Margaret Curran MP raises plight of Palestinian women in Parliamentary debate on ‘UN Women’

Margaret Curran MP

Speech made by Magaret Curran MP in House of Commons on 8th March 2011

Margaret Curran (Glasgow East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant). Her powerful speech provided evidence of why we need debates such as these. I know that we can create parliamentary consensus around such profound issues, and that we all share many of the views she expressed.

I also echo the comments of the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing)-this job does wonders for my geography-and congratulate the members of the Backbench Business Committee on securing the debate. The hon. Lady said that international women’s day gives us a real opportunity to celebrate the achievements of the past and recognise the hard work that many women have put into them. It also gives us pause for thought as we remember the many difficulties that remain and the efforts that we still need to galvanise around as we seek to improve the lot of women. She pointed out that this is a particularly special international women’s day, as it is its 100th anniversary.

I am delighted to be the first ever woman to represent the east end of Glasgow in this Chamber and that the city of Glasgow has two women representing it at the same time. That is a great achievement, but I shall keep working until we have more than that. Of course we want to reflect on international issues on international women’s day, and the choice of UN Women as our subject is particularly helpful. I should like to reflect on the work of the UN in Palestine, and to focus on the issues relating to women there. I undertook a recent visit to Palestine that was sponsored by the Council for Arab-British Understanding. We have discussed ?on many occasions the ways in which to create a peaceful solution in the middle east, and I appreciate that there are different views and perspectives on how we should pursue that agenda. Sometimes I think that, in the grand sweep of the political narrative, women’s voices are not heard and their experiences not understood.

Therefore, by definition, a complete political understanding cannot be reached, and complete solutions cannot be reached if we have only a partial understanding of the situation. In our debates on the middle east, the experiences of women, the pressures they face, the desperation they feel and the daily grind of their day-to-day lives have not featured strongly enough.

On my visit to the occupied Palestinian territories, I saw that women’s access to educational institutions, to places of employment and to health care clinics had been severely limited by the restrictions on Palestinian freedom of movement. Obviously those issues affect men and women, but my conclusion, following my visit and the reading that I have done since, is that those factors have a disproportionate and particular impact on women. That is what I would like to talk about this afternoon.

The annexation wall, which has been built across 85% of Palestinian land, appropriates land, disconnects communities and restricts access to medical care and workplaces. I saw particular evidence of how the day-to-day management of life has been affected by it. Routes to school have had to be changed, for example, making it difficult for women to get their children safely to and from school. There is evidence of women having had to give birth at checkpoints because they could not get through them in time to get to hospital. There were no guarantees that anyone could get to their medical appointments. Furthermore, young women in particular are now finding it difficult to get to universities. Their families are nervous, rightly or wrongly, about what women might experience going through the checkpoints.

I visited an area just outside Bethlehem called al-Walaja, where I met a mother of young children who was living in very difficult circumstances. Access to the land was severely restricted, as was the family’s income as a result. She was living with the stresses and strains of her family situation, with young children to manage, and with that huge wall right outside her front window. We need to reflect on the daily grind of those people’s lives. The wall restricts freedom of movement, and time and costs are greatly multiplied by its presence. There is a permit regime associated with it, and 500 other obstacles, including road blocks and checkpoints, are now imposed on the day-to-day lives of Palestinian women and their families.

There is a range of other issues involved. Permit regulations have an impact on family life. Couples and families are often effectively prohibited from living together. Many families are separated, particularly when the father is unable to work near his family. That has an enormous social and economic impact. We must also remember the military detention of children, often for throwing stones. Families might not know the location of their child, who can be held for up to eight days without access to the family or a lawyer. These are huge issues that are themselves worthy of a debate.

I want to focus on the impact of all these factors on women. During my visit to the west bank, I was overwhelmed by the unbearable pressure that they face, ??particularly mothers, who might not participate in the political sphere but who have to try to manage the day-to-day consequences of the presence of the wall, the demolitions, the hostility of the settlers, the necessity to manage the permits, the identification rules that do not permit people to live with their families and, most overwhelmingly of all, the poverty and lack of economic opportunity.

I know that Palestinian women are demonstrating on international women’s day, and campaigning to have their interests represented in their own political movements and representative organisations. They have had some success. Recently, a national plan to combat domestic violence has been adopted in the Palestinian territories. I think that it is the first Arab territory to adopt such a plan. I hope that we, as women in this Parliament, can use our influence here, in the United Nations and through other avenues to draw attention to the issues that Palestinian women face.

We must show our solidarity with and support for women who are struggling in their own communities and whose day-to-day issues need political attention. I hope that international women’s day will give us the opportunity to focus on not only our own experiences but those of women internationally, especially those living in such desperate circumstances who have rarely been heard.

To read the full debate in the House of Commons please click here.