The position and status of women in Hong Kong had been constantly improving, a representative of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region told the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women this morning, as it considered the Region's initial report on compliance with the Women's Convention.
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women had been extended to Hong Kong on 14 October 1996, and had remained in force since the Region's reunification with China on 1 July 1997, David H.T. Lan, Secretary for Home Affairs of the Region, told the 23-member expert body, which monitors compliance with the Convention. Hong Kong had a well- established and comprehensive framework -- including the Sex Discrimination Ordinance and the Equal Opportunities Commission -- in place to handle all matters relating to women and the protection of their rights.
In 1997, he continued, women had accounted for 39 per cent of the total working population in the region, and currently two out of the three highest ranking Government officials were women. Also, the proportion of women engaged in occupations which were traditionally dominated by males, such as in the police and fire departments, had risen gradually. In 1997, more than half of the university graduates had been female. In addition, the infant mortality rate in Hong Kong was among the lowest in the world, and the life expectancy for females had reached an average of 82.2 years -- much longer than the 76.8 years for males.
Several experts expressed appreciation to the Government for their efforts in guaranteeing to all its citizens their fundamental rights and freedoms. One expert was particularly pleased to see that the Convention was publicized on the Internet. On the other hand, an expert stated that, while more than 16,000 copies of the Convention had been distributed, given the size of Hong Kong's population, which included 2 million women, distribution of the Convention should be increased.
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One expert commended the Region's Sex Discrimination Ordinance and Equal Opportunities Commission, saying they were a wonderful example of what could be done when adequate resources were allocated to improve the status of women. However, she noted there were still some issues that had not been adequately addressed. There was no national women's machinery empowered with the appropriate resources to steer and coordinate a long-term strategy to ensure that women's gains stayed in place. She urged the Government to consider the establishment of such machinery to better implement the Convention and the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action.
Concern was also expressed over Hong Kong's electoral system, which one expert said appeared to be a structural obstacle to the fair representation of women in Government. Another expert asked whether there was indirect discrimination within the functional constituencies, since women were under- represented in those bodies from which candidates were drawn. She urged the Government to reconsider the establishment of an electoral system of one person, one vote. Also, affirmative action measures would be helpful to increase the number of women in those bodies within a short period of time.
On the question of establishing a uniform body specifically for women's issues, Mr. Lan said the present mechanisms for governmental decision-making addressed women's issues at the highest levels. There was also the Equal Opportunities Commission to address discrimination issues, among other things, and the establishment of another commission or mechanism would be redundant at the current stage.
The Committee will meet again at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 3 February, to consider the fourth periodic report of Colombia.
Committee Work Programme
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this morning to begin its consideration of the initial report of China on Hong Kong (document CEDAW/C/CHN/3-4/Add.2), over which it resumed sovereignty on 1 July 1997. The report has been submitted under article 18 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which provides for States parties to submit reports on legislative, judicial, administrative and other measures adopted to implement the provisions of the Convention. (For background on the report, see Press Release WOM/1092 of 1 February.)
Statement by Government
QIN HUASUN, Permanent Representative of China to the United Nations, said he wanted to make some further clarifications in response to questions posed by experts yesterday. It was necessary to have an exchange of views, and the Committee needed to understand China's implementation of the Convention from the Government's point of view. Regarding the use of micro- credit in rural areas, he said that from the beginning of the 1990s, China had implemented micro-credit programmes among rural women. The projects were now widespread in poverty-stricken areas and their main beneficiaries were rural women. The Government was grateful to Bangladesh, from whom it had learned how to institute the policy of micro-credit. Non-official organizations had also been carrying out projects to eliminate poverty, such as the "Happiness Project", which provided micro-credit to poor mothers.
Turning to the elimination of female illiteracy, he said that when China had handed in its second report, illiterate women had made up 32 per cent of the total female population. In 1997, that had been reduced to 23 per cent. The number given in the current report, 70 per cent, referred to the percentage of illiterates in the total population. The illiteracy rate of China was 15.8 per cent -- that figure included all illiterates both male and female.
With regard to China's implementation of labour laws in economic development zones, he said that domestic laws were applicable to all economic development zones. Law enforcement was taking active measures to strengthen the rights and interests of workers.
He said that regarding China's prison system and its treatment of prisoners, the country's legislation had a series of provisions for the special protection of women prisoners. Those provisions were also applicable to all ethnic minority areas. There was no doubt that women's rights were an important part of the human rights question. However, human rights did not refer to women's rights alone, and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women was not the major forum for the discussion of
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human rights questions. In the international human rights field, there existed many different views, which sometimes manifested themselves in confrontation. He said that allowing the discussion of human rights questions to be dealt with in the Human Rights Committee would be conducive to Anti-Discrimination Committee's work and beneficial to all Member States. China was a developing country with a population of 1.2 billion. Taking its population, national conditions and level of economic development into account, the implementation of the Convention presented an arduous task.
Introduction of Report
DAVID H.T. LAN, Secretary for Home Affairs of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, introduced Hong Kong's report. Hong Kong had a good human rights record, and the human rights protection framework after the handover was considered to be even more profound, he said. Its spirit of the rule of law, legal system and truly independent judiciary contributed to the effective implementation of the protection provided by law.
The rights of women were protected by legislation in Hong Kong, he continued. The Sex Discrimination Ordinance, enacted in 1995, rendered unlawful discrimination on the grounds of sex, marital status or pregnancy in specified areas of activity including employment, education, provision of goods, facilities, services and premises, club activities and the Government. The Ordinance outlawed sexual harassment and discriminatory practices. It was also unlawful to publish or cause to be published any advertisement which was discriminatory.
He said the Equal Opportunities Commission, established under the Ordinance in May 1996, was an independent statutory organization whose responsibility was to eliminate discrimination and promote equality of opportunities between men and women. It was responsible for enforcing the three ant-discrimination ordinances, namely the Sex Discrimination Ordinance, the Family Status Discrimination Ordinance and the Disability Discrimination Ordinance. The Commission handled complaints, conducted formal investigations, encouraged conciliation between parties in dispute, provided assistance to aggrieved persons, and launched public education and research programmes to promote the message of equal opportunities in the community. It was also empowered to issue codes of practice to provide practical guidelines to facilitate public compliance with the provisions of the ordinances.
The position and status of women in Hong Kong had been improving, he said. In 1997, women accounted for 39 per cent of the total working population. Currently, two out of the three highest ranking Government officials were women. Also, the proportion of women engaged in occupations which were traditionally dominated by males had risen gradually, for example in the police force and the fire department.
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Education was a pre-requisite for the advancement of women's status, he continued. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government was committed to providing equal education opportunities for both genders. Males and females had equal access to education and, in 1997, more than half of the university graduates had been female.
In the area of health, he said that the Government offered a comprehensive range of preventive, curative and rehabilitative health care services for women of all ages. Presently there were three Women Health Centres which provided services for women in the region of Hong Kong, Kowloon and the New Territories. The infant mortality rate in Hong Kong was among the lowest in the world. In addition, the life expectancy for females had reached an average of 82.2 years, which was much longer than the 76.8 years for males.
The Government was determined to adopt every possible measure to strive for women's welfare, he said. The various bureaus and departments of the Government had all along been working to protect women's welfare and rights. In addition, the establishment of the Equal Opportunities Commission also helped the elimination of discrimination against women. Thus, Hong Kong already had a well-established and comprehensive framework in place to handle all matters relating to women and the protection of their rights.
The Convention had been extended to Hong Kong on 14 October, 1996 and had remained in force since the reunification on 1 July, 1997, he said. The Chinese Government had entered seven reservations and declarations in respect of the provisions of the Convention as applied to Hong Kong. As those reservations had been made in light of the special circumstances in Hong Kong, the Special Administrative Region Government, after careful consideration, had decided not to make any changes at the moment. However, the applicability of those reservations would be reviewed from time to time.
Replies by Government
Advisors from the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region then replied to questions posed by Committee experts following the meeting of their pre-sessional working group from 11 to 15 January. Highlights of those replies follow, in the order in which questions were posed.
-- since the reunification with mainland China, Hong Kong residents had enjoyed better protection as their rights were now entrenched in the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of China;
-- The Special Administrative Region continued to abide by a number of human rights treaties and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women was one of them; however, the Government did have reservations to the Convention that would continue to apply to Hong Kong;
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-- promoting gender equality was one of the major functions of the Equal Opportunities Commission, which was charged with implementing anti- discrimination laws;
-- setting up an extra mechanism to promote gender equality and advancement of women would be a duplication of efforts and a waste of resources;
-- to encourage more women to serve on advisory and statutory boards, members of women's organizations, professional bodies, academic institutions and others were invited to indicate interest to serve on those bodies;
-- the number of women appointed to those bodies had increased by about 119 per cent in the last 10 years;
-- victims of domestic violence had access to a wide range of social welfare services including 65 family services centres which provided family counselling and casework assistance;
-- to combat domestic violence in Hong Kong, 79 family resource centres had been set up in all districts to provide advice;
-- hotline services were also available to provide information and enquiry services to needy couples and individuals;
-- there were three 24-hour shelters operating for battered women and their children;
-- various forms of sexual violence, including incest, rape and buggery, were outlawed by the Crimes Ordinance, and sexual harassment was outlawed by the Sex Discrimination Ordinance;
-- the Equal Opportunities Commission had also been using a variety of publicity and public education measures to address the issue of sexual harassment;
-- under the Marriage Ordinance, amended in 1997, a mother enjoyed the same parental right as a father to give consent to a child between the age of 16 and 21;
-- another recently amended law removed the difference between the treatment of a son and a daughter and defined dependent children as anybody who had not reached 18;
-- the concept of human rights, including equal opportunities, was continuously featured in civic education to the community;
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-- the concept of equal opportunities for men and women in civil, political and social rights had been incorporated in both the formal and informal curricula at both the primary and secondary levels;
-- being a prostitute or a client was not unlawful in Hong Kong; however, in some cases a prostitute might be prosecuted for soliciting in public;
-- with regard to "pimping", it was unlawful to harbour control or direction over another person with the intention that the person shall do unlawful sexual acts;
-- laws also prohibited the procurement of the prostitution of underage or defective persons;
-- with respect to trafficking of women and girls, laws provided for a maximum penalty of life imprisonment for anyone found selling and kidnapping any person, including a women or female child;
-- under the law, parties to a marriage could not be under age 16, and if they were under 21, written consent was needed;
-- mentally disordered persons or persons of unsound mind were not eligible to contract any marriage;
-- in Hong Kong, women and men enjoyed the same right to vote and to stand for election;
-- a person's sex was not a criterion to qualify or disqualify a person as an elector or a candidate in an election of the Special Administrative Region;
-- the number of females participating in public life had been increasing;
-- sexual education had been implemented at all levels of education in both formal and informal curricula, and was accessible to both males and females;
-- the Sex Discrimination Ordinance did not specifically refer to the principle of equal pay for work of equal value; however, the Government supported proposals that would enable the realization of equality;
-- it was unlawful for a person to engage in conduct of a sexual nature which created a sexually hostile or intimidating work environment for a women;
-- maternity protection and benefits in Hong Kong were adequate and
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struck an equitable balance between the interests of employers and employees;
-- both migrant and local workers enjoyed the same benefits conferred by the Employment Ordinance and other labour legislation; however, occupational safety and health laws did not apply to domestic helpers;
-- termination of a pregnancy by a medical practitioner was allowed if two registered medical practitioners were of the opinion that the pregnancy would cause risk to the physical or mental health of the mother;
-- the New Territories Land Ordinance had removed the traditional inhibition against women to inherit land and housing properties in the New Territories;
-- there was no law that prohibited cohabitation in the Region;
-- if a relation between cohabitants dissolved, any dispute regarding properties could be settled in court, in accordance with common law rules.
Comments by Experts
Several experts expressed appreciation to the Government for their efforts in guaranteeing all citizens their fundamental rights and freedoms. One expert was particularly pleased to see that the Convention was publicized on the Internet. On the other hand, an expert noted, while more than 16,000 copies of the Convention had been distributed, given the size of Hong Kong's population, which included 2 million women, distribution of the Convention should be increased. She recommended the holding of information days and campaigns to raise awareness of the Convention's significance.
One expert stated that it would have been worthwhile for the Government to have included non-governmental organizations in discussions prior to the preparation of the report. It would have been beneficial considering the important role they played in advancing the status of women in Hong Kong.
One expert commended the Region's Sex Discrimination Ordinance and Equal Opportunities Commission, saying it was a wonderful example of what could be done when adequate resources were allocated to improve the status of women. However, she said that there were still some issues that had not been adequately addressed. While the Ordinance prohibited gender discrimination, there was no constitutional legislation to accompany that policy. Also, while the Commission was doing good work in resolving discrimination and educating the public at large, there was no national machinery empowered with the appropriate resources to steer and coordinate a long-term strategy to ensure that women's gains stayed in place.
Another expert also urged that the Government reconsider the
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establishment of a women's national machinery. Its establishment would be a decisive step forward and would signify to men and women that the Government was serious about implementing the Convention and the Beijing Platform for Action.
Concern was expressed over Hong Kong's electoral system. One expert said that the electoral system appeared to be a structural obstacle to the fair representation of women in Government and in Parliament. Another expert asked whether there was indirect discrimination within the functional constituencies, since women were under-represented in those bodies from which candidates were drawn. She urged the Government to reconsider the establishment of an electoral system of one person, one vote. Also, affirmative action measures would be helpful to increase the number of women in those bodies within a short period of time. One expert asked the Government to examine ways of getting more women elected. The use of quotas within political parties and campaigns to get women to vote for women were two of her suggestions.
Many experts urged the Government to hold a review, perhaps on an annual basis, of its reservations to the Convention, with a view to removing them altogether. Otherwise, those reservations would allow for discrimination against women in their respective areas.
Turning to education, one expert said that more aggressive measures were needed to address the situation of men and women in different areas of study. There were more women in the areas of social sciences and art, while there were more men in the technical and scientific areas. She asked what the causes of that continuing imbalance, which was even more pronounced in the field of engineering, were. Also, she wanted to know whether there was any streamlining in early education, which reflected the society's traditional attitudes as to what was proper for girls and boys. A question about the gender composition of teaching staff with respect to different levels was also raised. It was noted that while there were more females in the teaching profession, males accounted for the majority of school principals. She asked what was being done to remedy the fact that women represented only 15 per cent of full professors.
An expert was concerned over the accuracy of the information provided on the treatment of foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong. Was there a move to cut the minimum wage of those workers? she asked. If that was true, it would be a harmful indication of the lack of Government desire to protect foreign domestic workers, the majority of whom were women. It was stated that a female domestic worker should be given protection corresponding to the dangers she faced in her work environment. The expert said she did not see anything in the report pertaining to protection provided to female foreign workers.
Regarding prostitution, it was stated that while it was legal for both
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prostitutes and clients, there was no description of the protective measures in place for prostitutes.
Turning to women and employment, one expert stated that legislation in Hong Kong was not clear as to equal pay for equal work. Clear-cut laws were needed, and the Government could look to the International Labour Organization (ILO) and European Union directives if they needed guidance in that area. The criteria should be the same for establishing equal pay. What was needed was a system to identify criteria to find out how one type of work was equal to another.
Responses by Special Administrative Region Representatives
Mr. LAN, Secretary for Home Affairs, said there had been a process of public consultation in preparation for the report to the Committee. It had been a practice since the mid-1990s to consult with non-governmental organizations and other interested groups. While the Special Administrative Region had not been able to agree with everything they had had to say, there had been consultation.
On the question of establishing a uniform body specifically for women's issues, he said the present mechanisms for governmental decision-making addressed women's issues at the highest levels. Women's matters touched on so many different spheres that it would be difficult for one body to address all of them. There was also the Equal Opportunities Commission to address discrimination issues, among other things. The establishment of another commission or mechanism would be redundant at the current stage.
On a functional constituency system, he said such a system where functional bodies and groups elect their own representatives had been in existence since 1985. It was a transitional system, however, and eventually there would be a general election. It was difficult to say whether that system favoured males or females, but it might deserve further study.
On various reservations to the Convention, a representative said the Special Administrative Region would continue to review in its efforts to fully comply with the Convention.
On foreign domestic helpers, another representative said that in Hong Kong all employers must pay the minimum wage allowable for all workers. That was in place to protect foreign workers from exploitation and to protect the jobs of local workers. The current minimum wage was 3,860 Hong Kong dollars per month. However, taking into account the current recession and unemployment, the decision had been made to lower that wage to 3,760 dollars for new contracts.
On various retirement schemes, the representative said the differences
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in treatment between men and women reflected various practical problems. However, less than 5 per cent of retirement schemes contain such different provisions and those differences were being phased out over time.
On textbook review, he said that such reviews were an ongoing exercise. Most publishers complied with non-discrimination guidelines and there was little gender stereotyping in textbooks.
Mr. LAN said that further responses to question would be submitted to the Committee in writing.
Mr. QIN, Permanent Representative of China to the United Nations, said the previous report on Hong Kong to the Committee reflected the continuing policy of one country-two systems. Foreign affairs were under the responsibility of the central Government; therefore, compliance with international conventions was under the responsibility of the central Government. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region had a different social, legal and economic system, however. That was why there was a separate report from the Region to the Committee and why Region representatives had responded to Committee questions. That demonstrated the policy of one country-two systems. This was the first time such an arrangement had been made for reporting, and it would be improved upon in the future.
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