If the political will to promote women's rights in Algeria truly existed, providing that country with the necessary impetus would put it clearly in the twenty-first century, an expert member of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against women said this afternoon, as the Committee continued its consideration of Algeria's report on its compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
Addressing the 23-member expert body that monitors compliance with the Convention, she appealed to the Algerian delegation to explain to its Government that progress for women was undeniably linked to the question of democracy. Algerian women should not be left behind; they could become Ministers, superior court judges, public administration officials, and so forth. They should be able to enroll their children in school without the signature of their fathers, and they should be able to make decisions about their lives without the permission of their husbands.
Experts acknowledged that attempts by the Government to eliminate patriarchal practices would take patience and tolerance. Eliminating deep- rooted prejudices was a painstaking process that required education as well as legislation outlawing discrimination. While efforts towards greater access to education should be applauded, the Government must pay more attention to the content of education, in order to truly modify social and cultural patterns.
Another expert warned that failure to recognize equality in the family would continue to impede the public life of Algerian women. Of critical importance was fashioning a new family court consistent with the Convention. The 1984 Family Code, currently under review, had borrowed from the teachings of the Koran, but a more enlightened interpretation would reveal Islam to be a religion of tolerance and understanding. The Family Code should no longer be used as an alibi to deny women their basic rights.
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Women must not be used as weapons of war, another expert warned. A comprehensive educational strategy in Algeria could preserve women's security, and reduce the incidence of rape and abduction. Moreover, it was the Government's obligation to encourage women who were victims of violence -- both within and outside the home -- to come forward, so that the perpetrators could be brought to justice. Another expert asked about assistance to women who had lost their sons and husbands to terrorism, particularly relating to guardianship of the children.
The Permanent Representative of Algeria, Abdallah Baali, said he had come before the Committee in good faith to present the report of his Government on its implementation of the Convention, which it had ratified just two years ago. He sought the Committee's assistance wherever his Government had erred or wherever it had not worked hard enough. The experts' questions were far too important for a speedy answer. He would take the allotted time to respond to them at the scheduled meeting next week.
The Committee will meet again at 10 a.m. Friday, 22 January, to begin its consideration of the initial report of Kyrgyzstan.
Committee Work Programme
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this afternoon to continue posing questions to the Government of Algeria on its initial report submitted under article 18 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. That article provides for States to submit reports on legislative, judicial, administrative and other measures adopted to give effect to the provisions of the Convention. The report, the first since Algeria ratified the Convention in 1996, reviews actions undertaken by the authorities to give effect to the rights of women in that country. Prepared by a number of ministerial departments and institutions, it provides an overview of the current status of Algerian women and the practical measures that have been taken since the Convention came into force. (For further background on the report, see Press Release WOM/1079 issued this morning).
Comments on Specific Articles by Experts
Some experts said that although the report was a comprehensive and substantive one, they were disturbed that Algeria still had several reservations on the Convention, especially article 2, legal and administrative measures undertaken to eliminate discrimination. They believed that reservations on that particular article undermined the Convention altogether. One expert said it was confusing that Algeria had stated it had reservations on article 2 while it also stated that it had implemented that article. Also, why was reservation necessary on the most important article, the very heart of the Convention? While Algeria was undergoing political conflict, it was the responsibility of the Government to protect the vulnerable groups in society, especially women, who were victims in civil strife. Was there any specific timetable for the withdrawal of the reservation on article 2?
The expert also asked about the role of the Council for the Preservation of Family under the Ministry of Family. What was its mandate? Also, did it define women's rights within the family? In that context, in what areas would the revision in the family code take place?
Regarding violence against women, one expert asked what measures were being taken to identify who the aggressors were, and whether any investigations had been undertaken to determine their identity.
Another expert asked what exactly was being done by the machinery created by the Government to monitor discrimination against women. She also asked what the relationship was between that machinery and the women's movement in the country.
Another expert, also speaking on article 2, said that in developing countries, laws were not enough; social policies were needed to reinforce them.
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Concerning Algeria's reservation to article 2, the report had stated that except in the family court, the principle of equality was recognized, but what happened when such a substantial area of life, namely family life, did not reflect that principle. Indeed, there was a close interface between the private sphere of family life and a woman's public life. Failure to recognize equality in the family impacted on the public life of women. She therefore hoped that the reservations to articles 2 and 9, dealing with nationality, would be reconsidered.
Coming from a country with internal conflict, the expert said she understood that protection of bodily integrity and the right to freedom from violence was at the core of all human rights. Although abortion laws had been revised to allow abortion in cases of rape, what about custodial violence in that situation? Had there been any prosecutions, and what exactly was the implication of acts of violence? Further, when the male head of a household disappeared, how were women affected or aided by the Government? Had there been efforts to establish crisis centres or other support facilities for women victims of rape and violence? While the Government had created many institutions to protect human rights and guard against violence and torture, it was unclear how women gained access to the courts. By what means were police complaints investigated?
She said that Algeria was special among developing countries for having recognized that citizenship could be passed through the mother, but that was somewhat limited. She sought additional information about the implications of that nationality law, including the implications of migrant women and their children who chose to return to Algeria.
On article 3, relating to the elimination of discrimination and the advancement of women, she said scant attention had been given in the report to coordination activities. What resources had been allocated for that purpose, and did the State structure have sufficient skills to coordinate those actions? Moreover, was there a national policy or plan of action for the advancement of women, and had women themselves been involved in its design? Those were fundamental questions relating to article 3, which demanded that the elaboration of provisions be converted into action.
The experts said that implementation of article 4, on accelerating de facto equality, was very important. Indeed, there was hardly a State party to the Convention for whom implementation of that article was not necessary, including the highly developed countries. The measures enumerated under article 4 in the report, including prohibitions against night work or dangerous tasks for women, were not temporary special measures, and they did not accelerate de facto equality. On the contrary, they hindered equal access to employment for women and ran contrary to both articles 2 and 11, concerning employment discrimination. If misunderstood, article 4 could be misused. She directed the Algerian delegation to the Committee's general recommendations
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5 and 8, which had been used by Governments to assist proper implementation of the Convention.
Another expert asked if the Government had envisaged using temporary measures to hire a few more women, train them or encourage their involvement in the work place, in light of the high level of unemployment among them.
Turning to article 5, dealing with sex roles and stereotypes, another expert expressed deep admiration and solidarity with Algerian women who had so heroically participated in the struggle for freedom and were now battling fundamentalist violence. The Government's aim to eliminate patriarchal practices would take patience and tolerance. The possible rejection of legal measures pointed to the need for considerable efforts to transform existing ideologies. The report had also expressed the need to reinterpret the power of religion in Algerian society. Towards that goal, the Government might consider withdrawing its reservations to the Convention over time. Meanwhile, those should not delay complete implementation of the Convention.
While access to education was indeed a positive step, that could not be the only measure towards eradicating prejudice, she said. Algerian society was clearly marked by deep-rooted cultural views, which resulted in non-compliance with the Convention and with some of the forward-thinking domestic legislation. She asked about specific programmes to ensure changes in mindset, and whether training programmes for governmental authorities or members of the armed forces were being considered. What role was the mass media going to play, and to what degree did women participate in the media? Clearly, very few women were involved in decision-making positions.
Another expert, with a self-described Confucian background, said she shared a great deal with Algerians attempting to eliminate deep-rooted attitudes towards women. That was a painstaking process that required education as well as legislation outlawing discrimination. While efforts towards greater access to education should be applauded, the Government must pay more attention to the content of education, in order to truly modify social and cultural patterns. Had any steps been taken to revise textbooks and curriculums, and was sharing of responsibility in the family being taught? In a related comment, another expert expressed concern that women were used as weapons in terrorist activities, and asked whether the Government had recognized the urgent need to define a global strategy in that regard. Women must not serve as weapons of war in times of conflict; rather, their positive role must be highlighted. A global education strategy could preserve their security and, above all, prevent so many rapes.
Another expert noted that Algeria's Constitution guaranteed women's security in the face of terrorism. Did the State provide shelter or refuge for women who had lost their sons or husbands to terrorism? Further, were damages paid to them if their husbands had been lost through terrorism? How could they ensure guardianship of their children in those cases? She also sought
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information about two other phenomenons of violence in Algeria: paedophilia and incest.
With regard to violence against women, one expert believed that it was the Government's obligation to encourage women who were victims of violence to come forward, so that the perpetrators could be brought to court. In that respect, she asked whether the Government had any public campaigns to educate and raise the awareness of the public regarding violence against women. Also, the report stated that domestic violence was not a problem in Algeria, while at the same time, it stated that everything must be done to suppress the problem. How could that contradiction be explained?
Another expert was concerned because the rights regarding the dissolution of marriage that are guaranteed according to the report did not seem to carry over into family law. Also, she wanted to know what the definition of a minor was with regard to the country's Criminal Code, which called for punishment in cases of violence against a minor. An expert also asked why the 22 amendments to the Family Code had not been acted on yet.
Turning to article 6, on the suppression of the traffic in and of the exploitation of the prostitution of women, an expert asked for an explanation on the contents of Articles 332 to 335 of Algeria's Constitution, which referred to law enforcement on that issue.
Another expert asked whether there was an omnibus or general official policy of the Government to manage all forms of violence against women, and whether the Government had any statistics regarding violence.
Several experts wanted to know what concrete measures were being taken to help women who were victims of violence. For example, were there shelters to protect them and help them in recovery efforts? In that context, an expert asked how violence between spouses was perceived in Algerian society. Also, had there been any attempt to change the attitudes of men towards violence, and what role did the media play in education?
Another expert asked what measures were being undertaken by the Government to inform law enforcement officials about the issue of violence against women, so that no further victimization would take place under the authorities.
Turning to article 7, elimination of discrimination against women in political and public life, one expert was pleased with the fact that, starting in 1995, married women had had the right to vote on their own and not by proxy.
It was noted by an expert that there were several women in Parliament, and she asked for information on which political parties they belonged to. Also, what had been Parliament's reaction, since equality between the sexes was guaranteed by law?
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Another expert wanted to know what some of the direct proposals for revising the Family Code were.
Questions were also raised concerning the Council of the Nation, which had 11 women judges. Clarification was sought as to the function and mandate of that body, as well as what the ratio of men and women that served in it were. The total number of members was asked about, as were the qualifications required for membership.
Regarding article 9, equal rights to acquire, change or retain their nationality, one expert asked that the Government consider the interface between the issues of nationality and the core issues of discrimination.
Turning to article 10, elimination of discrimination against women in the field of education, one expert asked whether those women with university degrees had found the jobs they sought. Also, could women pursue their careers throughout life along with family responsibilities? In reference to the fact that women were well represented in the educational sector, it was asked what the number of women were in university faculties and their fields of specialization.
Experts also wanted to know what special measures were being taken by the Government in the field of education, particularly to enforce compulsory education with regard to the girl child.
Another expert asked what resources had been accorded promoting women's sports, an area in which they were lagging behind. Also, were there any prohibitions or dress regulations that prevented girls and women from participating? In addition, was it culturally acceptable for girls to participate in all sports?
Turning to Article 11, elimination of discrimination against women in the field of employment, an expert noted that, according to the report Algerian legislation enshrined equality in employment. However, some experts wanted to know whether equal pay for equal work was actually practiced. Also, had there been any measures taken to halt the striking unemployment rate of women? The Government was also asked to explain the social reasons as to why women left work after the age of 30. Another expert noted that although there was an egalitarian attitude toward working women in Algeria, they only made up 8 per cent of the total workforce.
While the report mentioned that positive measures were being taken for women who lived in socially vulnerable areas, an expert wanted clarification on what those areas were. Also, could women in difficulty easily find work or were they subjected to discrimination in the job market?
Concerning job security, an expert asked whether job security of women was affected by pregnancy or marital status. In that context, another expert asked
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whether it was true that women needed their husband's consent to work outside the home, and if so, would the revision in the Family Code address that issue? Also, had the Government and private sector created childcare facilities. The question of measures to address sexual harassment and violence in the workplace was also raised.
One expert noted that the definition of discrimination in the Labour Act of 1996 was not the same as the definition in the Convention. Was there any intention to change that? She asked what the penalties for discrimination were and whether there was any compensation for female workers who were discriminated against. Regarding part-time workers, did they have the same rights as full- time workers and did they receive the same benefits? another expert asked.
Concerning article 12, on equal access to health care, an expert said that the report had failed to provide information on the methods of contraception most commonly used in Algeria. She also asked whether men were also involved in the family planning programmes, either as educators or beneficiaries, and whether women opted more often for long-term or short-term family planning. Concerning maternal health, she cited the large discrepancy in the number of urban women who received pre-natal health care compared to rural women. Calling that a "gross discrimination", she asked what was being done to close the gap.
She said that while the report stated that maternal mortality had remained a major concern, it had not mentioned the major causes of maternal and infant mortality. Was induced abortion a problem, and if so, how were patients needing post-abortion medical care being treated in the hospitals? Given the scant information about health care for elderly women, she sought additional analysis. For a country in transition, the ratio of doctors to the population was commendable, but was the Government conducting the necessary research on specific women's health issues, and had it involved local communities in that process?
Information on substance abuse among women was also absent from the report, she said. What percentage of the State's national budget was spent on health, and how efficient was the management of the health system? Were all relevant women's health issues, including ethical issues, covered in the training of physicians and other health care workers? She also asked whether the State had enacted laws prohibiting child marriage, which had health implications, and whether there were effective procedures for imposing sanctions on improper health care professionals.
Another expert cited the population explosion in Algeria as its most important problem. According to the report, approximately half of the population was under the age of 20. That population could double in a short time, and undermine the fruits of economic progress, foment unemployment, cause instability in society and marginalize its most vulnerable members, especially women. Birth control measures, although practised by an increasing number of
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Algerian women, were not sufficient to alleviate the population explosion, which required much more drastic measures.
Turning to article 14, on economic and social benefits, another expert noted that rural women had not benefitted as much from development as urban women. They, therefore, deserved special attention, including studies to assess their particular needs. While the report stated that women were over-burdened, it had made no mention of efforts undertaken to lighten those burdens, or ways in which they could improve their status. She also wanted to know whether there were women heads of business. Noting that women usually did not have enough confidence to seek out loans or received only modest sums, she asked whether any strategy had been devised to encourage them to increase their incomes.
Another expert, noting that the report had indicated that the prostitution of women and children was not a serious problem in Algeria, said that it was nonetheless a scourge throughout the world. Thus, she sought information on what was planned to eradicate it. If the Government had identified any of the fundamentalist groups, how many of them had been detained and what was the policy towards them? Clearly, at the end of the century, violence was being used in certain countries as a weapon against women.
Turning to article 16, on equality in marriage and family life, an expert said that to justify the authority of the Family Code, the authorities had invoked aspects of Islamic law, the Sharia. Algerian women had not been consulted, and the Code had been adopted by a conservative male Parliament. The problem today was interpreting that text. The fundamentalists and armed terrorist groups that sought to enslave women must instead be provided with a progressive and tolerant model based on the economic and social improvements seen throughout the world.
It should be remembered, she said, that Islam was a religion of tolerance and understanding, which had striven to provide women in difficult conditions with rights they had never had, including the right to life, divorce and inheritance. Islam had not invented polygamy. It had limited it to four women, as a first step forward. Now, nothing prevented governments from rejecting that practice. The Koran should be reinterpreted; it should no longer be used as an alibi to deny women their basic rights. Her own country, Tunisia, had abolished polygamy in 1956 and had restored women's legitimate rights.
Indeed, the Koran could be a catalyst in ensuring acceptance of the proposed amendments to the Family Code in Algeria, she said. It could also serve to change the mindset and promote development. If the political will to promote women's rights in Algeria truly existed, providing that country with the necessary impetus would put it clearly in the twenty-first century.
For the hundreds of women whose husbands were missing, the Government must assist them in finding the missing persons, as well as equitable legal solutions
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as soon as possible, she said. Those circumstances had placed them in an untenable legal, financial and social situation, for which help was needed.
Another expert appealed to the Algerian Ambassador to do everything in his power to explain to the Government that progress for women was undeniably linked to the question of democracy. The Algerian women should not be left behind; they could become Ministers, superior court judges, public administration officials, and so forth. They should be able to enroll their children in school without the signature of their fathers, and they should be able to live freely without the permission of their husbands. "We are embarking on a new era", and Algeria was a country that, in many respects, had shown the way to the Arab world. It should also learn from the example of other countries that had overcome similar difficulties.
Of critical importance to the situation of women in Algeria was fashioning a new family court consistent with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, another expert declared. The present family court, which had emerged in 1984, had been replaced by new realities, including the ratification by Algeria in 1996 of the Convention. Rather than amending the court piecemeal, efforts should be undertaken to develop a new one.
ABDALLAH BAALI, Permanent Representative of Algeria, warmly thanked Committee members for their appreciation of the presentation. He also thanked them for their comments and questions. His delegation had come before the Committee in good faith to present the report on their Government's implementation of the Convention, which it had ratified just two years ago. The Algerian authorities sought the Committee's assistance wherever they had erred or wherever they had not worked hard enough. The questions were far too important for a speedy answer. He would take the allotted time to respond at the scheduled meeting next week.
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