Committee on Elimination of
Discrimination against Women
547th Meeting (AM)
COMMITTEE ON ELIMINATION OF DISCRIMINATION AGAINST WOMEN
CONCLUDES CONSIDERATION OF TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO REPORT
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women this morning heard replies from the Government of Trinidad and Tobago on its initial, second and third periodic reports, which were introduced last week.
At that time, the Committee’s 23 experts, who gather twice a year to monitor the compliance of State parties with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and give recommendations on its implementation, commented on the report and asked numerous questions regarding Trinidad and Tobago’s compliance with the Convention.
Summarizing her delegation’s responses, Trinidad and Tobago’s Director of the Human Rights Unit of the Ministry of the Attorney General, Debbie Sirjusingh, said that Trinidad and Tobago intended to give favourable consideration to ratifying the amendment to article 20.1 of the Convention within the shortest possible time. The country had not been considering accession to the Optional Protocol to the Convention, however. At present, there was also no discussion of the question of withdrawing Trinidad and Tobago’s reservation to article 29 on the settlement of disputes.
She responded to a number of issues raised during last week’s debate, including constitutional protection against discrimination; the process of challenging discriminatory laws and conducting judicial review under Trinidad and Tobago’s domestic laws; discrimination on the basis of sexual preference; marital rape; national machinery for the advancement of women; the status of the Convention in domestic law; efforts to curb violence against women; poverty; discrimination in employment; maternity protection; and discrimination in customary marriage laws.
In her concluding remarks, Committee Chairperson Charlotte Abaka thanked the delegation of Trinidad and Tobago for its extensive responses to the many issues raised. She encouraged the Government to take up the process of ratification of the Optional Protocol. Noting the non-provision of a definition of discrimination to include both intentional and non-intentional discrimination, as most violations of women were non-intentional, it was important that non-intentional discrimination be included in domestic legislation. It was crucial that the provisions of the Convention become part of domestic law.
Trinidad and Tobago was also represented this morning by George W. McKenzie, the country’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Deborah McFee of the
Gender Affairs Division of the Ministry of Community Development and Gender Affairs, and Aldington Spencer, the Assistant Secretary for Health and Social Services of the Tobago House of Assembly.
The Committee will continue its work at 3 p.m. today, when it is scheduled to take up responses from Estonia.
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this morning to hear responses from the Government of Trinidad and Tobago to its questions on that country’s implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (see Press Release WOM/1310 of 21 January).
Addressing numerous questions posed by the experts last week, the country representatives said that the new Government was “settling into place” in Trinidad and Tobago, and certain questions would need further clarification from domestic entities.
They explained that the country intended to give favourable consideration to ratifying the amendment to article 20.1 on the Committee’s meetings within the shortest possible time. It had not been considering accession to the Optional Protocol to the Convention, however. At present, there was also no discussion of the question of withdrawing Trinidad and Tobago’s reservation to article 29 on the settlement of disputes.
Although the Constitution did not distinguish between intentional discrimination and discrimination of effect, it did offer women protection against discrimination in respect of all their fundamental rights. As for the male-oriented language of the Constitution, it had been inherited from the British legal tradition. The Interpretation Act, however, made it clear that words in a written law importing male persons included female persons as well.
Also explained was the process of challenging discriminatory laws and conducting judicial review under Trinidad and Tobago’s domestic legislation. In particular, the Judicial Review Act of 2000 allowed an individual to apply to the High Court for review of a decision by a lower court, public bodies or authorities. Constitutional motions and applications for judicial review were given priority for hearing in the High Court. The process of judicial review could not be used to challenge legislation that discriminated against women. Such legislation could be challenged under one of the articles of the Constitution as being in contravention of one or more fundamental rights.
Recognizing that there was a lacuna in the law regarding discrimination in the private sector, the Government had enacted an Equal Opportunity Act, which prohibited discrimination. That piece of legislation applied to both the public and private sectors. The administration was also continuing its work on administrative issues with regard to the establishment of the Equal Opportunity Commission and the Equal Opportunity Tribunal.
According to the delegation, the fact that discrimination on the basis of sexual preference was not included in the Equal Opportunity Act did not mean that the Government condoned discrimination against lesbians and homosexuals. Homosexuality and lesbianism were sensitive issues in Trinidad and Tobago. The multi-religious population was not ready to accept those phenomena. As homosexuality and lesbianism had not yet been decriminalized in Trinidad and Tobago, the Government had decided to adopt a conservative approach and not to extend the legislation to include discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation at this time. There had been no recent cases of criminalization of lesbianism and homosexuality in the Sexual Offences Act.
The thrust towards gender equity and equality in Trinidad and Tobago was not without direction, country representatives maintained. The Government’s Medium-Term Policy provided a framework for actions in specific areas of development, also outlining programmes and projects to be undertaken towards gender mainstreaming. Guidance was also provided by such instruments as the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) plan of action, the Commonwealth Plan of Action and Gender and Development, and the Beijing Platform for Action.
Regarding marital rape, it was said that a husband, wife, or a partner in a relationship could now be charged with marital rape during the course of a marriage or a relationship, regardless of whether the parties were separated or divorced.
The delegation also provided information about the national machinery for the advancement of women, which consisted of the 16-member National Council for Women; the Gender Affairs Division; and the Inter-Ministerial Committee. The Government recognized that inter-agency collaboration was pivotal to any equitable and sustained development initiatives. The budgetary allocations for the Gender Affairs Division for the financial year 2000/2001 was some 2.31 million Trinidad and Tobago dollars; and for 2001/2002, 4.98 million dollars.
Regarding the status of the Convention in domestic law, it was said that no research had been done regarding the use of the Convention in the High Court as a tool to interpret domestic legislation. International treaties were not automatically incorporated in the body of domestic law and did not have a direct effect on it, unless expressly transformed by an act of Parliament. However, there was no legal bar to the Convention being invoked in court in support of a particular argument or decision. It was only if the Convention was in conflict with the domestic law that domestic law was likely to prevail.
Efforts were being made to disseminate information about the Convention. One of the functions of the country’s Human Rights Unit was education of the public on their rights under international human rights instruments. In the near future, the Unit was planning to work with the Government’s Information Service to publish all periodic reports on the implementation of international instruments on the Government’s Web site. It would also try to create a higher level of awareness about the Convention.
One of the country’s interesting initiatives was the Male Support Committee, it was pointed out, which engaged in work towards reducing the level of gender-based violence in the communities and creating community support groups for men. It provided support for recovering batterers through therapy and counselling; conducted preventive work and assisted victims of domestic violence. In April 2000, a Male Support Programme was established in the country, which saw training of religious leaders, organization of a male issues forum and gender sensitization among its priorities.
The efforts to curb violence against women included a “re-socialization” programme, a speaker said. The philosophy behind that project was that any programme looking to reduce gender-based violence must address behavioural change. The re-socialization programme targeted men, communities, children and women in an investigation of established cultural norms and in assessing the impact of the attitudes on violence. It also aimed to rethink the existing norms. Another programme was conducted by male health-care providers who engaged men in discussion of such subjects as male impotence, infidelity, leisure time, familial responsibilities and other social concerns. The Division of Gender Affairs also sought to allow communities to take ownership of the scourge of domestic violence and “dis-empower” the abusers by taking abuse out of the private realm.
Regarding poverty, the delegation members explained that the national structures to overcome this problem included a Ministerial Council on Social Development and the Ministry of Food Production and Marine Resources, which worked in cooperation with the Division of Gender Affairs. Also established in the country was a small unit for poverty eradication and equity building. The efforts to reduce poverty included organization of regional participatory workshops, training, community-based micro-credit programmes, and an “adopt a community programme”. The Gender Affairs Division had established a number of programmes specifically targeting poor women under the umbrella name of “Women Second Chances Programme”. It included projects on elderly-care training; training in agricultural skills; and a home-work centre.
To questions about discrimination in employment, the members of the delegation said that the country’s labour legislation, including the Equal Opportunity Act, contained provisions that prohibited disparities in terms and conditions of employment. The basic conditions for workers not covered by collective agreements and labour contracts were not at present contained in any existing provisions. Such workers, however, had recourse to the Labour Inspectorate Division of the Ministry of Labour. There was also proposed legislation to regulate basic conditions for all workers. The previously proposed occupational health and safety bill had not been passed by the Parliament, largely due to employers’ objections to some of its provisions. However, the draft bill would be tabled again upon the reconvening of the Parliament.
Also contained in the response was information about maternity protection. The Maternity Protection Act provided that there was no limit to an employee’s right to maternity leave or her right to return to work. The only limit specified in the act was that an employee’s right was limited to one paid maternity leave during each 24-month period. The rationale for that limitation was not presently known, but it would be further researched.
Regarding prostitution, a member of the delegation said that it was not only the prostitutes but also their clients who were charged for that crime. In 2001, 19 females had been charged with soliciting; and three males and 10 females with aiding in prostitution. One female and one male had been charged with keeping or managing a brothel. Two males were charged with loitering for prostitution. There was no evidence that trafficking of women existed in Trinidad and Tobago.
On the issue of women’s participation in politics, it was said that there were overt barriers to the full participation of women in the political process or their taking decision-making positions. Currently, six out of 30 members of Parliament were women. The Government had not considered introducing a quota system in the Senate or the House of Representatives. The country was also working with regional organizations. As a member of CARICOM, it intended to foster women’s participation not only within national boundaries, but also at the international level.
Another point of interest concerned the country’s family laws. According to the information provided by the delegation, the disparity in the ages of marriage under the Hindu and Muslim marriage acts had been addressed in consultations with the representatives of those religions, but no agreement had been reached on raising those ages. A consultative committee had been established by the Government to address that problem, which had drafted a miscellaneous provisions marriage bill. Since there was now no consensus as to a uniform age of marriage in the country, the draft bill had never been presented to Parliament.
The country representatives also provided detailed information about various other aspects of the country’s work in implementation of the Convention, including gender training for police officers; incest, sexual harassment; literacy; education; persons living with AIDS; training in non-traditional areas; the nationality laws; and the situation of rural women.
Comments by Experts
Committee Chairperson CHARLOTTE ABAKA (Ghana) thanked the delegation for its extensive responses to the many issues raised by the Committee. On behalf of the Committee, she encouraged the Government to take up the process of ratification of the Optional Protocol. The Committee took note of the response on the non-provision of a definition of discrimination as provided for in article 1 of the Convention, which addressed both intentional and non-intentional discrimination. As most violations of women were non-intentional, it was important that non-intentional discrimination be mentioned in domestic legislation. The criminalization of homosexuals and lesbians was discrimination. While recognizing that it was a sensitive issue, she encouraged the Government to examine the question so that there would be no discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
She said she was satisfied with the delegation’s response on the issue of marital rape. She also encouraged a more structured integration among the agencies dealing with gender issues. On the status of the Convention in domestic law, it was crucial that the provisions of the Convention become part of domestic law. She was touched by the involvement of males in dealing with widespread gender-based violence in Tobago, and she hoped that Trinidad would learn form Tobago and do likewise. It was important to be able to defend certain issues at the Parliamentary level. The establishment of the Inter-Parliamentary Committee on gender was important. The bill on equal pay for equal work must be seriously considered.
She hoped that many of the issues that could not be responded to today would be included in Trinidad and Tobago’s next report. She also hoped that the Committee’s comments would be widely disseminated, including at the level of Parliament. Many constitutional issues still needed to be cleared.
Regarding a statement by a member of the delegation on the harmony among various racial and religious groups in Trinidad and Tobago, she said that such harmony was widely commendable. She noted, however, that the various political parties were mostly based on racial groupings. If such harmony existed in cultural and religious life, why were political parties defined along racial and ethnic lines?
She commended Trinidad and Tobago for its many successes regarding the situation of women. She was happy to hear that Trinidad and Tobago was not the only beneficiary of the Convention, but also its sister countries in CARICOM.
GEORGE W. MCKENZIE, Permanent Representative of Trinidad and Tobago, thanked the Committee for the interest it had shown in his country. All the members of the Committee were experts in their own right. He invited them to visit Trinidad and Tobago and experience the country.
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