My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. It is an honour to speak in the debate today. First, I pay tribute to our Prime Minister and to the Minister and her team here for their commitment to women’s rights and gender equality. I welcome the Government’s commitment to ensuring that the victims of gender-based violence are supported, that the perpetrators are brought to justice, and that everything possible is done to prevent these crimes happening in the first place.
I also particularly welcome the Government’s commitment to tackling domestic violence and the introduction of the Domestic Violence Bill. I am sure that every one of us here either knows or is aware of someone who has been a victim of domestic violence. We are all aware of the tendency to avoid talking about this behaviour, even when we see it and recognise it. We have to break that taboo and stigma in order to support families who endure this despicable, shameful and pathetic behaviour in all its manifestations, and strengthen our laws and institutions accordingly.
Our willingness to confront entrenched gender violence and harassment in our own society should be matched by an equal determination to defend the rights of the most vulnerable women in the world. Indeed, the test of our commitment to women’s rights is how we behave as a country in the most challenging situations. I will raise three issues in that regard.
Two months ago, the United States envoy for the Afghan conflict, Zalmay Khalilzad, announced that a framework for a peace agreement had been agreed with the Taliban. The US would withdraw its troops and, in return, the Taliban would undertake to prevent Afghanistan being used by terrorists for attacks on other countries. There are many unanswered questions, and great concern that the women of Afghanistan are once again in the sights of the Taliban. The negotiator for the Taliban has said explicitly that the Taliban rejects the constitution of Afghanistan which enshrines the principle of equal rights for men and women and Afghan women’s right to education, political participation and economic opportunity. Our Government have welcomed the “progress” made by the US special representative, but I hope that this support is not unqualified.
Afghan women’s groups from across the 34 provinces have recently come together to issue a declaration stating:
“We, Afghan women, request the Government negotiating team to fully defend our rightful and legitimate demands ... at every stage of the peace process, and prevent any type of compromise that undermines the achievements of women”.
They go on to say that they expect the international community to,
“firmly adhere to their commitments to protecting democratic, civil and human rights”,
in Afghanistan. I look to the Minster to give assurances that our Government will listen to Afghan women, that we will uphold their right to be formally involved in negotiations, in keeping with UN Security Council Resolution 1325, and that we will not support any peace agreement that does not protect their hard-won rights and freedoms.
My second point relates to our ally in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, which announced this week that 10 women’s rights activists who were detained last year, and reportedly tortured, will be put on trial for “undermining the state’s security”. Our Foreign Secretary has hailed Britain’s “strategic partnership” with Saudi Arabia. Perhaps the Minister could ask the Foreign Secretary to urge our “strategic partner” to release these women activists rather than put them through a show trial. What does it say about a country when it fears journalists and women, and what does it say about us if we place our strategic partnership with any country above such vital, non-negotiable principles of human rights?
Finally, I welcome the Government’s commitment to hosting a review conference in November this year on the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative, and I congratulate my noble friend Lord Ahmad on his personal leadership and commitment to this. I also welcome the news that Her Royal Highness the Countess of Wessex is to support the initiative. I hope that the Government will soon set out ambitious goals for that conference.
As the Minister will be aware, sexual and gender-based violence is endemic in situations of conflict, disaster and human displacement, yet programmes for countering it are routinely underfunded and insufficiently prioritised in humanitarian responses. I therefore renew my call on the UK Government to commit to dedicating a fixed minimum proportion of the international development budget to this purpose. I believe that this would make a huge difference, particularly if other countries could be persuaded to do the same.
Let me finish by expressing my respect for our female parliamentarians, from all parties, who have suffered vicious online abuse, including sexist and anti-Semitic hatred. I applaud their courage. We need more outspoken and principled women in public life.