|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
Committee on Elimination of
Discrimination against Women
785th & 786th Meetings (AM & PM)
ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE APPLAUDS SYRIA’S DECISION TO WITHDRAW RESERVATIONS
TO WOMEN’S TREATY, URGES AMENDING DOMESTIC LAW TO REFLECT COMMITMENTS
Syria’s delegation today announced its decision to be bound by additional provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which it had formerly claimed were outside the scope of its legal obligations as a State party, including article 2 in its entirety, which condemns discrimination against women in all its forms and commits the State to pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating it.
Reporting for the first time to the expert Committee that monitors implementation of the treaty, the delegation said the other reservations to be withdrawn concerned, among other things, granting children the mother’s nationality; freedom of movement and choice of residence; the same rights and responsibilities of women and men during marriage and its dissolution with regard to guardianship, kinship, maintenance and adoption; and the legal effect of the betrothal and marriage of a child, given the incompatibility with the provisions of Islamic Sharia.
A legal adviser with the Syrian Commission for Family Affairs, Mona Asa’ad, explained that, after withdrawal of the reservations, a number of laws would be approved and endorsed by the People’s Council, which would be a “breakthrough for women on more than one front”. The head of the three-person delegation and of the Family Affairs Commission, Mouna Ghanem, explained that tremendous efforts went into the decisions in terms of advocacy, lobbying and networking, and negotiations with all the key players, including civil society organizations and, most importantly, parliamentarians, religious leaders and media personnel.
Ms. Ghanem said that the debates on withdrawing the reservations had also been accompanied by a media campaign to spread knowledge about the Convention. The decisions had been taken against a background of cultural and traditional factors, which together preserved the deep-rooted patriarchal attitudes and “machismo” values regarding gender and human rights in both private and public domains of women’s life. The increased influence of radical conservatism in the region had definitely slowed the pace of women’s advancement and challenged the secular systems to implement gender-sensitive strategies.
Improving the situation of women and eliminating discrimination against them, therefore, were very complicated and multidisciplinary tasks, she said. Those tasks should not be approached -- especially in the Middle East -- in isolation of the political and socio-economic determinants that affected the future of the region. The situation of Syria should not be isolated from the accelerating events in the surrounding region. For example, the country was facing a huge mass of refugees -- greater than the number in all of Europe -- which put great pressure on the country’s economy and infrastructure.
Commending the decisions, the Committee Chairperson and expert from Croatia, Dubravka Šimonović, said that withdrawal from the entire reservation on the Convention’s article 2 was extremely important, as that provision gave full guidance and served as a very important framework for all other articles. She asked if there was a clear time frame for the withdrawal. She also wanted to know if the Government was considering ratification of the treaty’s landmark Optional Protocol, by which individuals could bring a complaint about their Government directly to the Committee after exhausting all local remedies.
Ms. Ghanem said that the Government had decided to withdraw its reservation to article 2, agreeing that it was the most important article in terms of reflecting the spirit of the Convention. It had been the Government’s intention to withdraw its reservation before the delegation came to New York, but the year had been very hectic with three elections under way, and the Government simply “ran out of time”. The reservation was before the President and should be signed this year. As for ratification of the Optional Protocol, the time was not yet ripe for that discussion, she said, adding, “when you play politics, you need to set your priorities, you need to decide”.
A number of other experts congratulated the delegation on the Government’s decision to remove some of its reservations, but stressed the importance of bringing national legislation quickly into line with those provisions. In that connection, Israel’s expert drew attention to several discriminatory laws against women, including the one dealing with rape. For instance, the exemption of marital rape from the Criminal Code and exemptions from punishment for rapists who married their victims only served to strengthen negative stereotypes of women. The delegation had admitted that cultural and traditional factors worked together to perpetuate those stereotypes, but those should be changed, and the Government should put in place a mechanism or an ombudsperson, or both, for that purpose.
Joining the delegation was Samir Hassan, Dean of the Faculty of Literature at Damascus University.
The Committee will meet again on Friday, 25 May, at 10 a.m. to take up Mauritania’s initial report.
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met today to consider Syria’s initial report (CEDAW/C/SYR/1).
Heading the delegation was Mouna Ghanem, Chairperson of the Syrian Commission for Family Affairs. Joining her were Samir Hassan, Dean of the Faculty of Literature at Damascus University, and Mona Asa’ad, legal adviser with the Syrian Commission for Family Affairs and women’s activist.
Introduction of Report
Presenting the report, MOUNA GHANEM, Chairperson of the Syrian Commission for Family Affairs, said today’s meeting was an excellent opportunity for Syria not only to present the efforts that had been made, but also to highlight challenges to fully implement the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The Syrian Commission for Family Affairs was the responsible body for changing Syrian laws related to family issues, in order to ensure the full empowerment of all family members, especially women and children. The Commission was also responsible for setting national policies and strategies, and monitoring implementation.
Working under the umbrella of the Prime Minister’s Office, the Commission had access to other governmental bodies, she noted. The Commission was also responsible for cooperation with women’s non-governmental organizations. Only through transparent and strong partnership between governmental bodies and non-governmental organizations would gender equality be realized.
Syria attributed great importance to its international commitments, she said. The need to comply with the Women’s Convention and to put into effect the Beijing Platform for Action had led to the adoption of important measures that would contribute to fulfilling the Government’s commitment to removing all forms of discrimination against women. Among those measures was withdrawing reservations to certain articles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Commission considered withdrawing Syria’s reservation on article 2 of the Women’s Convention as an important step forward. Much more work was needed, however, to withdraw remaining reservations and realize the spirit of the Convention in national law.
She said tremendous efforts had been invested in such decisions, particularly in terms of advocacy, negotiations and lobbying with all key players. All stakeholders had been included, most importantly parliamentarians, religious leaders and media personnel. The debate on withdrawing the reservations had also been accompanied by a media campaign to disseminate knowledge about the Women’s Convention. The report’s preparation had received the Government’s utmost attention, and had involved the formulation of a team of national experts from governmental and non-governmental organizations.
According to article 25 of Syrian Civil Law, all ratified international agreements and conventions had precedence over national law, she said. The Commission for Family Affairs had prepared a training programme on using the Convention as a legal tool in the national courts, in cooperation with the Syrian Bar Association, the Women’s Union and representatives from non-governmental organizations and civil society. Syria was respecting its obligations under international treaties and conventions.
Highlighting a positive development, she said violence against women was no longer considered a taboo subject in Syria. Several recent studies had revealed the extent of the problem. One study in particular had received international attention, and several reviews had been published about it in well-known international newspapers. The need to eradicate violence against women had been clearly stated in the Government’s tenth 5-year plan. The plan emphasized the importance of setting out a national plan for eradicating violence and securing appropriate shelters for women in need. The Commission had cooperated with other governmental and civil society bodies in preparing a draft national plan for the protection of women. Civil society had been taking a leading role in securing services for victims.
Combating gender-based violence had drawn the attention of both religious and political leaders, she added. A nationwide media campaign had been launched, targeting the widest category of people and delivering a unified message. Civil society had played an increasing role in the struggle against violence against women.
Among other accomplishments, she noted that a woman had, for the first time, been appointed to the position of Vice-President of State for Cultural Affairs. The Commission had also published a study entitled “The Political Empowerment of Syrian Women”. Women’s health had been receiving increased attention from the Government and non-governmental organizations. Regarding the issue of reproductive health, she noted that the Government had become self-reliant regarding contraceptive procurement, after 30 years of depending on donor organizations. The national strategy for population, prepared by the Commission, had been approved by the Government. The Commission also worked closely with the Ministry of Education to integrate gender-sensitive concepts in the national curricula.
She said the State’s tenth 5-year plan for 2006-2010 set out specific objectives regarding legislative amendments, including amending the Personal Status Law and discriminatory articles in other laws. The Commission had prepared amended versions of both the Personal Status Law and the Child Law. An amendment to the law on honour killings had also been prepared and submitted to concerned parties by the Commission for review and consideration. Steps for the preparation of the National Strategy for the Advancement of Women for 2007-2011 were being taken with the support of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).
The State Planning Commission had prepared the “National Project to Combat Poverty and Empower Women”, based on the result of a poverty demographic map of Syria, she said. The Ministry of Agriculture had a rural poverty map, which focused on analysing the situation of rural women in Syria. The Directorate of Women’s Empowerment at the State Planning Commission had conducted several workshops about national capacity-building. The State’s five-year plan set out specific interventions included in the Strategy for Women’s Economic Empowerment. She added that a partnership had been created between the Government and civil society to advance women’s issues and rights.
Turning to the issue of human trafficking, she noted the large influx of female domestic workers into Syria. The State had taken immediate action on the issue, including the drafting of a law on human trafficking and the establishment of a committee with various Government ministries. That work had been conducted with the support of the International Organization for Migration (IOM). A draft law had been prepared concerning private companies and agencies providing domestic helpers from outside Syria.
She noted that, as a result of the war in Lebanon, many refugees had entered Syria. The increasing number of refugees and asylum-seekers was also a consequence of the negative situation in Iraq. Syria faced a huge number of refugees, thought to be greater than the overall number of refugees in all of Europe, placing greater pressure on the economy and the country’s infrastructure. The number of refugees and asylum-seekers was estimated at some 1.9 million or 12 per cent of Syria’s population. The Government had taken all necessary actions in order to protect their human rights and prevent human trafficking.
Improving the situation of women and eliminating discrimination was a complicated and multidisciplined task, she said. That task, especially in the Middle East, should not be approached in isolation of the political and socio-economic factors affecting the region. Cultural and traditional factors worked together to preserve deeply rooted patriarchal attitudes and machismo regarding gender and human rights in both private and public life. The increased influence of radical conservatism in the region had definitely slowed the pace of women’s advancement, presenting challenges for secular systems to implement gender-sensitive strategies.
While there was a relationship between democracy and women’s status, democratic change should be a bottom-up initiative and not imposed, she said. Advocacy and women’s political empowerment should be coupled with capacity-building programmes to equip women with appropriate skills necessary for participation in political activity. It was a fact that the path to complete gender equity and equality was very long. Complying with international obligations, updating national laws and preparing an environment that accepted change were the pillars for improving the position of half of society. Continuous cooperation with the Committee was needed in that regard.
Experts’ Comments and Questions
NAELA MOHAMED GABR, expert from Egypt, said she was pleased about the decision to withdraw some reservations to the Convention and the intention to withdraw the reservation to article 2. She asked about the procedure for withdrawing the reservation to article 2. The delegation had spoken about the precedence of international legislation once a treaty was acceded to and the amendment of some domestic legislation, but the Committee expected amendments to other national laws. Were there any plans in that regard related to honour crimes and equal penalties for sexual harassment? Also, did the Commission for Family Affairs give precedence to the family at the expense of women, or was there a balance? she asked.
RUTH HALPERIN-KADDARI, expert from Israel, also congratulated the delegation on the Government’s decision to withdraw some of its reservations to the treaty. On the national machinery, the delegation had detailed the formal objectives of the Commission for Family Affairs, mentioned several programmes and made specific references to women’s empowerment, but she had not seen those as specific goals, but rather as ways to strengthen the family. So, she was concerned that the most important national machinery and organ for women in Syria conveyed a “very restrictive message” about the role of Syrian women in society, which was solely framed on their position and role in the family. What about unmarried women and women who wished to expand their role beyond the maternal one?
She said that, in terms of the need to reform legislation, particularly in light of the withdrawal of reservations, there were still some discriminatory laws against women in Syria dealing with rape. For instance, the exemption of marital rape from the Criminal Code and exemptions from punishment for rapists who married their victims only served to strengthen negative stereotypes of women. The concluding paragraph of the oral presentation had admitted that cultural and traditional factors worked together to perpetuate those stereotypes, which had to be changed. Was there a specific mechanism to do that? Also, was the Government considering the establishment of an ombudsperson for that purpose?
CORNELIS FLINTERMAN, expert from the Netherlands, noting Syria’s reservation to article 16.1 (c), which related to the equal rights of women and men during marriage and its dissolution, said that that article had the same wording as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Syria was a party with no reservation. Another of Syria’s reservations to the Women’s Convention related to guardianship of children and was formulated in a general way. How did that reservation restrict Syria’s obligations? Specifically, what was the scope of that particular reservation to article 16.1 (d) and 1 (f)? He also asked about the status of the Convention in the country’s domestic legal order.
DUBRAVKA ŠIMONOVIĆ, Committee Chairperson and expert from Croatia, asked if there was a clear timeframe for the withdrawal of reservations. Withdrawal from the entire reservation on article 2 was extremely important, as that provision gave full guidance and served as a very important framework for all other articles. Also, was the Government considering ratification of the Optional Protocol? In addition, she asked for information about the possible inclusion of the definition of discrimination in the national law, in line with the treaty’s article 1. A further question concerned an update on a new law on procedures for cooperation with non-governmental organizations.
Ms. GHANEM explained that the Government had decided to withdraw its reservation to article 2, as that was the most important article in terms of reflecting the spirit of the Convention. It had been the Government’s intention to withdraw its reservation before the delegation came to New York, but the year had been very hectic with three elections under way, and the Government “ran out of time”. The reservation was in front of the President and should be signed this year.
As for changing domestic law, people in Syria were talking about that, she said. It was a lengthy process and took a lot of preparation and change in mindset, given the many different religions and ethnic groups in the country. A discussion was under way about honour killings, on which there was a new draft law, and on family law. The five-year plan specifically stated that the Government had to prepare a civil family law within the five-year period. Thus, a committee of family law advocates had been established, which had produced a first draft. It was in her drawer, awaiting the “right moment”, as that was a “very sensitive” area in the Arab region.
She said she was working hard to have the reservation on early marriage withdrawn. Meanwhile, some procedures had been undertaken to prevent early marriage, such as increasing the compulsory years in school from six years to nine, and formulating strategies to prevent dropping out of school. However, early marriage came with social traditions and values, and ran parallel with the social development in the country -- where there were lower development indicators, there was early marriage. So, changing values in the country was part of a “package”.
Hers was not a committee, but a ministry, she said, adding that ministries worked vertically. It had access to all other ministries and Government bodies. It reported directly to the Prime Minister, and its mandate was to prepare strategies that concerned the family as a whole and individual family members. The Commission was the women’s national machinery responsible for setting all national strategies and policies; it was not an implementing agency. A women’s directorate was situated in each ministry, serving as focal points, she added.
As for civil law, she pointed out that there was a lot of social movement in Syria, which was very new to Syrian society. Building a consensus was difficult and did not happen overnight. Discussion of formerly taboo issues was now under way. The idea for an ombudsperson had been around for some time, but that had not yet been implemented. As for the treaty’s Optional Protocol, she said “when you play politics, you need to set your priorities, you need to decide”. The Optional Protocol was very important, but it was not the priority right now.
Addressing her replies to the legal questions, another member of the delegation explained that, after withdrawal of the reservations, a number of laws would be approved following discussion and endorsement by the People’s Council. Those laws would be considered a “breakthrough” for women on more than one front. As for the relationship between the Constitution and the law, the other member said there was no contradiction.
Ms. GHANEM added that withdrawing reservations was very difficult because they were linked to Sharia. It would be possible to withdraw the reservations, but that would take time.
Experts’ Comments and Questions
FRANCÇOISE GASPARD, expert from France, asked to what ministry the Commission was attached. She also asked a series of questions about the procedure and timeline for withdrawing the reservations.
VIOLETA NEUBAUER, expert from Slovenia, said she had understood the delegation’s point that it was trying to avoid a negative reaction to the concrete steps being taken to fully eliminate discrimination against women. However, she was afraid that, if its members did not want to vocalize that the Commission was working towards gender equality, it was not clear what messages were really being sent to women and men in Syrian society.
Similarly, ZOU XIAOQIAO, expert from China, asked what the Commission did to link its mandate to the role of women and their needs in Syria. The delegation had said that efforts were aimed at giving women rights through playing a role in the family, but they also had a role to play in society. What was the Commission doing in that regard? The delegation had also said that the Commission was at the same level as a commission of the Cabinet. Was the Commission a functioning body at the ministerial level, or just an advisory body? Also, were its members full- or part-time, and did it have enough political influence on society, especially on the State’s decision-making process concerning women’s issues?
FUMIKO SAIGA, expert from Japan, asked about any cases or experiences that had emerged as a result of monitoring by the Commission. Also, concerning the reference in the written report that the Foreign Affairs Ministry was preparing a brief on the question of establishing national human rights structures, what was the status of that discussion and plans for it? She also asked where the Directorate of Women’s Empowerment at the State Planning Commission was situated, and about its relationship with the Commission on the issues of women’s rights and empowerment.
SAISUREE CHUTIKUL, expert from Thailand, asked who monitored whether the strategies of the line ministries were working or not. She also asked how the population was informed about the Convention. She asked about the differences between the Government’s five-year plan and the National Strategy for the Advancement of Women. The delegation had mentioned that there was an absence of proper and effective mechanisms to implement the law and a failure to translate general plans and policies into practice. How did it plan to overcome that difficulty?
Responding, Ms. GHANEM said it was possible to withdraw reservations without going to the Parliament. She agreed that there was a need to withdraw the reservation to article 9. That article would be discussed. There was an intention to establish a dedicated human rights body. Once in place, she was sure that her Commission would have linkages with that body.
Regarding the structure of the Commission for Family Affairs, she said its Chairperson had the same authority as that of a Government minister. She attended Cabinet meetings and reported to the Prime Minister. The Commission consisted of four departments and used national experts and outsourcing. The Commission acted as a facilitator in setting out policies and strategies. The Prime Minister took the Commission’s plans to the Cabinet. As a strategic body for social issues, the Commission had first taken up the issue of violence against women.
Regarding the relationship between the five-year plan and the national strategy for women, she said the five-year plan was a general plan that applied to the Government as a whole. While the five-year plan called for women’s empowerment, the strategy was more detailed and action-oriented. The Commission monitored the strategy, using measurable indicators to evaluate progress.
SAMIR HASSAN, Dean of the Faculty of Literature at Damascus University, stressed the need to improve women’s access to education as a way of achieving gender equality. While some might say that was a generalization, he believed it was a fundamental way of reaching women, especially in the lower segments of society. Institutional mechanisms existed for the advancement of women, not just theories and ideas. Each ministry dealt with gender issues in some way. The Commission also worked with international and regional organizations.
The Government had established a committee for the five-year plan, Ms. GHANEM added. On the need to involve men, she noted that several projects by non-governmental organizations focused on reaching both men and women in order to promote women’s rights.
Experts’ Questions and Comments
Ms. NEUBAUER, expert from Slovenia, said she was concerned that the Government might not adequately understand article 4 of the Convention on temporary special measures. Were temporary special measures included as part of the tenth 5-year plan? Also, no information had been included on temporary special measures for the population strategy. She strongly recommended that the Government establish a legal basis for using such measures in line with the Convention and its general recommendation 25.
HANNA BEATE SCHÖPP-SCHILLING, expert from Germany, said there was a difference between general social measures and temporary special measures. Could article 25 of the Constitution be considered a legal basis for temporary special measures? Was the Convention above the Constitution or below it? If the Convention was above the Constitution, temporary special measures would be considered a necessary strategy. She added that she was impressed by the structure of the report, as well as by the fact that some reservations had been removed. She also asked about policies and programmes for women refugees in the country.
Ms. GHANEM said it was necessary to understand Syrian culture. Many things were done verbally. Verbal quotas had resulted in women in the Parliament. While there were no written temporary special measures, other similar efforts had helped women. There was also talk of a quota in local elections. It was her understanding that the Convention was not above the Constitution, but she would need to confirm that.
Also responding, another member said the Constitution superseded any other law. There was no conflict between the Convention and the Constitution. Obligations under international treaties, as soon as they were ratified by Syria, entered into effect in national laws.
The Constitution set the general tone, another speaker said. The laws were taken from the Constitution.
Experts’ Questions and Comments
FERDOUS ARA BEGUM, expert from Bangladesh, congratulated Syria for taking many proactive measures for the advancement of women, and noted that several campaigns against domestic violence had been conducted. Syria did not, however, have a law against domestic violence. A report indicated that some 25 per cent of women in Syria were subjected to domestic violence. Asylum-seeking women were approaching the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in increasing numbers seeking protection. Did the Government have a plan to enact a law to protect women from domestic violence? Would the Government establish shelters in Syria? Did the Government have counselling services for victims? Also, what steps had the Government taken to protect the rights of migrant women?
Ms. GABR, expert from Egypt, raised the issue of stereotypes about women. Long-term discussion would be needed on the subject. It was an important issue in the Arab region. What was the Government’s future plan in that regard? There was talk about using television programmes and propaganda campaigns. Such measures were not enough for a quantum leap in changing stereotypes. The Committee had heard about cooperation with the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in establishing shelters. Were Islamic organizations also cooperating in that regard?
HEISOO SHIN, expert from the Republic of Korea, said she was pleased with the Government’s efforts to combat violence against women. She had read with great interest the study on violence conducted last year that was annexed to the report. What types of violence against women had been studied? Efforts to combat violence should include prosecution of the perpetrator, protection of the victim and the prevention of violence. She wanted to know more about efforts to send a strong signal to society that violence against women was a punishable crime.
Responding to those questions, Ms. GHANEM said the Commission was just three years old, but had already proven its political influence with the removal of reservations and the receiving of shadow reports.
On the issue of refugees, she said there many strategies to address the issue, specifically for the 1.5 million persons coming from Iraq. It was a huge issue. The partnership between the Government and UNHCR was strong. Civil society had undertaken many efforts to assist refugees during the war in Lebanon. Immigrant domestic workers were a new phenomenon for Syria, she added. There was a strict law regarding domestic servants.
She agreed on the need for a law on violence against women. A draft law on child protection was currently being finalized. As part of the child protection plan, Syria had started its first training workshop for ministry staff, social workers, judges and nurses on how to provide services in shelters. The law needed to be changed, but at least the issue was being discussed. The issue of stereotypes needed to be addressed by society as a whole. Education was, however, one of the most important ways of overcoming stereotypes. There was cooperation with other Muslim countries on the various issues.
Experts’ Questions and Comments
SILVIA PIMENTEL, expert from Brazil, congratulated the Commission and the Government on its efforts towards removing the taboo and support for honour killings, but said it was disconcerting to know that such a harmful practice was indeed supported by law, by the State. The Government should show the political will to eradicate that law, which went against women’s dignity. It was clear that a holistic approach must be applied to every article of the Convention, or the message of the State would remain inconsistent and ineffective. While it was important that some reservations had recently been revoked, those articles to which they applied were an obligation and must be taken in their substantive aspect; otherwise, the withdrawal would not be meaningful. She asked about the content of the programmes covering human rights issues, for which an annual prize had been awarded.
TIZIANA MAIOLO, expert from Italy, asked about the results of changes in stereotypes and approaches of the school curricula and media, especially with regard to family violence.
MARY SHANTHI DAIRIAM, expert from Malaysia, picked up on the issue of the proposed shelters for women victims of violence, emanating from the Government’s tenth 5-year plan. When the shelters were set up, did the Government envisage difficulties for women? Would they have the freedom and right to leave the matrimonial home, or would they be restricted by other laws? In Syria, a man was legally obligated to maintain his wife, and with that came control over the woman. A woman who left the marital home was deemed to have violated the marriage, and lost her rights.
Additionally, it would become a serious problem if she fled the home owing to violence, especially when the law also stated that a wife’s right to maintenance ceased when she worked outside the home without the husband’s permission. She was glad to see that the reservation to article 5.4 was removed; that would help a woman go to a shelter, if necessary; but how many women could lay down that condition in the marriage contract? She urged consideration of the fact that women needed all necessary freedoms in order to access all remedies in the area of violence against them.
Ms. ŠIMONOVIĆ, Committee Chair and expert from Croatia, noting that many countries were now discussing the issues of domestic violence and violence against women, and that the subject was no longer taboo, reminded the delegation that it was the obligation of every State to protect women against that phenomenon. The delegation had said that there was support from non-governmental organizations and religious leaders to change article 548 of the Penal Code, but was there any proposed amendment in connection with article 489, which excluded marital rape from the definition of rape and exempted from punishment rapists who married their victims? The delegation had also said that there were plans to adopt a law on domestic violence. In that connection, she drew its attention to the Committee’s general recommendation 19 on violence against women as good guidance for the Government in formulating the law.
Ms. GHANEM said she had brought with her some examples of what the media had been doing to raise awareness about the Convention and women’s rights. The experts could also access Syria’s report on “ Beijing+12”, which presently was only available in Arabic, but would be translated. She also talked about the content of soap operas, and noted that school curricula had changed.
To the questions about the right of Syrian women to leave their homes, she said that Syrian women were very strong and did not need the permission of their husbands. According to the marriage contract, the husband had to spend money on his wife, unless she worked outside the home “against his will”. She had not seen or heard of a case where a woman had needed to ask her husband for permission to leave the country, but he could prevent it if they had a legal case. Otherwise, it was part of “marital courtesy” for a woman to tell her husband of her whereabouts and vice versa. However, when the woman was a victim, she did not think the woman needed permission to “escape” from her husband.
Experts’ Comments and Questions
Ms. CHUTIKUL, expert from Thailand, noted that, upon the arrest of a prostitute, the client was not required to give testimony, which could be “heard later”, according to the written report. Thus, the client did not get equal treatment in being brought to justice. She asked what the national committee to combat crimes of trafficking had achieved so far. Also, why was the Foreign Affairs Ministry preparing a bill to counter trafficking in persons? Also, why did female victims of trafficking have to go to delinquent centres for rehabilitation? She asked the delegation to consider how the victims would be transferred to the planned shelters.
DORCAS COKER-APPIAH, expert from Ghana, also focused on the non-prosecution of the clients in cases of prostitution. Page 36 of the written report indicated that prostitution was an offence for the woman when she engaged in it to earn a living, but she asked what was being done to study their situation; specifically to learn of the underlying causes in an effort to address them. On rape, she asked if a woman needed any male witnesses to bring a case against the alleged perpetrator, and whether there were different requirements under the Penal Code and Sharia.
Ms. GHANEM said that the draft law on trafficking was ready. She explained that the Ministry for Foreign Affairs was involved in “talk” of a human rights body only as a facilitator. As for why victims of trafficking were sent to delinquent centres for rehabilitation, she said that was because those were the only centres presently available. Maybe in the future, the expert’s recommendation to involve those victims in family protection services would be considered. She agreed that better ways should be found to address the issue.
As for not punishing rapists who married their victims, she said she was working hard to change that, because a woman who had been a victim of rape would continue to be a victim of her perpetrator in the marriage. To foster change, she was relying heavily on religious leaders and the experiences of other Arab and Muslim countries that were more advanced in changing family law.
Experts’ Comments and Questions
MARIA REGINA TAVARES DA SILVA, expert from Portugal, said she recognized the sustained progress in women’s participation in the People’s Council, but that participation was still much lower at the municipal and village levels. She wondered why at levels “closer to the people” there were fewer women, stressing that the issue needed attention. There were also too few women in the judiciary, diplomatic and academic spheres. Clearly, Syrian women were highly capable, as the delegation today had shown, and she asked what further measures were being taken to make those basic rights of women to equal participation more effective.
Ms. GASPARD, expert from France, noted a line in the report that stated that, in 1953, although women had the right to vote and be elected, they required a certificate of primary education to do so. Was that still the case and, if so, did the same requirement apply to Syrian men? If not, then there was discrimination against women, and that would explain the difficulty in finding women candidates to stand for election. What was the situation with regard to illiteracy among women? Ten per cent representation in Parliament for women was “not a very big number” and, often, quotas set by political parties were not respected in practice. She asked if there were any campaigns to increase the number of women candidates.
Also, considering that half of Syria’s population was rural, she pointed out that much had changed in India since 38 per cent of women were required to be represented in local councils simply because women had a different experience of life. For example, because women carried the water, one of the first things to change was access to water. So, there had been real progress in India as a result of the increased participation of women there at the local level. Something had to be done in Syria to improve things in that regard, she urged.
Ms. SCHÖPP-SCHILLING, expert from Germany, said the level of women’s participation in political life was still low, emphasizing the need to adopt special temporary measures. She also asked if the project for equality between men and women would authorize the use of temporary special measures. Verbal agreements were not enough; a legal and written basis was needed, she said.
MERIEM BELMIHOUB-ZERDANI, expert from Algeria, said Syrian women had made great progress and were represented today by an extraordinary woman. She was concerned, however, about the conditions for women running for political office. While there were some women in Syria’s political parties, it was important to increase that number, and to adopt a law to do so. More women were needed in Parliament in order to pass non-discriminatory laws, she said, stressing the need for a 30 per cent quota for women for all elections. More women lawyers would also be needed. She congratulated Syria for being the first country to submit an initial report, while, at the same time, lifting its reservation to the core article of the Convention. She was counting on the delegation to make swift progress on behalf of Syrian women.
Responding to that round of questions, Ms. GHANEM said Syria was going through a period of transition, as it opened up its economy and decentralized its Government. As Syria opened up to the world, debate on certain issues would be natural.
Regarding women and political life, she said one of the greatest constraints facing women was stereotyping. Other issues included the need to build women’s political skills. A training programme had been established in that regard. Another constraint was the need for services in support of the family, including day-care centres. There was no discrimination in terms of educational requirements to stand for election.
Mr. FLINTERMAN, expert from the Netherlands, noted that the reservation to article 9 was maintained. He was encouraged, however, that the reservation had been discussed and that the concerns of Syrian women and men were well known to the Government. Even with the reservation on the books, would it be possible to change legislation regarding nationality law?
Ms. COKER-APPIAH, expert from Ghana, asked for a clarification on a legislative amendment.
Ms. SAIGA, expert from Japan, hoped the nationality act would soon be amended. Had the Government carried out any survey on the number of children affected by the present nationality act?
Ms. BELMIHOUB-ZERDANI, expert from Algeria, said it was not normal for a woman who had carried a child for nine months to not be able to pass on her nationality to that child. She invited the Government to address that matter, as the issue had nothing to do with religion. Logically speaking, withdrawing a reservation to article 2 must have a direct impact on article 9, paragraph 2. The reservation concerning that article should, therefore, also be withdrawn.
MONA ASA’AD, legal adviser with the Syrian Commission for Family Affairs and women’s activist, noted that the nationality law was protected by the Constitution, which stated that every person in Syria would enjoy Syrian citizenship. The reservation was said to be based on Sharia. Abandoned children did receive Syrian citizenship. Several studies had been carried out with the goal of prompting the Government to remove the reservation. She did not have data on the number of children who suffered due to the nationality law.
Ms. GHANEM agreed that the law was discriminatory. It was, however, more a question of politics, rather than discrimination. The Prime Minister had asked her to prepare a proposal to look at the issue on a case-by-case basis. While it was not exactly what she had hoped for, it was a step in the right direction. While there was no data per say, there was qualitative research on the subject. It was not that the Government wanted to discriminate against women, but that there were political issues on the agenda.
Experts’ Comments and Questions
MAGALYS AROCHA DOMINGUEZ, expert from Cuba, noted an increase in the number of illiterate women in the country. With such tremendous changes taking place, she was surprised to see a development that essentially amounted to a step back. There were a considerable number of illiterate women between the ages of 25 and 45. Were there adult education programmes for women?
Responding, Ms. GHANEM said there was a literacy programme for adult women. She did not think there had been an increase in illiteracy, but rather an improvement in data collection.
Experts’ Comments and Questions
PRAMILA PATTEN, expert from Mauritius, commended efforts in the field of women and employment. She had a question, however, about the employment act in the private sector. Did the Government intend to review the employment act to ensure that it contained adequate sanctions in case of violation? How was the slowness of legal proceedings being addressed? Was the judiciary being trained? Did women receive legal aid in labour cases? To what extent were women being sensitized on labour laws? The report was silent on pay gaps in the private sector. Since Syria had a large percentage of women in the informal sector, how were their needs addressed? She saw a major gap between data on education and the situation of women in the labour market. What steps were envisaged to increase the percentage of women in the public sector? What concrete measures were envisaged to diversify women’s career choices?
Responding to those questions, a member of the delegation said the Labour Code had been established to ensure the equitable treatment of men and women. Women were governed by the same rules and laws as men. The Labour Code also stipulated that there should be no segregation in terms of employing women. Under the Labour Code, women had the right to 120 days of paid maternity leave for the first child. Working women who were abused by their employers could go to court and receive compensation.
Also responding, Ms. GHANEM said the private sector was relatively new. Social safety nets and other benefits was a priority issue for the Government, but it was just in the beginning stages. Women in business had organized themselves in networks. Women were also being encouraged to work from home using new technologies.
Experts’ Questions and Comments
Ms. BEGUM, expert from Bangladesh, noting that abortion was illegal in Syria, said legal support was needed for women to terminate unwanted pregnancies without penalty. What programmes existed to raise awareness regarding the silent killer, HIV/AIDS? She noted sizeable disparities between the provision of health services in urban and rural areas. What steps had been taken in that regard?
Ms. ZOU, expert from China, wanted to know what accounted for the gaps between women’s access to health in urban and rural areas, and what measures the Government intended to take to close that gap. On family planning and abortion, the law punished anyone who facilitated the use of family planning methods. Abortion was prohibited according to law. What was the real situation regarding family planning?
Ms. DAIRIAM, expert from Malaysia, raised the issue of the private sector in the delivery of health services. What did the Government plan to do to ensure access regardless of cost? Had they done any study on the impact of the privatization of health services? Personal autonomy was another issue. What was the Government doing to improve accountability in delivering obstetric care?
Ms. GHANEM said that abortion was not allowed in Syria. Most unwanted pregnancies were the result of women not understanding how to use family planning methods. People were being encouraged to use family planning to avoid unwanted pregnancy. She said AIDS had not been an issue in Syria until recently. Sex education was a delicate subject in Syria. In some parts of the country, “home-visit” programmes had been established in order to provide health services. The primary health-care system had improved greatly.
Experts’ Comments and Questions
GLENDA P. SIMMS, expert from Jamaica, noted that the delegation had said that rural women did not understand their rights. Rural women looked after the crops and farm animals, and the cottage industry, as well as cooked and washed and cleaned -- all with very limited facilities. The men were involved in mechanical harvests, pest control, irrigation -- technology had released them from heavy muscles. She was concerned that the many programmes in place to assist rural women only served to reinforce their stereotypical roles. What rural women needed was choices, and the road to choices was education, she stressed.
Ms. PATTEN, expert from Mauritius, said it would be desirable in the next report to include data on some programmes that had not reinforced stereotypes as the previous speaker had suggested, and which had been useful for rural women. As decision-making was crucial to women’s empowerment, what was being done to encourage rural women’s greater involvement in decision-making, including in Government? The report stated that there were no rural women in Government. She also asked about the possibility of using temporary special measures. With a high percentage of women in unpaid agricultural jobs, what measures were being taken to promote and support women’s self-employment and to develop self-enterprise? In that context, she asked about their access to land and credit.
ANAMAH TAN, expert from Singapore, noted that the illiteracy rate for rural women was alarmingly high. A significant contributor to the low literacy level was juggling farming and household chores, and a gender division of labour was usually more entrenched in rural areas. Educating men and boys in taking on an equitable share of work in the home would give girls and women more time for their education and development. She asked if there were any steps to curb early marriage among girls, and whether parents and guardians in rural areas were being educated about the adverse effects of such a pattern. She also asked about crimes against rural women, and the situation with regard to domestic violence in rural communities, as well as about rural women’s inheritance and land rights.
Ms. GHANEM said a workshop had been organized in 2005 to devise a mechanism or strategy to assure the equal access of men and women to technology, loans and so forth, and to empower women for greater participation in society. Since then, many initiatives had been launched to increase rural women’s access to loans, and she provided the Committee with several supporting statistics. There had also been many initiatives to promote women’s access to technology, and a poverty map had been done of rural areas. The five-year plan had put a strategy in place to conduct gender auditing in rural areas to identify the gender gap and take strategic action in that regard.
She acknowledged that there was pressure on Syrian women not to exercise their inheritance rights. The relationship between early marriage and illiteracy had been clearly established, and the Government was trying to manage the problem. Most school dropouts were due to the distance to the schools. An attempt was also being made to have “culturally sensitive” schools.
Also concerning early marriage, Mr. HASSAN said it was not a general phenomenon. In 1992, a field study had indicated that the age of early marriage was 16 for girls and 19 for boys. Some years later, the average marriage age for women had increased to 21 and to 24 for men. That had been related to the development of society. The problem could not be solved by a magic wand. Syrian society had seen developments in the field of education and awareness. The Government and civil society insisted that there be a law that raised the marriage age for women, but it was not the law that solved the problem -- as many experts had said today -- but awareness. The law could help, but education and the economic situation were the main motivators.
Experts’ Comments and Questions
Ms. HALPERIN-KADDARI, expert from Israel, asked about the prospect of reforming the personal status law and about the new bill on family law. She assumed that the discriminatory provisions in the personal status law would be changed, including the question of equal inheritance upon the death of a spouse. In the case of divorce, a woman relinquished her full rights in exchange for divorce. Also, were women trained as experts in Sharia law, in reforming and interpreting it? She was also concerned about arbitration by relatives, since they were invariably male.
Ms. TAN, expert from Singapore, reading from the written report about the personal status act, said that she too was concerned about its different application for women and men regarding treatment in cases of adultery and divorce. Were polygamous marriages still taking place in Syria even though polygamy was prohibited? Did women in polygamous marriages have any rights, and, if so, did they differ among the wives? She asked about the different application of the inheritance law for men as compared to women and whether there was any prospect of reforming that. She also asked for confirmation that the draft civil law complied with the Convention’s articles 15 and 16, and about how the family law would operate in relation to Sharia law, specifically whether it would apply to Muslims.
Ms. BELMIHOUB-ZERDANI, expert from Algeria, said she was perplexed about the wording of the chapter in the report on marriage, in the context of the treaty’s article 16. She posed a series of legalistic questions as they applied to different religions in the context of marriage and its dissolution. She also asked whether there were separate courts for Muslims and non-Muslims.
The Syrian personal status law did include some discriminatory provisions, a member of the delegation said. A draft personal status law in line with Syria’s international agreements was currently being prepared. In the case of consensual divorce, a woman could not forfeit all her rights. The contract, signed by both spouses, was registered in the courts. As for civil marriage, the idea was not even on the table. Regarding the appointment of relatives as mediators, the purpose was to try to keep the families together and to reconcile differences. If the judge did not find a relative who was capable of that job, he would try to find others. If the arbitration failed, the judge had no choice but to grant the divorce. Women had the right to ask for divorce and were under no obligation to forfeit their rights.
The inheritance law was a discriminatory law stemming from Sharia, she said. She did not think it would be easy to remove or amend the law. The personal status law provisions were applied to all Syrian citizens with some exceptions in the case of the Christian and Druze communities, who had their own tribunals. They could also seek arbitration in regular mainstream or Sharia courts.
Ms. GHANEM added that it was important to understand the financial relationships according to Sharia law. When a woman got married, a dowry was given as a gift. The woman was not responsible for putting any money into the family, and the husband was required to pay the marriage expenses. Even if the woman received an inheritance, the man was required to cover the household expenses. Agreement was needed by both parties to divorce. People tended to mix tradition and religion. They were now beginning to distinguish between tradition and religion. Women did not know that it was their right not to accept polygamy or divorce. Polygamy was not widely practiced in Syria, but it did exist.
Regarding family law, she said she was not sure where things were heading. They had asked for the maximum, knowing that it would be necessary to negotiate. The Commission was not looking for a revolution, but a step ahead. The Government was working with open-minded religious men to bring enlightenment to the whole issue. One of the country’s great experts on Sharia was a Christian woman, she noted.
Ms. SAIGA, expert from Japan, asked the delegation to see the nationality law from the point of view of the child. She also asked about the national human rights structures under consideration and the national committee for international humanitarian law.
Ms. SCHÖPP-SCHILLING, expert from Germany, asked if the Government was pursuing a gender-impact assessment in light of the country’s new economic and decentralizing policies. What were the exact conditions for registration for women’s associations?
Ms. DAIRIAM, expert from Malaysia, asked for more information on shelters for victims of domestic violence. She urged the Government to carefully study the issue in setting up shelters and take measures to protect women. Did the study on violence cover refugee women?
Ms. CHUTIKUL, expert from Thailand, said that, as proper kinds of shelters did not yet exist, she worried about girls and women in delinquent centres. She also asked if the Convention’s dissemination include ethnic minorities and stateless people.
Lengthy discussion had been held on article 9, Ms. GHANEM said. It was clear that the Government needed to carry out many more social programmes regarding citizenship and safety nets.
Regarding shelters, she said the aim was not to keep the woman out of the family, but to solve the problem. UNHCR had carried out some studies on refugees. Not everything could be done at the same time. A step-by-step strategy was being used to change mindsets in a male-dominated society and culture. Services were provided for stateless people.
Summing up the discussion, Ms. ŠIMONOVIĆ, Committee Chair and expert from Croatia, said the decision to withdraw the reservation on article 2 was commendable. It was important to proceed with the withdrawal of remaining reservations that impeded the Convention’s implementation at the national level, as well as with the possible ratification of the Optional Protocol. It was also important to note that the Convention was a legally biding human rights instrument that had already motivated political and legal reforms in the country. The Convention’s status in the legal system should be further strengthened. It was important to ensure that honour crimes and marital rape were established as criminal offences, and to use the Convention as a tool in that respect. She encouraged contact between the delegation, religious leaders, non-governmental organizations and the media.
* *** *For information media • not an official record