Developing World: Women — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:03 pm on 11th June 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Flather Baroness Flather Crossbench 4:03 pm, 11th June 2015

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.