29 May 2007
General Assembly
WOM/1632

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Committee on Elimination of

Discrimination against Women

789th & 790th Meetings (AM & PM)


STEREOTYPES, HARMFUL TRADITIONAL PRACTICES, SLAVERY, RESERVATIONS TO WOMEN’S


CONVENTION AMONG CONCERNS CITED BY EXPERT BODY AS IT EXAMINES NIGER’S REPORT


Ranked among the world’s poorest countries, Niger needed to adopt extreme measures to root out age-old custom and tradition, bring its legislation in line with the provisions of the Women’s Convention and create an environment in which women could take their rightful place in the global village, members of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women said as they considered Niger’s combined initial and second periodic report today.


While countries often “fly the flag of culture and custom”, custom was dynamic and subject to change, the expert from Ghana said.  With the right amount of political will, it was possible to change the way women were perceived in society.  Noting that part of Niger’s traditions was African and another part Islamic, the expert from Egypt stressed the need for Niger’s secular Government to undertake a comparative study of other Islamic countries that had no reservations to the article of the Convention on sex-role stereotyping.


Noting that Niger had not entered reservations with other human rights instruments with equally important gender equality provisions, experts agreed that Niger’s reservations to several of the Convention’s core provisions not only contradicted its object and purpose, but also seemed “unnecessary”. 


Urging the Government to reflect on the alleged necessity of its reservations, the expert from Germany said there seemed to be a misconception about Niger’s obligation under the Convention, when it said that age-old traditions and customs could not be immediately changed.  Niger seemed to think that since article 2 of the Convention -- on policy measures -- required immediate action, that that action required immediate results.  Niger was acting without delay and undertaking certain steps, and, from that perspective, she thought it could withdraw its reservations. 


Several experts applauded the Government’s ratification in 2004 of the Convention’s Optional Protocol, which would give women in Niger the possibility of submitting violations of their rights to the Committee after having exhausted all local remedies.  Justice began at home, but owing to complicated procedures, and a lack of people’s awareness of their rights, as well as the high illiteracy rates, the use of those remedies was “very rare”, the expert from the Netherlands added.


Referring to the mention of slavery in Niger’s report, the expert from Jamaica expressed dismay that individuals and groups of people in Niger were still slaves.  Slavery was not about custom or poverty, but about denying people their fundamental human rights.  Slavery could not continue in any democratic society.  While the delegation had stated that female genital mutilation and slavery were illegal, she wondered how many slave owners had been brought to trial and jailed, and whether alternative livelihoods had been developed for the practitioners of female genital mutilation.  As long as those women could make money by violating women’s sexuality, “they will never stop doing it, despite the law”, she said.


Introducing Niger’s report, Ousmane Zeinabou Moulaye, Niger’s Minister for the Advancement of Women and the Protection of Children, said the progress made in improving women’s status in Niger had been the expression of the Government’s commitment and determination, as well as that of its non-governmental and financial partners.  Since Niger’s ratification of the Convention in 1999, a number of measures had been taken to improve women’s living conditions and ensure gender equity and equality.  The advancement of women also had a major place in the Government’s development plans, as gender equality was a cornerstone for sustainable development.  It was also a condition for social justice, which was the only way to build a viable society.  Major efforts had been made to eradicate sexist attitudes.  The Government was prepared to work closely with the Committee to bring about progress in all areas of women’s advancement.


Responding to the questions and comments on slavery, a member of the delegation categorically denied the existence of such a practice, while at the same time acknowledging the existence of certain holdovers from the past.  Slavery, as defined by international texts, did not exist in Niger, he said, adding that Niger’s criminal code contained provisions that repressed such conduct.  When the problem of slavery had re-emerged in 2000, Niger had reacted by defining slavery as a crime against humanity, which entailed the death sentence.  He could provide evidence of the fact that slavery as defined in international texts did not exist in Niger. 


Regarding stereotypes and discrimination against women, another member of the delegation said everything was being done under Niger’s reforms “to ensure that everything is reconciled with the rest of the world”.  The family code was being reviewed, and he was certain that that would become a reality.  Customary law was gradually being abandoned.  Both the family laws of 1962 and 2004 provided safeguards and, as such, custom did not apply automatically or generally; the parties to a case could ask that civil law be applied.  When custom clashed with a ratified international convention or with the rules of public order or individual liberties, then custom did not apply.  Also, when custom was vague, it could not be applied.


Also participating in Niger’s delegation were: Mariama Mathieu, National Deputy; Aboubacar Ibrahim Abani, Permanent Representative of Niger to the United Nations; Habsou Ali, Gender Adviser to the President; Barre Haoua, Secretary General, Cabinet of the Prime Minister; Sidikou Fatima, Secretary General, Minister of Public Health; Maiguizo Rakiatou, Secretary General, Minister for National Education; Adama Harouna, General Prosecutor; Abdourhaman Amina Moussa, Director for the Advancement of Women; Sandi Abdou Sahadi, Director for United Nations and International Organizations, Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and Borika Albadia, Director of Archives, Information And Public Relations.


Other participants included Boubacar Boureima, Abdou Adamou and Aicha Louche, Counsellors at Niger’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations.  Kako Fatima of the National Commission for Human Rights and Basic Freedoms also participated in the delegation.


The Committee will meet again at a date and time to be announced.


Background


The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met today to take up Niger’s combined initial and second periodic report (CEDAW/C/NER/1-2).


Heading Niger’s delegation was Ousmane Zeinabou Moulaye, Minister for the Advancement of Women and the Protection of Children.  Also participating in the delegation were: Mariama Mathieu, National Deputy; Aboubacar Ibrahim Abani, Permanent Representative of Niger to the United Nations; Habsou Ali, Gender Adviser to the President; Barre Haoua, Secretary General, Cabinet of the Prime Minister; Sidikou Fatima, Secretary General, Minister of Public Health; Maiguizo Rakiatou, Secretary General, Minister for National Education; Adama Harouna, General Prosecutor; Abdourhaman Amina Moussa, Director for the Advancement of Women; Sandi Abdou Sahadi, Director for United Nations and International Organizations, Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and Borika Albadia, Director of Archives, Information and Public Relations.


Other participants included Boubacar Boureima, Abdou Adamou and Aicha Louché, Counsellors at Niger’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations.  Kako Fatima of the National Commission for Human Rights and Basic Freedoms also participated in the delegation.


Introduction of Report


OUSMANE ZEINABOU MOULAYE, Minister for the Advancement of Women and the Protection of Children, said the progress made in improving women’s status in Niger had been the expression of the commitment and determination of its Government, non-governmental organizations and technical and financial partners.  The protection of the most vulnerable segments -- women and children -- was an ongoing concern for Niger’s authorities.  In September 1996, the Government had adopted its National Policy for the Advancement of Women, which reflected the State’s consistent actions and commitments to women’s and development issues. 


The National Policy, she continued, was based on five principles, namely respect for women’s rights as citizens, non-discrimination, gender equality, equal opportunity and protection of women and children within the family unit.  As an evolving policy designed for the long term, the policy also contained 13 crosscutting goals, including the development of an appropriate national framework, increased socio-economic opportunities for women and improvements in women’s access to education, production capacity and employment conditions.


Since Niger’s ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 1999, a number of measures had been taken to improve women’s living conditions and ensure gender equity and equality, she said.  The Government had for the first time in 1989 provided for a Minister for Social Development and the Advancement of Women and Children.  The Ministry had been converted in 2005 into the Ministry for the Advancement of Women and the Protection of Children.  Further mechanisms had been set up to strengthen that institution.  In 2000, Niger had enacted a law establishing a quota giving women 10 per cent of the seats in elected bodies and 25 per cent in Government administration.  As of July 2004, there were now 14 women in Parliament and 671 women serving as municipal counsellors.  Six women ministers and six women ambassadors had also been appointed. 


On the economic and social front, she noted that some 63 per cent of the population lived below the poverty line, of which 73 per cent were women.  The Government had crafted a number of programmes to improve living conditions, including the adoption in 2002 of Niger’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP), which acted as a baseline in Government action to counter poverty.  Other initiatives included a project, entitled “Increasing women’s revenues”, which established microcredit banks for women.  The orientation law, adopted in 1998, called for increased access to education for all children, regardless of gender.  Such measures had had a positive impact in terms of schooling for girls. 


Regarding the issue of health, she noted that despite the economic challenges facing the country, the authorities had taken major efforts to improve the quality of and access to health care services.  More than 2,000 health care centres had been established.  A reproductive health programme was also being established, as well as HIV/AIDS centres.  The Government had decided to provide free screening for breast and uterine cancer.  Such actions had led to the adoption in 2006 of the reproductive health law.  In terms of violence against women, Niger had reformed its criminal code, as well as its criminal procedure code.  Hence, slavery, female genital mutilation and sexual harassment had been criminalized, and the criminalization of rape had been further strengthened.  Niger had, in 2004, ratified the Convention’s Optional Protocol.


The advancement of women had a major place in the Government’s development plans, she said.  No country could develop without taking gender into account.  Gender equality was a cornerstone for sustainable development.  It was also a condition for social justice, which was the only way to build a viable society.  Major efforts had been made to eradicate sexist attitudes.  The national gender policy, which was being finalized, included strategic pillars for women’s advancement in all areas.  The country’s legal and judicial framework was also being reformed.  Promoting women’s status deserved the broadest commitment from all players.  The Government was prepared to work closely with the Committee to bring about progress in all areas of women’s advancement.


Experts’ Comments and Questions


HANNA BEATE SCHÖPP-SCHILLING, expert from Germany, urged the Government to reflect on the alleged necessity of its reservations, when it said that age-old traditions and customs could not be immediately changed.  There seemed to be a misconception about the obligation of a State party under the Convention, which seemed to be harbouring a contradiction.  The State party seemed to think that since article 2 required immediate action, that that action also required immediate results.  Those results, however, would take time, but they would not occur by themselves. 


The State party was acting without delay and undertaking certain steps, and, from that perspective, she thought it could withdraw its reservations.  Moreover, the Government had not entered any reservations to other international human rights instruments, which enshrined the very same rights as the Women’s Convention.  She urged the Government to launch an awareness-raising campaign involving all sectors of society and to withdraw the reservations as soon as possible.


CORNELIS FLINTERMAN, expert from the Netherlands, said the reservations, which were to the core articles 2, 15 and 16, were a matter of concern.  He was happy to note that measures had been taken in consideration of their withdrawal and that a process had been initiated in that regard in 2006 by the National Assembly.  The delegation had also given the impression that the national policy for the promotion of women was fully inspired by the obligations under the Convention.  Niger had, fortunately, also ratified all other human rights instruments without reservation, and those also contained very important gender equality clauses.  It seemed to him, as an international lawyer, that the reservations to the Women’s Convention were not necessary.


At the same time, he was satisfied at the ratification of the Optional Protocol in 2004, which would give women in Niger the possibility of submitting violations of their rights to the Committee after having exhausted all local remedies.  Justice began at home, but owing to complicated procedures, and a lack of people’s awareness of their rights, as well as the high illiteracy rates, the use of those remedies was “very rare”.  What was the Government doing to familiarize legal personnel, the judiciary and women about their rights under the Convention?


HEISOO SHIN, expert from the Republic of Korea, said that, under article 28, any reservation that was incompatible with the object and purpose of the Convention was not permitted.  It seemed to her that all of Niger’s reservations were “very key” to the object and purpose of the treaty.  She commended the Government on its ratification of the Optional Protocol, and asked what kind of changes had been made in the past year to change society since ratification.


FERDOUS ARA BEGUM, expert from Bangladesh, also questioned the reservations on the core articles, noting that the tax laws, among other legislation, were discriminatory against women.  What plans did the country have to withdraw the reservations?  Also, what plans did it have to establish the family court, especially since inheritance and property rights were not guaranteed by law, but limited by customs and traditions.  Reading from the report, she noted that women continued to suffer from domestic violence and other harmful practices, such as forced marriage.  She urged the delegation to provide a timetable for adopting the family court. 


FRANÇOISE GASPARD, Vice-Chairperson and expert from France, said she also regretted the reservations, which “fly in the face of other conventions that have been ratified without reservations by Niger”.  Was there a timetable for withdrawing those reservations?  On the concept of non-discrimination, Niger had said that the Napoleonic Code of 1804 had been partially applied there.  Women in France and elsewhere had “imported” the code for two centuries and had struggled to abolish those clauses discriminatory to women.  Did Niger’s “partial” application of the code mean that it had eliminated those discriminatory clauses?


DUBRAVKA ŠIMONOVIĆ, Committee Chairperson and expert from Croatia, asked about the possible ratification of the protocol to the African Charter on Women’s Rights.  Niger’s report explained that the Women’s Convention was directly applicable.  Therefore, how was it implementing, for example, the prohibition of discrimination, as per article 1, at the national level, or was that a problem of a definition, the reservation to article 2 -- specifically paragraph “f”?


Delegation’s Response


To the many questions about the reservations, a member of the delegation said that when Niger had adhered to the Convention it had expressed those reservations due to cultural and social constraints.  Those reservations must be placed in a political context, since ratification had occurred at a time when the country was in an extremely difficult situation.  When the country returned to the rule of law, one of the first acts of the authorities was to ensure a serene environment and gender equality.  A law had been passed to improve women’s participation in some legislative bodies, and Niger had prepared some arguments relating to the lifting of the reservations.  On religious grounds, on the basis of Islamic law, the Women’s Convention did not contain anything new.  That was why his Government had unreservedly ratified the Optional Protocol.


Another member of the delegation explained that custom was the very source of law in Niger’s legislation, and part and parcel of the personal law was followed by individuals in their private lives.  Custom was considered necessary in many areas.  As for the status of individuals, property, marriage, divorce and so forth –- the lawmakers did not think custom should be “left to one side”.  However, while the lawmakers respected custom and were aware that its elimination was risky, they felt that it should not run contrary to the conventions and understood that custom was not applicable in all cases.  The parties had the right to choose; custom was not imposed on them.  There were also provisions where customs did not apply.  Steps were being taken to apply the Convention, and “custom will progressively disappear”. 


For now, the speaker continued, custom governed all provisions in the civil code in Niger.  However, all previous laws that ran counter to the Convention were deemed out of date.  There was no specific provision on discrimination against women in Niger, but there was punishment insofar as negative conduct towards women was concerned.  For example, sexual harassment was punishable if it occurred because a woman refused to go along with the man’s “whims”.


SAISUREE CHUTIKUL, expert from Thailand, asked several questions about the country’s national mechanisms for the advancement of women.  What were the main differences between the 1996 national policy and the 2007 gender policy?  Had the 1996 policy been evaluated and implemented?  What policy was being used as the country’s present framework, and who was responsible for the coordination?  What were the linkages between the national institute for monitoring and the Women’s Ministry?  What instruments were used in monitoring? 


Ms. GASPARD, expert from France, asked about efforts to publicize the Convention.  She also asked about the status of the ratification of the protocol to the African Charter, which would assist in implementing the Convention.  What progress had been made in terms of girls’ schooling?  Media campaigns could be carried out to encourage education for girls.


VIOLETA NEUBAUER, expert from Slovenia, asked for information on the national mechanism for the advancement of women, which was also vested with other mandates.  What human resources had been allocated for developing and implementing the national gender policy?  She also wanted information on cooperation and coordination structures between the Ministry and other Government bodies for monitoring women’s advancement.  What objectives were being finalized this year? 


NAELA MOHAMED GABR, expert from Egypt, said efforts had begun very early in the 1980s to establish institutional mechanisms to ensure compliance with women’s rights.  Despite such efforts, however, Niger continued to face major problems.  There was a need to ensure that there was no duplication of mandates in terms of national structures.  How was the Government organizing itself to distribute tasks among the different institutional mechanisms?  How was work between civil society and non-governmental organizations and Government ministries progressing? 


Ms. SCHÖPP-SCHILLING, expert from Germany, asked if court verdicts were publicised.  She also asked for more detailed information on the monitoring process by the national monitoring institutions.  Did they collect data and how were they connected with the Ministry?  She was concerned about negotiations on agricultural trade liberalization currently taking place between the European Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).  As those policies might impact food security, for which women were largely responsible, had the Government carried out a gender impact assessment of trade liberalization policies, she asked, noting that trade liberalization often neglected human rights. 


Delegation’s Response


Responding, a member of the delegation noted that the policy for the advancement of women had been adopted in 1996.  National policies for the advancement of women focused on measures to strengthen and build women’s capacities and to ensure their rights.  As the 1996 policy did not take into account the Beijing Platform of Action, the Rio Declaration and the Millennium Development Goals, the 2006 policy included three strategic pillars, including clarification of women’s legal status and strengthening of women’s economic potential.  The Government was trying to create an enabling environment for the national policy. 


The national observatory for the advancement of women included civil society and governmental structures, the speaker continued.  The observatory lacked resources, particularly human resources.  For some time, recruitment in civil service had been reduced.  Actions were being pursued on the ground to work with non-governmental organizations, as they could go to areas where the State could not.  It was, however, a problem of staffing.  The additional protocol to the African Charter was an issue of debate.  The Ministry was currently working with non-governmental organizations to carry out advocacy and outreach to ensure the document could be ratified without reservation.  The Government was also trying to deal with the issue of early marriage, an area in which tribal leaders had great authority.  The Women’s Ministry did maintain a database of information on the status of women. 


On the issue of education, another member of the delegation noted that schooling rates for girls was some 54 per cent, compared to 29 per cent in 2000.  Efforts had been made to improve girls’ access to schools, and to address literacy rates.  Several measures had been taken to encourage girls to stay in school.  The Ministry for Education was now applying measures to encourage families to send their girls to school by, among other things, providing bicycles and materials for schooling.  Domestic chores often prevented families from sending their children to school, and efforts were underway to address that issue.


Another member of the delegation said efforts to make gender a priority issue were taken in the fields of equitable access to social services, family planning and reproductive health, and measures to reduce inequalities for vulnerable groups. 


Another member of the delegation addressed the issue of awareness-raising regarding verdicts in cases of violence against women.  Anyone could access a courtroom and listen to a verdict.  The media also had access to courtrooms in certain cases.  The appeals court had identified forms of violence against women, including rape, sexual harassment, slavery and female genital mutilation.  The rates were low in terms of violence against women. 


On another issue, a member of the delegation said the family code had been under discussion since 1995.  On the report’s preparation, she noted that the State had prepared the report, adding that it had been widely discussed in various workshops.   A national strategy to implement the Convention -- developed in 2003 -- was the foundation for the Government’s various activities.  Training and awareness-raising campaigns via the media had been carried out.  Focal points had been established in each ministry.  There was, however, a degree of instability as ministers appeared and disappeared.


Experts’ Comments and Questions


Ms. SHIN, expert from the Republic of Korea, said the delegation did not seem to have a clear understanding of temporary special measures, as most of its response concerned general polices.  She suggested, therefore, that the delegation read the Committee’s general recommendation 25.  Temporary special measures were meant to accelerate de facto equality between men and women.  Women had suffered inequality and discrimination for so long, and temporary special measures were meant to give women and girls an “extra push”.  Could the Government consider expanding the Quota Act of 2000, or have general legislation that could apply to all areas, and not just to the political and public realm?  Targets could also be set for women’s advancement.


Delegation’s Response


Ms. MOULAYE said that everything began with politics, and participating in the political struggle meant that women were now aware of their rights and the claims they could raise to seize those rights.  Politics had no taboos; women and men were on equal footing –- they could vote and be elected, and both were in the vanguard of the political struggle.  The law on quotas, adopted following the ratification of the Convention, eased the way in all areas, and the treaty had brought clarification to the people, especially to women.  Even those who had not known of their rights had learned about them; they learned that they had rights and not just duties.  She was proud that women now occupied high-level posts in Government.  There were now 14 women in Parliament, or a 12 per cent representation, and six women ministers.  Women were also represented in the Supreme Court. 


Another member of the delegation added that the quota law applied across the board, and not just to the political arena.


Experts’ Comments and Questions


MARIA REGINA TAVARES DA SILVA, expert from Portugal, acknowledged the efforts made by the Government under article 5 requiring changes in stereotypes and harmful cultural practices, namely, the handbook on equality and awareness-raising programmes, including in the media.  That meant the Government was doing what was required of it, despite its reservation to parts of that article.  However, a complete strategy to address cultural change was necessary.  The issue should be taken up in the school system, through textbooks and teacher training.  “You are on the way to doing what article 5 requires,” she encouraged, adding that cultural practices could not be changed overnight.


SILVIA PIMENTEL, expert from Brazil, noting that the Constitution prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex, said she was very disconcerted, however, about the 1962 act that gave precedence to customary law in many matters related to family issues.  She commended the references to the many measures meant to raise awareness about women’s equality, but asked for detailed information about the content of the brochure and the methodology and content of the awareness-raising caravans and the radio and television programmes and skits. 


She noted that Niger had no comprehensive strategy to combat violence against women, but that the Government had identified seven strategic actions in cooperation with civil society.  She sought more information on that, particularly the framework for consultation among actors for combating violence against women.  She also wanted to know about the results of consultations to which the delegation had referred.


MAGALYS AROCHA DOMINGUEZ, expert from Cuba, said she was still worried that the activities of the Government were not sufficiently flexible or effective enough to change the stereotypes or to change mindsets.  The impact of the measures taken in the educational sphere and by the media was limited.  What steps were being taken in the rural areas?


GLENDA P. SIMMS, Vice-Chairperson and expert from Jamaica, noting that individuals and groups of people in Niger were still slaves, said that slavery was not about custom or poverty, but about denying people their fundamental human rights.  Slavery could not continue in any democratic society.  It had been 200 years since the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  The report had stated that masters owned bodies, minds and souls.  The women in the slave class were the “slaves of the slaves”.  The delegation had stated that female genital mutilation and slavery were illegal, but how many slave owners had been brought to trial and how many had been jailed?  How many women who conducted the practice of female genital mutilation had been charged, and had alternative livelihoods been developed for them?  As long as those women could make money by violating women’s sexuality, “they will never stop doing it, despite the law”.


Addressing her comments to article 5 (a) on the human rights of women, DORCAS COKER-APPIAH, expert from Ghana, said that as far as the considerations of women went, countries often “fly the flag of culture and custom”.  However, custom was dynamic and subject to change, and with the right amount of political will, it was possible to change the way women were perceived in society.  She asked the delegation about some of the key findings from its study on violence against women, especially with regard to the prevalence of the phenomenon, and what steps the Government was taking to address the issue.


Ms. GABR, Vice-Chairperson and expert from Egypt, noting that Niger was a secular country, said part of its traditions was African and another part was Islamic.  It was very important to undertaken a comparative study of other Islamic countries, such as Saudi Arabia, which had no reservations to article 5.  Similarly, African countries did not have reservations to that article.  She also asked about the practice of pilgrimages.


Regarding violence against women, Ms. ŠIMONOVIĆ, Committee Chairperson and expert from Croatia, said it was important to know about the Committee’s general recommendation 19, which clearly explained that such violence was a form of discrimination and a human rights violation under the Convention’s article 1.  All over the world, countries were focusing on measures to combat that phenomenon.  At the United Nations, the Secretary-General had published an in-depth study on it.  In Niger, a committee on harmful traditional practices had been established, which had included consideration of female genital mutilation.  It had produced some good results, but she asked for an update on ongoing incidents.  The 218 monitoring squads observing the custom at the village level was a good practice.  She also wanted to know whether there were shelters for women victims of violence.


Delegation’s Response


On female genital mutilation, Ms. MOULAYE assured the Committee that the results of the committee on harmful traditional practices had been satisfactory and that the incidence had fallen from 5 per cent to 2.2 per cent.  She reiterated that slavery was a thing of the past or relegated to a few isolated cases.


Addressing his responses to questions on article 5, another member of the delegation said that there was a particular legal system in Niger, which was not comparable to most.  It comprised individual law and customary law, and that posed problems.  Customary law arrangements ran counter to the needs of today’s world, which was why the country was taking action now to ensure that harmful patterns and stereotypes “gradually disappeared”.  However, it was not possible to simply dictate the abolition of the personal law of the people.  The Constitution had already taken the first steps by instituting the principle of equality before the law, and there had been vast legislative reform programmes, including of the civil and criminal laws.  In fact, a central mission of the Prime Minister, tasked to the Ministry of Justice, had been to harmonize the texts with today’s world, and that directive was currently being implemented. 


Regarding stereotypes and discrimination against women, he said that everything was being done under the reforms “to ensure that everything is reconciled with the rest of the world”.  The family code was being reviewed, and he was certain that that would become a reality.  “Customary law is gradually being abandoned,” he said.  Both the family laws of 1962 and 2004 provided safeguards and, as such, custom did not apply automatically or generally; the parties to a case could ask that civil law be applied.  When custom clashed with a ratified international convention or with the rules of public order or individual liberties, then custom did not apply.  Also, when custom was vague, it could not be applied.   


Concerning violence against women, he said that the legal system could only access statistics on that phenomenon when cases were brought before it.  He also responded to questions about the penal code. 


He said he was surprised to hear that there was slavery in Niger.  It was, in that regard, necessary to understand what was happening.  The definition of slavery provided for in international texts was taken up in Niger’s criminal code, which stated that slavery was the state in which an individual was treated as a piece of property.  As defined, slavery did not exist in the country.  There were, however, certain holdovers from the past.  People had the tendency to raise the issue at the international level and say that slavery existed in Niger.  Slavery, as defined by international texts, did not exist.  The criminal code contained provisions that repressed such conduct. 


Niger, he continued, had signed onto international law and conventions which called for the elimination of any kind of subjugated relationship.  People could be called on to serve someone else.  There might be cases in which individuals sold other individuals.  In 2000, when the problem of slavery had re-emerged, Niger had reacted far more categorically, making slavery a crime, not only in the criminal code but also as a crime against humanity, which entailed the death sentence.  Slavery was a crime.  He said he could provide evidence of the fact that slavery as defined in international texts did not exist in Niger. 


Ms. ŠIMONOVIĆ, Committee Chairperson and expert from Croatia, noted that pages 22 and 29 of Niger’s report included references to slavery.  That might explain why the issue had been raised, she added.


Another member of the delegation noted that activities had been undertaken to change the relationship between men and women in Niger.  Regarding awareness-raising measures, she noted that two radio stations covered the entire country.  Niger also had private radio stations and solar powered radios.  Great attempts had been made to publicize the Convention by means of daily broadcasts on women’s rights and duties.  There had been some results.  Women were speaking out when they realized that they had been victims of abuse.  Regarding reservations, certain elements of that came from customs and the Constitution.  Those customs had become Islamic in nature.  The problem might flow from a misinterpretation of Islam.  Niger was proudly devoted to its religion.


Experts’ Questions and Comments


Ms. BEGUM, expert from Bangladesh, raised the issue of trafficking, noting that several reports mentioned the practice of trafficking in the guise of marriage, a practice in which a girl was taken away from the family and married purely for breeding purposes.  There was also the custom of taking a slave as a fourth wife for bonded labour.  Refugees and asylum seekers were also reportedly victims of trafficking.  It appeared that Niger was a country of origin, destination and transit.  It also had internal, domestic trafficking.  Did the Government have a strategy to stop that severe form of human rights abuse?  As trafficking was a crime that was global in nature, had the Government pursued any bilateral initiatives to protect the rights of victims and punish the perpetrators?  How many shelters provided legal, medical and financial help?  Were refugees and asylum seekers allowed shelter?  What was the reintegration process for the victims of trafficking?  She also wanted to know the status of the draft law to criminalize perpetrators.


Ms. CHUTIKUL, expert from Thailand, welcomed the ratification of the anti-trafficking protocol to the United Nations Convention on Transnational Organized Crime.  What was the status of the bill drafted in 2006 on trafficking?  Did it contain a clear definition of human trafficking?  Had the national plan been implemented and who coordinated related activities?  Had Niger studied the issue of commercial sex exploitation? 


Ms. NEUBAUER, expert from Slovenia, commended the Government for improving the conditions for women to fully enjoy their rights under articles 7 and 8 of the Convention.  Article seven obliged States parties to take all appropriate measures to ensure that women enjoyed equality with men in political life.  Niger’s political life continued to be dominated by men, however.  In that regard, it seemed that the quota for women in Parliament was too low to support the principle of equality.  Moreover, the 25 per cent quota for appointed posts had not been achieved at all levels of decision-making in government.  Was more data available on women in political and public life?  If not, she encouraged the delegation to provide such information in the next report. 


Delegation’s Response


Taking up the issue of trafficking, Ms. MOULAYE said that Niger, along with other countries in the subregion, had signed an agreement to prevent that phenomenon, and several measures had been taken, including the training of border officials.


Another member of the delegation assured the Committee that Niger was neither a starting point nor a destination country, but perhaps it was a transit country.  It was at a crossroads, and despite its desire to the contrary, it was involved in the trafficking of persons and drugs.  Thanks to the training of border officials, some children had been identified and sent back to their families, and some cases had been suppressed.  Niger had signed the relevant international and regional conventions and had made provisions in its domestic legislation to combat the phenomenon.  There had also been positive results in the courts.  The Constitution was “one of the rare” texts that devoted a whole section to the protection of the human being, and it protected young people against exploitation and abandonment.


The delegation said that all standard-setting texts were drafted in such a way that no privilege was conferred on either men or women as concerned employment.  In the civil service, for example, of 32,000 employees, 9,000 were women.  The contest for admission to the public service was the same for men and women.  “Women’s position can improve, and with time, it will improve,” he stressed.  In terms of how women were involved in defining public policy, they were well represented in communal administrations.  The councillors on the communal council determined local development, and all women took an active part in the preparation of public policies.  There was “no problem at all” with the admission of women to the public sphere, he said.


Experts’ Comments and Questions


Ms. COKER-APPIAH, expert from Ghana, commended the Government for progressively trying to amend the legislation relating to the nationality of the women of Niger and their ability to pass on their nationality to the children born of foreign fathers.  Despite that, there were still some discriminatory provisions under the current law.  A Nigerian woman, for example, who married a foreign man could not pass on her nationality to him.  What plans did the Government have to repeal that law?


FUMIKO SAIGA, expert from Japan, asked a number of questions about the passport, specifically whether a woman was able to obtain a passport without her husband’s permission.  She also sought clarification on whether a child had to obtain a passport together with the mother or father.


Delegation’s Response


The delegation said that a foreigner who married a woman from Niger could not make a claim to nationality on that basis alone; the country was not at that “advanced” stage.  However, he could acquire the country’s nationality through other means, including through naturalization and if he presented the birth certificates of his children.  A balance should be established, and part of the work of the reform commission was to update the decree on nationality.  When the time came, the issue would be debated.  He had no doubt at all that the problem would be resolved quickly, he said.


Another member of the delegation said that under the new code of commerce, women had total civil capacity and did not need their husbands’ authorization to obtain a passport.  The child could have the nationality of the mother or father.  Parents had a responsibility to include their children on their passport, and either men or women could do so.


Experts’ Comments and Questions


When the Committee turned its attention to education, Ms. TAVARES DA SILVA, expert from Portugal, noted that, according to the report, primary school education was compulsory and there was equal access for both boys and girls.  However, that was not fully implemented, and there was a wide gap in enrolment and high illiteracy rates.  The level of girls in higher education was “very, very low –- the report used the word alarming”.  There had been a visible evolution in the right direction, including in girls’ enrolment, yet when one looked closely at the figures, it was clear that the progress of girls was slower than that of boys.  That meant it was probably necessary to raise parents’ awareness.  Also, had there been any cases of parents punished, as the delegation had stated in its written responses, or obligated to reimburse the State in the case of non-compliance with its obligation to send girls to school?  Did the Government foresee any further measures to encourage women to pursue their right to education?


Ms. AROCHA DOMINGUEZ, expert from Cuba, agreed that if the number of boys attending schools was growing disproportionately to the number of girls, then a disparity still existed.  There was an even higher increase in percentage in terms of boys enrolled in elementary school and more who remained in primary school.  She asked about specific measures to improve the level of participation among girls, both their enrolment and continuation in school.  She also asked about adult education.


Ms. SIMMS, expert from Jamaica, quoted from page 43 of the report, which stated that young children were brought up by the mother, but that the social education of boys was the responsibility of men, and girls, of women.  Identification with one’s own gender began at a very early age, as defined by custom; girls were prepared for their role as wife and mother.  If it was true that girls were influenced by the traditional roles that their mothers had historically played, then how would the women in Niger break into the non-traditional sector and take their place in the global village?  She thought the father figure was important to the girl, and the mother figure was also important to the boy.


Mr. FLINTERMAN, expert from the Netherlands, said he shared Ms. Simms’ concern.  He was pleased at the adoption of the education act in 1998, making education compulsory and free, but it was clear that the act had not been fully implemented so far.  In light of the Millennium Development Goals, what time frame and concrete targets were set for the coming year to achieve “education for all”, especially for girls?  What measures were in place to encourage women’s higher education?


Ms. SAIGA, expert from Japan, also asked about punishing parents who did not send their children to school, and asked if it was true that parents who married off their daughters while they were still in school had to reimburse the State for the entire cost of the education.  Was that supposed to be an incentive for keeping the daughter in school?


Delegation’s Response


Ms. MOULAYE said the emphasis was on easing the domestic chores of the girls and mothers.  If the girls who customarily helped their mothers were freed up, once their tasks had been eased, they would be liberated.


Another member of the delegation stressed that there was no wilful discrimination against women, and that girls and boys could attend the same schools, take the same courses and follow the same educational paths.  The imbalance was in the question of access and keeping girls in school.  Therefore, there was a policy in place to ensure that girls were enrolled.  The inequality was more a result of the economic, social and cultural aspects of society than of the system. 


She said that to promote girls’ enrolment, the Government had been compelled to increase the number of classrooms and teachers.  Some schools were 100 kilometres away from the homes.  Clearly, that impeded enrolment, particularly of girls.  There was also a certain mindset, but consciousness-raising campaigns had been launched to increase girls’ enrolment.  In addition, income-generating activities for mothers had proliferated to ease their tasks, thereby releasing the girls to go to school.  Girls' enrolment had risen from 29.5 per cent to 44 per cent.  The target was to achieve parity with boys by 2015 and 100 per cent enrolment, she said, reminding the experts that hers was a developing country. 


Regarding parents’ refusal to send girls to school, it was compulsory for each mother to take up an income-generating activity, which would enable her to send her daughter to school.  Poverty and lack of ways and means kept girls at home, she added.


Experts’ Questions and Comments


PRAMILA PATTEN, expert from Mauritius, said that in spite of Niger’s Constitution and legislation, in practice, things were very different for women.  Women rarely occupied senior management positions.  Were the general civil service regulations, which denied women access to certain bodies, going to be reviewed?  Did the Government plan to abolish discriminatory regulations?  What efforts were being made to prohibit discrimination in terms of hiring and remuneration?  On women in the informal sector, to what extent was the Government confronting the constraints women faced both as producers and consumers in the face of globalization?


RUTH HALPERIN-KADDARI, expert from Israel, said the report provided very little data on the stratification and participation of women in the labour force.  It was not enough to say that no discrimination existed.  Proactive measures were needed to advance the position of women and eliminate informal discrimination in the labour force.  With respect to maternity leave, were there specific provisions for cases when women had been fired due to pregnancy?  Was maternity leave provided for by law?  Did provisions against discrimination also apply to the private sector?


Delegation’s Response


A member of the delegation noted that the right to employment was embodied in Niger’s Constitution.  The labour code and the professional ethics code supported the Constitution.  There was no distinction between men and women in terms of employment.  Niger had fulfilled all of the provisions of article 11 of the Convention.  A number of interpretations had been made, however, in terms of the regulation on remuneration.  Many women now supported their families.  A number of reform processes had been embarked upon in Niger’s civil service.  As part of that reform, the civil service statutes had been reviewed and rewritten.  The Parliament had already examined the statute.  The law on remuneration would be rewritten.  The ethics code also needed to be adapted.  Niger had been involved in a process of reform.  Statistics did exist, he added, noting that data would in the future be made available to the Committee.  Niger was a law and order country, and the labour code was a part of that order. 


Ms. MOULAYE added that a State such as Niger would not be able to solve all of its problems overnight.  In a democratic country, a woman could not be denied remuneration because she was pregnant. 


Niger had made great efforts in terms of its labour inspectorates, another speaker said.  All of the inspectorates were functional and had freedom of movement.


Experts’ Questions and Comments


Ms. PIMENTEL, expert from Brazil, said the report painted a grim picture regarding women’s access to health services.  Did the Government have a special plan to address the health issues of elderly women?  She also asked for clarification on the issue of female genital mutilation.  Did the practitioners easily accept alternative sources of employment and abandon their knives?


Ms. MARY SHANTHI DAIRIAM, expert from Malaysia, asked if the Government had adopted a time frame for its reproductive health act.  How had it established its priorities?  Her second concern had to do with low contraceptive prevalence.  Had the Government studied why contraceptive prevalence was so low?  As the rate of teenage pregnancies was high, she asked if the country’s health programme had youth-friendly services.  How was the problem of fistula being addressed as a result of young pregnancy?  Was there a time frame for amending the marriage age? 


Delegation’s Response


Responding, Ms. MOULAYE said the Government had taken measures regarding disabled and older persons.  Nobody was left out in Niger.  The country was active regarding measures to eliminate female genital mutilation, cooperating with non-governmental organizations and offering opportunities for income-generating employment.  While the practice existed, the State was doing everything to ensure zero tolerance. 


Another member of the delegation noted that once the Convention had been adopted, a health development plan and a new sectoral health programme had been developed.  The health development programme had been designed to take into account challenges in light of high maternal and infant mortality rates.  Concrete measures had been taken, including the adoption of the health development programme.  Niger had a high level of maternal mortality as women had a high number of births occurring close together.  The Government had included a line in the national budget for contraceptives in order to address the issue of availability.  Early marriage had also led to high maternal mortality rates. 


Experts’ Comments and Questions


Ms. PATTEN, expert from Mauritius, asked if the Government had undertaken an impact assessment of the effects of trade liberalization on access to food and rural women’s enjoyment of the right to work.  What measures had been taken, including with poverty alleviation strategies, to ensure rural women’s access to resources?  What efforts had been made by the Government to ensure that rural women were consulted on trade negotiations?  As for the women’s entrepreneurship support unit established in 2000, was there any data on the number of women who had benefited from loans as a result of the unit’s creation?  The report had mentioned difficulties that women experienced in accessing bank credit.  Had there been an impact assessment of that and to what extent did they have access?  Did they need collateral?  What efforts were being made by the Government to establish links with financial institutions?


ANAMAH TAN, expert from Singapore, noting the report’s statement that rural women were in dire need of a safety net, asked what social security measures were provided for rural women?  The report also indicated that rural women faced difficulties accessing new agricultural technologies and that control of such technology very much lay in the hands of men.  Was the Government initiating a programme to help women access new technology, or was there a special fund or loan programme for women seeking to get started with the new technology?  The new rural code stipulated that women had the right to buy land; yet, customary practice allowed women almost no control over land and made it nearly impossible for them to inherit it.  Was an effort being made to educate women on their rights under civil law, and was legal aid available for women seeking to exercise their land rights?


Ms. DAIRIAM, expert from Malaysia, asked what recourse rural women had if they were denied their rights.  Given the acknowledgement that illiteracy was a serious impediment to access to justice, she asked about the scope of the literacy programme and its results so far.  Another impediment to accessing justice cited in the report was the sources of law, including customary and civil law.  However, a member of the delegation had stated this morning that society was evolving and customary law was gradually being pushed aside.  What was the de facto situation?  Were people not seeking justice under customary law –- the Committee had been told this morning that it was up to the parties to decide which law they wanted to apply?


Delegation’s Response


Ms. MOULAYE, on access to credit, referred to a meeting held in Bamako at which Heads of State and Government had asked the banking system to review credit rates in order to guarantee women better access.  Among the many initiatives to accelerate women’s access to credit in Niger were credit unions for financing women’s activities and other projects under a special programme of the President.


A member of the delegation acknowledged that, in the past, women could not own land, but that that custom had been “cast aside”.  Increasingly, women had access to land ownership, both to utilize and sell it.  As far as access to justice, it was difficult for women to get their complaint before a judge, but a legislator could intervene to alleviate the problem.  Most cases came before common law judges, and in the case of customary law, justice was free.  If the woman used the civil code, there might be some cost, but there too there was some assistance.  As far as access to attorneys, there was a “defence caravan” that went yearly to certain areas to provide free legal advice to populations.


Another member said that, under the land code, men and women had some degree of security.  The question of whether or not a woman could own property was settled at the communal level.  As far as social security and family benefits were concerned, there was a fund for that purpose for all State workers.


The President had made poverty reduction his “main war horse”, another member said.  Special emphasis had been on the rural areas, with particular attention paid to the importance of micro-finance and gender equality and women’s empowerment.  Attempts were being made to free women from certain tasks to enable them to devote more time to the education of their children and to other income-generating activities.  Under the programme, $2 billion in credit had been granted, cows had been distributed, villages had been electrified, and some water pumps were being used, among other advances. 


Experts’ Comments and Questions


MERIEM BELMIHOUB-ZERDANI, expert from Algeria, said that Niger had experienced great difficulties from an economic standpoint.  It had undergone structural adjustment on two occasions, meaning that drastic problems had arisen with regard to the financing of large projects.  In the economic, social and political spheres, extraordinary things had been done in the country, but in the private sphere, many were restricted in their rights.  Thus, she called on the country to undertake “extreme efforts” in that regard, reminding the delegation that the Convention was binding and the Government, therefore, had to bring national laws in line with the treaty, both in the legislative and constitutional system.  It must apply its own law that says that customs could only be applied if it was not contrary to the international conventions ratified by Niger.  She was sure that Niger, like the rest of Africa, which, for a long time “has been under the dark night of colonization, will come into the light”. 


Ms. TAN, expert from Singapore, noting that the draft family code sought to address the most pressing inequalities facing women, said that the report indicated that the lack of consensus among religious leaders was the main barrier preventing the code’s adoption.  What were the main problems and the chance of its adoption in the near future?  It was urgent that the family code be passed as soon as possible “as a start”.  She also asked about the conflicting situation of which laws would prevail -- customary law, the Constitution or the Convention.  A further series of questions involved the mother’s custody of the children in the case of divorce.


Ms. HALPERIN-KADDARI, expert from Israel, also referred to the report, which candidly detailed the current situation regarding custody and several other discriminatory practices, such as forced marriage and domestic violence.  She asked if there was any prospect of changing the current persistent situation.  She also asked whether the judiciary included women chiefs and “auxiliary authorities”.


Delegation’s Response


ABOUBACAR IBRAHIM ABANI, Permanent Representative of Niger to the United Nations, admitted that his country was now trying to “catch up from the backwardness and confront our historical past”.  That had provided a lot of lessons, and the Government was making efforts to advance the situation of the people in general, including women.  The Constitution of 1999 was proof of that, as the text had established freedom and equality among men and women.  “We are committed to this and we need resources,” he said, pointing to the country’s handicaps, which included natural conditions and hostile climate.  Niger was in a “rather difficult context in all areas, including in the human rights and economic spheres”.  To the question about leadership, he said that the national realities were such that it was not yet possible to “institutionalize” women leaders. 


Another member of the delegation explained the hierarchy of the laws.  The supreme norm was the Constitution, and the conventions that had been ratified had the same value as the Constitution.  Then, there was the written law, and following that, the customary law.  So, in ranking, customary law was last.  When there was a dispute or conflict between law and custom, the 2004 law says the law was applicable and the customs were obscure.  When there was a conflict between a ratified convention and the law, the convention prevailed.  Also, if custom ran counter to the convention, then the convention prevailed.


Another delegate replied to the questions on repudiation divorce, saying that repudiation followed certain specific religious laws.


In closing remarks, Ms. MOULAYE thanked the experts, who had made it possible for the delegation to see the gaps and how they could be filled.  Sometimes it was “better to take a step backwards to get a higher jump,” she said.  Today had truly been a great gift.  The various comments by the experts had showed the areas that needed to be rectified and what procedures should be adopted to achieve results.  She hoped the Government of Niger and the Committee could move forward and “win the battle together”. 


Ms. ŠIMONOVIĆ, Committee Chairperson and expert from Croatia, noting the size and composition of the delegation, said it was a strong force.  She hoped the Government would really consider the withdrawal of the reservations to the Convention.  It would receive the Committee’s concluding comments, which should lead to concrete results in the coming years.


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For information media • not an official record