Committee on the Elimination of
Discrimination against Women
498th & 499th Meetings (AM & PM)
MONITORING COMMITTEE FOR WOMEN’S ANTI-DISCRIMINATION CONVENTION
CONSIDERS REPORT OF MALDIVES
The impact of Sharia Law on the role of women in Maldives was the focus of discussion in today’s two meetings, as the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women began its consideration of the initial report of Maldives.
Maldives acceded to the Convention in 1993 with two reservations. According to the first, it would comply only with those provisions of the Convention, which were not contradictory to the Islamic Sharia. It did not consider itself bound by any provisions of the Convention which obliged it to change its Constitution and laws.
Introducing the report, Aneesa Ahmed, Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Social Security, said the Government of Maldives was implementing a wide range of measures and programmes aimed at creating greater gender equality. These measures related to health, education, access to employment and social development.
The Deputy Minister said that a National Plan of Action on the basis of the Beijing Platform for Action and a Commonwealth Plan of Action on Gender and Development had been drawn up by the Government following nationwide consultations. Also, a National Policy on Women was awaiting endorsement by the Cabinet. National laws had been reviewed with the intent to eliminating gender bias. One positive outcome of that process was the enactment of a new family law, which would come into effect in July.
All laws in Maldives were based on Islamic Sharia, she said. Personal law including family and inheritance law were governed exclusively by Sharia law, while other laws were enacted by the Parliament. Existing laws and policies did not discriminate against women in terms of access to health services, education and employment, but some sociocultural factors restricted women’s ability to utilize them.
In the discussion that followed the presentation, several experts expressed concern regarding Maldives’ reservations to the Convention. One expert asked about the correlation between Sharia Law and the country’s obligations under the Convention, while another wanted to know if the Government intended to review the provision of the Constitution preventing women from becoming head of State.
In concluding remarks, the Acting Chairperson of the Committee Zelmira Regazzoli of Argentina, said that the high literacy rate in the country was impressive, but there was concern that there were few women at the decision-making level. It was also important to overcome the existing stereotypes.
Many experts expressed gratitude to the Government of Maldives for the presentation of the report and noted its determination to implement the Convention. Questions were raised about the high divorce rate, women’s access to contraceptives and the indirect forms of discrimination within the labour market.
Maldives will provide responses to today’s questions on Tuesday,
The Committee will meet again at 10:30 a.m. Thursday, 25 January, to consider the initial country report of Uzbekistan.
Committee Work Programme
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this morning to begin consideration of the initial report of the Maldives (document CEDAW/C/MDV/1), submitted in compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The report highlights recent political, social and legal developments in the Maldives and then provides a progress report on each article of the Convention, to which Maldives acceded in 1993.
According to the report, the Republic of Maldives is a Muslim nation and the laws of the country are drawn from the Islamic Shari'ah. Accordingly, the Government will comply with the provisions of the Convention, except those which it may consider contradictory to the principles of the Islamic Shari'ah. Maldivian women have always played a dual role: a productive as well as reproductive one. Despite the rapid development of the economy, women continue to reap "mixed benefits" and not the maximum benefits achieved by their male counterparts. As of the 1995 National Census, the total number of women in the country was 119,592, comprising 48.5 per cent of the population.
Regarding the article on the definition of discrimination against women, the initial report states that the Maldives Government has objected to the wording of this article due to limitations imposed by Shari'ah law. Article 34, clause (c), of the Maldivian Constitution of 1997 postulates that the head of State of the country must be a male. With regard to policy measures taken on behalf of the Convention, the Maldives continues to work towards greater gender equality in all spheres of life. Further efforts are being made towards eliminating de jure discrimination.
In connection with sex roles and stereotyping, the report states that traditional cultural values associate women mainly with domestic work and childcare. While religion and customs encourage and support the role of the mother and wife, there is increasing social approval of women to work outside the home. As for prostitution and the exploitation of women, the report says that the Maldives is fortunate to be a country where the problem of "trafficking in women" is non-existent, according to available sources.
Regarding the role of women in political and public life, the report says that women have the right to vote in all elections and are eligible for candidature to elected bodies and all public positions except that of head of State. Although women are entitles to stand as candidates for the Citizens Majlis, the percentage of women candidates is small. Only three out of the
50 members of the Majlis are female and, of the three, only one is elected. As for international representation, there are a number women who have been taking an active part in the work of international organizations such as the United Nations, but responsibilities and duties towards the family and children limit their full participation in these fields.
The report states that the Maldives has seen major changes in the past
15 years with regard to education. Education for all children under the age of 16 is promoted and encouraged. In 1997, there was a total of 40,557 female and 41,737 male students enrolled at primary and secondary levels. There is at present no university in the country, hence, students have to go abroad for studies at that level. Adult literacy rates are very high when compared to other countries in the region. The combined literacy rate in 1997 was 98.65 per cent, whilst it was 99.10 per cent for females alone.
With regard to equal access to health care, the report says that there have been vast improvements in the overall health of Maldivians in the last two decades due to improvements in access to health and medical services. However, large disparities are observable between males and females in relation to nutritional and health status during the female reproductive years. Health centres provide free medical care for women during pregnancy and the post-natal period and free contraceptives are available to married couples.
Concerning equality in marriage and family law, the report says that, under the Shari'ah, the man is the head of the household and he has easier access to divorce as well as the right to enter into polygamous unions. Under Shari'ah law, an individual can enter marriage once maturity or puberty has been reached. The average age at first marriage for Maldivian women continues to be low at 15-16 years. The Maldives has one of the highest divorce rates in the world with 59 per cent of the total number of marriages ending in divorce. The husband has legal obligations to provide for the wife and pay maintenance for the duration of the idda period following divorce.
Introduction of Report
Introducing the initial report of the Maldives, ANEESA AHMED, Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Social Security, said there had been some positive developments since the present report had been submitted to the Committee in 1998. The Maldives consisted of 1,190 coral islands out of which
199 were inhabited. They were grouped into 20 administrative units or atolls. All laws in Maldives were based on Islamic Shari’ah. Personal law, including family and inheritance law, was governed exclusively by Shari’ah law, while other laws were enacted by the Parliament.
She said existing laws and policies did not discriminate against women in terms of access to health services, education and employment, but some socio-cultural factors restricted women’s ability to utilize them. A separate section on gender would be incorporated into the fifth National Development Plan to ensure that gender concerns were addressed in developing the plan. Discussions were also under way to mainstream gender in the sixth National Development Plan. There were no special quotas for women, and generally no affirmative action was taken to ensure gender equality.
The Minister said that a National Plan of Action, based on the Beijing Platform for Action, and a Commonwealth Plan of Action on Gender and Development had been drawn up by the Government. National laws had been reviewed to eliminating gender bias. One positive outcome of that process was the enactment of a new family law, which would come into effect in July 2001.
The new family law, she said, would provide for the conclusion of prenuptial agreements which would give women the freedom to set conditions that could restrict men’s privilege to divorce and polygamy. It was easier for men to divorce and enter into polygamous unions. Polygamy was allowed under Shari’ah law and was practiced by men, although it was not very common. Shari’ah law required women to obtain the consent of the male guardian for the marriage contract to be valid. In practice, women did have autonomy to choose a marriage partner.
Ms. Ahmed said that domestic violence was largely seen as a private matter, and outside intervention was discouraged. Women were reluctant to report cases of assault and rape. It was possible for women to report cases to the authorities, but it was difficult to prove. Programmes to raise awareness of domestic violence had been carried out. The Maldives had continued to be a country where trafficking in women was not a known problem, but measures needed to be strengthened to avoid possible trafficking and related crimes. Prostitution was illegal and there were strong religious and social sanctions against it, but its existence could not be ruled out.
Women, she said, had all electoral rights, except to contest for presidential elections. Due to the low number of women who contested for parliamentary elections, public awareness and legal literacy programmes were conducted to increase women’s political participation. Despite the positive trends, women were hardly represented in positions of leadership in the atolls or islands. This year, two women were appointed to the post of assistant island chief, the second highest ranking official on an island. One woman had also been appointed as an acting atoll chief.
Gender aggregated data was not the norm, but the need for this type of data was increasing in certain sectors, she said. Some of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that were run primarily by women were working on increasing public awareness of gender equality and had been involved in providing many social services at the grass-roots level.
Overall, the Government was implementing a wide range of measures and programmes aimed at creating greater gender equality, she said. Those measures related to health, education, access to employment and social development. A National Policy on Women had been drawn up and was awaiting endorsement by the Cabinet. Measures were also under way for establishing a Gender Management System for the purposes of mainstreaming gender.
She said further efforts were needed to substantiate the existing structures and mechanisms for the advancement of women. In particular, the Island Women’s Committee, which worked at the community level to encourage women’s participation in the development process, needed to be strengthened. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Social Security, for which she was the Deputy Minister, had been conducting advocacy and awareness programmes. More recently, it had conducted a series of successful workshops on legal literacy and political participation of women.
Comments by Experts
Expressing gratitude to the Government of the Maldives for the presentation of the report, an expert said that it was important to note its determination to implement the Convention. The Maldives had acceded to the Convention with several reservations. According to one of them, the country reserved the right not to implement one of the provisions of article 7 of the Convention, since it contradicted the national Constitution, which stated that only a man could become President of the country. Another reservation concerned family relations under the Sharia law.
Recently, the Government had indicated that the reservations would be amended, she continued. Without meaning to impinge on the sovereignty of the State, she wanted to express concern about the proposed modifications to the reservations, for they, in fact, represented new reservations to the Convention.
Several other experts expressed concern regarding Maldives’ reservations to the Convention, which -– several of them believed --should be withdrawn. A question was also asked if the Convention had been translated into local languages.
An expert asked if the Government intended to review the constitutional provision preventing women from becoming head of State. Other questions concerned the machinery for the advancement of women, including the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, the national women’s council, the island women’s committees and NGOs. The report contained some contradictions; for example, it contained strong statements about women’s equality, followed by some restrictions under the Sharia law.
An expert said that recent positive actions taken by the Government included the formulation of national policy on women. She requested details about that policy and the national plan of action in implementation of the Beijing Platform.
As an Islamic country, Maldives implemented the Sharia law in an enlightened manner, an expert said. The Family Code and the new laws on divorce and marriage were positive steps. Women should be brought into the mainstream. It was important to encourage efforts to diminish women’s economic dependency. Problems in the workplace should be taken into account, and emphasis should be placed on the role of the national machinery to enhance the women’s status.
An expert also noted that within the framework of the constitutional reform, it was important to adopt a holistic approach to the human rights, including the rights of women. The statistics in the report were not reflected in other important documents, including the human development reports, and it would be useful to have a free flow of such data. An expert also wanted to know if the Government was contemplating measures to enforce implementation of the Convention.
Other questions concerned participation of NGOs in the writing of the report and their general role in the country; specific programmes and projects for the advancement of women; the budget and staffing allocated for the promotion of women’s issues; the impact of the ongoing projects on the situation of women; and the status of the national policy and plan on women. Was that policy widely known in the country?
A speaker also said that international assistance could be very useful for advancing the gender perspective in the country and wondered if the Government had requested such help.
The population of the country was small and widely dispersed, an expert said, which made it difficult to implement centralized efforts. In that context, the achievement of the Maldives were particularly impressive. However, patriarchal stereotypes were prevalent in the country, and now was the time to take special measures towards gender equality. The country had no quota system for women in decision-making and leadership, according to the report. It might be necessary to adopt such a system in order to promote women’s participation.
There was not enough discussion in the Maldives on the nature of discrimination, a Committee member said, and some of its legal provisions were clearly discriminatory. There also seemed to be “hidden discrimination” in some laws, which looked gender-neutral. She wanted to know if human rights education was part of the curriculum in the country. Were textbooks being revised to address the problem of stereotypes?
Article 4.1 of the Convention provided for temporary special measures to promote women, an expert said. She wanted to know if such measures had been taken in the country. It was not just a question of quotas, for special measures also included programmes for women in a disadvantaged position, preferential treatment in hiring and other affirmative steps. Quotas should not negate substantive measures to increase the women’s qualification and professionalism, however.
Prejudices that kept women in secondary roles should be changed, several Committee members said. Customs in the Maldives seemed to stress the role of women as mothers and wives, which led to a high drop-out rate. Few girls sought grants to seek education at a university level. Work in that respect should start at the family level. Schools could also take steps to reinforce equality. Government action to eliminate stereotypes in the books and the media should be commended.
Another cause of concern was incidence of secondary malnutrition as a result of poverty. As men and boys were deemed to be the ones to need food most, women did not receive proper nutrition. Women also had less access to medical services. Despite modernization of many areas of production, they were virtually excluded from the economic process.
An expert requested additional information about domestic violence and asked if any assistance was being provided to victims of violence. Another speaker said that women in the Maldives had the right to report incidents of violence to the security service. She wanted to know about the structure of that service. She added that often it was extremely difficult for women to come forward and report the crime. What was being done to address that problem?
Regarding prostitution, the report said that its incidence was minimal and that the country had strong religious and social sanctions against it, an expert said. She wanted to know more about those sanctions, saying that, in some cases, sanctions could prove to be more discriminatory than the phenomena they were supposed to combat.
Questions were also asked about the policy to improve girls’ level of education and about the country’s school system. The fact that a disparity between boys’ and girls’ enrolment became evident only at the secondary school level was also pointed out, as well as the need for proper teacher training. However, the level of literacy in the country was impressive. One of the speakers said that the low number of women seeking higher education could result from the fact that marriage was allowed at a young age.
Also raised in the discussion were the issues of poverty and women’s income. More information was needed to assess the market and labour conditions in the country.
An expert said there were probably indirect forms of discrimination within the labour market. Even though women had the same right as men to choose an occupation, the report said that different types of work were considered more appropriate for men than women. Perhaps it was necessary to find ways to guarantee a woman’s legal right to equal access to employment.
Regarding health care, an expert said that she did not understand the cause of the nutritional disparities that were indicated in the report. She wondered if it might be the result of traditional taboos. She was also concerned that family planning was viewed as an issue for women only, even though it took two to plan a family. It was necessary to incorporate men into this process.
The report did not include any statistics on mental health, an expert noted. She was especially interested in mental health due to the high rate of divorce in the country. What was the reason for this? she asked. Considering that the Government prescribed top priority to strengthening family unity and also taking into account that Maldives was a Muslim country, the divorce rate was a mystery. Another expert wondered what became of the children in such cases.
The report had indicated that contraceptives required prescriptions and that they were available to married men only, an expert said. She asked why this was the case and wondered if women had any access to contraceptives. Women often suffered the most from poor reproductive health. Experts also asked for more statistics on the rate of HIV/AIDS in the country.
An expert expressed interest in the new family code, which was to be instituted later this year. The minimum age of marriage was 16, with some exceptions. She requested clarifications in that respect, for the Convention did not approve of early marriages. More information should also be provided on the prenuptual agreements, divorce and polygamy. Other aspects of the women’s family situation involved inheritance and social protection of women.
Some factors of family life could contribute to the problem of women’s poverty, another expert said. If married young, women did not have a chance to fully develop their potential. Although there were not many cases of polygamy, the existence of that phenomenon also contravened women’s equality with men. Such marriages were to be discouraged and prohibited. In view of a high percentage of divorces in the Maldives, it would be helpful to have data about the respective numbers of men and women requesting divorce. Single-mother families resulting from divorces also contributed to the problem of poverty.
A question was also asked regarding control of property in marriage. Clarifications were sought regarding the migrant population and marriages between citizens and aliens.
ACTING CHAIRPERSON of the Committee, Vice-Chairperson ZELMIRA REGAZZOLI of Argentina, said that all the questions before the delegation must be viewed as assistance in the implementation of the Convention. The high literacy rate in the country was impressive, but there was concern that there were few women at the decision-making level. It was also important to overcome the existing stereotypes. Several experts had expressed concern over the high divorce rate and the fate of women after divorce. She hoped that in the next report, more information would be provided regarding those questions.
The policies towards older people should also be further considered, she continued. Many questions also concerned the country’s reservations to the Convention. In conclusion, she expressed gratitude for the high priority that the Government of Maldives attached to the preparation of the report.
Ms. AHMED said that the delegation would respond to the experts’ questions on 30 January. She appreciated all the questions that had been posed in the interest of the women of her country and she thanked the members of the Committee for their interest.
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