14 June 1999


Press Release
WOM/1135



GOVERNMENT OF BELIZE MUST ADDRESS LACK OF LEGAL RIGHTS FOR INFORMAL RELATIONSHIPS, WOMEN'S ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE TOLD

19990614

Committee Continues Consideration of Belize's Compliance With Convention on Elimination of Discrimination against Women

In Belize, where 59 per cent of children were born to single women, the Government must address the lack of legal rights for informal relationships, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women was told this afternoon.

These comments were made as the Committee continued its consideration of Belize's compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women -- an "international bill of rights for women" -- which it ratified in 1990.

Belize's formal legal system should not reject a cohesive functioning unit, experts said. As it stood, a woman co-habitating for years did not receive support. In fact, it was often because women lacked economic power that they consented to consensual or informal relationships without legal rights. It was important to recognize realities, and plan policy and interventions accordingly. When women did not receive support from the legal system, that encouraged men to be irresponsible.

In addition to informal relationships, the Government must also recognize the single-person family unit, one of the Committee's 23 expert members said. One-parent families depended on one income and were therefore generally the poorest. When such units involved girls as mothers, the situation was even more serious, since young mothers were not integrated into the labour market and not capable of shouldering family responsibilities appropriately.

An expert drew attention to Belize's practice of dismissing female teachers due to pregnancy. The Government paid for most of teachers' salaries


Women's Anti-Discrimination Committee - 1a - Press Release WOM/1135 433rd Meeting (PM) 14 June 1999

and schools' administrative costs, yet churches were able to impose that policy, which violated the Constitution itself. How did the Government plan to end such obvious discrimination? she asked.

The Government must take a second look at its restrictive abortion law, an expert said. Belize had ratified the Convention without reservations and, therefore, laws that contravened the letter and spirit of the Convention had to be reviewed and possibly amended.

In 1998, one of seven maternal deaths were due to septic or incomplete abortions, an expert noted. When women who had induced abortions went to hospitals, were they treated as emergencies or were they made to wait? she asked. If a women had to die for pregnancy-related causes, her right to life was being restricted.

In a country where HIV infection was so widespread, where prostitutes did not have access to safe sex and yet where religion exerted such a strong influence on society, could the Task Force on HIV/AIDS design a programme by which the entire population had access to contraceptives? an expert asked.

Other questions pertained to rural women. An expert wanted to know whether the Department of Women's Affairs and the Women's Commission provided training for rural women. Did those women have access to credit? What level of rural women lived in abject poverty? Other questions pertained to disparities in access to quality education between the urban and rural areas. A brief statement was made by Belize's Minister of Human Development, Youth and Women. She said her delegation would respond more fully when the Committee took up the reports of Belize again at a later meeting.

Also this afternoon, Hanna Beate Schopp-Shilling, expert from Germany and Chairperson of the Pre-sessional Working Group, which met from 8 to 10 February, presented the Group's report. The Group had prepared lists of issues and questions for four States parties -- Chile, Ireland, Spain and the United Kingdom. She also reported on her participation in the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. Following her presentation, comments were made by several experts and Angela King, the Secretary-General's Special Adviser on Gender Issues and the Advancement of Women.

When the Committee meets again at 10 a.m. tomorrow, it will be considering the situation of women in Nepal, for the first time since that country ratified the Convention in 1991.


Women's Anti-Discrimination Committee - 2 - Press Release WOM/1135 433rd Meeting (PM) 14 June 1999

Committee Work Programme

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this afternoon to continue its consideration of the combined initial and second periodic report of Belize (document CEDAW/C/BLZ/1-2), submitted under article 18 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. That article provides for States parties to submit reports on legislative, judicial, administrative and other measures adopted to give effect to the provisions of the Convention, which Belize signed in March 1990. (For further background on the report, see Press Release WOM/1134 issued this morning).

Experts Comments and Questions

With regard to education, one expert noted that extensive disparities existed in access to quality education between the urban and rural areas. Girls were doubly discriminated against. Also, despite that Belize was a religious society, teenage pregnancy was high and there was no uniform policy of re-entry into the school system. What also made education in Belize problematic was the quality of teachers, who were not well trained.

She also noted that while literacy rates were improving, the gap between the city and rural areas was widening. Perhaps the structural adjustment programme Belize underwent had a negative effect on that gap. She wanted to know what the impact of privatization was on that gap and whether it had contributed to the situation of education in the rural areas. If the schools were privatized, could poor people afford to send their children to the private schools? she asked.

Another expert noted the absence of information on higher education. The report had not made the connection between the lack of access to higher education and its implications. There was potential for using education and girls were taking advantage of that. However, the absence of upward mobility through education limited their chances of improving their life situation. In the rural sector, women lacked training and marketing skills. If they had access to education, such as agricultural schools, they could be successful. It was also said that because women lacked economic power, they had a greater tendency to consent to consensual or informal relationships, in which they had no legal rights.

In addition, she said that prostitution of the young was connected to the lack of economic opportunities. In recognizing the absence of women at decision-making levels, the Government would also recognize the need for affirmative-action measures to redress that situation. She wanted to know how those measures would be put into action when women did not have access to higher education. Where would those women be found? she asked. The report had not addressed that policy gap. An expert noted that with regard to employment, discrimination was widespread. The Constitution of Belize protected people from being treated in a discriminatory manner, and there was a Labour Commissioner and a Labour Board. So it seemed that there were institutions in place to look at whether there was discrimination. Provisions to regulate work also existed, but they did not cover the following areas: shop assistance; people tending to agricultural property; and those performing domestic duties. She requested more information on policies that the Government intended to undertake to redress the evident discrimination that existed. Also, was the standard minimum wage for all jobs still just a proposal or had it already been adopted as law? she asked.

An expert asked for clarification on the interrelationship between provisions for maternity benefits under government workers regulations and under the social security scheme. Were they parallel? she asked.

The lack of adequate or affordable daycare was another concern in a country where 59 per cent of children were born to single women. What daycare was subsidized? she asked.

On the practice of dismissing female teachers due to pregnancy, she said she could not grasp how the Government could lack any say in that policy, which violated the Constitution itself, when it paid teachers' salaries and a large amount of schools' administrative costs. How did the Government plan to end such discrimination and what role was the labour commissioner playing in that regard? she asked.

Welcoming efforts to implement a gender-based approach to national development, an expert asked what was involved in the national development plan regarding women's employment. It was necessary to examine whether cultural factors alone were responsible for women's consistent marginalization in employment.

Belize had a high percentage of female-headed households, she continued, with implications for economic independence and employment opportunities. Were women protected under social security and was there equal opportunity? she asked. A workers union had been formed in 1991 -- what was the status of that entity today, and had it received support?

Many women were unemployed despite adequate levels of education, she noted. Were opportunities for self-employment available, such as financing without collateral credit, and loans for rural women? she asked. What percentage of rural women had been trained in employment centres?

The Government should reconsider its choice about quotas, she said. Women were better educated and were attending university at a higher rate than male students. They required additional measures to expand the opportunities available to them.

With regard to health, Belize had many problems, including that children were giving birth to children and the high rate of HIV/AIDS, noted one expert. Women were more in danger of getting the virus than men. The report stated that, with religious exceptions, there was no prohibition on the use of contraception. While Catholics did endorse family planning, they had restrictions on the methods used. In a country where HIV infection was so widespread and where prostitutes did not seem to have access to safe sex, she wanted to know whether the Task Force on HIV/AIDS could design a programme that could give access to the use of condoms to the entire population. Could they do that while taking into account the strong influence of religion in society? she asked.

Also, were women with induced abortion, who went to hospitals, treated as an emergency or were they made to wait like everyone else, she asked. Information provided had stated that in 1998, one in seven maternal deaths were due to septic and incomplete abortions. If women had to die because of pregnancy-related death, then their right to life was restricted. It was important that the Government really take a second look at the abortion law. Belize had ratified the Convention without reservations and, therefore, laws that contravened the letter and spirit of the Convention had to be reviewed and possibly amended.

Further, she wanted to know whether pap smear tests for cervical cancer were available and free. Also, were women aware that they had to have that done? There was no information on drug abuse and tobacco consumption in the report. She noted that the trend with multinational tobacco companies had been to target women and children in developing countries.

Another expert noted that in the case of women's rights, there was an interface between education, health and employment. Regarding maternity benefits, she wanted to know why different standards for maternity leave existed between the private and public sectors. That created a situation where women in one sector did not get the benefits offered to the other sector. With regard to childcare, she noted that the stress women suffered due to their double burden was something everyone took for granted. Men needed to be brought into that structure.

Turning to violence in the work sector, she noted that a large number of women were in the blue collar workforce. They would naturally be exposed to violence and harassment. She wondered about the problem of occupational health standards and what protection women had in relation to that.

With regard to rural women, an expert wanted to know whether the Department of Women's Affairs and the Women's Commission provided training for rural women. There was ample experience in planning and training for rural women, particularly after the World Conference on Rural Women held in Geneva. Also, what programmes were presently in force to assure that rural women had access to credit? she asked.

The report described a study by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) showing that 23 per cent of the population of Belize lived in poverty, and another 7 per cent in absolute poverty, an expert noted. Did the study give statistics by sex? she asked. Were rural women more likely to live in absolute poverty? She then asked for information on land ownership and housing conditions, including access to drinking water and electricity -- all of which affected women's lives. When access was difficult, domestic duties were more difficult and time consuming, thus further restricting opportunities.

Turning to article 16 of the Convention, on discrimination in marriage and the family, she said the law permitting marriage of 14-year-old children should be brought into accordance with the law making the minimum age of marriage 18 years. The health consequences of early marriages were well known; early pregnancy was related to maternal mortality.

One-parent families were at great risk, particularly since they depended on one income and were therefore generally the poorest, she said. When such units involved girls as mothers, the situation was even more serious, since young mothers were not integrated into the labour market and were not capable of shouldering family responsibilities appropriately. What was the Government doing to try to reduce the numbers of such families? she asked.

An expert said Belize recognized different family structures, such as the nuclear and the extended families, but the family unit revolving around a single person had not been considered. The reality should be studied, to determine whether there were norms existing that might be introduced so the formal legal system did not reject a cohesive functioning unit. As it stood, a woman co-habitating for years did not receive support. It was important to recognize realities, and plan policy and interventions to foster such units where they were functioning. In some cases, women were not receiving support from the legal system, which was in fact encouraging men to be irresponsible.

Another expert asked about the family court that had been established in Belize in 1989. What were its functions and competencies, and how did it differ from other courts? she asked. What role did it play in protecting the interests and rights of women? The Department of Women's Affairs disseminated laws against violence against women. Did it also play a role in implementing them?

DOLORES BALDERAMOS GARCIA, Belize's Minister of Human Development, Women and Youth, said her delegation would respond at a later meeting, but she wanted to stress that for the first time, the Administration had a women's agenda with commitments it intended to fulfil.

Other Matters

HANNA BEATE SCHOPP-SHILLING, expert from Germany, Chairperson of the pre-sessional working group, presented the report of the Group, which met from 8 to 10 February. It had been the first time that the pre-sessional working group had met at the end of a session to form questions for the forthcoming session. The Group had prepared lists of issues and questions for four States parties, namely Chile, Ireland, Spain and the United Kingdom. It had found that all those reports followed the guidelines; included information on the implementation of the Beijing Platform of Action; and included major steps taken since submission of the written reports.

The Group had found that while de jure equality had largely been achieved in those four States, they were still a long way from achieving de facto equality. Educational achievements were not mirrored in labour market participation and women had not reached higher positions in the labour market. Pay disparities still existed, childcare services were inadequate and the number of women living in poverty was on the increase. Even though some efforts had been made to increase the number of women at decision-making levels, those levels remained low. Violence against women was prevalent and more was being known about it now. Also, in all four States, there was active participation of women's non-governmental organizations and some had even helped in the preparation of the reports.

Reporting on her participation in the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, she said that 13 April -- the day she had attended -- was Women's Day in the Commission. Three events had taken place that day. First, there had been a briefing of the women non-governmental organizations present there. Non-governmental organizations had asked about the Committee and its work. Secondly, there had been a panel discussion, which had been honoured by the presence of Mary Robinson, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Chairperson of the Commission on the Status of Women. They had discussed women's human rights and the Optional Protocol.

In the afternoon, she had made a statement to the Commission, in which she had discussed the current number of ratifications of the Convention. She urged the remaining 23 States parties to ratify the Convention by the year 2000. She also expressed the concern of the Committee about reservations; its new working methods; the new general recommendation on women and health; and its growing willingness to include information submitted by non-governmental organizations and United Nations agencies in its consideration of States parties' reports. She also described the Committee's relationship with the Office of the High Commissioner and ways to improve that relationship, as well as the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the Convention. Responding to the report, CHARLOTTE ABAKA, expert from Ghana, said that the pre-sessional working group had been at a disadvantage due to the limited participation of non-governmental organizations and United Nations specialized agencies. Another problem had been the late delivery of the reports, which had put an additional burden on the Group, which had had only three days to work. Due to the late arrival of the reports, country rapporteurs had not been able to give the Group any questions.

IVANKA CORTI, expert from Italy, underlining the contribution of non- governmental organizations and United Nations agencies, said that there had been better cooperation from them in previous sessions. She appealed to the Secretariat to better organize the working group and to have better participation of non-governmental organizations and specialized agencies.

ANGELA KING, Assistant Secretary-General and Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, said that concerning the input of non- governmental organizations and the specialized agencies, they had all been invited to participate and it was up to them to give or not to give written reports. Non-governmental organizations had limited resources and had particular issues to raise. For them it was key to raise those issues during the session and not during the pre-sessional working group.

EMNA AOUIJ, expert from Tunisia, said that it was an excellent practice to have Women's Day in the session of the Human Rights Commission. The Committee should work to ensure that the Day was always well-prepared. She thanked the women's rights division for contributing to her colleague's intervention. Had there been interventions, comments or recommendations from States parties? she asked.

Ms. SCHOPP-SHILLING said that in the pre-sessional group, it had been difficult that input from non-governmental organizations had been lacking. It was a transition period, and non-governmental organizations would have to realize that the working group had met at the end of the previous session. The Secretariat would be helpful in making that clear. There had been no interventions on the one day she had been there.

Ms. KING said there had been about 15 interventions from Member States, and 40 to 50 non-governmental organizations. The discussion had been interrupted since it had occurred on the same day as a resolution on Kosovo, but it had continued after. The panel was well attended and well received. The moderator had been United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson. Ms. King said she had also spoken, in part on the Committee's findings on stereotypes, including motherhood.

Ms. SCHOPP-SHILLING said some of the most important women in the United Nations system had been there, and had been well received.

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