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.