Committee on the Elimination of
Discrimination against Women
506th Meeting (AM)
WOMEN’S POLITICAL PARTICIPATION, FAMILY VIOLENCE, DIVORCE AMONG ISSUES
DISCUSSED, AS COMMITTEE CONSIDERS REPORT OF MALDIVES
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women this morning heard replies of Maldives to questions on its initial report (document CEDAW/C/MDV/1), which was first considered on 24 January. At that time, the Committee’s 23 experts asked questions regarding Maldives compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. (For background information, see Press Release WOM/1255 of 24 January.)
Responding to questions, Aneesa Ahmed, Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Social Security in Maldives, said that after the Beijing Conference, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs began formulating a National Plan of Action. A Committee was formed in order to identify the critical areas from the Beijing Platform of Action that had to be implemented in Maldives. These areas included education and training of women, women and health, violence against women, women and the economy, and women in power and decision-making.
She said two articles of the Constitution bar a woman from becoming either the President of the Republic or the Vice-President. The question of removing the discriminatory clauses was widely debated upon, and a two-thirds majority of the Special Majlis, or the Constitutional Council, voted in favour of retaining the clauses. In a democracy, the majority view had to be respected. However, this did not rule out the possibility of the people considering the matter in the next round of constitutional review.
The Deputy Minister said the prevalence of violence against women in Maldives was not known, due to a lack of research in that area. What transpired between a husband and wife and within the family was considered a private matter. Violence was perceived as a shameful issue and being a victim of violence brought disrespect to the family.
There were many factors that contributed to the high divorce rate in Maldives, she said. One reason was the way in which a man could get a divorce. In the Islamic Sharia, the verbal pronouncement by the husband was adequate to terminate the marriage without having to go to court. Another reason for the high divorce rate was the lack of any social stigma on the divorced person.
She said the situation of HIV/AIDS in Maldives was pretty good, so far. The people enjoyed relative freedom from the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The first case
had been identified in 1991, and in the 10 years since, a total of 10 people had been infected with HIV/AIDS. Only one out of the 10 was a woman. As a precautionary measure to prevent the spread of the disease, expatriates who tested positive for the virus were returned to their country.
In her concluding remarks, the Chairperson of the Committee, Charlotte Abaka of Ghana, said that unless democracy was based on respect for equality, it could not be called a democracy. It did not seem right that women were prohibited from being the President of the country just because the majority of the Constitutional Council had voted to retain that provision of the Constitution. Other issues that concerned the Committee included violence against women and the use of contraceptives.
The Committee will continue its work at 3 p.m., when it is scheduled to take up responses from Kazakhstan.
ANEESA AHMED, Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Social Security in Maldives, said two articles of the Constitution bar a woman from becoming either the President of the Republic or the Vice President. The question of removing the discriminatory clauses had been widely debated and a two-thirds majority of the Special Majlis, or the Constitutional Council, voted in favour of retaining the clauses. In a democracy, the majority view had to be respected. However, this did not rule out the possibility of the people considering the matter in the next round of constitutional review.
The courts of first instance in Maldives include the Criminal Court, the Civil Court, the Family Court, the Juvenile Court, and the Island Courts, she said. All cases of appeal were referred to the High Court. However, if a person was dissatisfied with the decision of the High Court, he or she may petition to the President, who is the highest authority of administering justice, to review the case.
She said that although there was no separate Ombudsman’s Office, the functions of the Ombudsman were carried out in various ways. If a person had grievances, he or she could petition a higher authority, such as a concerned minister or the President. In cases of official malfeasance or the embezzlement of funds, people could take such cases to the Anti-Corruption Board.
The national machinery for the advancement of women at present was comprised of the Gender Equality Council, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Social Security and the Island and Ward Women’s Committees, she said. A Gender Equality Council was established in December 2000, presided over by the President. The Vice-Chairperson of the Council was the Minister of Women’s Affairs and Social Security. The Council had members from all the Government Ministries and leading non-governmental organizations (NGOs), as well as most of the educational institutions under the College for Higher Education.
For the initial report, she said information was first collected from the Island Women’s Committees and Ward Women’s Committee. This was followed by consultations with those Committees and the National Women’s Council. An independent consultant compiled the actual report. There was no direct involvement by NGOs. The phenomenon of NGOs acting as pressure groups was quite new in Maldives, and there were very few well-established ones.
Ms. AHMED said that the objectives of the National Policy on Women were to incorporate women into the mainstream of economic activities and integrate their needs and perspectives in development planning. The Policy was also used to promote mass awareness on gender issues, among people at all levels. Strategies for implementation of the Policy included strengthening the national machinery for women and undertaking massive advocacy, awareness and social mobilization programmes through mass media and women’s organizations.
A sectoral approach was used to address the problems of women in development in order to make them explicit within the framework of sector-based planning, she said. Individual sectors such as health, education and media were entrusted with the responsibility of framing programmes and projects that consider women a distinct target group. Along with the broad objectives and strategies enunciated in the main National Policy on Women, sectoral strategies were recommended for education, economy, politics and leadership, and legislation.
After the Beijing Conference on Women, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs began formulating a National Plan of Action, she said. A Committee was formed, and it identified the critical areas from the Beijing Platform of Action that had to be implemented in Maldives. These areas included education and training of women, women and health, violence against women, women and the economy, and women in power and decision-making. A seminar was then held, and officials from all Government Ministries and representatives from all sectors of civil society finalized the draft Plan of Action. It has since been submitted to the Government for endorsement.
The Deputy Minister said that there had been no temporary special measures taken to improve the position of women. There were no quotas for the cabinet, the People’s Majlis or any leadership position in the atolls or islands. The use of quotas had not been contemplated for awarding scholarships or fellowships in higher education or vocational training. Nevertheless, introducing quotas had been recommended to the Government as a strategic action to achieve a society where women and men were equal in the political, social and economic spheres.
The prevalence of violence against women in Maldives was not known due to a lack of research in that area, she said. What transpired between a husband and wife and within the family should not be made public. Women hesitated to report domestic violence. Violence was perceived as a shameful issue and being a victim of violence brought shame and disrespect to the family. As there was no alternative housing facility for the victims of domestic violence, women often had no choice but to return to living in the same house.
In response to the question on whether the mother could have her child on her passport without the father’s consent, she said with regret that this was not the case. There had been discussions with the concerned authorities on this issue, and she hoped this restriction would be lifted.
Statistics revealed that there had been a sharp decline in women’s participation in the labour force since the late 1970s, she said. No studies had been done on how this had affected women’s lives so there was no empirical evidence of increased poverty among women. On a positive note, in recent years there had been a slow but steady rise in the number of young women who sought employment in the tourism sector.
Contraceptives, she said, were freely available to registered married couples. Permanent methods such as tubal ligation and vasectomy were also available at hospitals. Condoms, oral pills, injection, and IUDs were accessible through the Island Health Posts, Health Centres, Family Planning Clinics and the Society for Health Education, an NGO. Prescriptions were not required for obtaining contraceptives unless a health worker found it necessary to refer a woman to a doctor in order to have her general health assessed prior to recommending her oral contraceptives. Once a couple was registered for family planning services, either spouse could obtain contraceptives.
All marriages in the Maldives must be conducted in accordance with the Family Law, she said. The minimum legal age for marriage was recently raised to 18 years. There was no restriction on marriage between Maldivians and migrants. Marriage to a Maldivian provides the foreign national certain benefits such as automatic resident visa and the waving of the resident permit fee.
There were many factors that contributed to the high divorce rate in Maldives, she said. One reason was the way in which a man could get a divorce. In the Islamic Sharia, the verbal pronouncement by the husband was adequate to terminate the marriage without having to go to court. Reporting to the courts was required only for the purpose of registering the divorce. Another reason for the high divorce rate was the lack of any social stigma on the divorced person. Remarriage among the same couple who were once divorced was also fairly common.
The situation of HIV/AIDS in Maldives was pretty good so far, she said. The people enjoyed relative freedom from the HIV pandemic. The first HIV case was identified in 1991 and in the 10 years since, a total of 10 people had been infected with HIV/AIDS. Only one out of the 10 was a woman. As a precautionary measure to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, expatriates who were tested positive for the virus were returned to their country.
Comments by Experts
Thanking Ms. Ahmed for her detailed and honest answers, an expert added that article 13 of the country’s Constitution did not include reference to non-discrimination on the grounds of sex. Under national law, some legal provisions were considered void if they were found to be in contradiction with the Sharia. On education, she wanted to know about the plans to improve tertiary education of women. The provisions regarding lowering the age of marriage also needed to be further clarified.
Significant efforts to achieve advancement of women had been made in the country, another expert said. However, the lack of research on the issue of violence against women had attracted her attention. As far as domestic violence was concerned, it was understandable that due to tradition, many women felt ashamed to come forward and report it, but it was not a private affair. It had to be addressed in implementation of the Convention. She hoped that more information would be provided on that issue in the next report.
Ms. AHMED said that she would not be able to respond to the questions regarding the Constitutional clauses, which had been mentioned by experts. Regarding NGOs, she said that although they had not been asked to participate in the writing of the country’s report, they would be invited in the future.
She went on to say that Maldives was making efforts to expand its tertiary education. Against strong objections from some quarters, the marriage age had been recently raised to 18 years. Under the circumstances, discretionary powers to lower that age to 16 had been given to the magistrates.
The country hoped to continue research of the problem of violence against women, she said. She agreed that violence should not be considered a private family matter -- it should become a public problem.
Chairperson of the Committee, CHARLOTTE ABAKA of Ghana, addressed the issue that women could not be President of the country, because the majority of the
population had voted to retain such a provision in the Constitution. Unless democracy were based on respect for equality, it could not be called a democracy. She hoped that the Government would further address that issue.
She went on to say that the issue of violence against women was a great concern to the Committee. The State party of the Convention was obliged to ensure security of women in both public and private spheres. She was also concerned that the issue of contraceptives was left to women alone. Both partners should be responsible for that.
In conclusion, she thanked the delegation for its responses.
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