VENEZUELA APPEARS TO HAVE TAKEN STEP BACKWARDS ON WOMEN'S ADVANCEMENT, WOMEN'S ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE TOLD19970122 As Consideration of Venezuela's Report Begins, Delegations Says Economic Adjustment Programmes Hit Hard Working Women in Poor Households
Venezuela appeared to have taken a step backwards since 1992 in its efforts to advance the status of women, a member of the Committee which monitors the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination said this morning.
There was a high rate of female illiteracy, women worked primarily in service areas or were unemployed, the penal code had not been reformed and the nationality law continued to contravene the Convention, she added.
She expressed regret over the lack of specific responses in the country's third periodic report which was presented this morning to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Given the 68 per cent of the population living in poverty, the high rate of urban migration, and the deteriorating situation of women in general, specific details were needed.
The report, as well as the delegation's answers to experts' questions, gave the impression of a conceptual approach to women's issues that did not reach the grass-roots level, she continued. The Government had made lots of efforts with few results. There was no evidence that the National Council of Women functioned at the level of a ministry. Although it promoted, disseminated, assisted and supported, it did not have any coercive power to pursue its programmes.
Presenting Venezuela's report, Carmen Teresa Martinez said, although the country's Constitution banned all forms of discrimination based on sex, women continued to suffer inequities, especially in the workplace, where they were paid less than men for equal work. Economic adjustment programmes, which had a negative impact on the lives of the general population, hit working women in poor households particularly hard. The National Office of Women's Affairs was working with non-governmental organizations and multilateral bodies to address the situation.
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Legislative measures to improve women's status and deal with domestic violence included the 1991 Employment Organization Act, which improved women's working situation, she said. Provisions in a sexual and domestic violence bill, currently before the National Congress, would protect maternity and the family. In response to a Venezuelan proposal, the Organization of American States (OAS) adopted the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women in 1994.
The Penal Code Reform Bill, also before the National Congress, would mend the classification of "offences against morality and the family probity" to "offences against the person"; and penalize domestic violence between couples, eliminate adultery as a criminal offence and do away with mitigating circumstances based on honour and rape of prostitutes. The Council was also addressing the problem of sexual stereotypes in school textbooks and improving female literacy.
A representative of the National Women's Council outlined in general terms a number of Government policies which addressed women's needs.
The Committee will meet again at 3 p.m. today to continue its discussion of Venezuela's report.
Committee Work Programme
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this morning to consider Venezuela's third periodic report (document CEDAW/C/VEN/3, of 21 March 1995).
Countries that have ratified or acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women are legally bound to put its provisions into practice. They are also committed under article 18 of the Convention 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 to comply with their treaty obligations. The Committee of experts, who serve in their personal capacity, reviews the report and formulates general recommendations to the States parties on eliminating discrimination against women.
In its report, Venezuela, which ratified the Convention in 1983, summarizes progress since then in implementing its provisions. One of the most serious consequences of the country's economic decline from 1985 to 1994 was inflation, which caused an even greater deterioration in the living conditions for most people, especially for women on low incomes and their dependants. Venezuela is described as a "rich-poor country": rich in natural and human resources, but poor because of inappropriate economic policy.
The increasingly uneven income distribution, expanding informal sector and decline in Venezuela's social security system have led to increasing numbers of poor people and categories of poverty. Half the country's population now lives in poverty and two thirds of all households are poor. Working women and their dependants have been particularly hard hit. Despite increased public spending, public-sector employment, which traditionally employs women, has also declined.
According to the report, there has been an incomplete view of poverty and the situation of women living in poverty; a lack of comprehensive social policies directed at women as individuals and not merely as mothers or heads of households; a disregard for training and skills development to achieve higher literacy rates and proficiency in non-traditional women's occupations; and an absence of programmes to develop women's self-esteem as a tool for their personal and social development.
The report outlines the history of women's advancement in Venezuela dating back to 1942 when they were first granted citizenship, and 1946 when they got the right to vote. The Constitution is based on the principle of political, social and juridical equality without distinction of race, sex, creed or social status.
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The National Office for Women's Affairs was created in 1984 along with the women's advisory commissions. In 1989, a woman Minister for the Advancement of Women was appointed to coordinate and implement programmes designed to promote women's participation in all fields. In 1990, the second Venezuelan Women's Congress approved the National Women's Council whose objective is to achieve full de facto and de jure equality between men and women in conformity with the Convention's provisions. In September 1993, the Equal Opportunities for Women act provided for the establishment of the National Women's Institute. At the twenty-fourth session of the Organization of American States (OAS) in June 1994, the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women was adopted, the report states. Venezuela proposed the internationally binding legal instrument in an effort to combat the physical abuse against women on the American continent.
The report then details legislation measures to eliminate discrimination against women and promote their advancement. The Civil Code was reformed in 1982 and provides the husband and wife with the same rights and obligations. Various provisions cover property, use of the husband's name; parental authority and custody over children.
The Penal Code Reform Bill, currently before the National Congress, was initiated by a group of women through the sectoral office for the advancement of women within the Ministry of the Family and various non-governmental organizations. It aims to amend the classification of "offences against morality and the family probity" to "offences against the person", since the former designations are incompatible with concepts of equality and equity. The Bill also proposes to penalize domestic violence between couples, eliminate adultery as a criminal offence and do away with mitigating circumstances based on honour and rape of prostitutes.
A sexual and domestic violence bill is also before the National Congress. The Employment Organization Act, which became law in 1991, greatly improved women's working situation and included innovative provisions to protect maternity and the family. Women are entitled to 12 weeks (or longer for health reasons) post-natal maternity leave and six weeks pre-natal leave. Other provisions cover adoptive mothers, the rights of working nursing mothers and pregnant women. Employers of more than 20 workers must provide a day nursery or fees for day care.
The Government's policy towards women is incorporated in the guiding principles of the eighth national plan and proposals in the national programme for women. The National Women's Council has set up working committees to devise proposals, plans and programmes on different areas of concern to women that are carried out through decentralized units at the federal and municipal levels. It also operates with approximately 120 women's non-governmental organizations.
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Seven networks have been set up to cover women and the environment; sexual and domestic violence; support for rural and indigenous women; female labour union and trade association leaders; care centres and graduate women's studies.
The report then examines social and cultural patterns. The family, school and the media tend to perpetuate the traditional female sexual stereotypes in one form or another. Although such factors as a woman's work and social class play a part, the fact that a mother work does not necessarily lead to less traditional attitudes concerning sexual roles. The virtual absence of men in pre-school and primary education, as well as stereotype portrayals in school text books, exert an influence. The media regularly presents a distorted image of Venezuelan women that does not correspond to present-day reality.
According to the report, there are no effective measures aimed at eliminating social and cultural patterns. On the contrary, female stereotyping has become more rigid in comparison with the flexibility Venezuelan life offers both sexes.
Violence is also a result of deteriorating social and economic conditions and the failure to address the lack of opportunities for education, health care, personal security, employment and recreation. Violence in the home is the most widespread and affects all women regardless of age, race, education and socio-economic circumstances. Non-governmental organizations have encouraged discussion and alerted governments to the problem. The sexual and domestic violence bill was an attempt to deal with it. Prostitution is a criminal offence in Venezuela and the report details the penalties.
Women's participation in legislative assemblies and municipal councils shows a rising trend, the report says. However, the number of women in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate fell by 2.9 per cent and 2 per cent, respectively. Their representation at the ministerial level is minimal with two out of 24 cabinet posts. The number of female mayors has fallen by 2.2 per cent between 1989 and 1992. Only one female state governor was elected prior to 1989, and one woman was a governor in 1993. But between 1989 and 1993, more than 50 per cent of judges were women.
Female education has shown significant advances in recent decades both generally and compared with the male population, because of greater access to primary schooling, the extension of compulsory education to nine years, the expansion of secondary schooling and diversification of higher education. Although there is no gender-based discrimination in the right to education and women have the same access to education, their illiteracy rate in 1990 was 57.18 per cent compared with 42.82 per cent for men.
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Although women's economic participation had risen faster than men's, they earn on average 25 per cent less than men for equal work with more pronounced differences in some regions. The average monthly income for women is $202 compared with $259 for men. The report notes that many pregnant teenagers abandon their studies, especially in poorer households.
Economic adjustment policies have been extremely harmful to women, the report says. Female participation in decision-making in labour unions, trade associations, business enterprises and public corporations and at the policy- making levels of government and finance is minimal. The lack of any economic development guarantees affects women and has led to the "feminization" of poverty. Civic groups representing female workers -- labour unions, trade associations, cooperatives and producers' associations -- are generally poor and there is little concern about gender-related issues. Women's representation at the executive levels in trade unions is "extremely low". Even though all the major workers' federations have departments to deal with specific problems of women and their families, they are generally not aware of the importance of women's participation in such organizations and in civic life in general.
According to the report, women's health has been affected by inadequate access to medical welfare services, particularly for the poor. There is also no real awareness of the importance of a gender-orientated policy to meet women's specific requirements. Cervical cancer is a public health problem and one of the major reasons for medical consultation and hospitalization. It is the second most common cause of death among women and accounts for 19.99 per cent of all forms of female cancer; breast cancer is 11.23 per cent. Life expectancy for women is 74.73 years and 68.95 for men. The rate for women at birth increased by almost 17 years between 1950 and 1990 and is expected to have increased by 18.12 years by 1995. Infant and child mortality rates have decreased significantly, and the female fertility rate has fallen dramatically over the last 40 years -- evidence of a major change in reproductive behaviour. Venezuela has 1,312 government-run family-planning clinics, the report adds.
The Maternal and Child Care Office within the Ministry of Health and Social Services is responsible for formulating policies and programmes aimed at promoting women's and children's health. Its family-planning component aims to achieve better standards among women of child-bearing age, a marked reduction in rates of maternal, perinatal and infant mortality and generally improved family well-being.
The problems of rural women have increased over the last 20 years, and attempts have been made to direct rural programmes towards them, the report says. However, the programmes have been inadequate and considerable inequities still exist between rural men and women and between rural and urban populations. Rural women still occupy a subordinate socio-cultural position
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in rural development projects. The Government's lack of a comprehensive and coherent social policy towards the rural sector mean its population still cannot participate effectively in the various stages of production.
There are no legal barriers to women acquiring rural land and urban property. However, one fourth of all plots legally settled in 1993 were held by women, indicating their minority status when it comes to land ownership, although the situation has improved compared to the period between 1960 and 1992 when women held only 18.27 plots. The report lists public bank credit programmes for the rural sector, including the housewives' programme, the small-scale agro-industrial and craft programme and indigenous programmes.
Introduction of Report
CARMEN TERESA MARTINEZ (Venezuela) said her delegation had not received adequate guidelines in preparing its presentation, and yesterday it had been asked to shorten it. However, there had not been enough time to rewrite it and still give the in-depth coverage needed. She said the report, which covered the period from 1985 to 1995, included demographic data, socio- economic statistics and historical details to help with a fuller appreciation of the current status of Venezuelan women.
Since 1961, the country's Constitution had banned all forms of discrimination based on sex, however, women continued to suffer inequities, especially in the workplace where they were paid less than men for equal work. Economic adjustment programmes had a negative impact on the lives of the general population, but particularly women who were taking on growing responsibilities as heads of households. In an effort to combat that, the National Office of Women's Affairs was working with non-governmental organizations and multilateral bodies.
The report also outlined legislative measures to improve women's status and deal with domestic violence, she continued. The Employment Organization Act, which became law in 1991, improved women's working situation. A government decree covered employment conditions in the public and private sector, including those for pregnant women. In the past, pregnant girls had to leave school and were not allowed to return. Now, they had the right to continue their studies.
A sexual and domestic violence bill, currently before the National Congress, included provisions to protect maternity and the family, she continued. In response to a Venezuelan proposal, the OAS adopted the Inter- American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women in 1994.
Women's Anti-Discrimination Committee - 7 - Press Release WOM/940 323rd Meeting (AM) 22 January 1997
The Penal Code Reform Bill, currently before the National Congress would mend the classification of "offences against morality and the family probity" to "offences against the person"; and penalize domestic violence between couples, eliminate adultery as a criminal offence and do away with mitigating circumstances based on honour and rape of prostitutes.
She said a reform of the law on equal opportunities for women would be undertaken by the National Institute for Women, and there had been a struggle with authorities to promote it. The Institute had also undertaken a programme with the Educational and Justice Ministries to provide students with the necessary tools to counter violence. Short-term, social programmes were being undertaken to mitigate effects of economic adjustment on the most vulnerable sectors of society. Child-care providers would allow working women to ensure their children were taken care of. Other programmes would provide food to poor families and training to help both men and women improve skills for better employment.
In transferring from a consumer to a producer society, Venezuela must promote active participation by both women and men and provide better organizations to improve opportunities and standards for all people without discrimination, she said. In the past, the Government had been the major employer at all levels of society. As a result of economic restructuring, women had been simply left out. Employers found it cheaper to exclude women, particularly during their pregnancy and child-bearing years. Women now had increased responsibilities as wage earners and as heads of households, particularly in poorer families. More compensatory measures aimed at mitigating effects of poor economic management were needed, but there had been some achievements. There had been changes in society's attitude towards women and their abilities. There were also plans to use women's organizations to help eradicate female illiteracy.
She then outlined the history of women's political participation since 1946, when they were granted the right to vote. Women now took part in the public sphere and in the judiciary, although there had been some resistance to allowing women to enter higher political decision-making levels. In 1989, a woman Minister for the Advancement of Women was appointed to coordinate and implement programmes designed to promote women's participation in all fields.
Partial reform of the country's civil code meant couples took family decisions together and married women had the same rights and duties as their husbands, she said. The refusal of a woman to use her husband's name did not disadvantage her under the law. She said men did not take on their wives name because it was not allowed under the 1961 Constitution. Both spouses must agree on the disposal of property acquired through matrimony, and parental authority was exercised jointly and also applied to children born outside wedlock.
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In response to written questions as to why a mother could not leave the country with a child without the father's consent, she said the law was meant to cover cases where a parent might be abducting a child, and efforts were being made to ensure equal rights in that area. The employment act included maternity provisions which allowed women paid maternity leave for 12 months and also allowed paternal leave for a short period. Adoptive mothers had the same rights.
Turning to the issue of cultural and social patterns, she said the problem of sexual stereotypes in school textbooks was being addressed by the National Women's Council. It was also attempting to address female illiteracy. Women were demanding access to the higher levels of political life, and there were now mandatory quotas to ensure women's participation in political parties, although some parties resisted that.
Responding to questions previously submitted by the Committee, she said cases of violations of rights of indigenous people were solved through regular legal channels. Regular mechanisms in the Ministry of Education also existed to protect indigenous cultural practices.
The National Women's Institute did not have less importance than a ministry, she said. It had its own funding and government standing. The National Women's Council had promoted a number of health programmes, including those which dealt with early pregnancy, pre-natal care, breast-feeding, and sexually transmitted diseases. Overall health-care guidelines had been established. A study had been conducted on stereotyping in school textbooks. A programme addressing female illiteracy had also been initiated.
The Council, she continued, had supported proposals and projects to mitigate poverty for women. A small enterprise project was set up to give rural women tools and training to allow them to pursue productive work. A training programme for youth was aimed at teenage mothers. The National Council was working towards the advancement of women through support for legislation and social programmes. Women's participation in development needed to be recognized and socio-educational changes needed strong advocacy efforts. The programmes and policies of the Council covered both the public and private sector to promote the fundamental values of equality and equity.
TANYA GUZMAN, representative of the National Women's Council of Venezuela, continuing the responses to questions, said a data bank existed to provide socio-economic and cultural services. It provided information to the public and private sector and guaranteed financial resources for programmes. She went on to describe the mandates of a number of government sectors regarding women's advancement. Legal assistance was provided for women without financial means. The reform of the law on equal opportunity had been called for by women's groups. It had been difficult to determine the impact of social programmes on women serving at the national level. A number of
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workshops had been held on women's rights, in conjunction with international agencies and organizations. She listed several educational and training programmes which were planned.
She said provisions in the law were being made for maternal leave and child care. The support of governmental and non-governmental organizations had led to a study of the law against domestic violence. Other legislation was being drafted to deal with a range of areas concerning equal opportunity for women. The education programme for equality initiated by the Women's Council had gone through its first phase of development. The process for setting up tribunals to deal with domestic violence was very slow. Domestic violence was a social-cultural issue. The penal code had to be examined. The Council was involved in efforts to sensitize officials on violence against women. It was promoting the creation of hospices to support victims of violence. Other support services for victims were being promoted. The courts punished perpetrators of violence against women under the existing penal code. The media had given broad coverage to the area of domestic violence.
She said the National Women's Council was involved directly in the promotion of policies at all levels of decision-making. She listed a number of training and technical programmes provided by the Council. Political participation by women at the local level was being promoted through workshops for municipal officials. There was a high percentage of women in the diplomatic service, which resulted from women's participation in higher education. Eleven women held the position of head of mission out of a total of 89.
In general, she said, women held jobs primarily in the service sector. Those jobs carried lower wages and few benefits. Women's participation in labour unions was only 12 per cent. However, there had been an increase of women in the administration of labour unions. Measures had been adopted to address violence against women and sexual harassment in the workplace. Laws requiring employers to provide child-care facilities were being implemented. There was still a cultural tradition concerning women's place in the workforce.
On reproductive health, she said a decentralization of health services had yielded positive results. The Ministry of Health and Social Assistance had been developing training programmes to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS. Currently, the Government was analysing a whole range of services provided by hospitals. The maternal mortality rate had been gradually rising along with the increase in poverty.
She outlined in general terms a number of government policies addressing women's needs in response to specific questions submitted by the experts.
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General Comments and Follow-up Questions
An expert expressed regret over the lack of specific responses in the presentation of the report and in the answers to submitted questions. Given that 68 per cent of the population were living in poverty, a large urban migration of women had taken place, and the situation of women, in general, had deteriorated, specific details were needed in the presentation and they had not been provided. For example, there was a high rate of illiteracy among women. They were working primarily in service areas or were unemployed. Given the declining economic status of women, it was necessary to conclude that Venezuela had taken a step backward in the advancement of women since the second report in 1992. The penal code had not been reformed. The nationality law continued to be in contravention of the Convention. The report and answers to the questions gave the impression of a conceptual approach that had not reached the grass-roots level.
She said the political system sounded extremely bureaucratic. There was no evidence that the National Council of Women functioned at the level of a ministry. The Council promoted, disseminated, assisted and supported, but it did not have any coercive power to pursue its programmes. Abuse by law enforcement officials had not been adequately addressed in the report. Corruption was acknowledged in the report as having a negative effect on the family and women. Lots of efforts appear to have been made by the Government, but few results had been achieved.
Another expert also commented on the disturbing economic indicators contained in the report. Was the National Women's Council developing specific programmes to meet the needs of women who found themselves in positions of extreme poverty? The government plan to combat poverty was described in general terms. In that plan, had a gender perspective been applied? Were any of the objectives of the Beijing Platform for Action contained in the plan? Were there training programmes for women who headed households which would help them in gaining employment. More specifics were requested about the National Institute and its relationship to the National Council of Women.
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