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.