27 January 2000


Press Release
WOM/1167



WOMEN’S ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE TAKES UP REPORTS OF BURKINA FASO

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While the legal provisions affecting the family in Burkina Faso seemed favourable to women, the reality was that they suffered in silence from all forms of violence and forced marriage was still practised, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women was told this morning.

As the Committee began considering the combined second and third reports of Burkina Faso on the status of implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, Mariam Marie-Gisele Guigma, Minister for the Development of Women, said that young girls were often considered property, and socio-economic problems prevented women from living the reality of equal rights. The high cost of obtaining justice and the insufficiency of legal personnel made their situation even more difficult.

Introducing the reports, she said that 84.6 per cent of Burkina Faso’s people lived in the rural areas and still adhered to deep-rooted traditional beliefs and customs. The weight of customs, sexual prejudice and the lack of confidence among women themselves held them back from political and public ascension. However, Burkinabe women had always played a determining role through their mobilization during elections in which they predominantly voted for male candidates.

She stressed that economic and sociological problems within the family had encouraged the prioritization of boys’ education. The weak representation of girls at the primary and secondary levels was reflected in a similar trend in higher education and women’s employment status.

Also this morning, following the introduction of the reports, an expert noted that with 92 per cent illiteracy among women it was difficult for them to free themselves of traditional and cultural prejudices and practices. The Government of Burkina Faso, while trying to identify major obstacles, should focus more on tradition and culture, as well as on its education policy.

The Committee will meet again at 3 p.m. today to continue its consideration of the second and third joint periodic reports of Burkina Faso.



Women’s Anti-Discrimination Committee - 2 - Press Release WOM/1167 458th Meeting (AM) 27 January 2000

Committee Work Programme

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this morning to begin considering the joint second and third periodic reports of Burkina Faso on the status of implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

The report, which covers the period 1989 to 1997, describes the framework in which Burkina Faso is working to guarantee gender equality, the obstacles that the State is confronting and the progress it has made. It states that after adopting the Constitution in 1991, the Government developed a national strategy to strengthen the role of women in its development process, namely in the economic, political and diplomatic, social and cultural areas.

The report says that all forms of discrimination in Burkina Faso, including that based on race, ethnicity, religion, colour, sex, language, caste, political opinion, wealth and parentage are prohibited. Zatu (law) allows for equal access to employment opportunities in both public and semi-public bodies, as it does for access to land and to farm holdings. A provision has been made for the urban and rural lands belonging to the National Land Office to be allocated to those with a real social need, without distinction of sex or marital status, but in the order of priority as stated in the law.

However, the report notes, there is no law that provides for penalties for violating the rules protecting women. That legal vacuum will be filled, as the preliminary draft penal code provides for penalties against anyone injuring female genitals and against anyone who commits polygamy. In case of death caused by genital mutilation, the punishment would be imprisonment for 5 to 10 years. Forced marriages are prohibited and rape is punishable under the law. The report stresses that even though women enjoy legal protection similar to men, socio-cultural retardation, traditional practices, reticence, ignorance of the law, illiteracy, the cost of legal action and the geographical remoteness of the courts, all limit their access to justice.

The report also outlines Burkina Faso’s compliance with the Convention in other areas, including health, women and civil law, equal rights to education and the rights of rural women. It notes that the fundamental mission of the Department for the Promotion of the Family, established within the Ministry for Social Affairs and the Family, is to stimulate and coordinate all legislative, administrative and economic measures to promote women's status and provide follow-up. Those include measures to promote literacy and education among women and girls; to establish national committees against the practice of excision and against AIDS; to improve the living standards of widows; and to conduct an information campaign on the Individual and Family Code.

Introduction by Government

MARIAM MARIE-GISELE GUIGMA, Minister for the Development of Women of Burkina Faso, introducing the second and third periodic reports, said her country had ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 1984 and was prepared to ratify additional protocols. Women represented 51.8 per cent of the country’s population. Despite considerable population movements and the development of towns, 84.6 per cent of Burkina Faso’s people lived in the rural areas and still adhered to deep-rooted traditional beliefs and customs. About 44.4 per cent of Burkinabe lived below the poverty line -- the majority were women whose social situation did not allow them to make economic contributions of any importance.

She said that before the 1995 Beijing Conference on the status of women, a number of social and economic measures had been initiated to support women’s groups and associations in the form of equipment, production support and assistance in the installation of small industrial units. Those initiatives had been accompanied by legislative measures favourable to women.

Actions taken after Beijing included the identification priority areas, she said. Those were the struggle against poverty; human resources development; promotion of the basic rights of the woman and the girl-child; and social mobilization for a positive image of women. The report comprised objectives and strategies with respect to the situation before Beijing, actions taken, difficulties encountered and commitments made to the improvement of women’s socio- economic situation. The report’s most salient point was the need to involve women in decision-making so they could propose solutions to their own problems.

She said that the constraints encountered included poverty, illiteracy and ignorance. Others were the insufficiency of legal protection against certain forms of marital violence, sexual harassment and the inaccessibility of justice for women; the spreading effects of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and its localization in Africa; and the absence of a gender approach in projects and programmes.

Turning to the representation of women in public life, she said Burkina Faso had three women Ministers out of the 35 members of Government. There were 10 women out of 111 members of the National Assembly and 27 women out of 154 members in the Chamber of Representatives. Out of 22 ambassadors, three were women, one of whom had been recalled to take up a ministerial post. Her diplomatic position was still vacant.

Those ratios were encouraging, considering socio-traditional practices that were unfavourable to women, the combined effects of illiteracy and the sexual division of labour, she said. The weight of customs, sexual prejudice and the lack of confidence among women themselves held them back from political and public ascension. However, Burkinabe women had always played a determining role through their mobilization during elections in which they predominantly voted for male candidates.

She said that the Family Code contained measures to protect women’s rights, including the abolition of customs as a source of law for practices like forced marriage and dowry; the right of women to work without the spouse’s authorization; the right to inherit a spouse’s property; and the right of children to equal inheritance rights. Other legislation imposed penalties for female genital mutilation, rape, abortion, seduction of minors, public assault on chastity and good morals, incest, bigamy, adultery and incitation of minors to debauchery.

She said that while the legal provisions affecting the family seemed very favourable, in reality that was not the way marriage relations existed in Burkina Faso. Forced marriage was still practised, even in towns. Young girls were often considered property to be given away as a gift for a friend; a medium of exchange; or were simply used according to immediate or future interests.

In addition, she said, socio-economic problems were preventing women from living the reality of equal rights. The high cost of obtaining justice and the insufficiency of legal personnel made the situation even more difficult. Women suffered in silence from all forms of violence.

On the issue of equal rights in marriage, she stated that the marriage code required that both parents assume responsibility for their children. Previously, paternal power had been exercised and it still threatened women’s rights in its persistence. Consequently, problems arose particularly when the father died and the children were shared as other property among family members and not given to the mother.

Article 18 of the Burkina Faso Constitution stipulated that everyone had access to equal education opportunities, she stated. The Government had defined education as a national priority and had implemented a successful plan for educating girls for the period 1994 to 2000 aimed at reducing the gender gap in that area. That was reflected in the budget increase for the national education policy from 10 to 12 per cent.

She stressed that political commitment had also been demonstrated in the creation of satellite schools, which were attended by 50 per cent girls, and other initiatives. However, economic and sociological problems within the family encouraged prioritizing the education of boys. The weak representation of girls in the primary and secondary levels was being reflected in a similar trend in higher education and women’s employment status in the country.

She said that the general statute provided for equal representation in public service, but women occupied only one third of the junior positions in that area. Also, although women could run for office on the same level with men, they remained under-represented in the country’s elected offices.

Turning to the issue of equality for women in rural areas, she said that the Government, recognizing its role in the country’s economy, had included such women’s welfare in the national plan for the empowerment of women. However, the problems of rural men continued to receive more attention than those of rural women. They did have access to agriculture services and finance, but, in general, did not enjoy good health. Discrimination against women in that sector was more a result of the conditions in the homes -- mainly due to inattention by the husband and improper water and sanitation -- than a fact of public service.

Many decentralized credit institutions preferred to deal with women, as they reimbursed more readily, she said. However, the sums provided were often inadequate, the methods inappropriate and husbands created obstacles to that access. Women were allowed to own small lots for agriculture; however, in spite of the existence of a law for equal access to lands for men and women, customary and traditional laws also prevailed in that area.

Addressing compliance with the Convention in other areas, she noted that Burkina Faso had undertaken specific programmes for the benefit of handicapped persons including women. Prostitution and all forms of violence were punishable by law and trafficking in women and girls was severely repressed.

On the rights of women to health, she pointed out that obstacles like geographical limitations, inadequate supply of health services -- including unqualified personnel -- prejudices and customs against formal medicinal practices affected Government’s administration in that area. Infectious diseases, acute respiratory ailments and infant mortality prevailed.

Comments and Questions by Experts

An expert, noting that stereotypes and socio-cultural attitudes still relegated women to traditional roles, said that legislation was not in itself sufficient to end such attitudes -- customs and beliefs were too well rooted. She praised Burkina Faso’s efforts to eradicate female genital mutilation, saying the country could take the lead in eradicating the practice in the rest of Africa. It had shown that excision was not essential. She noted, however, that the Ministry’s programme for the protection of maternal and children’s health did not cover abortion.

Another expert said it was clear that Burkina Faso was making a serious effort to apply the Convention and ensure compliance with it. At the same time, there seemed to be a genuine effort by the Government and non-governmental organizations to cooperate in achieving a genuinely improved situation for women. However, supplementary efforts must be made by the Government, public and private sectors, as well as agencies such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), to overcome the obstacles.

She said that while the situation of rural women required a special effort, there was no indication of an improvement in the socio-cultural environment. The media must be involved in ending stereotypes and promoting awareness of important issues affecting women’s rights.

Another expert said it was clear the main obstacles to Burkina Faso’s full implementation of the Convention were of an economic, cultural and traditional nature. There was a serious problem with superstition. Women in Africa, including Burkina Faso, had been indoctrinated by society into accepting the status quo as the norm. No law or policy could make headway without eliminating the perception of women’s inferiority.

She expressed the hope that the Ministry for the Development of Women had equal status as other Ministries and was not just a token. Did the Ministry have Cabinet status and the technical capabilities to implement the programmes listed in the report? There was a wide gap between the policies in place and the de facto situation, she noted.

Turning to polygamy, she said the situation seemed to be the same all over Africa. According to law, polygamy was illegal and monogamy the norm. But in practice, men still kept mistresses. Had any woman been bold enough to challenge in court, under the relevant ordinance, her husband’s keeping of a mistress?

Regarding forced marriage, she noted that the female spouses were usually young girls, a situation that often led to teenage pregnancy. Burkinabe women deserved praise for having taken the lead in accepting the female condom. They should make efforts for greater involvement of men in the use of contraceptives.

Response of Government

Ms. GUIGMA, responding to members’ comments and questions, noted that reaching the objectives of the Triennial Plan was closely linked to the means it involved. It was too early to say whether the Plan had realized its aims. At a meeting held during the second half of last year, the Ministry for the Development of Women had been restructured and technical offices had been created to cater for specific programmes. For example, an office had been set up to coordinate the work of non-governmental organizations.

In implementing the Plan, a large gap existed between the political will of the Government and the Ministry’s programmes. Just 7 per cent of the national budget had been allocated for reaching the Plan’s objectives. That was insufficient, but the Ministry was working with the UNDP and other international organizations to fulfil its needs for guaranteeing women’s rights.

She also noted that there were gaps between policy and the situation on the ground as a result of social and cultural factors. Those had to be filled in before discrimination was reduced. Through the years, there had been inertia among the women themselves, but today they were becoming more politically involved, even though the number of those holding public and elected offices was still unsatisfactory. It was up to the women of Burkina Faso to increase those figures and work must be done to breakdown the cultural stereotypes.

An expert said that with 92 per cent illiteracy among women it was difficult for them to become free of traditional and cultural prejudices and practices. The Government of Burkina Faso, while trying to identify major obstacles, should place more focus on tradition and culture, as well as on its education policy. The majority of expenditure should be on education.

Regarding employment opportunities for women, she noted that 93 per cent of women were engaged in agriculture in the country, yet the report had not indicated that women’s involvement in that sector was viewed by the Government as a priority. In a country where women had the main responsibility for food security, agricultural training programmes and the land-reform system should be more women friendly. Was there a focal point for women in the Ministry for Agriculture? she asked. Were the micro-credit loans granted without collateral?

She noted that polygamy was not really considered illegal in Burkina Faso and urged that legislation be established to restrict the incidence of polygamous marriages. Also, the minimum age for marriage for girls was 17 years -- one of the lowest in Africa and in the lower 10 percentile in the world.

Comment by Expert

An expert said that analysis of the situation had turned up a wide range of problems. Analysis and enactment of legislation was one thing, but putting that legislation into effect was a difficult task. Missing from the reports were proposals for implementation of the law, especially in cases of violence against women.

She stressed the need for education, not only to eliminate illiteracy among women, but also to sensitize enforcement, teaching, health and judicial personnel. Specialized education for improving literacy among women would help eliminate

violence against them. Burkina Faso could learn from African countries which already had policies in place.

Noting that illiterate women could not readily access the judicial system, she said legal literacy was of vital importance if women’s lives were to be freed from violence and other discrimination in their private lives. There must be absolute prohibition of such practices as polygamy and wife inheritance, as well as policies to punish offenders and to provide women with the means to lodge complaints.

Response by Government

CLEMENCE ILBOUDO, a member of the Burkina Faso’s delegation, said that the Family Code had enshrined monogamy as the form most suited to marriage. However, it had authorized polygamy as an exception in special circumstances. During awareness campaigns before adoption of the Code, rural women had opposed monogamy as the sole criterion for marriage. It was difficult to impose on the population a form to which it was not accustomed.

She said that women, like all citizens, had the right to recourse against violence. Regarding matrimonial violence, if a complaint was made against a man, there must be full evidence. There were often cases in which women, assisted by their families, benefited fully from the law. Women magistrates and judges were also willing to help, and there had been a number of indictments.

Women accused of witchcraft had recourse to tribunals, she said, but it was difficult to address the social context. The family of an accused woman might accept a ruling in her favour, but it was impossible to break the solidarity of an entire village if it had already decided against the woman.

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