The major impediments to the achievement of de facto equality of women were stereotypical attitudes and the fact that people had still not realized that women's rights were human rights, the Secretary-General's Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, Angela King, told correspondents at a Headquarters press briefing this morning.
Ms. King was joined by the Chairperson of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Aida Gonzalez of Mexico; and two of the Committee's experts, Naela Gabr of Egypt; and Carmel Shalev of Israel. The 23-member expert body, which monitors implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, is expected to conclude its twentieth session tomorrow afternoon, with the adoption of a report that includes recommendations to seven countries for improving the status of women.
Ms. King said that the current session was particularly important because it preceded the June-July session, during which the twentieth anniversary of the approval of the Convention by the General Assembly would be celebrated. The Committee had been spending time considering how to properly celebrate that event.
What had been of great interest among scholars, and within the non- governmental organization and human rights community, was the Convention's impact on national legislation, she continued. There had been more and more cases of women using the Convention to change their national laws and, in fact, the lives of ordinary women on the street. She cited a case in Botswana in which a woman had won a case regarding the issue of the right of the child to inherit from the mother. There had also been cases on sexual harassment in India.
She added that, in looking towards the twentieth anniversary and beyond, some drawbacks still remained. Despite tremendous strides in national legislation, which could be seen in the national reports examined during the session, a great gap still existed between what was de jure and what was happening in real life. For example, there was very good national legislation in Liechtenstein, but very little effective translation of that into all aspects of life.
Ms. Gonzalez said that initial reports had been presented by Algeria, Kyrgyzstan and Liechtenstein. Subsequent reports had been presented by Greece, Thailand, China and Colombia. She noted that it had been a fruitful and important session. Besides the examination of the reports, the Committee had been spending time finishing a new general recommendation on article 12, which related to health, as well as discussing recommendations to be made for the twentieth anniversary celebration. One of the goals of the Committee was to get universal ratification of the Convention by the year 2000.
Asked about the Committee's conclusions on China's reports, Ms. Shalev said that, although they had not yet completed their conclusions, there were certain areas that concerned the Committee. First, despite the Government's efforts to alleviate poverty, eradicate illiteracy and address the problem of women's unemployment, women were disproportionately suffering the adverse effects of economic reform. Also, the Committee was concerned about the persistence of traditional attitudes based on the inferiority of women in China. It felt that attitudes such as the traditional preference for sons, especially prevalent in rural areas, found expression in the trafficking of women.
In addition, there seemed to be a serious problem acknowledged by the Government with respect to the urban-rural gap, she added. The situation of women in the urban, eastern and coastal areas of the country seemed far better than in the rural areas. For example, there were high illiteracy rates among rural women, and many of them were not covered by any type of health insurance. The remote rural areas were also where the Government was having problems implementing its population policy. While the Committee did not take a stand on the substance of that policy, it did have concerns on the ways in which it was being implemented, particularly with respect to minorities. There had been reports about abuses by State officials of their powers with regard to family planning, particularly from the people of Tibet. In the minority areas, there also seemed to be other instances of abuses of women's human rights, such as the exercise of freedom of religion, problems of women in custody and alleged sexual torture in prisons. Those reports appeared to relate mainly to Muslim and Buddhist Tibetan minorities.
The Committee had also heard the first report from Hong Kong, she continued. It was pleased that the Chinese Government had extended the Convention to Hong Kong. There was an active community of non-governmental organizations in Hong Kong, as well as a well-developed legal culture, which focused on fundamental rights and freedoms. The Committee felt that were three major problems concerning Hong Kong. First, was a need for essential machinery to steer policy on implementation of the Convention and the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action. Second were the structural obstacles in the electoral system to the equal participation of women in the legislative council. Third was the extent of the reservations entered by the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to the Convention -- concerning the extension of the Convention to religious denominations, and the "small house policy", relating to the rights of indigenous women to property rights in the New Territories.
With regard to Greece's report, it was asked what the Committee thought about the flow of women migrants into the country, as well as the issue of marital rape. Ms. Gabr said that the Committee had not completed its conclusions on Greece's report, but was, as a matter of principle, very concerned about marital rape. Ms. Gonzalez added that, regarding migration, questions had been raised about the administrative and legal measures Greece
Anti-Discrimination Committee Briefing - 3 - 4 February 1999
had taken to protect the rights of female migrant workers. The Committee encouraged governments to have the same protective measures for both nationals and migrants.
Ms. Shalev added that the Committee had expressed concern that marital rape in Greece was perceived as merely indecent assault and had emphasized that marital rape was a human rights violation. Men did not have the right to the sexual services of their wives without their wives' full consent. Therefore, the Committee always urged countries to amend their laws, where marital rape was not recognized. Regarding migrant women, there was concern that they were exposed to trafficking and prostitution.
Responding to a question concerning Algeria's report, Ms. Gabr said that Algeria had acceded to the Convention two years ago and it was their first report to the Committee. They had arrived with a high-level delegation including experts in the field of health and education. The Committee had been pleased to learn that international law, including the Convention, had supremacy over Algeria's national legislation. Also, the Government had expressed their commitment to implementing the Convention and the Beijing Platform for Action. While important work had been done in areas such as health, education and human rights, there were still serious problems concerning social stereotypes and the revision of the Family Code.
Asked to comment on Colombia's report, Ms. Gonzalez said that since the Committee had just examined the report yesterday, they did not have any conclusions available today. Ms. King added that despite the recent disaster in Colombia, the Committee was grateful for the effort taken by the delegation to present their report.
Returning to Algeria's report, a correspondent asked for specific examples of concern to the Committee, as well as recommendations for the Government. Ms. Gabr said that both domestic and political violence against women, women's employment and the political participation of women had been of concern to the Committee.
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