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?