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Wednesday, 19 August 2009
Page: 5399

Senator BOB BROWN (Leader of the Australian Greens) (2:22 PM) —My question is to the Minister representing the Prime Minister. What has been the reaction of the Prime Minister to news that President Karzai of Afghanistan has signed a decree repressing women against the Afghani constitution and international law? Is the Prime Minister going to go quietly with the decree which enforces starvation on women who refuse to submit to the sexual desires of their husbands, prevents women from going to work without their husband’s agreement and in any dispute situation gives custody of children to the husband or to the grandfather, with the women left voiceless, helpless and unrepresented?

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) —I thank Senator Brown for the question. I do not have information specifically on the question of what the Prime Minister’s reaction has been. I have not spoken to him on the issue and I have not seen any public comment he has made. But the point you raise is a very serious issue. We are concerned about the suppression of the rights of women anywhere. We do believe that it is important that we do all we can in Afghanistan—and elsewhere—to ensure that women have equal rights and are protected from violence, abuse and any other form of discrimination.

In Afghanistan, we believe they have come a long way since the fall of the Taliban regime, but no doubt there is much more to be done. Some steps towards enhancing women’s rights have been made, and the international effort continues in this important matter. I understand that now 28 per cent of the MPs in the lower house in the Afghan parliament are female. In 2008-09, of the 6.2 million children at school, 40 per cent were girls. Under the Taliban, only one million boys were in schools, and girls were prohibited from attending. I think it is fair to say that there has been progress made from the very dark days when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan. I remember meeting a young woman in my own community who came as a refugee and was 11 before she got to go to school in Australia. She was denied that opportunity in Afghanistan and that was a terrible thing. It is a serious issue. It is one that we think is improving but, no doubt, more can be done. We will certainly be doing all we can to support the rights of women in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Senator BOB BROWN —I thank the minister for his answer. It enables me to ask this supplementary question. Why has the Prime Minister of Australia said nothing at all about President Karzai signing this decree, clearly to get the favour of an extremist cleric and the 20 per cent of votes that may be attendant upon that favour? Will the Australian government speak up about the repression of women by judicial decree against the constitution of Afghanistan and against international law?

Senator Brandis —Not unless it comes up at a focus group!

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) —Senator Brandis’s interjection is most unfortunate. Everyone in the Senate would be concerned about the conditions that—

Senator Brandis interjecting—

Senator CHRIS EVANS —Senator Brandis, I regard it as a serious issue, mate; you may not. But it is a serious issue—

The PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Evans, ignore the disorderly interjections and address the chair.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —I will take on notice the part of the question in which Senator Brown asks about the reaction of the Prime Minister and I will get a response to him about that. I have not seen any public commentary. But certainly, as I have made clear, this government does not support any moves to limit the rights of women or expose them to dangers. We support their right to take a full role in their societies, be that in Afghanistan or anywhere else. I will attempt to get you an answer to the specific matter you raised about our response to the decree. (Time expired)

Senator BOB BROWN —Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Will the minister get that response before the election in Afghanistan in the coming days rather than after it? I ask the minister: what does the government know about the asseverations that 17 million voter registration cards have been issued in Afghanistan—which is twice the number of eligible voters—and about the widespread use of the proxy system by men to vote on behalf of the women, who are left voteless in so-called democratic elections in Afghanistan?

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) —I will get the information for Senator Brown as quickly as I can. As Senator Brown would be aware, the Australian government is supporting international efforts to ensure that the elections are credible, secure and inclusive. We are making a substantial contribution to support the elections, including: an infantry company; approximately 120 troops to assist the Afghanistan National Security Forces with election security; additional military capacity to provide logistical support; $9 million in financial assistance, including funding for election observers from regional countries; and a small team of Australian civilians observers who will contribute to ensuring the polls are conducted properly. I think there is proper international scrutiny of these elections. Clearly, we will be interested to ensure that they are free and fair and the reporting of the international observers will inform us whether they were or were not.