WOMEN"S ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE CONCLUDES CONSIDERATION OF THIRD REPORT OF BELARUS

28 January 2000
WOM/1170

WOMEN"S ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE CONCLUDES CONSIDERATION OF THIRD REPORT OF BELARUS

28 January 2000


Press Release
WOM/1170


WOMEN’S ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE CONCLUDES CONSIDERATION OF THIRD REPORT OF BELARUS

20000128

Expert members of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women expressed concern this afternoon at the rapid increase in crime committed by women in Belarus, and their high rate of unemployment, as it concluded its consideration of that country’s third periodic report.

One expert cited a report stating that Belarus had one of the highest proportions of criminals in the world, with the female crime rate increasing faster than that of men. Many of those women had committed crimes as a result of long-standing domestic violence and sexual abuse. All extenuating circumstances should be considered when sentencing defendants, regardless of their gender.

Regarding employment, another expert said the women of Belarus had become the chief victims of its market liberalization. The fact that highly-educated women were being laid-off was not only a violation of their rights, but could also deter women from seeking higher education. Another expert said there should be special provisions to protect women in employment. While unemployed women were being retrained, graduates of professional training schools had great difficulty finding jobs. That would lead to a growing number of unemployed women.

Responding to the experts’ concern, Olga Sergeeva, Deputy Minister of Justice of Belarus, said the country’s new Criminal Code was based on the previous one. It raised the possibility of leniency for women in terms of criminal responsibility, taking into account the real nature of the crime. Belarus was trying to humanize sentences, particularly those imposed on women.

Irina Chutkova, a member of the Belarus delegation, added that out of 65,000 newly-created jobs, women had taken half.

Among other concerns raised in the dialogue between the experts and the Government delegation were unsatisfactory health services and the campaign to heighten awareness about violence against women.

The Committee will meet again at 10 a.m. Monday, 31 January, to hear responses from the delegation of India to questions raised about its initial report.

Women’s Anti-Discrimination Committee 2 - Press Release WOM/1170 461st Meeting (PM) 28 January 2000

Committee Work Programme

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this afternoon to continue its consideration of the third periodic report of Belarus, submitted under article 18 of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women. (For background information see Press Release WOM/1169 issued today.)

Questions and Comments by Experts

An expert requested more details of the constitutional and legal framework that governed women’s rights in Belarus. From the report, she had noted the intention of the Government to amend the Constitution to address the issue and she needed to know the specific language to be used in those amendments. She felt that, currently, it referred only to the prohibition of direct discrimination against women and not against that discrimination’s inferred impact. For example, it appeared that women were being arbitrarily removed from the workplace for very dire reasons. How many would have preferred to retain those jobs? she asked.

She noted that the State had begun to analyse violence against women as a very serious problem, as well as raise awareness about it. It was essential to revise laws to enable women to seek protection and remedies if they were violated. Consequently, she wished to know much more about the judicial and legal process and law enforcement in Belarus. Was legal aid available to women? she asked.

Noting that poverty was one of the greatest problems in Belarus, another expert inquired about the Government’s policy to combat accompanying economic difficulties. Was Belarus still a market economy or would the public sector eventually overcome privatization? she asked. What was the inflation rate in the country and how did it affect salaries and pensions? What was the role of trade unions in collective bargaining in defending women’s rights and in filling the gap between inflation and the cutback in their salaries? What strategies were in place to deal with growing unemployment rates?

She said that the Government of Belarus must consider the economic problem when dealing with the issue of prostitution, as women left that country in search of better economic opportunities and ended up working as prostitutes in other places. She also expressed concern about lax efforts by the Government to compromise with civil society in encouraging greater participation of women’s groups and among the women themselves in discussing means for guaranteeing their rights.

Another expert said the country's women had become the chief victims of its market liberalization. Laying off highly-educated women was not only a violation of their rights, but could also be a deterrent against seeking higher education. What percentage of women were in managerial jobs? she asked. Why should women with adequate education be doing low-paying jobs?

Response by Government

IRINA CHUTKOVA, a member of the Belarus delegation, said out of 65,000 jobs, half of them were taken by women. Neither the Government nor the society could close their eyes to that.

She said there was a programme in place to help unemployed women to set themselves up in business. That programme involved single women, single mothers and divorced women and recognized them as disabled members of the work force. About 700 people were receiving various subsidies, not only in cash, but also in the form of credit to help them set up business. As for changes in the annual programme, retraining was given when employers were looking for workers in certain fields, so that hiring could be done as soon as possible.

She said that in the fields of health, education and agriculture, wage levels were significantly lower than areas where men were working. Attempts had been made by unions to defend the interests of women, and general reform was being considered.

Ms. SERGEEVA noted that the development of businesses, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises, was important to a market economy. It fostered the creation of new workplaces and a middle class, which contributed to the national stability necessary for the social and economic development of the State. Apart from the State body, there were unions of people, including highly qualified female workers, involved in enterprise.

She stated that a State council, under the auspices of the President of Belarus and chaired by a woman, had been established to oversee the development of enterprises. As one of its main strategies, it provided credits for developing and supporting enterprises. The Republic also had a relatively full range of legislation to cover national enterprises. Small businesses represented only 30 per cent of industrial production, unlike the average of 50 per cent in most developed countries. Therefore, the Government was very determined to increase its efforts in that area.

With regard to its privatization policy, she said that presently, the Republic was in transition to a market economy. That action had been motivated by the inadequacy of the past system and the intensive labour force that was required in the industrial processes.

Questions and Comments by Experts

One expert expressed concern about the criminal laws of Belarus for punishing perpetrators of violence against women. She had heard a report that Belarus had one of the highest proportions of criminals in the world, with the female crime rate increasing at a faster rate than that of men. Many of those women had committed crimes as a result of long-lasting domestic violence and sexual abuse. She thought that all extenuating circumstances should be considered when sentencing defendants, regardless of the gender of the culprit.

Another expert noted that Belarus had an important human rights education programme and intended to sign the Optional Protocol. At a time when the State was in transition towards pluralism and might not be able to perform all its functions, there was a danger of raising expectations too high. Since there was no integrated policy to deal with the problems of discrimination, what was the Government doing to integrate the Convention and the Beijing Platform into its policies?

She said it was not clear what process had been put in place to enforce women’s rights and to ensure compliance. While there was a safety net of supports to take care of women who lost their jobs, women still had their contracts cancelled. The fact that there were some safety nets did not remove the responsibility of the employer.

The law on rape emphasized the fact of sexual intercourse against the victim’s will, she said. That law could work against women, because its focus was on violence, instead of on the lack of consent. In cases of gang rape and rape of a minor the phrase “committed knowingly” suggested that if the man did not know that the victim was under a certain age, he was not liable. What did that law mean? she asked.

Referring to the report’s mention of equality of opportunity, another expert said that, in reality, when contracts were cancelled the major burden was borne by women. There should be special provisions to protect women in employment. While unemployed women were being retrained, graduates of professional training schools had great difficulty finding jobs. That would lead to a growing number of unemployed women. Did Belarus intend to legislate truly for the protection of women? Was there a specific target for employment?

On the issue of health care for the women of Belarus, an expert wondered whether that sector was also being privatized. Also, the delegation had mentioned programmes and projects to combat the growing number of destabilized marriages. What was the actual cause of the disintegration of the family? The Government might only be treating the symptoms, without knowing the real cause of the problem.

Noting that women’s health had deteriorated because of the economic situation and that the Government had been reviewing its health policy, she stated that what she understood was that all of those measures had been geared towards pregnant women. They should broaden that policy and not restrict it only to those women. She had also received reports that the cost of contraceptives inhibited their use and that over 40 per cent of pregnancies were aborted. The country’s abortion laws were liberal, but the practice was dangerous to health. If women were compelled to use abortion as a method of contraception, there would be a backlash. Abortion as a method of contraception was against the tenets of the Convention.

The expert also addressed the issue of the large number of caesarean births that occurred in Belarus and the fact that the Government offered an award to any woman who had more than five children. Was counselling available to warn those women of the dangers of that procedure? she asked.

Many women were engaged in the garment industry, she observed. That industry used a lot of chemicals that could be hazardous to pregnant women in particular. What was the Government’s policy on occupational health? On the issue of the high number of female prisoners, she wondered if those women had undergone psychiatric examination. Were they being continuously counselled?

Government Response

Ms. SERGEEVA said that apparently the impression had been given that the Criminal Code might be biased. However, there was no limitation guarding gender. The new Code was based on the old one. One of the new issues in the Code related to the possibilities of giving leniency to women in terms of criminal responsibility, taking into account the real nature of the crime. A new wave of crime was rising -– trafficking of women and sexual exploitation through deception. Belarus was trying to humanize its sentences, particularly those imposed on women. For example, a woman who was pregnant could not be condemned to death and would have her sentence deferred, as would one who had a child under 3 years of age.

Turning to the issue of the privatization of the health system, she explained that the country had adopted legislation for protecting certain State- owned institutions from being privatized. Health institutions had not been included, but they were also not among the priority firms listed for privatization.

Ms. CHUTKOVA, referring to privatization of the health sector, said that only 2 per cent of health services were paid. While the majority of health services were free, the health sector was inadequately financed. Regarding women in difficult working conditions, she said 1,500 women had been released from that kind of work, but were guaranteed other employment. If such alternative work was not available, they underwent retraining.

She said that when an enterprise was liquidated, those who lost their jobs were paid three months wages, or in some cases six months wages. If there was a large scale lay-off, the employer must inform the employment agency, so that a procedure could be established to avoid a sudden large increase of unemployed people on the labour market.

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For information media. Not an official record.