My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, on giving us this opportunity to celebrate the achievements of many women. I would like to introduce some examples of inspirational women and men who are working to promote the well-being of women and girls in some of the most challenging situations in our world: education in the conflict areas of Sudan and South Sudan; maternal and child health in areas of continuing conflict in Burma’s Shan State; and gender equality in Pakistan and the UK. I shall conclude with a celebration of success in Canada.
First, please travel with me in imagination to Sudan’s Nuba mountains this January and climb a rugged mountain for two hours to meet families hiding in caves for fear of aerial bombardment. There we meet people suffering snake bites and dying from malaria with no medicine. Yet their priority for help is education, especially for girls. Schools are deliberately targeted by Government of Sudan bombers, so education and exams have to take place out of doors, using the respected Kenya curriculum. When it is time for exams, 1,000 students converge and invigilation is undertaken on the mountainside. Our valiant partner, Nagwa, asks every student to bring a large stone. As they gather, she tells them, “When you hear the Antonov bombers approaching while you are doing your exam, you will place your exam papers neatly under your large stone. You will then run and hide in the caves. When the bombers have gone, you can return. Your exam papers will not have been blown away by the blast or the wind and you can continue your exams”. That is exam pressure with a difference, and many of those students perform as well as their counterparts in Kenya.
Moving to the tragic situation in South Sudan, I have had the privilege of visiting South Sudan more than 30 times, many during the previous war when 2 million people perished, 4 million were displaced and tens of thousands of women and children were abducted into slavery. Many are still missing and their families continue to grieve. But the people there still yearn for education as a priority. The Anglican bishop, Moses Deng, of the diocese of Wau in Bahr El Ghazal, recognises the importance of education, especially for girls. He has supported the establishment of a school delightfully called “A Girls’ School Which Boys May Attend”. The girls do attend, and so do the boys, and their achievements are amazing. They attain some of the best results in the country.
Moving rapidly to Burma, the Burmese Government continue their military offensives and grave violations of human rights in ethnic national areas such as the predominantly Muslim Rakhine State, the predominantly Buddhist Shan State and the predominantly Christian Kachin State. Among many local NGOs doing magnificent work is the SWAN Shan Women’s Action Network, which promotes maternal and child health in the conflict-affected areas of Shan State. But SWAN has great difficulty in obtaining funds, especially since DfID adopted a policy of using intermediary organisations to implement and monitor DfID support. SWAN claims that it cannot access these funds because of bureaucratic complexities and, as a consequence, it is in acute need of resources to continue its life-saving work.
We heard an identical concern being expressed by Bishop Moses Deng, who is desperately trying to obtain funds for life-saving food for thousands of internally displaced persons who have fled from conflicts to his diocese. He also says that he does not have the resources to meet the complexities of DfID’s requirements. I therefore ask the Minister to request that DfID makes funds more readily available to smaller indigenous NGOs carrying out life-saving work in remote and high-risk areas not reached by big aid organisations. I am thinking of organisations such as SWAN in Burma and local churches in South Sudan.
I turn briefly to the suffering of women caused by religiously sanctioned gender discrimination abroad and in this country. Last year I went to Bangkok to meet people who had to flee for their lives from the application of sharia law in Pakistan and the failure of authorities to maintain justice for victims of allegations of breaches of sharia law. Time permits only one example. Esther escaped from Pakistan with her family after her eldest daughter was abducted, compelled to convert from Christianity to Islam and forced into marriage. She told me, weeping, “I was terrified. I went to our neighbour’s house to find out who took my child. I fought them to regain my child. I still bear the scars on my arm”. The authorities refused to intervene. The family fled to her brother’s house, hiding in fear until they were able to escape to Thailand.
Now, sadly, I turn to causes for concern on our own doorstep here in the UK. Noble Lords may be aware of my Private Member’s Bill seeking to address the suffering of women from religiously sanctioned gender discrimination, and I thank noble Lords present who support that Bill. Of course, gender discrimination may occur in different faith communities, but with the growth of sharia councils, many Muslim women suffer in ways that would make our suffragettes turn in their grave. Forms of gender discrimination include asymmetrical access to divorce. The husband can divorce his wife merely by saying “I divorce you” three times; she has no reciprocal right. If they have not had a legally registered marriage, women have no rights and are often left destitute and helpless. Also, many men indulge in polygamy with four wives, although bigamy is illegal. Polygamous marriages may be desperately unhappy, as recorded by the courageous Muslim woman Habiba Jaan. Muslim women share their anguish with me when they describe being married into polygamous marriages—and their divorce. One lady wept as she told me she received her divorce through the post, saying, “I never thought this could happen in a democracy. I feel betrayed by Britain”.
Other disturbing examples relate to violence and killings in the name of so-called “honour”. Time does not permit me to give examples now, but many are on the record in the Second Reading debate on the Bill. The women who have had the courage to come forward to tell their stories are doubtless the tip of a huge iceberg. I am very grateful to the Muslim Women’s Advisory Council and to British Arabs Supporting Universal Women’s Rights for speaking out with courage about what is happening here.
The Government are still refusing to consider any proposals to ameliorate the suffering of these women until their review has reported. But there are measures that could be implemented quickly and could bring some relief. I ask the Minister to pass on this request for some of these measures to be adopted by the Government as a matter of urgency.
I finish on a note of celebration—in Canada. Following a protracted grass-roots campaign, spearheaded by the renowned Muslim women’s activist Raheel Raza, the Parliament of Canada passed a Bill in 2015 reinforcing Canada’s commitment to tackle all forms of violence against women and girls, including so-called “honour killings”, and helping to ensure that discriminatory practices, including polygamous marriages, do not occur on Canadian soil.
I hope that today’s debate will highlight the urgent need to address utterly unacceptable practices of violence and discrimination against women and girls, wherever they occur, and, by providing examples of inspirational women who can serve as role models, will help to support initiatives to promote justice, equality and the rights of women everywhere.