International Development and Gender-based Violence

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 3:27 pm on 26th November 2020.

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Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton 3:27 pm, 26th November 2020

I congratulate my hon. Friend Anthony Mangnall on his thoughtful speech introducing this debate, and indeed the other speakers before me. I want to talk primarily about violence against women and girls that does not take place during conflict situations. I hope that will provide a contrast to the very thoughtful contribution from Fleur Anderson.

In this debate, marking yesterday as International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, I want to highlight simply two issues: the forcible abduction and subsequent violation of girls from minority groups in Pakistan and Nigeria, which is happening at scale; and the suffering of women in the Uyghur camps in China, which is also happening at scale.

I thank Aid to the Church in Need, whose latest report, “Set Your Captives Free”, was released yesterday and also marked Red Wednesday, for drawing attention to the thousands of young Hindu, Shi’a, Sikh and Christian girls in Pakistan who are kidnapped and forcibly married to much older men every year. That happens generally with impunity, because of the vulnerable economic and social status of those girls. Women from those communities have become much more vulnerable since the outbreak of covid-19, and that increased vulnerability puts them at much greater risk. As a result, many young girls from minority communities, such as 14-year-old Maira Shahbaz and 13-year-old Arzoo Raja, have been kidnapped and forcibly married in Pakistan this year.

Many of the girls are subject to rape, forced prostitution and domestic abuse. In some cases, their families succeed in freeing the girls through the courts, but in other cases—remarkably and adding to the injustice of their abduction, forced marriage and alleged conversion—when they get to court, judges frequently order the return of the girl to their abductor. That attaches more credibility and importance to the statement of the girl’s alleged conversion to Islam than to the girl’s account of her abduction. It gives more credibility to the abductor than to the enforcement of the law that forbids marriage to a minor.

The real tragedy is that Pakistan’s very constitution and laws, particularly the blasphemy laws, are often the basis for such discrimination and violation, as in these court hearings. In any country, the constitution and legal system should be the cornerstone of the protection of fundamental human rights. Will the Minister confirm that whenever the opportunity arises, he and his colleagues will raise with his counterparts their concerns about the abduction of hundreds—indeed, thousands—of girls in Pakistan?

I make no apology for raising once again the plight of Leah Sharibu, whose mother Rebecca I met earlier this year. The sadness in Rebecca’s eyes lives with me today, and my heart goes out to her. Leah was just 14 when she was among the 110 school girls abducted by Boko Haram from their school. She is the only one still in captivity, because she has refused to renounce her Christian faith. She is now 17. I ask the Minister once again, as I have done before, to ensure that Leah’s plight, together with requests for her release, is raised with the Nigerian Government at every possible opportunity. I commend CSW for its continued campaign on Leah’s behalf.

I want to turn now to the Uyghurs. It is appalling to hear how women from the Uyghur community have been violated as part of the Chinese Government’s brutal campaign to curb its Muslim population. They are violated through forced birth control, pregnancy checks, the mandatory insertion of painful intrauterine devices, forced sterilisation and abortions. We hear that that is happening at scale, to hundreds of thousands of women. These population control measures are backed by mass detention as a punishment for failure to comply. The threat of being sent to prison—to the camps that we hear so much about—hangs over these women. Police raid homes, terrify parents and search for hidden children. Mothers of three or more children can be torn away, unless they can pay huge fines. Simply having too many children is a major reason why people are sent to detention camps. Many receive sentences of years, and in some cases decades, in prison just for having several children.

We even hear of female detainees being taken to prison camps and forced to abort their own unborn children. The result of this birth control campaign is a climate of terror. Birth rates in the mostly Uyghur regions of Hotan and Kashgar have plunged by more than 60% from 2015 to 2018—the latest year available in Government statistics. In the Xinjiang region, birth rates continue to plummet; they fell nearly 24% last year alone, compared with just 4.2% nationwide. Will the Minister, whenever possible, call on the Chinese Communist Party to end these horrific practices, which are part of a state-orchestrated assault on Uyghur women and the wider Uyghur community with the aim of purging them of their identity?