LACKING CONTRACEPTIVE ADVICE, BELIZE'S CURRENT HEALTH POLICY 'OBVIOUSLY NOT WORKING', FIRST LADY OF BELIZE TELLS ANTI-DISCRIMINATION

18 June 1999
WOM/1140

LACKING CONTRACEPTIVE ADVICE, BELIZE'S CURRENT HEALTH POLICY 'OBVIOUSLY NOT WORKING', FIRST LADY OF BELIZE TELLS ANTI-DISCRIMINATION

18 June 1999


Press Release
WOM/1140


LACKING CONTRACEPTIVE ADVICE, BELIZE'S CURRENT HEALTH POLICY 'OBVIOUSLY NOT WORKING', FIRST LADY OF BELIZE TELLS ANTI-DISCRIMINATION

19990618

COMMITTEE

Committee Concludes Consideration of Belize's Compliance With Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women

Belize's current health policy, based on the hope that young people would not become sexually active and, therefore, lacking contraceptive advice, was "obviously not working", Joan Musa, First Lady of Belize and President of the National Women's Commission, told the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women this morning.

Preventing HIV/AIDS was complicated, since the Roman Catholic Church did not accept the use of condoms, she told the 23-member expert body, as it concluded its consideration of Belize's compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Responding to questions posed by the Committee at an earlier meeting, she said that teenage motherhood was increasing, and more than 60 per cent of births to younger women were unplanned. Clearly, information must be given to girls at an earlier age. A reproductive health committee had been established as part of a programme sponsored by the Pan American Health Organization. The committee included church representatives, and its projects would include funding for mobile clinics for under-served rural areas, and distribution of contraceptives.

Dolores Balderamos-Garcia, Belize's Minister of Human Development, Women and Youth, said that Belize did not have a national policy to address teenage pregnancy and the dismissal of pregnant female teachers. However, it recognized the need to begin a national dialogue to ensure that teenagers who became pregnant did not fall by the wayside. There was a great respect for the Church-State system since Catholic-run schools tended to give a higher standard of education. At the same time, the State must ensure that women and girls were not discriminated against.

Women's Anti-Discrimination Committee - 1a - Press Release WOM/1140 438th Meeting (AM) 18 June 1999

A Committee expert said it was alarming that schools were in the hands of the Catholic Church, while Belize was in dire need of a liberal sex- education policy for young people, and for condom distribution to prevent the further spread of HIV/AIDS. The Government should network with liberal Catholic groups -- present in other countries -- which had found ways to remain faithful while addressing realities requiring action. Such groups could help tackle the difficult task of opening the Catholic Church to the needs of girls and women.

On the issue of cases of sexual offending, an expert said that either a woman's evidence was believed or it was not. Although Belize no longer required outright corroboration for allegations of rape or sexual offending, judges were required to issue juries a "strong warning" not to convict in the absence of such corroboration. When such strong warnings were given, juries would not convict.

The evidence laws relating to criminal sexual offending were to be reviewed, she noted. But procedures should be examined as well. Current procedures prevented women from making complaints and, when they were made, convictions were not likely. If serious sexual offences could be committed with little risk of complaint or conviction, such crimes were likely to continue.

Also addressing the Committee from Belize's delegation were: Adele Catzim, Resource Development Coordinator and Technical Advisor; Magali Marin, Legal Adviser; and Gayla Fuller, Coordinator of the Women's Issues Network of Belize (WIN-Belize).

The Committee will meet again at 3 p.m. to hear replies from the Government of Nepal to questions posed to it following the presentation of its initial report.

Women's Anti-Discrimination Committee - 2 - Press Release WOM/1140 438th Meeting (AM) 18 June 1999

Committee Work Programme

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this morning to continue its consideration of the combined initial and second report of Belize (document CEDAW/C/BLZ/1-2) on its implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The Government of Belize was scheduled to respond to questions posed by the Committee following the presentation of Belize's report on 14 June. (For further background on that report, see Press Releases WOM/1134 and WOM/1135 of 14 June.)

Replies by Government

DOLORES BALDERAMOS GARCIA, Minister for Human Development, Women and Youth of Belize, said that one of the major issues that experts had raised was the relationship of the Church-State education system and how that affected the position of female students and teachers. The harmonization of Belizean laws to bring them in line with the Convention was another area to be addressed. Other concerns included prostitution, the economic empowerment of women, as well as issues that hampered the full involvement and equality of women in Belize, such as equal pay for equal work and better working conditions.

Turning first to the Church-State system of education, she said that a great majority of the population was Christian, and more specifically Catholic. Although legally and technically many Belizeans were in that category, their actual practice of the faith was weak. For many children to enter the primary school system, a church baptismal certificate was needed, whether their families practised the faith or not. There was a great respect for the Church-State system since Catholic run schools tended to give a higher standard of education. At the same time, the State had the major responsibility for ensuring that there was no discrimination against girls and women. The Government recognized the need to begin a national dialogue to ensure that teenagers who became pregnant did not fall by the wayside. The State currently had no policy to address teenage pregnancy and the dismissal of female teachers who became pregnant.

With regard to the financial resources the Government set aside to ensure gender equality, she said that out of the $6.5 million budget for the Ministry of Human Development, Women and Youth, only 5 per cent was given to the Department of Women's Affairs. There was a need to do more with less, since it was unlikely that the Government would give more funds in the short term to that Department. A sufficient monitoring mechanism to ensure that the Convention was known and adhered to in the various areas of society was needed. Sadly, general knowledge of the Convention tended to be weak. There was better knowledge of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The presence of Belize's First Lady, as the President of the National Women's Commission, provided an impetus to move forward and ensured that the Convention was better known.

There was some measured progress in the treatment of victims of domestic violence, she said. In the Women's Department, there was a counsellor, who dealt with women and men who sought counselling for problems with marriage and common law unions.

With regard to immigrant women, she said that there was no overt discrimination against them. State policies recognized their children as full Belizeans, who were entitled to receive education and health services. Currently, between 15,000 and 20,000 immigrants in Belize were seeking amnesty in the pursuit of obtaining permanent residence. While the Government recognized that that might cause a strain on the social sector, it had a commitment to serve all those who resided in the country. The need to ensure that the provisions of the Convention were translated into the languages of the various ethnic groups was also recognized.

Women development officers in each of the country's six regions ensured that the Convention was known, that issues of family violence were dealt with, that women were trained and had access social services as needed, she said.

In January 1998, when the currently governing political party had been an opposition party, its women's arm had developed a women's manifesto, elucidating anticipated actions, she said. Among the commitments contained therein, the party had promised to address the two-tiered wage system. Currently, the minimum wage for manual labourers was $2.25, and that wage also applied for those working in establishments that sold liquor. The minimum wage for shop clerks, domestic workers and those who worked where alcohol was not sold was only $1.75. Clearly women were affected by this and the Government was striving to implement legislation so that one minimum wage applied.

Another significant commitment had been to change the laws governing court orders granting custody and child maintenance, she continued. In the past, if a married woman was committing adultery, no custody or maintenance could be in her favour. That law had been superseded by a new law, passed just two months ago, so today custody and maintenance did not depend on the life of the mother.

Another intended action was the creation of legislation placing economic or monetary value on domestic duties such as child care and housekeeping, when the assets of a common-law union or marriage were divided, she said. Common law spouses would be given inheritance and property rights. Also, the offense of marital rape was to be legislated -- the text had been drafted and would be introduced shortly. Policies were to be implemented to better protect women in situations of violence. Those included establishing family violence units in police departments, which was already being done, and training officers to treat family violence in a professional and sensitive manner. Other efforts were aimed at providing women with access to credit for small-scale enterprises, she added.

JOAN MUSA, First Lady of Belize and President of the National Women's Commission, addressed questions about health. The incidents of HIV infection had been a source of alarm. The first recorded case of HIV infection was of a woman in 1986; by 1998, 235 deaths had been attributed to AIDS, with 680 persons diagnosed with HIV and over 200 with AIDS. Those numbers were significant in a country with such a small population. Data collection was a concern; the above cases only reflected those who had come forward for diagnosis and treatment. While Belize's rate was the highest in Central America, it was only number 11 among Caribbean countries.

Belize had an excellent public health system, she said. All remote areas were reached by mobile clinics and public health clinics and nurses. Nurses at clinics collected data but often disaggregated results did not appear in reports, and the Women's Commission would start advocating for that. In the coming months, questions would be submitted for inclusion in a national census for the year 2000; some would be based in part on the Committee's concerns.

Regarding the political will and related financial support for the work of eliminating discrimination against women, she said the national women's commission -- the advocating arm of Government -- had received 100 per cent financial increase under a small subvention.

The Ministry of Health had reported that births to teenage mothers had risen from 15 to 19 per cent between 1992 and 1994, she said. But there was a difference between an unwanted pregnancy and an unwanted child. Children were very much a part of the culture in Belize; they were considered a priority despite the lack of adequate resources. More than 60 per cent of births to younger women were unplanned. Clearly, family planning and family spacing must be addressed. Information was needed for girls at an earlier age. A reproductive health committee had been established as part of a programme sponsored by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). The committee included church representatives, including from the Roman Catholic Church. Its projects would include funding for mobile clinics for under- served rural areas, and distribution of contraceptives.

HIV/AIDS prevention was complicated, since the Roman Catholic Church did not accept the use of condoms, she said. She stressed that efforts must be based on the priority of protecting women's health. The current policy had been based on the hope that young people would not become sexually active, and therefore contraceptive advice was not given. However, that was "obviously not working". The poorest people had the largest families but if given information, they would have a choice.

Teenage pregnancy, family planning and AIDS had been the target of interventions by the Belize Family Life Association, a nation-wide NGO with support from the Government, she said. Its activities included peer education programmes for in-school and out-of-school youth, and advocacy for teen mothers to return to school. The Women's Commission would be joining forces on that issue. All schools must accept young mothers' right to return to school.

Regarding abortions, she said it was hoped the rates would be reduced with increased education at the church, school and family. Presently, abortions were started in the community and then presented at hospitals as miscarriages. Recorded abortion- related admissions came to just over 1,000, but that number was probably not accurate since abortion was an illegal criminal act, although women were not prosecuted. Abortions were not treated as medical emergencies in hospitals, unless the woman was bleeding heavily. Generally, the wait for treatment was one to three days. That delay increased the risk of sepsis and also increased the cost to health service. There was evidence of some discrimination in hospitals -- patients were sometimes not treated well, nor were they counselled or given contraceptives, since they were not officially being treated for abortion.

To questions on availability and cost of pap smears, she said the Ministry of Health provided free services only to post- natal patients, and only about 50 per cent of women attended post-natal clinics. The Belize Family Life Association offered the service at reduced cost, but rural women did not have access.

MAGALI MARIN, Legal Adviser, elaborating on the family court system, said that Belize was divided into six judicial districts, the largest of which was Belize District. The family court in that district had five magistrates appointed to it. In the other districts, there was one magistrate per court who heard both criminal and civil cases. In Belize District, due to the concentration of the population, the family court sat everyday. It heard specific cases on matters such as maintenance and child custody. The family courts were also appointed to deal with cases relating to domestic violence and sexual harassment. The reason for that was because the public was not allowed inside during hearings. Only the parties involved and their legal counsel were present in the courtroom.

Turning to the issue of prostitution, she said that Belize had specific laws which made the trading in prostitution a crime, but they needed to be reviewed because the current law had a sexual bent to it. The law needed to address the fact that both men and women were involved in trading in prostitution. The laws were antiquated and colonial, and the need to consider an interventionist approach had been recognized. Also, there was no distinction in law between adult and child prostitution.

She added that prior to 1993, the British military presence in Belize was 6,000 strong. In 1993 that presence had been reduced to 200. Problems with regard to prostitution no longer revolved around the British military presence, but around the tourism industry. The laws had to be reviewed in that regard.

Experts had suggested that Belize adopt an act prohibiting sex discrimination, she said. The Belizean Constitution prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex. Therefore, the Government did not see a need to have a specific act, which repeated what the Constitution expressly stated. The present Government was reviewing existing laws to make sure that they conformed with the Constitution. Regarding a review of the laws in relation to discrimination against women, in 1991, a female attorney, under the sponsorship of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), had conducted an extensive review of Belizean laws. Discriminatory laws regarding issues such as child custody and maintenance had been highlighted. It was due to that review that the present Government was seeking to review and repeal those discriminatory laws.

GAYLA FULLER, Coordinator of the Women's Issues Network of Belize (WIN-Belize), responded to questions on employment and credit. When the minimum wage campaign was launched, it had raised the awareness of the need to establish one uniform minimum wage. The present Government had agreed to review the minimum wage regulation. WIN-Belize had recognized the importance of advocating for one minimum wage across the board.

It was true that there was a lack of adequate or affordable day care, she said. The Government, which was a major employer of women, did not have a day care system. It had promised to look into the matter and create day care in both the public and private sector. It was currently drafting a national day care policy.

She mentioned some of the various programmes designed to assure access to credit for women. Among them were a small farmers credit bank, which promised to target women and youth; a development finance corporation set up by the Government; the National Development Foundation of Belize; and the Belize Enterprise for Microtechnology. It was not due to the lack of credit but due to the lack of collateral and information that women's access to credit was limited.

ADELE CATZIM, Resource Development Coordinator and Technical Adviser, responded to questions on employment, education and the gender management system. The Women Workers Union did not exist as a union today, but its formation had important implications for labour law and policy. The Union had been formed in 1991 to address the issue of wages. Instead they ended up fighting against their company for being fired for forming the Union. They brought forward a case to the Labour Advisory Board. They won the case and the Government pressured the company to rehire them.

After a few months, the company closed their operation and moved to another country, she continued. The women in the Union were unable to sustain their efforts after the company closed. One reason they became frustrated was because although they had been rehired, there were no provisions for companies to negotiate with the Union. It was due to that case that the minimum wage campaign was launched. The Government was reviewing the minimum wage regulation. Just over a month ago, it had signed the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention providing for mandatory recognition of and negotiation with unions.

Turning to the high rate of female-headed households, she said that two specific groups tended to have those high rates -- the Creoles and the Mestizos. With the Creoles, it was the nature of their relationships -- common law and visiting -- which contributed to the high rate of female-headed households. In visiting relationships, the male partner did not live in the home. So when a census was taken, the woman was seen as the head of the household. Another reason was because many Creole men and women migrated abroad to earn a living and the children were left with grandmothers, who were then regarded as the head of the household.

The Mestizos were new Central American immigrants, she said. Among them were many widows because many of the men had died due to civil war and armed conflict. The women had migrated to Belize to seek a better way of life. They constituted a large proportion of female-headed households.

Turning to literacy and urban/rural differences, she said that a literacy survey had been conducted in 1992. However, its results were not broken down into urban and rural but by districts. The differences in those districts with regard to urban and rural areas was not known. By observation and working in rural communities it was known that literacy rates were higher in the urban areas. Gender disparity was also not taken up in the literacy survey. There was a pilot literacy campaign in three districts taking place this summer. The need to address the issue and look for resources to do literacy campaigns on a broader level had been recognized.

Statistics had shown that the immigrant population had influenced the literacy rates in Belize, she added. In the last census, which took place nine years ago, the immigrant population had substantially lower education levels than other Belizeans. Their literacy rate was also affected by the fact that most of them were not literate in English, Belize's official language. Also, they tended to settle in rural areas, which affected the literacy rates in the rural areas. In the last two years, the immigrant population had been moving from the rural areas to the urban areas in search of work, which would certainly impact literacy levels in the urban areas.

To questions on the role of the National Council for education, she said they were to develop gender-neutral policies, and helped lobby for changes in the Church-State system. It would help monitor and implement policies developed as the result of advocacy efforts.

Regarding access to education in rural areas, she said that often schools were there, but the lack of other infrastructure impeded attendance. For example, roads and electric services were often inadequate, so studying was more difficult for rural children than for those in areas with adequate lighting and other services. The Government's policy was that children aged five through 14 must go to school. Truancy was not addressed through punishment for children or parents, but rather by a causal approach, based on ensuring that appropriate services were received as needed. Tuition was free for primary school.

A gender-management system for the public service had been developed by the Commonwealth, to ensure integration of gender through government policies, she said. Belize was participating actively.

Ms. BALDERAMOS-GARCIA said the challenges were many. Young girls must make it through the school system and have access to proper jobs. Discriminatory practices related to the Church- State system must be removed. As young men were also at great risk, there was need for balancing the needs of both groups. Many of the questions posed Monday had been addressed in the updated supplemental report distributed Monday afternoon.

Experts Comments

An expert welcomed the intention to engage the different departments, councils, churches and non-governmental organizations in dialogue to improve understanding of the Convention and its implications for Belize. She was pleased that the Administration intended to meet the commitments it had made when it was an opposition party. Regarding unions, she asked about special concessions to companies in export. If such companies were being allowed to operate without collective bargaining mechanisms, the possibility for exploitation was grave.

Another expert stressed the importance of facilitating young mothers' return to school. However, those young women sometimes did not want to return to the schools they had attended in the past. Authorities should intervene, in such cases, to guarantee admission to other schools.

On abortion, she said that the mortality rate was high, yet doctors who intervened to complete the procedure were not penalized. Therefore, it should not be too much of a problem, given Belize's progressive Government, to amend the law on abortion to improve the health status of women.

Generally, women were living longer, and it was important that the extra years were not a punishment, in terms of quality of life, she stressed. The Committee needed information on the mental situation of women.

While she commended the national policy on breastfeeding, which was important in terms of nutrition and the intimate mother-child relationship, new research focused on the possible transmission of HIV through breast- feeding. Was there any programme to make pregnant and lactating women aware of the possibility of HIV transmission? she asked.

An expert said the proposed single minimum wage should be higher than the current one for women. Changing the minimum wage should be celebrated with publicity, as a signal to local and foreign companies that equal treatment was being accorded to women in the workplace. The Government should make as much as possible of the change, using media and other sources. Welcoming that unpaid work by women in the family would be recognized in the case of divorce, she urged consideration of splitting pensions between the spouses upon divorce.

It was alarming that schools were in the hands of the Catholic Church, while Belize was in dire need of a liberal sex- education policy for young people, and for condom distribution to prevent the further spread of HIV/AIDS, she continued. How would that be addressed? Belize should network with groups of liberal Catholics who had found ways and means to remain faithful, but also to address realities that required action. There were such groups in many countries, and they could help tackle the difficult task of opening the Catholic Church to the needs of girls and women.

Another expert said Belize should consider whether there was a place for family counselling prior to the Family Court. Addressing sexual harassment in the Family Court might give rise to a gap in the event of sexual harassment in the workplace, yet there were high rates of sexual harassment in export zones. On trafficking, she said that laws were rooted in eighteenth and nineteenth century law on prostitution and trafficking. The Philippines had innovative legislation on the matter which Belize should look at.

On corroboration in cases of sexual offence, she said that feminist jurisprudence indicated that the concept of a warning was that a woman was an accomplice to the act. On divorce, she said that women's contribution should be addressed through law on property settlement. Regarding a statute on discrimination, she said that normally laws covered only the State or the public sector. Did the Constitution's provisions on discrimination extend to the private sector? she asked. If not, specific legislation was needed to bring the concepts of equality and rights to that sector. Another expert said that while constitutions often provided principles, it was often difficult for the individual to gain rights in practical terms. That underscored the importance of legislation defining sex- and gender-based discrimination, as well as indirect discrimination, and clarifying whether private and public sectors were covered.

An expert said she was pleased the Government intended to review its evidence laws relating to criminal offences regarding sexual offending, and she hoped its procedures would also be reviewed. She noted that Belize no longer required corroboration for allegations of rape or sexual offending, but that judges were required to issue a strong warning not to convict in the absence of such corroboration. When such strong warnings were given, juries would not convict. By their very nature, acts of sexual offending were almost never committed in front of witnesses, and there was often no other evidence available.

The concept of corroboration suggested that a women's evidence was not to be believed, she continued. Corroboration was not required for armed robbery, why was it needed for sexual offending? Either a woman's evidence was believed or it was not. Belize should give careful consideration to that matter. Its procedures prevented women from making complaints to police from the start, and then made it less likely that there would be convictions. If a man was able to commit serious sexual offences with a small risk of complaint or conviction, that made it likely that the crimes would continue. In all countries, sexual crimes were serious impediments to the equality of women.

Delegations' Responses

Ms. CATZIM said the women workers union had been formed in an export zone. It looked as though those companies were exempted from abiding by labour legislation in Belize, but they were not exempt from national laws. Better enforcement and monitoring of labour laws was needed within the export zones.

Ms. MARIN said the Family Court had counsellors affiliated with it. Cases could not be brought before it unless they were transmitted through a counsellor.

Ms. BALDERAMOS-GARCIA said clarification was needed as to whether sexual harassment cases were tried in the Family Court.

Ms. MARIN said the removal from the statute book of the corroboration requirement had been a big step, but now efforts would be made to remove the need for a strong warning. The Constitution expressly prevented discrimination on the basis of sex. Most of the country's legislation had been inherited by "colonial masters", but new legislation was being worked on.

ROSALYN HAZELLE, Committee rapporteur for Belize, said she hoped the Ministry would receive the necessary cooperation from its partners in the country to bring about positive changes in Belizean society and to address the issues raised here.

Committee Chairperson AIDA GONZALEZ thanked the delegation for the political will to change that they had expressed, as well as for sending such a high-level delegation. It was remarkable how fully informed the delegation was of the various subjects, and that they had been able to provide specific and complete answers to the Committee's questions. She was convinced that Belize would overcome its obstacles in achieving equality between men and women in all areas of life.

In a final comment, Ms. BALDERAMOS-GARCIA said that for true human development to take place, women must be fully brought into the mainstream of development. As the only woman in Belize's Cabinet, there was much on her shoulders. However, the job was made easier by the tremendous support received from all actors, including the Government and non-governmental organizations.

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For information media. Not an official record.