Pakistan: UK Aid

Lord Harries of Pentregarth Excerpts
Thursday 25th April 2024

(1 month, 3 weeks ago)

Grand Committee
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Lord Harries of Pentregarth Portrait Lord Harries of Pentregarth (CB)
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My Lords, I would like to see UK aid support in Pakistan focus sharply and almost entirely on identifying and supporting minority communities, of which there are of course a number of different kinds; they include the religious—such as the Ahmadi, who suffer viciously—as well as Hindu and Christian minorities.

A high percentage of those who suffer most among the minority groups are Dalits. I want to speak mainly about the Dalits, who suffer disproportionately in every area of life because of the terrible stigma of untouchability. According to the 2017 census figures for minorities, the number of registered scheduled castes in Pakistan is 849,614, but, according to researchers and Dalit activists, their number is more likely to be in the millions. They have no representation in political life. All 10 reserved seats for non-Muslims and political parties are occupied by dominant caste Hindus and Christians. The National Assembly has never had a Dalit woman parliamentarian. Despite the fact that 33% of all women have seats in the national Parliament due to temporary special measures, few political parties nominate a Dalit woman for the reserved seats. This means that they have no voice to make their plight known.

As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, pointed out, minority communities suffer particularly in the areas of poverty, slavery and forced labour; as I suggested, a very high percentage of those who suffer in these areas will be Dalits. They are excluded from union representation and are in widespread employment in the brick kiln and agricultural sectors. As has been mentioned, Dalits—in particular children and not least women—are working in hazardous and slave-like conditions. One aspect of this is that Dalits, particularly women, are most likely to be assigned to manual scavenging. This undignified work, without any safety equipment, exposes them to death, accidents and poor health, while 80% of sanitation work in Pakistan is carried out by minority communities—mostly Dalits—through hereditary schemes.

There is another factor: water and sanitation issues are intimately linked to the mistaken notion of purity, leading to the untouchability stigma. Sanitation workers face a risk of fatality that is 10 times higher than for workers in other sectors, while Christians, a minority in the country, are the largest community represented in the sanitation workforce.

Forced marriages and conversions are widespread, as the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, emphasised. I will not add further to that except to point out the figures showing that, since 2017, no official data on forced marriages and conversions was produced, though estimates vary between 300 to 1,000 per year with only 16.67% of victims aged over 18.

Since 2006, the Pakistan Parliament has provided about 6,000 projects in a national poverty reduction scheme. This progress is welcome but none of these projects target issues specifically facing Dalits, who are floundering in a vicious cycle of poverty and lack of land, which forces them into that poorly paid employment where they can be exploited. Many take on loans from their employers and are unable to pay them back. There is a high level of suicides among this community due to this distressing economic situation. Nearly 74% of Pakistan’s Dalits are illiterate, among which 90% are Dalit women, leaving no prospects for Dalit children and thus perpetuating the problem. At the heart of it all, this is reinforced by the education programme itself as school textbooks portray Dalits as inferior, which is absolutely intolerable.

I will briefly mention in addition one point already raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. One of the most distressing features of Pakistan is the law on blasphemy, which carries a sentence of death and can be used in village or family disputes to target perfectly innocent victims. Among them are Mariyum Lal and Newsh Arooj, two Christian nurses recently charged with allegedly removing a sticker with Koranic verses from a hospital wall. Also unjustly imprisoned with the threat of death are Zafar Bhatti, Asif Pervaiz, Ashfaq Masih, Shagufta Kiran and Ishtiaq Masih, to mention just a few. My plea to our Government is that our aid should be directed almost entirely to these minority communities, and that real efforts be made to identify them, especially the Dalits among them.