Pakistan: UK Aid

Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Excerpts
Thursday 25th April 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Grand Committee
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Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Portrait Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, first, I agree with that last sentiment concerning the Minister. From the short time I have been in this House, I know that he spends a lot of time dealing with these issues and has a passion for them, as we do, and I thank him for that. It is of course a huge pleasure and privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and to thank him for bringing this important Question for Short Debate, which concentrates our focus on how UK aid is used to support minorities better in Pakistan. At the outset, it is important to say how much I welcome the increase in overseas development aid. That provides our Government with an opportunity to do more to support minorities in a practical and meaningful way.

Looking at the aid profile for the year 2023-24, it has to be acknowledged that the Government did a lot with the budget they had. Priorities listed include climate vulnerability, gender inclusion and disability inclusion—all very laudable goals. There is much I can speak about this afternoon, but I want to spend the limited time I have looking at the issue of women and girls. There is, no doubt, a lot of work to be done in this area. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, referenced the work that the APPG has been doing on the bonded labour issue and he outlined the issues surrounding women and girls on that.

I make the point, as I did in my Question for Short Debate on global Christian persecution, that women and girls from a minority faith, whether it is Christian, Ahmadi Muslim, Hindu or Sikh, face a double marginalisation or a double injustice. That could be through people trafficking, gender-based violence, kidnapping, forced marriage and/or forced conversion. It is still shocking to me that, in our world today, young girls are being groomed, trafficked into sham marriage and then forced into conversion. The international development White Paper commits the UK to develop policies that are inclusive of people marginalised for their religion and belief, and I very much welcome that, but we need to turn this commitment into positive actions.

We know that Pakistan is the third least tolerant country in the world in terms of social acceptance of religious diversity, and that cannot be ignored. In terms of the treatment of women from minority religions, a survey taken by the Punjab Bureau of Statistics on the social and economic well-being of women has shown that they have a higher than average illiteracy, and that has persisted among minority women in the province—64% as opposed to 34%. Minority community members get into a cycle of illiteracy, unemployment, poverty, and early and often forced marriages. This can be broken only by getting good education, academic or technical, for children and especially for girls. It is even more difficult for Christian students to get places to study in higher education, if they are lucky enough to have education at primary level, because the good marks which are needed are often obtained by bribes, and most Christians do not have the financial resources to deal with bribery.

Recently the Punjab Government allocated 2% of seats in universities for minority students—of course, that is to be welcomed—but that is only one province, and the other provinces have no plans to help students from minority communities in this way. There are, of course, good missionary schools and colleges which could offer quality education for minority girls, and UK aid could be used to get education for minority girls in those schools and, in doing so, lift their families out of poverty. It would be great to hear from the Minister whether there are any plans to ring-fence a percentage of aid for minorities in Pakistan and use it for education and practical training for girls. That is in line with the Government’s goals, and indeed the existing minority schools could be utilised for this purpose.

Of course, education works only if the girls are free, and it is estimated that at least 1,000 girls belonging to Christian and Hindu faiths are abducted and forcibly married and converted each year. In some cases, such forced conversions are used as a smokescreen for other serious crimes such as human trafficking, forced prostitution and child abuse. As the mother of a daughter, whose birthday is today, I cannot imagine the pain that this causes to the child and the family of the child —yet it appears that very little help is available.

It would be a very positive sign of global leadership in this area if we could use the UK aid programmes as a tool to spread education among minority girls, so that they are aware of their rights and, importantly, to train police officers and judiciary members on the laws pertaining to this issue and how to treat such cases. The Minister will be aware that the Punjab police have set up Meesaq centres in police stations in areas with a large percentage of Christians, but it is important that these centres are staffed by trained individuals. Likewise, in education it would be important to train teachers in religious tolerance and to promote a positive image of coexistence.

In closing, I commend the tireless work of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the APPG for the Pakistani Minorities. The increase in aid is a wonderful opportunity to reach out to the minority communities in Pakistan and cement the UK’s leadership role in our strong belief and commitment to freedom of religion for all by taking practical steps with the aid budget such as I have laid out in relation to training and education.