Developing World: Women — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:55 pm on 11th June 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Goudie Baroness Goudie Labour 3:55 pm, 11th June 2015

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.