ISSUES OF ABORTION, POVERTY AND FAMILY VIOLENCE IN COLOMBIA DISCUSSED BY WOMEN'S ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE19990203
While the Colombian Government must continue the ongoing process of tackling the issues of poverty, political and family violence and natural disasters, overturning the prohibition on abortion was something it could do automatically and without delay, experts members of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women said this afternoon, as the Committee concluded its consideration of Colombia's continued compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
Several members of the 23-member expert body, which monitors compliance with the Women's Convention, said that Colombian women were choosing abortion even though it was flatly outlawed under any circumstances. One expert noted that, according to a recent study, 26 out of 100 women attending universities had undergone induced abortions, and one out of every three women who had ever been pregnant had admitted to having them. Abortion was a medical procedure, and, thus, its legal prohibition was discriminatory. Updating the law and requiring sex education at all educational levels would alleviate the problem.
One expert asked the high-level delegation about the age of Colombia's abortion laws and whether any attempt had been made to revise them. Another expert asked about the reaction to a woman entering a clinic or hospital under the condition of an induced abortion -- did the doctors find themselves in a dilemma of conscience; and did they discriminate by delaying the treatment of such women? Moreover, were the patients in need of such emergency assistance treated as criminals?
A member of the Colombian delegation said that if a woman came into a doctor's office in a "bloody state" as the result of an induced abortion, the doctor was obliged to treat her and it was considered a case of spontaneous abortion. If the woman had made a conscious decision not to have the child, she would be penalized for aborting it. If the doctor had performed the procedure based on the expressed will of the woman, then the doctor had to go before the
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medical ethics board. The Government had not yet addressed the issue directly, but had opened it up to public debate. It also had to contend with the entrenched position of the Church and human rights defenders on the subject.
The Permanent Representative of Colombia, Alfonso Valdivieso, said that his Government was responding to the expectations and aspirations of women. What was important currently was that the new Government was fundamentally committed to certain basic questions. Those included the question of sexual and domestic violence and abuse, for which it was possible to achieve significant breakthroughs. Recent examples of such violence had led to a discussion of new kinds of criminal provisions aimed at "facing up" to that emerging violence.
"We do have some very difficult times facing us", to which the Government was seeking peaceful and innovative solutions, he said. In response to its many problems -- including the recent earthquake, social and political violence, educational imbalance, and drug trafficking -- the Government would move forward with the aid of all Colombians, both men and women.
The Committee will meet again at 3 p.m. on Friday, 5 February, to adopt its report and conclude the work of its twentieth session.
Committee Work Programme
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this afternoon to conclude its consideration of Colombia's compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. It had before it Colombia's fourth periodic report (document CEDAW/C/COL/4), submitted in accordance with article 18 of the Convention. That article provides for States parties to submit reports on legislative, judicial, administrative and other measures adopted to give effect to the provisions of the Convention.
The present report updates the information on the lives of women in Colombia since 1991, the year in which the new Constitution came into force. It was prepared jointly by five consultants specializing in the various topics dealt with in the report, working under the leadership of the National Office for Equality for Women. (For further background on the report, see Press Release WOM/1095 issued this morning.)
Replies by Government
Members of the Colombian delegation continued to reply to questions posed by Committee experts following the meeting of their pre-sessional working group from 11 to 15 January. Highlights of those replies follow, in the order in which the questions were asked:
[The delegation included the Permanent Representative of Colombia to the United Nations, Alfonso Valdivieso; Director of the National Office of Equity for Women, Elsa Gladys Cifuentes; Adviser, Foreign Affairs Ministry, Ruby Montano; Adviser to the President, Guido Bonilla; and government expert, Beatriz Linares].
-- Although women had made quantitative progress in their education level, there were serious problems with regard to quality, as well as a negative impact on the integrated development of their capacities, interest and potential;
-- The solution to that problem did not belong solely to the educational sector since gender inequality was a structural problem; it was the duty of that system, however, to promote changes in values, stereotypes and deep-rooted beliefs to construct a more equitable society;
-- The 10-Year Education Plan, the guiding policy for education, had sought to overcome all forms of discrimination due to sex, and had sought the promotion of a quality education and the incorporation of gender equity into the entire system;
-- As the Government did not supply the school budget, families must assume the cost of materials, transportation, food and grade processing, as well as, in some schools, the cost of maintenance;
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-- The State had prioritized the achievement of universal education up to grade nine, and it had developed actions to ensure that all boys and girls had access to basic education; however, no specific action had been taken to ensure that girls finished at least the basic cycle;
-- In the last four years, the absorption of women into the labour force had been greater than that of men, owing largely to the rapid growth in employment opportunities for women -- including female manual labour -- principally due to their increased educational level;
-- Colombia had made a commitment to the progressive eradication of child labour and the protection of young workers;
-- To date, no proposals had been made with regard to inequality of pay for equal work of men and women, because the Government saw that issue as resulting from women's access to employment opportunities;
-- It had only been obligatory since 1998 to include A medical history in cases of death of women of a reproductive age, in order to establish the number of maternal deaths associated with abortion;
-- Induced abortion was illegal in Colombia in all situations, even if it was the result of rape, incest, fetal malformation, or if the life and health of the mother was in danger;
-- So far, there had been five draft project proposals to legalize abortion, but none had advanced to the second debate in Congress;
-- Sterilization was the contraceptive method most used by women of fertile age because, prior to the 1991 Constitution, Colombian women had required the notarized permission of their husband or companion to be sterilized, and under new legislation the women had been free to decide on the number and timing of pregnancies and the contraceptive methods to be used; at present, the average age of sterilization was 32;
-- Most women did not have title to land, which was the greatest restriction for access to credit;
-- Women were unfamiliar with the financial world, since their relations with it had been marginal or non-existent.
Comments by Experts
AIDA GONZALES (Mexico), Committee Chairperson, along with several other
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experts, expressed appreciation for the presence of the high-level Colombian delegation, headed by the Permanent Representative and the highest official of the national women's department, and joined by government specialists. In light of the recent earthquake and its tragic repercussions, a number of experts appreciated the officials' sacrifice in coming to New York; they had thus proved their commitment to the cause of women.
One expert was grateful for the detailed and clearly presented statistical data. Unfortunately, that had revealed that 94 per cent of Colombian women had inadequate health care, and only 15 per cent were living under good conditions, while 85 per cent were in either average or deficient situations. Clearly, the Government would be challenged to bring about improved status for women and to implement the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. In particular, the alarming situation of poverty afflicting primarily women needed to be addressed. More than half of the Colombian population was living below the poverty line, and conditions for street children and rural women were particularly alarming.
She said she hoped it would be possible to implement all aspects of the country's development plan, and to integrate the gender perspective in each. The issue of armed conflict greatly concerned the Committee. Many displaced Colombian women were widows or heads of households, requiring priority attention on the part of the Government. Inter-family violence, which, at some point, had affected about 81 per cent of women in Colombia, was also a matter of considerable concern. Laws to counteract such violence were positive measures. Reforming the Penal Code might also be considered. The proposal to reduce some penalties for sexual crimes and to turn the matter over to family commissions was questionable. Those commissions did not have necessary resources and, as the report had indicated, were very behind in matters under their review.
Important progress had been made in Colombia towards combating discrimination against women, including the adoption of many new measures, as well as a new Constitution. Still, there were gaps in the follow-up mechanisms for enforcing those laws and ensuring execution of judicial decisions. It was disturbing that affirmative actions, which could promote women's participation in public life, had not been implemented, despite the fact that several proposals had gone to Congress. The absolute prohibition on abortion, even in cases where women's lives were in danger or the pregnancy was the result of a rape, was particularly worrisome. Maternal mortality was high, and she hoped that, with the five legal bills before the Congress, women could be given that truly important right.
Given the importance the Committee attached to the national office for women, it was concerned about the fact that, in Colombia, that body was only advisory in nature, she said.
Another expert said that the human rights approach being adopted by the
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Government was very impressive. Its policies not only contained a gender perspective, but also a holistic human rights approach. Also impressive were the many non-governmental organizations working in defence of human rights. She was concerned, however, about how the Government was going to be able to implement the Women's Convention under the present conditions, which included growing poverty and widespread violence. In addition, although the Government had envisaged some very sound programmes and knew how to tackle the problems, a lack of concrete realization and insufficient respect for the goals was evident.
In that connection, she said that although the Constitution contemplated the possibility of special legislation as positive action, none of the bills establishing quotas for women had been approved. That discrepancy seemed to apply to other laws favouring women's advancement. It also seemed that even where there existed the political will to change, there was no move in practice to do so. The same standstill had applied to the issue of violence. Indeed, the country was facing a very difficult situation, including the persistence of armed conflict, which impacted individuals, as well as the administrative establishment and the country's security as a whole. Nevertheless, legislation to overturn that tide had to be approved.
One expert noted that the budget allocation for the National Office of Equity for Women was about 1 million pesos, and asked whether that was sufficient to meet the needs and interests of women.
With regard to the five bills that had been presented to the Congress concerning the establishment of quotas, she asked why they had first gone to the office of the First Lady. Profound positive measures had been established through the 1991 Constitution, including the use of quotas to ensure parliamentary representation for indigenous populations. She wanted to know what arguments had been used for not passing the five bills. The last two Governments had had female Ministers for Foreign Affairs, and there were women senators and representatives. What had then happened so that none of the five bills could be passed? she asked. While it was encouraging to hear that the President had appointed two female ministers, she asked whether they had been given portfolios, and, if so, what they were.
Another expert wanted to know what specific obstacles were impeding the passage of those bills, and whether there would be an opportunity to re-introduce them. Passing them would be important since targetting women in government policies would create greater de facto equality. One expert hoped that to get the bills passed the National Office would use the argument that only concrete and effective measures would bring about change and bring women to an equal footing with men.
Several experts expressed concern over the abortion policy in Colombia. One expert asked how old Colombia's abortion laws were, and whether there had been any attempt to review them within the context of ensuring women's rights to
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reproduction and health. Another expert said that, according to a recent study, 26 out of 100 women attending universities had had an induced abortion. Also, one out of every three women who had ever been pregnant had admitted to having had induced abortions. If that was indeed the case, it was extremely alarming, she said. There was a need for stronger systematic sex education at all educational levels -- among young boys and girls, in both the urban and rural areas -- to combat the problem.
One expert said that, while the women's situation in Colombia was very difficult, abortion was one area in which the Government was in a position to do something. Colombian women were having recourse to abortion even though it was outlawed. Abortion was a medical procedure which only women needed, and sometimes it was needed to ensure women's rights to health and even, sometimes, their right to life. The legal prohibition of abortion was in fact discrimination against women. Unlike in dealing with violence, poverty and natural disasters, with abortion, it was very clear that what the Government had to do was decriminalize it so women could enjoy their rights to life and health.
Another expert was concerned over how induced abortion was handled in the country. A doctor's first and utmost duty was to save lives. Whoever entered a clinic or hospital under the condition of an induced abortion was a patient and had to be treated without discrimination. She asked how the medical association, if there was one, reacted to that. Did the doctors find themselves in a dilemma of conscience? Did the law treat patients who needed emergency treatment for induced abortions as criminals? Under the existing Colombian law, did doctors discriminate in delaying the treatment of such women?
While noting that Colombia had a difficult situation to deal with involving internal war, drug trafficking and the most recent earthquake, one expert expressed concern over domestic and political violence in the country. According to independent information, members of a human rights group, including two women, had been abducted. She asked how knowledge of women's rights could be spread when the lives of those spreading it were in danger.
One expert requested further detailed information on Colombia's implementation of the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action. She asked whether benchmarks had been set up and who was monitoring the achievement of those benchmarks. While drawing up a plan was one thing, the implementation and monitoring of that implementation was another.
One expert noted that Colombia was not alone with regard to the problem of child labour, since it was a problem of many developing countries. She had not heard anything about the country's compulsory education policies. Putting children into school was one way of keeping them out of child labour. What was being done to ensure that children were going to school? she asked.
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Response to Experts' Comments
A member of the Colombian delegation said that there were three branches of power in the Government -- the executive, legislative and judiciary. In addition, there were also two control bodies -- the State Attorney's Office and the Office of the People's Defender. There were presently two bills before the Congress, which the National Office of Equity for Women did not support in light of the fact that it did not want to fly in the face of what had been achieved through women's struggles. With respect to the civil aspect of violence in the family, there was another bill designed to transfer inter- family violence law from family judges to police inspectors, who had been proven to be ineffective. The family judges had felt they were not prepared or trained to attend to problems of family violence. The Office proposed that the judges shoulder their responsibility in the struggle against such violence.
In addition, there were also problems with the Family Commissioner's Office, the only Government entity Colombian women and children had recourse to, she added. There were already 13 offices in 13 areas of the country addressing family violence issues. The Commissioner's Office could take provisional measures and then refer them to the appropriate bodies.
Currently, women's representation in Congress was only seven per cent, she said. Thus, positive action measures would be difficult to achieve due to the make-up of the Congress. While five or six years ago only women were proclaiming women's rights, now there were many more bodies devoted to the promotion of women's issues. Further recommendations were needed to strengthen the National Office of Equity for Women. A recent presidential decree had established that the Office was not under the President's Office; rather, it would be independent, so it could better take up the cause of women. Great progress had been made in Colombian legislation and the Government was determined to continue its struggle of implementing the Convention.
With regard to induced abortions, she said that if a woman came into a doctor's office in a "bloody state", the doctor was obligated to treat her, since it was a case of spontaneous abortion. However, if the woman decided not to have the child she was carrying, then she would be penalized for having an abortion. If the doctor had performed the procedure based on the expressed will of the woman, then the doctor had to go before the medical ethics board. Colombia was not ready to address the issue of abortion, and had opened it up to public debate. It also had to contend with the radical position of the Church and human rights defenders who felt abortion was a clear violation of children's human rights.
Regarding the budget of the National Office, another delegate said that approximately $750,000 had been allotted to it. The budget, like that
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allotted to all official entities, was never sufficient. The Office, wanting to ensure that every ministry had sufficient resources to deal with gender issues, did not want to compete for resources.
She acknowledged that there was a gap in Colombia's control and monitoring system. Those gaps needed to be filled, since there were really no mechanisms to ensure that those violating women's human rights were prosecuted.
Another delegate stated that the Government was aware of the violence affecting the country. The Government also wanted to make it clear that its authorities were in constant dialogue with non-governmental organizations, who had even participated in designing human rights policies. While it had not been possible to secure the cooperation of all non-governmental organizations, certain actions had been taken to protect human rights activists in Colombia.
Another member of the delegation addressed the experts' questions on the incidence of violence and the plan for peace. The Government felt that problem was both a social and a human rights problem, for which it was developing "Plan Colombia" -- a social investment for peace. In the area of armed conflict, two principles applied: one concerned national management, and the other involved the absolute de-centralization of resources for the peace fund. The Government felt it could greatly improve social conditions, which went hand in hand with the political efforts being made with the insurgency forces.
The representative then responded to a question by the experts concerning women's involvement in the ministries. Two women had recently been appointed to the Ministries of External Trade and of Communications. In terms of access to rural women to credit, the Government had undertaken outstanding efforts to protect rural women, including integrating their concerns into the operation of the Agriculture Ministry. In addition, progress had been made towards training and empowering rural women, whereas previously, they had not even had citizenship documents, making it virtually impossible for them to obtain credit. Campaigns had been carried out, however, to ensure that at least they had the right documents.
There was now a presidential directive involving an agrarian bank to provided soft loans to rural women, he went on. Priority had to be given to rural women so that loans and subsidies could be provided to them to protect, the family nucleus. Women heads of household, in particular, were protected. Much remained to be done for rural women, but there had been some progress. The Government's equality plan needed the advice and experience of the international community. In that regard, he was extremely grateful to the international audience that had heard its presentation on the present status of women in Colombia.
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Alfonso Valdivieso, the Permanent Representative of Colombia to the United Nations, said the points raised in the question-and-answer phase of the presentation were very important because they addressed the essential points of the phase that Colombian society was passing through. The question of women's status in Colombia was not a new issue but an issue about which the Government was very much aware and to which it had tried to respond, in both the public and the private sectors. Today's presentation had been very direct and candid and had highlighted not only the achievements made in that regard.
Undoubtedly, he said, it would be much easier to have that kind of balance sheet in hand, but the important thing was to see how Colombian officials were responding to the expectations and aspirations of women. In that regard, the delegation had painted a picture of the shortcomings still to be addressed. What was important at the current stage was that the new Government, which had only come into office in August, was fundamentally committed to certain basic questions. Those included the question of sexual and domestic violence and abuse. The Committee had been made aware of the President's programme in that regard, and, through the executive branch, it would be possible to achieve significant breakthroughs. The proposed legislation would trigger great debate. Last year, Colombian society had seen some atrocious examples of sexual violence and abuse, which had led to a discussion of new kinds of criminal provisions aimed at "facing up" to the violence emerging in certain sectors of society.
Advances had also been made in the area of justice, he said. An attorney general's office had been set up as a very specific agency, autonomous from the Government and responsible solely and exclusively for investigating crimes. Having been present during that very difficult time in his country's history, he believed that office was quite capable of achieving results and bringing even the most difficult cases to trial. Another concern was the systematic assaults on human rights activists, who should be able to work with complete freedom and protection in assisting Colombian society. The justice system was capable of convicting and sentencing people who had violated human rights.
The peace policy was another commitment of the present Government, which the President was prepared to tackle head on. Violence in Colombia was not a new issue; subversive guerrilla groups had been there for more than 40 years. A guerrilla group whose leaders died of old age was a guerilla group with which the Government really had to take a very definite position. It was not a question of exterminating the guerrillas, but of establishing co-existence among Colombians. Before taking office, the President-elect had taken a bold step by meeting with the supreme leader of the insurgent forces in the middle of the forest. He had promised that once his Government got started, he would start that process.
"We do have some very difficult times facing us", he said, for which his
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country was seeking peaceful solutions. In the midst of so many problems -- including the recent earthquake which had been truly disastrous in scope -- violence, societal breakdown, educational problems, drugs and drug trafficking were among the issues of great concern. His Government, however, would move forward with the aid of all Colombians -- both men and women.
Ms. GONZALES (Mexico), Committee Chairperson, thanked the Ambassador and his delegation for providing Committee members with information which had allayed some concerns and provoked others. Admittedly, the abortion issue was alarming, and seemed caught in a holding pattern between various branches of Government. Another issue of concern concerned the role to be played by the national office for women within the overall Government structure. In that context, it would help a great deal to develop it as a base of influence and orientation capable of adopting State policies for women.
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