|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
Committee on Elimination of
Discrimination against Women
807th & 808th Meetings (AM & PM)
COOK ISLANDS ANNOUNCES WITHDRAWAL OF THREE RESERVATIONS TO WOMEN’S CONVENTION
AS ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE CONSIDERS ITS FIRST REPORT
Presenting the Cook Island’s first report to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Wilkie Rasmussen, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Immigration, said today that his country had decided to withdraw its three reservations to the Women’s Convention.
He said the Cook Islands had informed the United Nations Secretary-General last week that it would eliminate its general reservations on recruiting women into active armed service, a reservation on articles 2(f) and 5(a) that banned women from inheriting chiefly titles and a reservation on article 11(2)(b) concerning maternity leave. By year’s end, Parliament would process labour reforms that would guarantee maternity leave for women.
The Cook Island had acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in September 2006 and was considering acceding to its Optional Protocol in the next few weeks, he said. Preparation of the initial report to the Committee had been a very public, participatory process. The Government had consulted with a broad range of women’s and community organizations nationwide and had sought public input on the draft document.
While lauding those steps, Committee experts took aim at entrenched gender stereotypes, stressing that, while customs and traditions must be respected, they could not justify gender-based discrimination. Women were still underrepresented in decision-making, in Parliament and in economic life. They inherited only swamplands, while men inherited the productive land. Women were socialized to accept violence, they charged, stressing that marital rape must be criminalized and better protections against domestic violence put into place.
In response, the Minister said many of the experts’ questions touched on areas that Cook Islanders regarded as sensitive. Culture and tradition had always been seen as justification for identity, and trying to “throw all that out” would be a difficult proposition, as they had been instilled into the spirit and inner being of the Islanders. Their connection to the land, for example, was similar to an umbilical cord.
Turning to domestic violence, he said reforms had ensured that national legislation was consistent with the Convention, and the police had set up a new domestic violence unit to train front-line officers. Over the years, the Government had worked with visiting health experts to deal with and prevent such crimes. Protection orders were available and the courts granted custodial protection orders for abused mothers, which allowed them to be placed under the care of close friends or relatives. However, there were “serious deficiencies” in observing those orders of protection, and enforcement authorities did not always respond as quickly as was required.
He said that, overall, the Government must step up its efforts to eliminate discrimination against women and ensure that domestic laws -– particularly those concerning safety and security, labour and employment protection, equality in marriage and family life, and vulnerable women and girls -- were consistent with the Convention. It must adopt a national gender policy, incorporate a definition of discrimination into domestic legislation and adopt special measures to increase women’s participation in decision-making.
The Committee will meet again at a date to be announced.
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this morning to take up the initial report of the Cook Islands (document CEDAW/C/COK/1).
Wilkie Rasmussen, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Immigration, headed the delegation, which also included Tamari’I Tutangata, Secretary, Ministry of Internal Affairs; Ruth Pokura, Programme/Research Officer, Gender Development Division, Ministry of Internal Affairs; and Myra Koeka’a-Patai, International Legal Adviser, Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Introduction of Report
Mr. RASMUSSEN, introducing the report, said today was a historic day as it marked the presentation of the Cook Islands’ first report to the Committee, New Zealand having reported on its behalf in the past. At the attainment of self-government in 1965, a woman had been appointed Speaker of Parliament, holding the post for nearly two decades. A woman had also held the position of Deputy Speaker, while one Cabinet Minister and three Members of Parliament had also been women. Today a woman held the title of Paramount Chief -- the highest in the order of customary titles. Women had also seen their number increase in the ranks of lawyers, accountants and business owners.
Noting that the Cook Islands had acceded to the Convention in September 2006, he said islanders took the fair and equal treatment of women for granted, whereas the reality was many of the country’s women lacked educational opportunities, particularly in the outer islands. Many women became pregnant at an early age and were expected to be responsible for all domestic duties. It was taboo for women to serve as church clergy.
He said the main challenges facing the Cook Islands in ensuring compliance with the Convention was their isolation, the high cost of travel and communications, and the difficulty of convincing men to accept the need for gender equality so as to achieve the national development aspirations. The country’s efforts towards compliance with the Convention included its adoption of the 1985 Nairobi Forward Looking Strategy -- which it had helped formulate -- and its hosting of the third Pacific Islands Regional Conference on Women, also in 1985. In 1995, the Cook Islands had participated in the Beijing Conference, adopting the Beijing Platform of Action and endorsing a national policy on women which focused on women in economic development, social and environmental development, women’s empowerment mechanisms, leadership and decision-making.
However, that same year had seen the country experience its worst economic recession, he said. As a consequence, the promising upsurge in interest in the Convention had waned in the following two years, and many people had left for better opportunities abroad. Still, there had been a gradual build-up in the population’s understanding and appreciation of the Convention, thanks in part to the efforts of non-governmental and community organizations devoted to women’s advancement. Cooperation had strengthened between the National Council of Women and the Cook Islands Government, which had worked together since 1995 to organize the biennial National Conference on Women.
He went on to say that, last week, the Cook Islands had informed the United Nations Secretary-General of its decision to withdraw its three reservations to the Convention, as follows: general reservations on the recruitment of women into active service in the armed services; a reservation on articles 2(f) and 5(a) with respect to inheritance of chiefly titles; and a reservation on article 11(2)(b) relating to maternity leave protection. At present, women served in the armed services, in the police force and in peace missions. The Cabinet had approved a Government undertaking to provide for maternity leave as part of the labour legislative reform package. Parliament was expected to process it by year’s end.
The Land Court, established in 1902, recognized women’s rights to own land and property in equal measure to men, he said. Women had enjoyed the right to vote and stand for election to Parliament since self-government in 1965. The Convention had been translated into the Maori language in 2001 and was widely disseminated. A broad range of women’s organizations throughout the country had been involved in consultations leading up to the country’s initial report to the Committee, the draft of which had been widely disseminated for public comment. The Cooks Islands had attained some of the Millennium Development Goals such as free universal primary education, high literacy and low child and maternal mortality rates.
This year, the country had appointed its first woman High Court Judge, he said. Several women justices of the peace presided over land ownership disputes or took pleadings in criminal matters. Earlier this year, a Law Reform Committee had been formed to spearhead the nation’s law reform process. That would facilitate Convention-related legislative reforms that had already been identified through a study undertaken two years ago. The Government was considering acceding to the Optional Protocol in the next few weeks.
He said the Government needed to do the following: intensify efforts to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women, including through adoption of a national gender policy; mainstream gender within key government ministries through legislative reforms and awareness raising; incorporate a definition of discrimination into domestic legislation; put in place special measures to increase women’s participation in decision-making; and implement a comprehensive programme of law reform to ensure that laws were consistent with the Convention. Priority must be given to reform laws related to safety and security, labour and employment protection, equality in marriage and family life, protection from discrimination and protection of vulnerable women and girls such as women with disabilities, migrant women and rural women.
Experts’ Comment and Questions
Congratulating the Cook Islands on its first-ever report presentation, several experts raised questions about the national machinery for the advancement of women, the status of the Convention in domestic legislation and the definition of discrimination under the country’s laws. Questions were also asked about the preparation of the initial report.
PRAMILA PATTEN, expert from Mauritius, welcomed news of the withdrawal of all reservations, the Government’s intention to ratify the Optional Protocol in a few weeks, and legislative reforms in the country. She asked about the time frame for the reforms, reiterating the need to reflect the concepts of both direct and indirect discrimination, and to incorporate the Convention into domestic laws so it could be invoked by the courts. She also sought information about the budgets allocated to the national institutions for the advancement of women.
HEISOO SHIN, expert from the Republic of Korea, stressed the need for gender budgeting and the importance of collecting sex-disaggregated data in all areas, upon which the Government’s policies should be based.
FUMIKO SAIGA, expert from Japan, said that by ratifying the Convention, the Government had committed itself to enact new laws for the advancement of women. Despite its good intentions, however, it faced many difficult challenges, including new legislation on maternity leave, and the introduction of legal provisions on sexual harassment. What was the relationship between Parliament and the traditional House of Ariki.
DUBRAVKA SIMONOVIC, Committee Chairperson and expert from Croatia, commended the participatory process employed in preparing the report, recommending also that Parliament be included in those efforts. It was important to incorporate the Convention into the national legal system and deciding how to do that would be an important challenge for the Government. It was also important to achieve compatibility between domestic laws and the Convention, and the withdrawal of the reservations was very significant in that regard. Revising laws that had already been assessed as incompatible with the Convention should be a priority for the Government. The Constitution should incorporate the principle of equality between women and men.
Mr. RASMUSSEN said the Government had recently retained a consultant who had made some recommendations for substantial changes to some laws. Afterwards, a decision had been made to establish the Law Commission to review legislation. Despite the traditional structures in place and the predominantly male composition of the Cabinet, women were being “pushed” forward. The idea was that the Law Commission would come up with recommendations that would allow the incorporation of the Convention into domestic laws. The work plan for law reform had already been established, and it was envisioned that non-controversial revisions and high-priority issues would be tackled first. However, amendments to some entrenched provisions were difficult to repeal, unless supported by a two-thirds parliamentary majority.
In fact, it was not just the revision of laws -- wholesale changes were taking place, he said. Traditionally, the country had had “the governance of compromise” between the parties, but as of last year, a majority Government had come to power for the first time in more than a decade.
Everybody had access to legal aid, he continued. In societies like the Cook Islands, lawyers often helped numerous members of their extended families, thus it was not difficult for any woman to obtain a lawyer. The involvement of women in court cases usually had to do with land ownership and inheritance issues. There was a women’s organization that provided assistance to women in such disputes.
He said there had been cuts in the budget and a restructuring of the Government to ensure fair distribution of resources, he said. The gender- development budget was “a token one”, but a contingency budget was also in place for immediate needs and activities. The staff of one department could be seconded for priority activities in other government units.
Data collection was “pretty wilful”, he said, but -– to offer “a weak excuse” -- it was part of the country’s oral tradition to avoid presenting information in writing. However, the statistics department collected data on people entering and leaving the country, and on activities related to tourism and marine resources, for example. One encouraging factor was that young people increasingly took up technical and statistical sciences at university level.
He went on to say the country had finalized its draft labour bill, which the private sector had found difficult to cope with. However, advocates for the workforce had pressed for it.
The House of Ariki was more of a ceremonial house in acknowledgement of the traditional importance of chiefs, whose advice imposed no obligations on the Government, but was taken into account.
The Governor General, the Queen’s representative, could dissolve Parliament if the Prime Minister so decided. It was not beyond the Cook Islands’ vision to incorporate the Convention into the Constitution, but that would be subject to approval by the Cabinet and Parliament as a whole, including the opposition parties. Parliament would go through the tabling of the bill, and the role of the opposition would be to debate and provide changes.
MARIA REGINA TAVARES DA SILVA, expert from Portugal, asked whether the creation of the Gender and Development Division of the Ministry of Internal Affairs was an organizational change. What mechanism was in charge of ensuring gender mainstreaming?
VIOLETA NEUBAUER, expert from Slovenia, asked if the Minister was authorized to say whether the Government had made strong commitments to allocate suitable financial resources for women’s advancement. Was the cooperation between the Gender and Development Division and the National Council of Women a formal arrangement?
MARY SHANTHI DAIRIAM, expert from Malaysia, asked whether the Convention formed a part of the normative standards used in gender mainstreaming.
Ms. TAVARES DA SILVA, expert from Portugal, urged the Government to employ the necessary special temporary measures to redress past discrimination against women.
Mr. RASMUSSEN said the Ministry of Internal Affairs dealt with welfare payments for both elderly and young people. Decisions on gender, migrant workers or other issues requiring a definite policy direction and action plan for implementation must be made by the Cabinet. Regarding financial resources, the national sustainable development plan was a government effort involving various agencies. Conditions demanded by donor countries required the Cook Islands to come up with substantial, achievable plans. The Gender and Development Division and the National Council of Women had an ad hoc relationship, rather than a formal one.
On special temporary measures, he said Cook Islands women traditionally did not like to be patronized and preferred to stand on their own feet. There was a local saying to the effect that, in most public occasions, the men were the speechmakers, but the women were the real decision-makers. However, article 4 of the Convention was indeed a way to accelerate women’s rights and empowerment and it had been recommended that special measures be put in place. Indeed, an initiative on women in science and technology had been put into place with the participation of policewomen and female doctors. Some boys had expressed interest in traditionally female occupations such as nursing and hairdressing. He confirmed the existence of a Cook Islands Development Board, and said the Government had discussed protection measures for migrant women and those living in the outer islands.
FRANÇOISE GASPARD, Vice-Chairperson and expert from France, asked how submitting the report had helped the country to make progress in raising awareness of discrimination against women. While it was important to respect customs and traditions, it was also important to avoid using them as a justification for discrimination. It was clear from the report that customs and traditions could evolve. For example, the document stated that the role of men and women had changed following the arrival of the missionaries on the Islands. Could the delegation provide more information about the Government’s campaigns to change stereotypes, which had a negative impact on women?
FERDOUS ARA BEGUM, expert from Bangladesh, said negative stereotypes were still prevalent, women were still underrepresented and socialized to accept violence, and they still faced discrimination in the workplace. Inadequate legal aid was also a factor, given the absence of a law on marital rape, which was not recognized as a crime. Did the Government have any plans to introduce laws on sexual harassment and domestic violence? What victim-protection mechanisms were in place? What was the Ombudsperson’s role in reducing violence, and how many complaints had been registered? Were there any gender training programmes for law enforcement agents?
GLENDA P. SIMMS, Vice-Chairperson and expert from Jamaica, said that even with the most progressive legislative framework, prejudices remained. More was required to remove stereotypes, since they would not disappear overnight. Some stereotypes had previously been protected by the reservation to the Convention on access to land. [According to the country report, the wetlands in Pakapuka comprise taro swamps and are considered matrilineal land. Only women work in the taro patches, with the assistance of men who cut and cart the leaves required for covering the swamps. Land to build houses and grow coconuts is inherited through the father.] It was doubtful that the answer to the problem was for men to assist women in the swamplands. “We don’t want women to die the way they have been dying in the swamplands.” The Government must educate the population on the environmental issues involved.
Noting also that the country’s first female judge came from New Zealand, she stressed the need to remove stereotypes about island women in the area of tourism.
Ms. SIMONOVIC, expert from Croatia, reminded the delegation of the Committee’s general recommendation on domestic violence, noting that the Secretary-General’s recent study on that subject also contained useful recommendations. It seemed the Government now had plans to ensure better protection against, and accountability for, domestic violence, but it was important to take further steps. The definition of rape should be widened to make marital rape an offence, and it was important to collect data on the incidence of violence. She also asked about protection orders and additional measures envisioned for the protection of victims of violence.
Mr. RASMUSSEN, addressing stereotypes, said that in his earlier responses, he had been trying to educate the Committee about the Cook Islands as a whole. The questions themselves had touched on areas which Cook Islanders regarded as sensitive. Culture and tradition had always been seen as a justification of identity -– about making a distinct statement. To try and “throw all that out” would be a difficult proposition, as culture had been instilled into the spirit and inner being. Islanders’ connection to land, for example, was similar to an umbilical cord burial, a cultural norm that infused a person’s spirit into the land. The shaping of a Cook Islander was a complex issue.
As for whether women really made decisions, he said they did indeed, and in a very adamant way. “A man would be hopeless without the strength of a woman behind him. Some women made decisions on the distribution of goods and others made decisions that joined families during crises. Those were inherent values embedded in Cook Islanders’ thinking. Overcoming stereotypes was a huge task as culture was not a “snapshot”, but rather, “a changing thing”. “It’s about daily living”, he said.
The Government had explored several legislative solutions, including a court challenge, he said, describing a case in New Zealand involving a murderer, who had claimed in his defence that he had been provoked two years earlier. The case had been used to justify the presence of anger over the two-year period, an example of deeply seated values in certain traditions. The question of identifying the values that perpetuated negative stereotypes about women, however, remained.
On the question of women working in swamps, he said he was repulsed that the practice existed on a particular island, which was not the case on his own. Indeed, the Government could take action to help eliminate such stereotypes.
Regarding campaigns to change negative stereotypes and their implications, he said the education system was aligned with that of New Zealand, and textbooks contain no stereotypical depictions. Teachers took part in human development courses, which examined barriers to learning and social structures that perpetuated discriminatory practices. However, more training was needed to fully eliminate stereotypes.
Turning to domestic violence, he said the legislative reform process had been put in place to ensure that national legislation was consistent with the Convention. A recent review of the police on Rarotonga determined that the force, which had claimed to be unable to investigate domestic violence cases because of underfunding, was not living up to expectations. Recommendations had led to the appointment of a “neutral Commissioner” rather than a Cook Islander because the appointment of a local commissioner would have resulted in a perception of partiality. There was training for judiciary and law-enforcement officials and a new domestic violence unit had been established in the police to train frontline officers.
On the health concerns of women in Pukapuka, he described the island’s depopulation problem, saying, people “vote with their feet -– they leave”. The Government had provided incentives for education and jobs, built infrastructure, and even brought Asian doctors to serve their internships in the Islands and to prevent people from leaving.
Turning back to crime, he said that between July 2003 and June 2004, the Islands had experienced 151 domestic violence cases; 54 assaults on a female; 12 sexually based crimes, and nine cases of rape. Between July 2004 and June 2005, the number of domestic violence cases had dropped to 145, while rape cases had increased to 14. Both those figures had decreased in the 2005-2006 period. The Government had, over the years, worked with visiting health experts -- including psychiatry specialists -– to deal with and prevent such crimes.
Protection orders were available, he said, adding that the courts granted custodial protection orders for abused mothers, which allowed women to be placed under the care of close friends or relatives. However, there were “serious deficiencies” in observing those orders, and enforcement authorities did not always respond as quickly as necessary. Through the reform process, it was hoped that standards could be raised. Thirteen non-molestation orders had been issued since 2005.
CORNELIS FLINTERMAN, expert from the Netherlands, said the report provided little information on the Crimes Act and the criminalization of slavery, including the slave trade. Could the Act be used to prosecute trafficking in women? The exportation of prostitution was also criminalized, as were the prostitutes themselves. Was that law enforced? What was being done to help prostitutes find other employment, and why were those who purchased their services prosecuted?
He also sought information on assistance to the victims of trafficking and organized prostitution, noting that the tourism industry often went hand in hand with prostitution. Did the Government believe prostitution was not a significant issue, as stated in the report?
Mr. RASMUSSEN said prostitution was not legal and was “an almost unseen feature of life”, but stressed that he could not say it did not exist. The tourism industry did indeed encourage prostitution and the Government had put measures in place, not necessarily to stop it, but to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. There had been a huge upsurge in public awareness of the pandemic in recent years.
He said visitors were allowed to enter the country for 30 days without either a visa or screening. New immigration laws and policies were being developed and, due to the free access into the country, there was concern that tourism was inviting prostitution. Also, entertainment by “hula girls” was highly provocative. The country was trying to move away from that image of the Islands. Recently, there had been some progress in policing and there was a fresh attempt to address the issues involved.
SAISUREE CHUTIKUL, expert from Thailand, noting an increase in Cook Islands tourism, asked whether the Government had ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child and how the police viewed the problem of paedophilia. Had the country ratified the Palermo Protocol, and was its definition of trafficking the same as that contained in that instrument. Perhaps it could conduct research on prostitution, with international assistance.
Regarding the Crimes Act, Mr. Rasmussen said the authorities could prosecute anyone involved in slavery or the slave trade. The Act also criminalized prostitution and prostitutes, but enforcement was a problem. Prostitution was “given a blind eye”, and he had not seen any enforcement of prostitutes or “buyers of sex”. As in other semi-urbanized places, young people flocked to places where tourists congregated.
Several people on the outer islands had been prosecuted for paying for sexual services performed by children, he said. Island police worked closely with the New Zealand authorities and had used extradition laws to bring some of them back for prosecution. The police recognized that organized prostitution posed a problem, but the extent of it was not known. While discussing such issues was somewhat “taboo”, there was a heightened awareness about safe sexual practices, including condom use.
He said the Cook Islands had not yet ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Government must examine it in an urgent manner. The Government also had not ratified the Palermo Protocol, but it did have specific legislation on sexual offences and related trafficking acts. There were no figures on prostitution and the suggestion to conduct research was noted.
Ms. NEUBAUER, expert from Slovenia, said more than 40 years had passed since the Cook Islands had a female Speaker of Parliament, and the participation of women in political decision-making was more illusion than reality. Were measures envisaged to overcome that underrepresentation?
Ms. SHIN, expert from the Republic of Korea, requested statistics on the number of diplomatic posts held by women and government plans to increase them. She also noted the blurred lines between the public and the Church, as could be seen in the latter’s role in all aspects of life. Given that the Catholic Church did not allow the ordination of women, would the Government consider bringing “a fresh wind” into the Church by ordaining women priests?
MERIEM BELMIHOUB-ZERDANI, expert from Algeria, noted that Parliament was the venue for discussing the most important issues in a country’s life, and asked the Government to help women aspire to political posts, as politics was the basis for everything. The Cook Islands had been a self-governing country since 1965, and it was recognized that Islanders had the same rights as New Zealanders in such areas as access to residency in New Zealand, but not the right to vote in elections or collect allowances there. Would the delegation reflect on such issues?
Mr. RASMUSSEN said progress towards increasing women’s political participation was slow, including in ministries. Members of the community had submitted a shortlist to the Cabinet proposing appointees to head ministries. Women who had headed ministries in the past had done so on the basis of their competence, but few applied to do so today. Cultural factors did stand in the way of women becoming decision-makers, and sometimes women themselves said politics was no place for a woman. The Gender and Development Division of the Ministry of Internal Affairs offered training to change those attitudes. The Division was putting together a nomination list to increase women’s participation in decision-making.
In terms of diplomatic mission, he said the former Acting Deputy High Commissioner in Wellington, New Zealand, was a woman and the current Deputy was a man. The appointment of a person to the post of Consul General in Auckland was being delayed until a woman was recommended for the post.
Regarding the role of Christianity and the Church, he said it played a pivotal role. While women could not be ordained as priests, last week a women Presbyterian minister from New Zealand had attended as an observer at the ordained ministers’ biennial conference and had been given the right to speak. That was a breakthrough in a way.
With regard to the legal status of the Cook Islands, he said the country was not a member either of the United Nations or the Commonwealth. Whenever the country raised the question of United Nations membership with New Zealand, it was told it must be fully independent. While the country was sovereign, New Zealand was responsible for aspects of foreign affairs, particularly defence. Everything else was legislated in Parliament. Many Cook Islanders in New Zealand feared that full independence would jeopardize that special relationship, and they would not be able to have New Zealand citizenship. It was indeed a dilemma for the country. The United Nations Office of Legal Affairs had said the Cook Islands’ application for membership was receivable and that its political relationship with New Zealand was irrelevant. According to that Office, it was the first time that a country would try to withhold United Nations membership from another country.
MAGALYS AROCHA DOMINGUEZ, expert from Cuba, noted the high literacy rates in the Cook Islands and asked why no comparable data was available for Maori people. It was also important to include data on drop-out rates because programmes for students who had dropped out of school could negatively impact girls, who may then be reduced to jobs as domestic workers.
XIAOQIAO ZOU, expert from China, requested details on the educational disparities between the capital and the outer islands, and pointed out that the report referred to older educational materials containing stereotypes. Had the Government assessed the curricula to understand how gender stereotypes impacted students’ lives?
Ms. CHUTIKUL, expert from Thailand, said early childhood development services deserved more attention from the Ministry of Education, among others, so as to reduce absenteeism among working mothers. Were human and women’s rights taught in school, as suggested by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) some years ago?
Mr. RASMUSSEN said perpetrators of sexual harassment in the workplace had been prosecuted under the Crimes Act. Regarding school drop-out data, the schools kept records of students’ progress and documented those who dropped out. In 2006, the Government had started collecting data on truancy. The drop-out rate was higher among males than females, and it was a general fact that when students dropped out, they travelled to New Zealand. Those who completed their education in the Islands were entitled to higher education in New Zealand.
Moving on to early childhood education, he said 260 boys and 216 girls were enrolled in 2005. Some 191 boys and 174 girls were enrolled in grade 1. As for Maori education, the number of scholars was quite high when the New Zealand Government had run the education system, thanks to special recruitment, assistance and advancement programmes. Today, some schools emphasized the use of the Maori language, though English was preferred.
On sexual harassment in schools, he said complaints were investigated by headmasters and principals, and sometimes also by parents and teachers associations. Police took over when there was evidence of harassment and the outcome of investigations depended on the level of harassment. Suspensions and deregistration of teaching credentials were the options for punishment.
He said the portrayal of mythical characters in stories throughout Polynesia often perpetuated very stereotypical roles, he said, and schools were pushing to change such stereotyping.
Ms. PATTEN, expert from Mauritius, referring to the new bill governing labour relations in the private sector, asked whether an implementation mechanism had been created and whether it outlined sanctions in cases of violation. Were there provisions providing women with maternity protection? Was collective bargaining a recognized right?
Mr. RASMUSSEN explained that the Islands leaned towards a free market economy and, at one point after the 1996 crisis, had promoted small business development. Today, better protections were needed to ensure stable and secure employment.
Paid maternity leave applied only to the public sector, he said, noting that the time covered was 30 days, with a possible extension of up to six weeks. However, the Government was in talks with the private sector, seeking to extend a scheme whereby both parties would put forward equal funds to help cover maternity leave.
He went on to say the Labour Bill was a complex document, noting that labour activities historically had been unmanaged. The Bill was a first attempt at a uniform approach to dealing with labour matters.
Ms. ARA BEGUM, expert from Bangladesh, asked about programmes to assist disabled women and those in the outer islands. How many of them had HIV/AIDS and what kind of education was provided to them? What resources were available for mental health care? Since sexual harassment was the main cause of the mental health crisis, were there any plans to address the root cause of that crisis? How many resources were allocated for it? Was affordable reproductive health assistance available to women and girls in the outer islands? Given that a woman required her husband’s permission to have tubal ligation, did a man need his wife’s permission to undergo a vasectomy?
SILVIA PIMENTEL, expert from Brazil, asked about health education in grade schools, and noted that cervical and breast cancer were on the rise. Did the Government have plans to facilitate regular health services for women throughout the country?
Mr. RASMUSSEN said the Cook Islands had a haven for older women funded by the private sector and the Government. Special assistance funds were set aside for health care and leisure activities. In terms of HIV/AIDS, there was an HIV-positive woman living in the Islands, who was very active in promoting the rights for HIV-positive people. Two people had AIDS. Medical certificates specifying their condition were required for people arriving to work in the Cook Islands.
On health care for the disabled and mentally ill, he said the Government and non-governmental organizations worked together to provide them with job training programmes and physical care. Two non-governmental organizations addressed mental health issues and the Ministry of Health employed one psychiatrist. The Minister for Health was looking into a sterilization policy, so as to do away with the need for a woman to seek her husband’s consent when she required a tubal ligation. However, there was no time frame for that. In 2005, 40 cent of childbearing-aged women used birth control, and people in the outer islands were increasingly using it, although no specific figures were available.
ANAMAH TAN, expert from Singapore, noted that the Islands were spread over 2 million square kilometres of ocean, and asked why the parliamentary bill relating to the outer islands had failed. Would it be revived? She pressed for details on whether equitable gender representation was seen in any affirmative action measures, and whether training was provided to outer island women who were interested in governance.
She asked why the revolving loan schemes programme had been disbanded. What had the loans been used for, and what percentage of recipients had been women? Noting that two women in the northern islands operated pearl farms, she asked whether the Government planned to steer women into that profitable industry.
Ms. SIMMS, expert from Jamaica, said people were leaving the outer islands in droves for New Zealand. Since depopulation was such a problem, did the Government have a concrete plan to ensure that people remained, given the real risk of foreigners purchasing those islands and establishing an offshore banking industry? The Government should take a proactive approach on that matter. “You need to take the services to the people,” she explained, adding that she suspected that the pearl farmers were not natives of the Islands.
Ms DAIRIAM, expert from Malaysia, asked how the gender policy would impact the outer islands, and how the national sustainable development plan -– with its focus on privatization –- would be reconciled with the agenda to promote women’s rights. How was privatization affecting women’s rights on the outer islands?
On resources and institutional capacity, she asked for examples of secondment to support programmes in rural areas. Since there was a blurring of the lines between Government and non-governmental work, what was the source of funding for non-governmental organizations that took up work in areas typically considered under the Government’s purview?
Mr. RASMUSSEN said rural women lived both on the outer islands and on the outskirts of the main islands, engaging in craftwork, among other activities. The Local Government Act had not passed through Parliament, though eight versions of it had been drafted. The crux of the dispute centred on a consultation process that gave outer island mayors the opportunity to provide input. That decision was consistent with devolution policies that ceded administrative control of services -- such as health and education -- to outer regions, in an attempt to reduce the size of the central Government. However, some islands had successfully argued they did not have sufficient resources to take over those responsibilities. The bill was still in existence and hopefully it would be pushed through Parliament.
On affirmative action, he said the Gender Division provided training for women wishing to participate in politics through a “good governance in leadership” programme. However, the Government should explore the use of quotas.
Regarding the revolving loan schemes, he said two islands had suitable lagoons for pearl farming. The Government had encouraged people to participate in farming, but research had later shown that farmers were having a difficult time breaking even financially, as the work was long term and labour intensive. A few women farmers remained in Manihiki.
Noting that the biggest pearl farmer in the Cook Islands was a woman, he said she had invested $4 million. Women were trained in oyster seeding, and their expertise and participation was quite high in the industry. It was very difficult to get people who had left for New Zealand to return home, particularly the elderly. They needed good medical care, which was often not available in the Cook Islands.
Ms. TAN, expert from Singapore, said that, according to the report, there was a need to revise the laws governing no-fault divorce. Would it be admissible under revised laws? If couples got divorced without having been married for at least three years, how would their joint property be divided?
Mr. FLINTERMAN, expert from the Netherlands, asked whether women were aware of their rights under the Convention, suggesting that they were not. Should there not be legal literacy programmes for women? Why should women be exempt from jury service and not men?
The marriage age was 16 for both boys and girls, but it could be lower with parental approval, he said. Did the Government intend to bring the legal marriage age into line with the Women’s Convention and the Convention on the Rights of the Child? With the age of sexual consent at 15, did the Government intend to raise it to 18 to protect minor girls from sexual assault?
Mr. RASMUSSEN said divorce laws were based on New Zealand and Australian law. If the couple was no longer compatible, that was grounds for divorce. A woman had the same right as her husband to joint property after a divorce, and land was shared 50-50 following the divorce. Most people leased land while they were married and when a marriage broke up, the wife’s land rights were not relinquished. If a house was built on her land, she would keep the house and her husband would get something else.
Regarding de facto relationships, he said they were governed by the same laws as conventional marriages. Land could, in fact, be willed, and a woman did not automatically have claims to her husband’s land if he died. The land could be returned to his family.
On awareness about the Convention, he said there was indeed much ignorance and the Government did not do enough to make people more aware of their rights. However, he was not aware of the jury service discrepancy between men and women. As for the legal age for sexual consent and marriage, they should be raised. The Cook Islands had recently purchased a mammogram machine. It also had a medical referral system and paid for people to travel to New Zealand for medical treatment. There was special funding for mental health care.
Regarding protection orders, he said there was indeed some difficulty in obtaining them. They were granted once it was proven that a woman needed protection. A woman could make an oral application for a protection order, but the Government had no intention at the moment to increase penalties for domestic violence. Medical exams could be summoned by the court in rape cases if necessary.
He concluded by saying the Cook Islands needed to “get on its feet” to ensure national legislation was brought into line with the Convention. The Government had embarked on that voyage, which would take it through both calm waters and rough passages. Legal reform was an immediate priority and the Government would quickly analyse the experts’ recommendations. The Government had partially funded the non-governmental organization representatives attending the session, and partnership with them had helped to ensure the efficient use of resources.
* *** *For information media • not an official record