about the future of the world.
We know that today up to 25,000 people, including children, have been displaced and are away from their homes. Some of the families cannot go with them because they are not well enough to travel, or cannot face where they are going. You are displaced from your home, you are displaced from education and proper medical assistance and you are living in a tent where you can be raped—whether you are a boy or a girl—and there is no hope that you might ever go back to where you came from. I hope that at some stage we might have a debate on no longer placing people in tents. Perhaps we can look at a more mobile form of home on the basis that people can start being educated properly or perhaps start a small business in the camps, instead of just living in tents. I know that the tents seem great, but they are not great. Having seen some of them where people have been living for far too long, why not try to make another society there?
I would like to express my thanks to the previous Government’s commitment to the UN Security Council agenda on this issue, and I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, whom I congratulate on her appointment back to DfID, will ensure that Britain continues to take the lead in the world on this issue. Noble Lords will know that the UN Security Council resolution is just 15 years old and there have been many resolutions defining the importance of women’s roles in conflict and peacebuilding. However, to date not too much has happened. Only 40 of the member countries in the world have signed up to having a world action plan on women, peace and security. We have to encourage and assist other countries to have one in place. It is particularly worrying that a number of countries in Africa and Asia have not put an action plan together. We know that these countries have poor records of preventing violence against women.
This is not just the responsibility of DfID and the FCO; it is also the responsibility of the Ministry of Defence. It is the Ministry of Defence that is training the military in this country and in other parts of the world to do peacekeeping. It is really important that we have joined-up working between the three departments. I know that they are all committed, but we want to make sure that the money is well spent and continues to come from the Treasury.
I congratulate William Hague on his continued commitment to the elimination of rape as a tool of war. He said:
“We want to bring the world to a point of no return, creating irreversible momentum towards ending warzone rape and sexual violence worldwide”.
I think we are all committed to that across the political divide, but we have to ensure that we do it together. Can the Minister give an undertaking that the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the right honourable Philip Hammond, will make this a priority, with support from the Treasury, and that all our embassies and consulates around the world will continue to keep the pressure on the countries they are working in, meeting senior politicians, having events, working with NGOs and ensuring that visiting politicians from here—whether from local authorities, the Lords or the Commons—are made use of to continue encouraging people to make this a priority?
Women’s participation is so important. We make up 51% of the world, particularly in the developing world. A woman at every table should not be just a nominal one—it should be more than one. Women are not an endangered species. Furthermore, only a very small percentage of ambassadors and senior diplomats are women, as my noble friend Lady Kinnock mentioned. We must do more to encourage women to participate at senior levels, from the fast stream and from university. We should be actively encouraging teachers to start telling girls that working at the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and DfID are very acceptable careers, and that this is where they can do a great deal in public service, not only for Great Britain but for the world. We should be looking to the private sector and encouraging women at certain levels to come back to the Civil Service, if they have left, and apply for senior positions at the Foreign Office, DfID and the Ministry of Defence. We desperately need the best talent that we can get.
In the work of the Ministry of Defence in training peacekeepers, both in the United Kingdom and abroad, we must ensure that we have as many women as possible on the front line of this training because it is women who are on the front line—both those in conflict and some of our women who are fighting in conflicts. It is really important that we try to encourage this.
When it comes to achieving sustainable peace, we know from the peace processes in which women have been engaged—from Northern Ireland to Rwanda to Liberia—that when women are involved in conflict resolution and peace negotiations, they place a high premium on transitional justice. Women were not at the table in Angola, where, in an all-male peace process that was to end the Angolan civil war, the men from both sides gave each other amnesty for the crimes they had perpetrated against women. However, Angola regressed into civil war after this agreement that excluded women and overlooked their experiences. I hope that this one example of what is happening around the world will encourage those who do not agree that women should be at the peace table that they should be.
My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for securing this debate. I remind your Lordships that he has a trust foundation for looking after widows and the children of widows—which is even more important because often widows do not have the capacity to make sure that their children are well educated. For that, we should thank him and remember that what he is trying to do is very important.
I am going to be a little self-indulgent to begin with. My great-grandfather was a philanthropist in the main city of Punjab, Lahore. Although he was a Hindu, he is still called the father of Lahore by the Pakistanis because he was a civil engineer and he built a canal system that made Punjab the granary of India. He also gave away a lot of money. He started to make money and he used to say, “The more I give, the more comes”. He had widows’ homes and orphanages. He also had two homes for unmarried mothers because, at the beginning of the 20th century in India, unmarried mothers were either killed or had to go on the streets. It was an appalling situation and he was very conscious of the needs of women, which is why I have mentioned him. He was actively campaigning in those days, with the British Government, to get the treatment of Hindu widows improved. By and large, Hindu widows are still treated extremely badly in India. A lot of them are left to beg in places of pilgrimage to survive; they are not looked after by the families. He was very angry about that and kept trying to get the Government to do something about it. He could not change the whole culture by having widows’ homes. He did not succeed, but he tried very hard.
The other thing which we have in India is the child widow. I know that this has been touched on, but if a girl gets married at the age of seven or eight—which is still quite common in Rajasthan—and the boy dies then she is a widow. She is treated as a widow but she has never been with her so-called husband, because they are both children. They have to wait until she is a fully grown woman for her to go to her husband’s home. It is just unbelievable that a girl child is then a widow and treated extremely badly. There is a village in Rajasthan where they kill the girls, and which did not have a girl and boy marriage for 26 years because they had killed all the girls. The treatment of women and girls in India and Africa does not bear thinking about.
I know that we are talking about conflict resolution and I accept that women have an important role to play, but they have an important role to play in life itself and are not given that role. They are not treated as if they are people—human beings—who have something to contribute. They are used and abused, for the most part. They are not people with rights or positions so unless we look at the whole situation of women, in the light of what is happening in the world today, we cannot ask them to help with conflict resolution. They have to feel empowered to some extent to be able to do it. If you say to a woman, “I want you to do this”, her first reaction is, “I don’t think I can do it”. But if you then say, “No, you can”, they, too, find that they can. What we are facing is religion and so-called culture. I do not call it culture but bad social practices. We are facing those two real problems in developing countries and we have to fight against them both. It is not right that women should be treated in the way that they are in India or Africa because Hinduism says so or because a culture has always been like that. That is not how it has to be.
Many words are said but no implementation of them ever takes place. Modi has said that he is going to improve things for women in India, but what has he actually done? He was quite rude to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh when he said, “She has done so well, for a woman”. Can your Lordships think of anything worse than that? I cannot. It is so appalling for a Prime Minister of India to have said that. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, that I was in India during the Bangladesh war. The Indians were very much involved in getting rid of the Pakistanis from Bangladesh then. Two thousand women were found incarcerated, without any clothes, for the use of the soldiers. They did not give them clothes because they knew that, if they had anything, they would hang themselves. Can you believe that people could behave like that in the 20th century? When the women did get clothes, they did hang themselves, because where would they go? Who would have them? How would they be treated. I am glad to hear that later they were treated as heroines but they would not have been at that time. Women face some terrible dilemmas.
USAID will not allow any organisation with which it has any connection or to which it gives any money to perform abortions. Imagine a woman being raped countless times who then becomes pregnant but cannot get rid of the child. What do you think that child is to her? It is a reminder of her misery, a reminder of all those rapes. It is unbelievable that USAID still does not allow abortion, even in those circumstances. I cannot believe that it can go on thinking like that; it does not see women as human beings who cannot bear this nastiness.
We have to do whatever we can for women in general and then try to encourage them to take part in all sorts of areas of interest. They can add something very special to every organisation, meeting and committee, but they are not allowed to—they are not there. Perhaps in two, three or four years something will start to happen, but as I am getting rather old I am feeling very disappointed that it might not happen in my lifetime.
It has been mentioned that in Africa women are not allowed to own property. That is true, but it is worse than that. My friend Ladi is from Nigeria, and her father died when she was five years old. His relatives came to the house and took everything that was saleable, every possession. What is more, they took two younger wives who could work, but they did not take Ladi’s mother because she was older and they felt she would not be able to do as much work as the others. Ladi’s mother was left with 13 children and no means of supporting them. Can you believe that? I asked Ladi what her mother did and she said, “She gave away a child to whoever would take one”. She managed to place children with families in the village—anyone who would take a child. Imagine the life of that child who would be at the bottom of the food chain, with no education and no future. Ladi went to an uncle; she was a goat-herd at the age of six. Until she was nine she had no shoes and today her feet are in such bad condition that she has to have operations on them.
The suffering of women in India and in Africa is unbelievable and intolerable. We know about the suffering of women in Afghanistan and in many other places, but the largest number of those affected are in India and Africa—at least 1 billion. They have very little power and very few resources, and the situation does not look as if it will change overnight.
It has surprised me that, apart from the right reverend Prelate, no man has spoken in this debate. It is amazing. Men hold the power, but they have not spoken today.
It is not only for women to talk about women; it is for men to talk about women and to do something about it. Unless men start doing something about this, nothing will happen.
My Lords, hopefully, your Lordships will consider that I am a man just about to speak. Although I have already had the opportunity to congratulate the Minister from the Dispatch Box on her appointment, for the avoidance of any doubt, I would like to do it again—congratulations. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for initiating this debate today and for his strong and powerful commitment to the empowerment of women, in particular his highlighting of the plight of widows. It is only because of his commitment that International Widows Day is celebrated by the United Nations. Like him, my mother’s widowhood has shaped my view of the world.
The first and most important policy to have in place is one to enable women to be in charge of their own lives and to be decision-makers, not always on the end of a handout or someone’s largesse. The right reverend Prelate gave positive examples of meaningful involvement at local, regional and national level in the allocation of resources and services. If women have control over these things, they will have the confidence to resist and report sexual violence. As my noble friend Lady Kinnock highlighted, there is an increased awareness of sexual violence in wartime due to the significant impact of armed conflicts on civilian populations.
Violence against women as a tool of war remains one of the least prosecuted crimes—we have to do better to ensure action against the perpetrators. However, we must be tough on not only the crime but its causes. We must tackle the underlying problem of lack of empowerment, education and inclusion. As we have heard in this debate, the unanimous adoption of Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security was a landmark decision through which the situation of women in armed conflict was specifically addressed. It called for their participation at all levels of decision-making on conflict resolution and peace-building.
However, we have to recognise that to make real progress, we must ensure the words of the seven Security Council resolutions, recommendation 30 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Beijing commitments on women, peace and security, and other initiatives such as the UNGA declaration on ending sexual violence, are translated into practice. They cannot be just words. Turning promises into action is vital as, despite many gains, progress across the millennium development goals has been uneven for girls and women. The MDGs did not effectively address the factors which underpin gender inequality.
The United Kingdom—I am proud to say United Kingdom in the sense that it is not just one Government—has pushed for a post-2015 framework with a strong and explicit commitment to gender equality. Indeed, in response to a Question from my noble friend Lady Kinnock earlier this year, the then Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, committed the Government to,
“a stand-alone goal geared to achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment”.—[ Official Report , 9/3/15; col. 438.]
The noble Baroness also confirmed that there should be “rigorous mainstreaming” of gender equality concerns across other priority areas and goals of the post-2015 agenda. I would be extremely grateful if the Minister repeated that commitment in those strong terms.
Too often women are systemically excluded. Women’s role in peacebuilding should be supported at a local as well as international level. Women’s socioeconomic and political participation is key to resolving and preventing conflict, but also to changing, as we have heard in this debate, the damaging social norms that persist.
Like the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, I believe it is essential that we also focus on the other practical steps required for progress, including funding dedicated to WPS; funding to local women’s rights organisations as well as systemic consultation with women to give them a platform to highlight the barriers they face and the solutions; an approach that focuses across the pillars of UN Security Council Resolution 1325; and, as we heard in this debate—more importantly for my noble friend—co-ordination across defence, diplomatic and foreign policy. We need to challenge the root causes and social norms that cause violence against women and girls, and women’s lack of participation.
The 20th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action gave world leaders the opportunity to take stock of progress at the national and global level. The conclusions of the Commission on the Status of Women held in March welcomed the progress made towards the full implementation of the Beijing declaration through concerted policy action at the national, regional and global levels. It recognised that this is essential for achieving the unfinished business of the MDGs and for tackling the critical remaining challenges through the post-2015 development agenda.
The UK’s self-assessment concluded that, despite the progress made, discrimination is still prevalent in this country. Globally, many of the seminal achievements of the original 1995 Beijing conference are at risk, as we have heard in the debate, and in not just places of conflict but other areas where cultural shifts affect the rights of women. This is particularly crucial in the area of sexual and reproductive health and rights. We must not allow the clock to be turned back. Women and girls must be free from the fear of violence, coercion or intimidation and have the freedom to choose how many children they want.
The United Kingdom is seen as an important global player in promoting women’s rights. It takes the lead on women, peace and security issues at the UN Security Council and galvanised global action through the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict initiative. Like many in this debate, I pay tribute to the last Government for their focus on women and girls in their development work, and their consistent advocacy of women’s rights at the Human Rights Council. I also acknowledge their work in helping change global opinion on the issue of gender-based violence. It is important that we build on this record by using their influence to ensure that the gains of recent years are not lost. It is vital that the UK’s work on Beijing+20 is conducted in co-ordination with preparations for the adoption of a new global development framework. What steps is the Minister’s department taking to ensure that the UK not only defends the gains of the last 20 years but sets out its vision and priorities for the next 20 years of advancement of women’s rights at home and abroad?
My noble friend Lady Prosser referred to the debate on the implementation of the National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure cross-departmental priority for that action plan? What steps is she taking to ensure that priorities identified go beyond simply a one-term government and reinforce global initiatives, notably the UN Secretary-General’s seven-point plan on women’s participation in peace-building?
The denial of the rights of women and girls remains the most widespread driver of inequalities in today’s world. Gender-based violence, taking many forms, is a major element of this massive and continuing failure of human rights. Women’s empowerment and the protection of women’s rights are our greatest weapons to prevent discrimination and violence against women and girls.
I apologise to the noble Lord for suggesting that he might not be a man—I had no intention of doing that—but I think that he is speaking on behalf of the Benches opposite and not actually participating in the debate. However, I always enjoy his contribution, and I thought that it was very good the last time we spoke.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for initiating today’s debate and pay tribute to his commitment and work through his foundation for widows and their children—and to all noble Lords for their thoughtful and measured contributions. Many points have already been raised, which I shall probably repeat in my own reflections, but I thank all noble Lords for their very warm welcome in having me represent the Department for International Development again. I am incredibly passionate around the agenda on women and girls. Again, that is because of my own upbringing and the culture that I come from, which has impacted on my responses to what I see and am determined to try to eliminate.
In response to my friend the noble Lord, Lord Collins, I say that the Government will not detract in any way from trying to ensure that we continue not only to lead and influence others but to build much further on what we have achieved. The MDGs may not have delivered everything, but for all of us to be able to focus on some global goals was good. We will see which are the successful and not-so-successful goals when we have had an opportunity to really reflect and break them down. We want to make sure that we build on the experiences of things that have worked and not worked, and really influence those countries that can make a difference to moving this debate forward.
Investing in girls and women is not only the right thing to do—it is actually the smart thing. No country will ever reach its full potential when half the population is locked out of education, employment and meaningful participation in public and private life. Girls and women living in poverty face differing forms of discrimination and violence throughout their lives. From the very start, girls lose out. More than 100 million girls are estimated as missing because son preference is so embedded that it leads to female infanticide and pre-natal sex selection in favour of boys. Less than one in five girls in sub-Saharan Africa goes on to secondary school, and one in three girls is married before she is 18.
The odds are heavily stacked against a young girl in sub-Saharan Africa or south-east Asia making a healthy transition to adulthood. Child marriage, female genital mutilation and the societal norms that determine that girls should aspire only to marry and have children perpetuate poverty from one generation to the next. It is for these reasons that DfID has committed to having explicit focus on girls in its strategic vision on girls and women. Since the launch of the vision in 2011, we have supported over 5 million girls to go to primary and lower secondary school and committed to bring an end to FGM and child, early and forced marriage within a generation. Focusing on girlhood is vital to breaking the cycle of poverty and discrimination that can blight a girl’s journey through life. Societies that work for gender equality tend to be freer and fairer, while societies where there is greater female participation in politics, civic life and the labour force are associated with lower levels of corruption. For example, in Pakistan, women entering the national Parliament on a gender quota were able to work successfully across party lines on legislation relating to honour killing and acid crime control. In India, in states where there are more women in work there has been faster economic growth and the largest reductions in poverty. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, that there is still so much that needs to be done, and we must not back away from challenging and making sure that those who have no voice are heard.
Many noble Lords talked about women’s role in conflict, and the need for them to be at the heart of resolving conflict and promoting stable societies as well as poverty reduction and human development. I cannot agree more. We cannot tackle poverty and development without addressing conflict. People in fragile states are more than twice as likely to be undernourished as in other developing countries, more than three times as likely to be unable to send their children to school and twice as likely to see their children die before the age of five.
Girls and women are often the targets of sexual violence in conflict, as many noble Lords said today. Recently, we have seen how abduction, enslavement, sexual abuse and forced marriage were central to the tactics of Boko Haram and ISIL. Initiatives such as the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative are making a vital contribution to ensuring that there will be no impunity for sexual violence in conflict. In conflict countries such as Iraq and Syria, the UK is providing essential support for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.
We also recognise the need to include girls and women in peace negotiations and broader processes to end and prevent conflict. Conflict-affected contexts offer unique windows of opportunity to tackle the structural barriers to women and girls’ inequality and unequal participation in political, social and economic life. As roles are redefined and new needs arise, girls and women have new opportunities to play a bigger determining role both politically and economically. This can be of benefit to not only them but their communities. For example, women’s participation in peace processes and decision-making ensures resolutions are reached more quickly and are more lasting and meaningful. That was eloquently illustrated by my noble friend Lady Hodgson, the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby and others.
This year, 2015, is a significant year for women’s rights and gender equality in relation both to peace and security and to sustainable development. The UN has commissioned a high-level review on the implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325—which was raised by a number of noble Lords today, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Prosser and Lady Kinnock, and my noble friend Lady Hodgson—to mark its 15th anniversary. Along with subsequent UN resolutions, Resolution 1325 provides a global framework for reducing the impact of conflict on girls and women and for promoting their inclusion in conflict resolution and recovery. The UK will be engaging fully in this high-level review at the United Nations Security Council in October. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and I will have some engaged discussions before it takes place to ensure that we have a full cross-party voice there.
For our part, the UK Government are implementing Resolution 1325 and related resolutions through our national action plan on women, peace and security. The national action plan puts girls and women at the centre of all the Government’s efforts to prevent and resolve conflict, promote peace and stability and prevent and respond to violence against women and girls. It provides a vision for the UK and brings together, in one overarching framework, a cross-government effort. As part of the national action plan, DfID will be exploring opportunities better to involve girls and women in developing responses to violence and terrorism and to unpick the deeply flawed narratives that legitimise extremism.
In Pakistan, the UK is supporting the provincial Government of KP to develop women-friendly policing and to encourage recruitment of female police officers so that women are better served by the police. The UK Government and international partners have also strongly supported women’s rights within the Afghan national security forces, with programmes in place to support the recruitment, integration, retention, training and treatment of women in the Afghan national army, the Afghan national police and the Afghan Air Force.
This year also marks, as a number of noble Lords have mentioned, the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, which is still considered the blueprint for women’s empowerment. The UK played a lead role in agreeing the political declaration adopted at the 59th Commission on the Status of Women. Critically, the declaration reaffirms the Beijing Platform for Action and commits the international community to tackling remaining gaps in implementation. The UK will continue to play an active role in CSW negotiations.
A third crucial process under way this year is the agreement of a new post-2015 development framework. The UK was one of the first to advocate for a stand-alone gender goal in the new framework and a holistic set of targets that address the root causes of inequality and discrimination that affect girls and women, including widows. The UK Government will continue to push for greater investment in gender equality in negotiations around financing for development and for a strong outcome at the UN global summit in September.
Despite progress over the last 20 years since Beijing, girls and women continue to face harmful discrimination. They are held back from seizing opportunities to build their futures. Society sees them as having less value because they are female. My noble friend Lady Goudie alluded to the film Water. If noble Lords have not seen that, it is a real eye-opener, which in a couple of hours shows how much young child widows are discriminated against. As the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, mentioned, it is still an issue that they are an invisible issue, and we need to make sure that they do not drop out of the wider issue of the plight of widows. We need to ensure that civil society organisations see the plight of those vulnerable groups in the wider debate when we talk about girls and women.
I began this speech by talking about the injustices that women face in their early years, yet these injustices do not abate as life draws on. A number of noble Lords mentioned that, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Barker. Widowhood multiplies the injustices of gender inequality, adding another layer of discrimination and stigma. A widow and her children can suddenly find themselves homeless, seen as an economic burden to their community, and stigmatised due to their association with death. Widows are often more vulnerable to being forcibly married, raped, traded or exiled. They suffer double discrimination, both for being female and for being widowed. It seems impossibly unfair that women are ostracised at the moment they need more support than ever.
DfID supports a range of programmes that benefit widows. For example, in Bangladesh, through the Chars Livelihoods Programme and the Economic Empowerment of the Poorest Programme, we have helped 96,303 extremely poor households that are headed by widows. These projects provide productive assets, cash grants for business enterprise, skills training, nutritional supplies and nutritional awareness. Some 85% of all of the households supported have graduated out of extreme poverty. We also support the Urban Partnerships for Poverty Reduction Programme in Bangladesh, where over 34,000 widows in urban slums have received grants for starting small businesses.
Women who face poverty and social exclusion—often linked to the death of a spouse—disability or in old age, require particular support, including through social safety nets. DFID supports such women through programmes which target elderly women through social pensions; for example, the senior citizen grant in Uganda. Other vulnerable women are reached through safety nets targeted at the poorest households. For example, the Palestinian National Cash Transfer Programme in
Gaza provides unconditional cash transfers to extremely poor households. These include female-headed households, including widows, who report that cash transfers allow them to meet the basic needs of their families and give them greater economic freedom, security and enhanced psychological well-being.
I want to address some of the issues raised by noble Lords, but if I fail to answer all the questions, I undertake to write to noble Lords. I start with the opening remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Barker. She said that we should not forget that looking at women and girls should be an end-to-end journey, from birth right through to old age, when they are often at their most vulnerable and lonely. There are also problems relating to dementia, which we in this country are beginning to realise will become an even greater issue as populations age. It is very important that we have our discussions in the round, so that when we talk about developing frameworks, those frameworks take that end-to-end view.
However, our priority is female economic empowerment. I am extremely pleased that the Secretary of State and the Government have made economic empowerment for girls and women, as well as our humanitarian response, a core thread in the department. All those things coming together provide a response to many of the questions raised by noble Lords today. We want to advocate ambitious targets on women’s economic empowerment in the post-2015 sustainable development goals framework. We are having a real impact with our strategic vision for women and girls. Twenty-seven million women have access to financial services as a result of DfID’s support.
The noble Lord, Lord Loomba, the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby all asked about the post-2015 development framework. There is a lot that I could say but time is against me. Perhaps noble Lords will allow me to write to them, because it is important that the speakers participating in this debate see the great thinking that is going on behind those goals. That would be much more informative than a simplistic answer provided by me now.
I end by flagging up another very important milestone. This year,
I assure noble Lords that across government we are championing the girls and women agenda. The Prime Minister, in particular, is very keen that this focus is maintained. He has put his full support behind the work that is being done across government and the girls agenda will always be at the core of our programmes.
Time is drawing on and I know that there are many questions that I have left unanswered. It has been an absolute pleasure to respond to a debate on a subject that I am incredibly passionate about. I look forward to engaging with all noble Lords to see what we can do to encourage others, particularly the global partners that need greater encouragement not just in relation to girls and women but on a range of other issues that we will be talking about in connection with the post-2015 development goals.
My Lords, I thank everyone who has taken part in this important debate, and the Minister for her response. I am particularly pleased that the Minister has assured us that DfID will fight for the rights of women, widows and girls at the UN summit in September. I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, on supporting widows in many countries, including Bangladesh. It is very much appreciated.
The millennium development goals were set up in 2000 but did not contain a single mention of widows. I believe that, since the Loomba Foundation has raised awareness of the plight of widows, the UN will take positive action to include widows’ issues in SDGs. I request that the Minister take a note of that and do her very best work.
Many noble Lords spoke about many problems facing women, girls and widows, and each problem is unique. Three Lords spoke about Margaret Owen. I know Margaret Owen personally; she worked with me a few years ago at a conference and is a wonderful person, very dedicated to the war widows. We all know that it is the war widows who really suffer the most. At the same time, poverty affects widows in a bigger way. Therefore, it is also important that they are economically empowered.
The noble Baroness, Lady Flather, talked about child brides. What she said is very true. Only last week the Times of India reported that, at that moment in India, there were 269 more child brides. This is unacceptable in the 21st century.
I will not take up any more time because we have talked about all these issues before. International Widows Day is taking place in 12 days’ time and I very much hope that noble Lords will mark it, together with the Loomba Foundation.