Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women meets with Non-governmental Organizations

Committee on Elimination
of Discrimination against Women

Hears Statements from Non-Governmental Organizations on the Rights of Women in Oman, Montenegro, Paraguay and Mauritius

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women this afternoon met with non-governmental organizations to discuss the situation of the rights of women in Oman, Montenegro, Paraguay and Mauritius. The reports of the four countries will be reviewed by the Committee this week.

Representatives of non-governmental organizations in Oman delivered an oral report that also covered Kuwait, whose report will be considered next week. Concerns about the family law of Oman which assumed male authority and privilege over women were raised, as well as the reform of Muslim family laws. Other issues raised included assigned unequal rights and responsibilities, in areas such as capacity to marry, polygamy, right to divorce, guardianship of children and right to inheritance.

Speakers from non-governmental organizations in Montenegro spoke about the failure of the Montenegro to fulfil its obligation to women’s equality; violence against women; and the position of Roma, Ashkalia and Egyptian women. Family violence was widespread in Montenegro, but the State still failed to provide systematic response, such as funds, free legal aid and support services for victims.

Representatives of non-governmental organizations from Paraguay raised issues including sexual and reproductive rights, remunerated domestic work, violence, trafficking and sexual exploitation and the issues of rural and indigenous women, including right to land ownership and access to contraception.

Representatives of non-governmental organizations from Mauritius primarily spoke about violence against women and legalization of abortion. Abortion was currently an offence under the criminal code, and there have been 24,217 cases of health complications and 10 deaths as a result of back street abortions between 1997 and 2007.

Speaking during the discussion were representatives from Musawah, a coalition of five networks and civil society organizations in Paraguay, a coalition of 11 non-governmental organizations: Anima, Women’s Safe House, SOS Hotline for Women and Children Victims of Violence – Niksic, Montenegrin Women’s Lobby, House of Hope, Stella, Women For a Better Tomorrow, Women Alliance for Development, Bona Fide, League of Women Voters in Montenegro and Centre for Roma Initiatives and SOS Femmes Mauritius.

When the Committee reconvenes on Tuesday, 4 October at 10 a.m., it is scheduled to begin its consideration of the initial report of Oman (CEDAW/C/OMN/1).

Statements by Non-Governmental Organizations

Oman

ZAINAH ANWAR, Musawah, said that Musawah was a global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family, and she wished to address the Committee on the situation of Article 16 in Oman, specifically with regard to Muslim family laws. In the absence of a shadow report from civil society activists in Oman, Ms. Anwar hoped that the thematic report, covering both Oman and Kuwait, would provide critical information, analysis and recommendations that could be used as a resource during the constructive engagements with the States parties.

The family law of Oman, as in many other Muslim countries, assumed male authority and privilege over women, and assigned unequal rights and responsibilities, in areas such as capacity to marry, polygamy, right to divorce, guardianship of children and right to inheritance.

Musawah hoped that the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women would encourage the Government of Oman to make several changes, including: recognize Omani women as full and equal citizens with full and equal claims on the State; recognize the diversity of opinions, laws and practices in the Muslim world and the growing scholarship in Islam that recognized equality and justice; and promote human rights standards as intrinsic to the teachings of Islam, Oman’s Constitutional guarantees of equality and non-discrimination, and the lived realities of Omani men and women today. The Government should encourage open and inclusive public discussion regarding diversity of opinion and interpretations in Muslim laws and principles relating to family laws and practices. It should also enable independent women’s groups to take up those critical issues of discrimination against women, by raising public awareness on women’s rights and offering alternative ideas for reform to move the family towards relationships of equality, justice, dignity and mutual respect.

Paraguay

CLYDE SOTO, speaking on behalf of a coalition of five networks and civil society organizations in Paraguay, said the most critical issues for women’s human rights in Paraguay were sexual and reproductive rights; remunerated domestic work; violence; trafficking and sexual exploitation; and rural and indigenous women.

Ms. Soto said that women’s sexual and reproductive rights were not sufficiently recognized by the law. Adolescent pregnancy rates were alarming, one out of every four pregnancies in 2009 were girls and adolescents aged 10 to 19 years. Paraguay had one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the region, and all of those deaths could be avoided. About a quarter were consequences of abortions performed under unsafe conditions because it was illegal. Abortion was punishable under the penal Code with a prison sentence, the only exception being when it was done indirectly to save the life of a woman at risk from the pregnancy or childbirth. That was not done in practice, thus preventing women from seeking and accessing prompt medical attention after an abortion, due to the fear of being reported by healthcare facility personnel. Concerning remunerated domestic work, that occupation, which had a high predominance of women, continued to be subject to legal discrimination. The State should make the elimination of the legal discriminations against domestic workers and their enrolment in the social security situation, and full equality for domestic workers, a priority.

DINA CABANAS, speaking on behalf of the same coalition of five networks and civil society organizations in Paraguay, spoke about violence, trafficking and sexual exploitation. She said that the following obstacles to women’s access to justice were: use of reconciliation in cases of violence; inadequate questioning methods; sexist culture; lack of understanding of the language for women who are monolingual Guarani speakers; lack of full time hours in the courts and lack of statistical data. Also troubling was violence against and discriminatory treatment of lesbians and transgender individuals. Sexual exploitation of girls and female adolescents had risen in urban areas.

Rural and indigenous women suffered the consequences of economic and production models based on poverty and lack of opportunities. Many were excluded from land ownership and were affected by the uncontrolled use of agrochemicals. In addition they had fewer educational opportunities, less years of schooling and greater illiteracy rates. It was urgent that measures be established that guaranteed access to land, benefits and credit for women, acknowledgement of their productive role and the elimination of exploitation of indigenous women.

A representative of FIAN International, speaking on behalf of indigenous women in Paraguay and the non-governmental organization Chaco Paraguay and Pro Comunidades Indigenas, said the child mortality rate among indigenous persons was currently 106.7 per 1,000 live births, while the mortality rate overall in Paraguay was 20 deaths per 1,000 live births. The infection rates of tuberculosis were 10 times higher for indigenous women, and many children did not have any legal guarantees. The lack of water and other resources also affected the right to food. When food was available, people were limited to only one meal a day of rice or noodles, which was nutritionally inadequate. The ability for persons to feed themselves and their families was near impossible without food aid, a consequence of the discrimination against indigenous peoples.

Montenegro

MAJA RAICEVIC, speaking on behalf of a coalition of 11 non-governmental organizations: Anima, Women’s Safe House, SOS Hotline for Women and Children Victims of Violence – Niksic, Montenegrin Women’s Lobby, House of Hope, Stella, Women For a Better Tomorrow, Women Alliance for Development, Bona Fide, League of Women Voters in Montenegro and Centre for Roma Initiatives, spoke on three issues: failure of Montenegro to fulfil its obligation to women’s equality; violence against women; and the position of Roma, Ashkalia and Egyptian women. Despite adopting certain laws and policies aimed at advancing women’s equality, the lack of political will in their implementation had nullified their impact. The global economic crisis provided the State with ample explanation in failing to fulfil human rights of women. The Gender Equality Law did not provide any sanctions or remedies for violations of equality and had no impact on improving gender equality. Moreover the Gender Equality Department, as the key gender equality mechanism according to the Law, was not an independent body and operated within the Ministry for the Protection of Human and Minority Rights with very limited financial and human resources.

Family violence was widespread in Montenegro, but the State still failed to provide systematic response, such as funds, free legal aid and support services for victims. Despite the adoption of the Domestic Violence Act the procedures for effective implementation were still missing. The protection of victims in life threatening situations had not been envisaged in the criminal code and the Domestic Violence Act was also inadequate as it only provided for misdemeanour penalties. Although marital rape had been recognized by law, there was a lack of State efforts to enable access of women to that remedy. With regard to trafficking, there was concern that competent institutions did not invest sufficient effort to address the issue. None of the victims of human trafficking ever received compensation and the traffickers have got away with extremely light sentences.

Roman, Ashkali and Egyptian women were victims of multiple discrimination on the basis of their race and ethnicity. They were often subjected to degrading treatment and lack of assistance by the law enforcement officials and other institutions. They were also more exposed to the risk of trafficking, since many unescorted Roma children who begged on Montenegrin streets remained ‘invisible’ to relevant authorities.

Mauritius

AMBAL JEANNE, SOS Femmes, Mauritius, said their statement focused on two issues: violence against women and legalization of abortion. Ms. Jeanne said that violence against women was a serious issue in Mauritius and had yet to be tackled in an effected manner by the State. Perpetrators got away with only a low fine, and the occupation or tenancy orders – ensuring the survivor a roof over her head – were routinely refused. The State had also not invested in devising a programme for the survivors of violence that would enable them to access their rights independently, which include employment, housing and social security. At present, in order to escape domestic violence, in the absence of occupation and tenancy orders, the women had to leave their homes and jobs, as well as take their children away from education to go to the one shelter that would address their protection needs. There was an urgent and immediate need for more shelters in different parts of the island as well as more investment to ensure women were able to live their lives with dignity.

Regarding the legalisation of abortion, abortion was currently an offence under the criminal code. For those who could afford it there were private clinics that provided an abortion for payment, in the name of ‘curettage services’. However women with limited economic resources have not choice but to go for back street abortions at the risk of their own lives. The last figure from the Mauritius Family Planning Welfare Association in 1997 was an estimation of 20,000 back street abortions per year. There have been 24,217 cases of health complication and 10 deaths as a result of back street abortions between 1997 and 2007. The Government had promised to amend provisions to decriminalise abortion, and recognize certain grounds under which abortion could be permitted, such as rape, incest, pregnancy of minors, where the pregnancy may endanger the life of the woman, in cases of physical or mental disability of the baby, and in cases where women with disabilities may not be able to care for the baby.

Ms. Jeanne said that they wanted the right to safe abortion for all women, however, not only for specific cases. Despite those promises, there seemed to be no political will to follow through, given the strong religious lobby, led by the church, as well as faith-based organizations. That was despite the concluding observations by the present Committee to the Government in the year 2007.

Questions by Committee Members

A Committee member asked the Musawah representative to provide more information on the legal age of marriage in Oman, which was 18, although 16 was the age of consent. It was alleged that lower age marriages were quite common, however. The report did not give much information on polygamy, and the member asked for more information on the extent of polygamy in Oman. Had there been much cooperation with civil society?

Regarding the Mauritius report from SOS Femmes, had there really been any awareness of the ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), or public discussion on CEDAW during times of election or through the presence of a CEDAW expert in the Committee?

Another member asked the representative of the Paraguay coalition about maternal mortality and illegal abortions, and the sentencing for having an illegal abortion – women were said to be jailed for two years for having an abortion - had been any actual cases of women being jailed? Another question was the accessibility of contraception to women. Did they have facilities to lobby their Government about those issues?

A member asked about women domestic workers in Paraguay, and whether women were actually excluded from land ownership and whether there were legal impediments, and the referred-to uncontrolled use of agrochemicals.

For Montenegro, the member asked in what manner the human rights and freedom of protection bill would dilute the powers of the Ombudsman, and what were the current powers of the Ombudsman. Did the Ombudsperson have the right to impose sanctions? The law that required Counsellors and Members of Parliament to have a 30 per cent quota for women in parliament was positive, but the member asked what kind of recommendation the non-governmental organization would like the Committee to make to the State?

Regarding violence, were the two shelters in Montenegro run by non-governmental organizations or by the Government?

Although marital rape had been recognized by the law, there had been a lack of remedies provided to women; the member sought clarification on that.

Was the remark that the Gender Equality Department in Montenegro was not independent correct, and if so, how did the non-governmental organization think it should be made independent? The member also requested more information about the Ombudsman.

For Paraguay, regarding rural and indigenous women being excluded from land ownership, was that by law or by practice? Was it correct that if an indigenous labourer worked for a family, their wife would work for their family for free? Also, was there a minimum legal wage requirement or was it a matter of practice for the employers? What could those persons do to have their rights recognized?

Concerning women in Mauritius suffering from violence and their access to social security, was the comment on that valid for all women and all of their social benefits, whether they were victims of violence or not?

Several members asked the non-governmental organization Musawah about their reference to their inability to access local non-governmental organizations and women organizations in Oman. Could they elaborate what the reason was for that lack of cooperation? Were there non-governmental organizations working on women’s rights in Oman, or was there a lack of non-governmental organizations?

A member asked a question about ethnic minorities in Montenegro. The group they called Egyptians was a different group to the others, their status was different, and there were political reasons for that – was that correct? There were other groups who lived in Montenegro because of their political convictions, and those families were intending to return to Egypt. The member would like to have more information about that particular group, the Egyptians, whether they need particular assistance.

A question was asked about polygamy in Kuwait. Of course an attempt was made to base the practice on Sharia law. Islamic Sharia required equal treatment of men and women in both practical and moral terms. That was an issue so it was difficult to answer questions on that. What were the social factions in which polygamy was practised in Kuwait?

Responses by the Non-Governmental Organizations

Oman

ZAINAH ANWAR, Musawah, responded to questions on Oman. On the legal age of marriage, a 2005 study stated that 17 per cent of Omani girls and women between the ages of 15 to 19 were married. Even the State party report mentioned that even though 18 was the minimum age of marriage, marriage of underage girls did take place in Oman, due to cultural practices.

Regarding polygamy, the conditions were set out in the law, but broadly. A man had to show that he would be just and treat his wives equally. However, who was proving that, was it based on the man’s word? There was a big debate about the sort of evidence a court should review before giving a man permission to take a second wife.

On child custody, even though the Omani law gave priority custody to the mother, if a father challenged the ruling there were many occasions when a court then gave custody to the father.

Regarding the lack of civil society activism in the report to the Committee, there was a network of five Middle East/North Africa countries on family law reform, and they were organizing a regional consultation on that.

Regarding Oman’s announcement that it would withdraw its reservations to Article 16, that was hopeful news and Musawah were happy to share their resources with friends in Oman.

Regarding non-governmental organizations in Oman, they tried hard to locate a non-governmental organization or an activist in Oman to do the report, but it was a problem to find someone to get involved. There was one main Omani women’s organization which was supervised by the Omani Government, and did not address sensitive issues such as women’s autonomy. It was difficult for persons to work on women’s rights in Oman.

Paraguay

Regarding maternal mortality, amongst the causes there were several including bleeding, septicaemia and abortion. The maternal mortality rate was currently 105 women per 1,000 live births, which was very high. There had been instances of women being prosecuted for having abortions, which were publicized, and although they were not frequent they were enough to frighten women and prevent them seeking medical care after an abortion. There was a case of a woman who was chained to her hospital bed by police while they waited to arrest her, because she had practiced a voluntary abortion.

There had been an investigation on abortion and the penal system. However it would be useful to have statistic follow-up for those sort of questions

For access to contraceptives, there were assurances from the Government that they would be provided. However they were not available to women living in rural areas who did not have access to the healthcare system. In particular the provision of emergency contraception was questioned by fundamentalist groups. Women who wanted to have their fallopian tubes cut had first to provide a licence or written agreement from their husbands. That should be a decision taken by a woman alone.

Legal issues had been placed on the public agenda, thanks to the work carried out by non-governmental organizations with support from the secretariat. Nonetheless the legal changes had not materialised including in domestic work. They would like the Committee to urge the country to enshrine those.

There was a traditional practice in Paraguay that involved a minor, a boy or a girl, going to live with a relative with the aim of studying and having a room and board, and in return they were domestic workers. Often their situations were akin to domestic slavery and their conditions were not upheld. In 2004 approximately 60,000 young girls and boys were said to be living in those conditions. A major campaign was conducted, but the practice continued and more needed to be done.

Concerning ownership of land by women, to own the land women must be the head of households, which was discriminatory to women who were not the head of households. That led to a situation of not being able to access agricultural loans or credits.

With respect to the agrochemicals Paraguay primarily produced soya, which led to significant economic growth in the country. Growing soya meant major deforestation of land cultivated with soya and was generally associated with large companies. It directly influenced the lives of peasant families. The fumigation of extensive areas of land had direct influence on the health of women. The deaths of children have been registered several times, and there had been one conviction. There had also been cases of children being born with malformations. The policy for controlling the use of those agrochemicals was extremely important.

Regarding the question on indigenous woman, the partners of indigenous women worked on farms, and the conditions they worked in were similar to semi-slavery. The men working on the land were paid very low wages, and the work of indigenous women meant they were discriminated against, with very low wages. In many cases the women worked in the same establishments with their partners, and received about $7 per year.

Montenegro

MAJA RAICEVIC, speaking on behalf of a coalition of 11 non-governmental organizations: Anima, Women’s Safe House, SOS Hotline for Women and Children Victims of Violence – Niksic, Montenegrin Women’s Lobby, House of Hope, Stella, Women For a Better Tomorrow, Women Alliance for Development, Bona Fide, League of Women Voters in Montenegro and Centre for Roma Initiatives, said there were several questions raised regarding the new electoral law and the political participation of women. Ms. Raicevic said that she was not against quotas, but raised the concern that the new 30 per cent quota would not help women to become more engaged. The usual practice was that women in Montenegro were not on the electoral lists, and that unless woman were not in a better position on electoral lists they would remain under-represented in parliament. Together with women academics and women Members of Parliament they directed an appeal to the President of the Parliament to adopt a mandate that every third place on the electoral role would b be reserved for women. This was not acted upon, showing there was no political will to ensure greater political participation of women in political life. Political parties had been urged to raise the place of women on their electoral roles, and the Government to oblige political parties to cooperate.

Regarding the Ombudsman, concerns were raised that the new legislation would minimalize his powers.

The two existing women’s shelters were operated by non-governmental organizations alone and run on external funds and resources.

Further questions were about domestic violence in Montenegro and the protection measures; those were available only within domestic violence acts which defined violence to misdemeanour codes. The recommendation would be to impose the same level of protection measures as within the criminal law, as for minor misdemeanours.

Regarding the questions about the Roma, Ashkalia and Egyptian Women, they would submit a written answer once they had exact data.

Regarding the Gender Department, they knew it was very small as there were only two people working there, and did not know its budget. It had very limited resources.

No case of marital rape had ever been prosecuted in the criminal court. They would like to see more training and awareness-raising among traditional organs to better recognize marital rape as a crime.

Mauritius

The representative said that women without children usually had no access to social security benefits if they were not victims of domestic violence. Women who were victims of domestic violence needed social security as a matter of urgency. The only persons without children who had access to social security benefits were widows and pensioners. There were other shelters for domestic violence victims that were run by non-governmental organizations, but they only admitted women with children.

Women were not willing to enter politics because the parties had a very male structure and patriarchal practice. There was a mechanism called Women In Politics which lobbied and raised awareness for women to enter politics.

Concluding Remarks

SILVIA PIMENTEL, Chairperson of the Committee, in concluding remarks, thanked the non-governmental organizations for their valuable contribution, and finished with a quote from the Montenegro collation: “The global economic crisis has provided the State with ample explanation in failing to fulfil human rights of women”. The Chairperson said that was an important statement and something they should all bear in mind.

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