ZAIRE, IN 'EXCEPTIONAL' REPORT TO WOMEN'S ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE, COMMENTS ON ADULTERY, HUSBAND'S POWERS, RELIGIOUS HABITS, FAMILY PLANNING

16 January 1997
WOM/934

ZAIRE, IN 'EXCEPTIONAL' REPORT TO WOMEN'S ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE, COMMENTS ON ADULTERY, HUSBAND'S POWERS, RELIGIOUS HABITS, FAMILY PLANNING

16 January 1997

Press ReleaseWOM/934

ZAIRE, IN 'EXCEPTIONAL' REPORT TO WOMEN'S ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE, COMMENTS ON ADULTERY, HUSBAND'S POWERS, RELIGIOUS HABITS, FAMILY PLANNING

19970116 Experts Criticize Report for Failure to Address Effect of Current Crisis on Zairian Women; Delegation Says Most of Country Is Living in Peace

Adultery was still an offence in Zaire for which women were more severely punished than men, the country's representative said this afternoon in a special oral presentation to the Committee which monitors the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Because of the ongoing crisis in Zaire, the country was permitted to report on an exceptional basis and the presentation of its initial report will be rescheduled.

Zairian women must also obtain the husband's approval to enter into any legal agreement or hold a job and men were the legal head of the household and controlled common property, the country's representative told the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Traditional attitudes still presented barriers to women in the workplace and women suffered from a lack of education and health care. Infant and maternal mortality rates were extremely high. Customs and religious habits interfered with family planning and imposed the view that "children are the gift of god".

In follow-up comments, experts described the situation in Zaire as "very bleak indeed" and criticized the delegation for its failure to specifically address the effect of the current crisis on the daily lives of Zairian women. One Committee member asked about the refugee situation in eastern Zaire. The media had revealed the great scope of the suffering and terrible human rights violations there and the Committee wanted to hear details from the delegation.

One expert reminded the delegation that the presentation could not be considered as an official presentation of a periodic report. Another expert said the basic issue was whether the Convention was being honoured by a State party in all circumstances, including such extraordinary situations as currently existed in Zaire.

In response to the Committee's comments, the representative of Zaire said it should be kept in mind that the majority of the country's population was living in peace, although territory in eastern Zaire was occupied by "outside aggressors". In the last week, measures had been taken to address the grievances against the military. The media was no longer covering the refugee situation in eastern Zaire, where women and children were still living in deplorable conditions.

Also this afternoon, the Committee concluded its comments on the combined initial, second and third periodic reports of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The delegation is scheduled to respond to experts' questions on 21 January.

Experts questioned the "alarming" rates of pregnancy among very young girls from 10 to 14 years of age and asked about birth control counselling and programmes to educate young men about their sexual responsibilities. It was suggested the Government adopt temporary special measures to deal with the issue, given the existence of school-based educational programmes, family planning and ante-natal clinics. They also requested more information on mortality rates from breast and cervical cancer and HIV/AIDS. One expert asked about the penalties for abortion since it was still illegal and on complications or death related to abortion?

In addition this afternoon, the Chairperson of the in-session working group of the Commission on the Status of Women, Aloisia Woergetter, briefed the Committee on progress achieved in creating a draft optional protocol to the Convention which would allow individuals and groups to directly petition the Committee. She outlined the political and legal obstacles encountered in the process and the importance of the Committee's contribution.

The Committee will meet again at 10 a.m. tomorrow, 17 January, to hear the second and third periodic reports of Turkey.

Committee Work Programme

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this afternoon to conclude its questioning on the combined first, second and third periodic report of St. Vincent and the Grenadines (document CEDAW/C/STV/1-3/Add.1) on its implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

The Committee was also scheduled to hear the oral presentation of an exceptional report from a representative of Zaire on the situation of women in that country. In addition, Aloisia Woergetter, Chairperson of the open-ended working group of the Commission on the Status of Women was expected to brief

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the Committee on the draft optional protocol to the Convention, which would allow individuals and groups to directly petition the Committee.

Countries that have ratified or acceded to the Convention are committed under article 18 to submit national reports, one year after becoming a State party and then at least once every four years, on legislative, judicial, administrative and other measures they have taken to comply with their treaty obligations. The Committee reviews the report and formulates general recommendations to the States parties on eliminating discrimination against women.

The Convention became effective for St. Vincent and the Grenadines on 4 August 1981. The report was prepared and coordinated by the Department of Women's Affairs, a department in the Ministry of Education, Culture and Women's Affairs, with input from all the relevant government departments and non-governmental organizations. It was presented in the morning meeting of 16 January by the Coordinator of the Department of Women's Affairs.

The report focuses on the problems of domestic violence, teenage pregnancy, stereotyping of roles and the inequality of participation by women in political and public life. The economic vulnerability of the island nation and its dependency on banana exports was also stressed, with particular reference to the high unemployment among youth and the increasing rate of female migration. Experts questioned the extent of Government programmes on domestic violence and ways to alter social and cultural factors which reinforced traditional roles for women in the family and the workplace. A fundamental issue was how to translate the political power of the number of female voters into political influence and participation.

Comments on Specific Articles

Referring to article 12, on health care, an expert asked for information on the morbidity rates as a result of breast and cervical cancer and HIV/AIDS. Noting that abortion was illegal in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, she asked about the consequences and penalties for abortion and whether it was legal under any circumstances. What statistics were available on complications or death related to abortion? Were there any provisions for women suffering from incomplete abortions and who covered the costs of their medical care? she asked. She strongly urged the Government to review the current law on abortion with a view to removing its penal nature.

The most alarming numbers on pregnancy among young women were those for girls aged 10 to 14 years, she continued. What were the latest figures on pre-teen and teenage pregnancy, as well as on the ages of the fathers? She suggested the Government adopt temporary special measures to deal with the issue, given the existing infrastructure, which included school-based

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educational programmes, family planning clinics run by the Ministry of Health and ante-natal clinics in local health centres. She also asked whether there were any contraception counselling programmes or efforts to educate young men about their sexual responsibilities. Traditional attitudes to contraception, including the custom that the use of condoms was primarily a male decision, exposed girls to many health problems such as HIV/AIDS, she added.

Turning to other health issues, the expert congratulated the Government on its cervical screening programme and asked for more information on preventive measures, including mammography, to prevent breast cancer, whose rates were almost as high as those for cervical cancer. She also asked for information on public and private expenditures on health and family planning and on programmes to prevent pregnancies among young girls.

Another expert said the requirement for women to get the consent of their husbands for a tubal ligation should be ended. She wanted to know why the pregnancy rates among 10 to 19 year old girls was so high when there was a national family planning programme. The Government needed to examine the failure to deal with that problem, she said.

Referring to article 14, on the status of rural women, an expert noted the difficulties rural women had in obtaining access to credit and the shortage of arable land. Was women's difficulty in acquiring loans associated with renting or purchasing land? What were the terms and duration for leasing land? She suggested the Government consider a system of micro-credit within cooperative organizations for small land holdings.

Could women inherit and own land in their own right and what was being done to improve the poor quality of pre-school facilities mentioned in the report? another expert asked.

Noting that the report mentioned women were not taking advantage of professional and technical programmes for women in rural areas, she asked what was being done to address the situation. There was no mention in the report of social security programmes to which rural women normally had no access. Considering its importance in promoting their development, were there any special efforts to make low-cost loans or credit available for rural women and were there more problems associated with pregnancy in rural areas? the expert asked.

Did the Department of Women's Affairs work with the Ministry of Agriculture to deal with the needs of women in rural areas, another expert asked?

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On article 16, on discrimination in marriage, an expert asked for a copy of the text of the matrimonial act, as she was interested in the provisions which prevented women from being thrown out of the family home.

What was the status of children born out of wedlock? another expert wanted to know.

According to the report, the registration of all marriages was compulsory but it made no mention of the legal status of women in common law marriages, an expert said. Were there any Government policies to encourage legal marriage or discourage common law marriage and were there any legal protections for the latter? Did both partners have an equal right to ownership of property acquired in marriage regardless of whose name it was registered under? she asked.

In countries where traditional customs exerted a strong influence, women did not always feel free to avail themselves of opportunities to advance their development or laws to protect their rights and legal rights were therefore often not enforceable. She asked for more information about the actual enforcement of laws on the division of property after divorce or the termination of marriage.

What was the status of unmarried women regarding custody of children and were there any laws which treated married and unmarried women differently? an expert asked.

Another expert asked whether women had an equal right to apply for property acquired before and after marriage and the right to equal sharing.

Given the high incidence of pregnancy as a result of incestuous relationships noted in the report, was abortion also illegal in such circumstances, an expert asked. She also wanted to know what type of social service programmes, including special child care, was available for young unmarried women.

Report on Situation of Women in Zaire

SAFOU CHANTEL SINDANI (Zaire) said her country had been shaken by an ongoing crisis which had prevented the formal presentation of an initial report.

Zaire was a central African country which had ratified the Convention in 1985, she said. Historically the role of women in Zaire was once limited to housekeeping, field labour and child-rearing. They were subjected to a number of prohibitions and prejudices. In political terms, the public life was generally closed to women. During the colonial era, women gained some limited

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access to education and other areas. Following independence, the early fratricidal wars were detrimental to the situation of women. Women have subsequently become aware of their important role in society.

Concerning the policies aimed at ending discrimination, she said the political will of Zaire resulted in the emergence of women on the political scene, beginning in 1964. Zaire had participated on the international scene in all conferences and forums on the advancement of women. A Department of Women was established within the Ministry of Labour. A national committee for women was established to guide policy. As the current problems have engulfed the country, the resources allocated for women have been reduced.

She said the country's family code stated that both men and women became adults at 18. Certain articles of the code stipulated freedom of choice for both sexes in marriage. The minimum age for marriage was 15 for girls and 18 for young men. Both spouses have the same parental rights, which replaced the previous idea of paternal authority. Both also have the same duties to care for children. The code contained a paradox which violated the principal of equality; the woman must obtain the husband's approval to enter into any legal agreement. The husband was held to be the legal head of the household. The question of common property was given over to the husband.

The penal code contained no discriminatory measures, she said, with the exception of the offence of adultery. Women were more severely punished for the offence. The labour code applied without discrimination to men and women -- it upheld the principle of equal pay for equal work. Women were entitled to a total of 14 months of maternity leave. Women, however, could not take a job without the expressed consent of the husband. Traditional attitudes still presented barriers to women in the workplace.

Political rights were guaranteed for women, she said. Women participated in public life but they were poorly represented. There was only one woman minister. There were 38 women as opposed to 699 men in parliament and one woman against 64 men ambassadors. Women were not represented at a high level in political parties.

In the area of education, she cited disparities in the literacy rates in both urban and rural areas. The health situation was precarious due to the lack of education and health care. Infant and maternal mortality rates were extremely high. Customs and religious habits interfered with family planning and imposed the view that "children are the gift of god". New clinics and reproductive health programmes have been established since 1994.

Rural women were prohibited from ownership and held in a subordinate position, she stressed. They had access to few social services.

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Exchange of Views on Zaire Oral Report

Experts stated that a report on an exceptional basis was intended to be on a present crisis, rather than a general report. The Committee had expected to hear a report on how the great tragedy of the current violence in Zaire was affecting women in particular. One expert asked about the refugee situation in eastern Zaire, in the Goma area. The media revealed the great scope of the suffering in Zaire, but the Committee wanted to hear details from the delegation.

Another expert described the situation as "very bleak indeed" in Zaire. The Committee wanted to hear about the impact of the conflict on the daily lives of women. While the presence of the delegation was welcome, the nature of the presentation was not what the Committee had requested concerning the current situation in Zaire. The media had reported massive raids on refugee camps. Women and children had been particular victims of those terrible violations of human rights.

One expert reminded the delegation that the presentation could not be considered as an official presentation of a country report. Another expert said the basic issue was whether the Convention was being honoured by a State party in all circumstances, including such extraordinary situations as currently existed in Zaire. An expert, however, said it was not her understanding that the delegation was only supposed to report on the current situation.

ILEKA ATOKI (Zaire), in response to the comments by experts, said his country had prepared its initial report in November 1994 but as a result of difficulties in communicating with the Committee because of the situation in Zaire, the report had not yet been presented. The Government was still negotiating with the Committee on when to present its report and, in the meantime, had agreed to make the current oral presentation on an exceptional basis until the initial report could be published later this year. The original idea had been to make the oral report, which mentioned the situation in eastern Zaire, brief. It should be kept in mind, as one of the experts had noted, that the majority of Zaire's population was living in peace, although some 600 metres of territory in eastern Zaire was occupied by "outside aggressors".

He said measures had been taken since last week to establish an effective military body to receive grievances by people against the military. Six high officers had been brought before the body as a result of the situation in Goma and Bukavu in eastern Zaire. The military justice ministries were also being restructured. The media was no longer covering the refugee situation in eastern Zaire which was still very difficult. Although many refugees had returned to Rwanda and Burundi, women and children were

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still living in deplorable conditions. The Government still had to find a solution, despite the fact that outside armed forces were operating in the country.

Ms. SINDANI (Zaire) said that the "unjust war" imposed on Zaire was a very bad thing because it victimized women and children. Machinery had been set up to deal with the many women and children who had travelled great distances on foot -- some up to 500 kilometres. They were also Zairians who still had no food and water and the Government had to find a solution to deal with the problem of the refugees and displaced persons. Because of the situation, the delegation had almost not been able to attend the current session of the Committee. It was only with the assistance of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) that the delegation had been able to attend to make its oral presentation.

She said the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had agreed with Zaire's position that the refugees must be returned to their homes in dignity and her Government expected a great deal from the Agency's upcoming visit.

Report on Optional Protocol

ALOISIA WOERGETTER, Chairperson of the in-session working group of the Commission on the Status of Women, said the group had encountered a number of logistical difficulties in its discussion on the draft optional protocol which would allow individuals and groups to directly petition the Committee on implementation of the Convention.

The group however did manage to achieve a great deal and agree on a report, she said. During the first part of the fifty-first session of the General Assembly, many delegations expressed support for the optional protocol. A lot of ground had been gained since the last meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women. She expected the Commission would go into a first reading of the draft protocol in the next session. The involvement of Committee members was very helpful during the last session of the working group. She encouraged all of the experts to contribute to the process.

Questions and Comments on Optional Protocol

One expert suggested that it would be helpful for Committee members to participate as independent experts rather than as representatives of their country in the efforts of the working group.

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Another expert asked about specific opposition to the optional protocol -- both political and legal. Within the European Union, objections were being raised in both areas.

An expert was interested in the specifics of the writing of the first draft to be placed before the Commission. The optional protocol had been given a new life by efforts of non-governmental organizations. It was now necessary to respond more effectively to the objections. What kind of strategies were being developed to present a strengthened position? How could the Committee best support the work of drafting the optional protocol? she asked.

A Committee member noted how the working group had begun its work in difficult circumstances and had finished with a consensus report. She said it was possible to influence decisions as a part of the country delegation.

A question was asked about whether Member States had officially registered their views on the draft optional protocol? Who was actually writing the draft? an expert asked.

Ms. WOERGETTER said the political obstacles were often the same as the one raised against the Convention itself. She could not comment on individual government positions. On the legal problems, she said heated discussion had taken place on the issue of whether every article of the Convention could be adjudicated for individual petitioners. Another issue concerned the standing of petitioner and who would be allowed to initiate the process. Still another had to do with duplication and overlap. At the moment, an actual and official draft did not exist. Such a draft could be introduced by a government to the working group or the Chairperson could be asked to come up with a draft.

She said the Committee had given the primary impulse to start the intergovernmental process of coming up with a draft optional protocol. The choice of resource person from the Committee for the next session of the working group would be very important.

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For information media. Not an official record.