05 JUL 2011

Great Lakes (Africa)

Paul Uppal: I am delighted to serve under your stewardship, Ms Osborne. I congratulate Eric Joyce on securing this most important debate.

I shall highlight some of the ongoing problems in the DRC, and particularly the eastern region. Time will not allow me to go into the topic in great detail - I am sure that everyone is aware of the complex and wide-ranging problems that the country faces - so I shall speak instead about women in the DRC, and the frightening and dangerous situation that many women face.

In a recent survey by leading gender experts, the DRC was named as one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. Sexual violence is widespread there, and there are instances of it being used as a weapon of war. I am encouraged that, in recent years, the international community has highlighted the problems of women in the DRC and has campaigned against sexual violence. However, as news reports show, the issue is ongoing, with hundreds of women - and also men, I understand—being sexually assaulted.

To empower women, we need to ensure that stability and peace is brought to the region, a point made by the hon. Member for Falkirk. I was disappointed to learn from news reports yesterday that violence has marred the registration process for the elections. It is important for the international community to ensure that elections are free and fair, and that everyone is able to vote - most importantly, of course, women. If better governance is to be created, it is imperative that the elections be conducted correctly.

I was encouraged to read the Foreign and Commonwealth Office action plan to implement stricter legislation on sexual violence. Progress has been made in recent years with the Congolese law on rape in 2006, coupled with a better understanding and legal qualification of what constitutes rape, and the introduction of UN Security Council resolution 1888. Stability is essential, but we must work to tackle the attitudes and conditions that allow such violence to take place. Training and education for the army is essential, but it must be coupled with a strong legal system that will bring those who commit such crimes to justice.

Tackling corruption is vital. We must also ensure that high-level officials are brought to justice for crimes committed. Government aid to local NGOs, including that provided by the UK, is imperative to ensure that those organisations have the funding to allow them to reach people in towns and villages across the DRC. Such organisations can also encourage women to speak out, empower them to be involved in public life and help to reconcile them to the past. They can also address the issues at a local level. The NGOs will remain after the conflict ends and help ensure that women's rights continue to be protected. Those are short-term measures, so let me address more long-term issues.

Sexual violence should not just be seen in the context of the current instability in the eastern areas. It did not originate from the conflict; the conflict intensified an existing problem. Discrimination against women is of long standing and will need to be tackled, alongside promoting peace, to ensure that women are in a better situation in the years ahead.

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