Committee on Elimination of
Discrimination against Women
527th Meeting (AM)
PROMINENCE OF WOMEN AT SENIOR LEVEL IN PUBLIC LIFE OF GUYANA
IS LAUDED BY UN ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE
Efforts to Comply with Convention Noted; Some Concerns Expressed
In Guyana, one goal was to achieve a “critical mass” of women in all areas of decision-making, and to reorient male-dominated values and priorities, without which the advancement of women there would be jeopardized, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women was told this morning during its consideration of Guyana's compliance with the women's anti-discrimination Convention.
The Committee comprises 23 experts from around the world who, acting in their personal capacities, monitor compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Guyana had been the last of eight countries reporting to the committee at its current session. The others were Andorra, Guinea, the Netherlands, Singapore, Viet Nam, Nicaragua, and Sweden. The session is due to conclude on Friday, 20 July, with the adoption of the committee's reports.
The Minister of Labour, Human Services and Social Security of Guyana, Bibi Safora Shadick, said that women at all levels of society in that country could serve as a unifying force in bridging the ethnic and other forms of insecurity which had historically plagued it. While some significant progress had been made towards integrating women, she said, patriarchal norms, social and cultural attitudes, and the challenging economic environment had hindered its full achievement. A recent significant challenge to women’s development in Guyana had been the present climate of instability, because of the politically inspired disruptions which followed the 19 March general elections.
In the area of women’s health, she noted the national concern about the upsurge in the number of citizens affected with HIV/AIDS. Poverty and unemployment had made women particularly vulnerable, and indeed recent statistics had shown that women in Guyana –- a country with the second highest infection rate in the Caribbean region –- had represented 45 per cent of the persons reported as being infected in 2001. Efforts were under way to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS, including the allocation by the Government of additional funds to the health sector for related programmes. Her dealings with young people had revealed their indifference or reluctance to accept the need to curtail or protect their sexual activity.
Experts praised the delegation for its frank and clear report and noted that Guyana had been able to achieve a 30 per cent representation of women in Parliament. One expert said that, coming from a developing country, it had been heartening to learn that women in Guyana were doing well. The country had produced a woman President, Chief Justice and even a President of the Bar Association.
At the same time, concern was expressed about a core concern of the women's Convention, namely the lack of mandatory maternity leave. One expert said it had seemed that if a woman was dismissed for pregnancy, she was protected, but if she was dismissed because she took maternity leave, then she was not necessarily protected. It was unfortunate that a country that had achieved so much had not been able to undertake that critically important task of conforming those policies to the relevant provisions of the Convention and to the standards set by the International Labour Organization (ILO).
In response, the Minister said that the National Insurance Act had obligated every employer and employee to contribute to the relevant fund. There were penalties under the act for failure to pay. The Act had also provided for a mandatory maternity leave of six weeks before and six weeks after childbirth. In the private sector, however, employers sometimes tried to circumvent the provisions regarding maternity leave through contractual arrangements.
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women will meet again at a date and time to be announced in The Journal to conclude its session.
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this morning to consider the second periodic report of Guyana (document CEDAW/C/GUY/2), submitted in compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The report assesses Guyana's adherence, article-by-article, to the women's Convention and provides a detailed account of its difficult socio-economic situation.
The Committee, comprising 23 experts from around the world acting in their personal capacities, monitors compliance with the 168-member Convention.
Guyana is located on the northeastern coast of South America and is bordered by Venezuela, Brazil and Suriname. It has an area of 83,000 square miles and a population of 775, 100. Economically, the country's most important region is the 270-mile long and 10-40-mile wide coastal plain, which although only five per cent of the land area produces 80 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) and is home to 90 per cent of the population. The rich coastal soil, in which rice and sugar are grown, has made it the country's agricultural centre. Much of the coastal region is below high-tide sea level, however, and has to be protected against flooding by an elaborate system of dams. The entire region is criss-crossed with canals and sluices for drainage and irrigation.
The report states that despite being well endowed with natural resources –-fertile land, extensive forestry and mineral resources, plus a literate, well-educated, though small, population –- Guyana's GDP growth averaged only
0.4 per cent per year between 1966 and 1989, the lowest in the Caribbean Commonwealth. Per-capita income has grown by 179 per cent between 1992 and
1997 to $808, compared to an average of $720 between 1970 and 1980. In fact, at $290 in 1991, income had fallen below that of Haiti, and Guyana had become the poorest country in the western hemisphere.
According to the report, the immediate causes of this retrogression range from persistent imbalance of payments, occasioned by a failure to adjust the exchange parity of the domestic currency in a timely and appropriate manner, to a lack of fiscal discipline. This includes excessive domestic credit expansion in the face of falling revenues and growing expenditure, excessive government regulation and control of economic decisions, sub-optimal public sector pricing, over-ambitious public investment projects and the marginalization of the private sector. The more fundamental cause was a lack of good governance.
Continuing, the report finds that the imbalance in the economy tended to manifest itself in all areas, including the emergence and growth of the parallel or underground economy, a demoralized work force, rapid emigration of skills, lack of competitive exports, distorted prices for tradeables and non-tradeables, and other disincentives to investment. The external debt of $1.9 billion in 1992, while not very large in absolute terms, became unmanageable because it was among the highest in the world at over $3,000 per capita. Debt service, as a percentage of government revenues, reached a high of 249 per cent in 1991 and accounted for 197 per cent of exports in 1989. Arrears of external debt service had built up to more than $1 billion.
The ongoing economic recovery programme, which was launched in mid-1988, created a fundamental shift in economic policies towards a market-driven economy. Its primary objectives were to restore the basis for sustainable economic growth and a viable balance of payments position over the medium term, reintegrate the parallel economy into the official sector, and normalize relations with external creditors. To achieve these objectives, the Government began implementing a series of adjustment measures and structural reforms in the areas of incentive policies, fiscal and monetary policies, public sector reform, and sectoral policies.
The report finds that the "human picture" five years after the implementation of the Structural Adjustment Policies continues to be grim. At best, 10 per cent of the population has access to safe drinking water. While in the early 1960s, Guyana could boast of secondary educational standards second only to Barbados in the Caribbean region, it has now slipped to the lowest in the area. Functional literacy among persons under age 25 is below the national average, with the result that literacy levels over the period have fallen from 98 per cent to under 95 per cent.
Further, the report states, life expectancy in 1992 was at 64.9 -- the lowest in the Caribbean with the exception of Haiti, and the lowest on the continent with the exception of Bolivia. Guyana's mortality rate for children under 5 is 69 per 1,000, the highest in the region. Between 1984 and 1994, recorded cases of gastroenteritis doubled, typhoid fever tripled and cases of malaria increased twelve-fold, directly reflecting a general breakdown of basic services, especially of potable water delivery, adequate sanitation and waste removal. In 1990, estimates showed that of the 10 major causes of all deaths in Guyana, five were due to nutrition/diet-related diseases, while protein calorie malnutrition was the second leading cause of death among children between one and four years old.
The report says that despite significant legislative reform during the 1990's, the removal of discriminatory customs and practices toward women was "a goal yet unattained". A number of actors militate against de facto gender equality. Gender concerns in Guyana are entrenched in the socialization practices and the cultural transmission of gender-biased beliefs and attitudes from one generation to the next. The education system facilitates these practices with its minimal policy focus on gender issues as reflected in the curriculum. Students in the secondary school system follow traditional gender-based occupational patterns with female students largely pursuing subjects that will lead them into female-oriented fields.
Discriminatory practices and customs towards women and girls in Guyana society are cross-culturally engendered within the family unit and by social custom and religious practice, the report continues. Domestic division of labour is largely characterized by male dominance and is evident among all race groups. Traditionally, the Indo-Guyanese community, the largest racial group in the society, has had family structures in which male/female roles are quite distinct and male family members are held in high esteem. Religious practices still to some extent foster reverence to males in the family, particularly the male head of household. Though the practice of religion is a constitutionally guaranteed right, some of its normative elements are discriminatory towards women and serve to keep them in subordination to men. Also, in contravention with the Convention, the practice of arranged marriages in both the indigenous Amerindian and Indo-Guyanese communities continues to some extent.
The report states that in order to remove discriminatory customs and practices, measures and programmes must be aimed at the family, the education system and other social institutions and channels. This is an area that needs to be developed with programmes that target the general public. The school curricula offer little in relation to family life education. The Government of Guyana is committed to ensuring that appropriate legislative and other mechanisms are in place for the full and equal participation of women in the society. The Constitution of 1980 embodies the principle of equality and non-discriminatory practices towards women in accordance with the Convention, and exemplifies a recognition by the Government of the importance of gender equality.
Introduction of Reports
BIBI SAFORA SHADICK, Minister of Labour, Human Services and Social Security of Guyana, said that the Government and people of Guyana were delighted to have the opportunity for closer scrutiny of its second report (dated September 1999) on implementation of the Convention. Her Government was committed to ensuring that de jure and de facto mechanisms were instituted to guarantee the full and equal participation of women and men in society. While some significant progress had been made towards achieving that goal, she recognized that patriarchal norms, social and cultural attitudes, and the challenging economic environment hindered, to some extent, the full achievement of the goal of gender equality.
She went on to highlight developments in the following areas: gender equality and constitutional reform; national machinery; politics and decision-making; health; education; employment and poverty reduction strategies; and violence against women. Guyana’s first report to the Committee had outlined the wide-ranging legislative, administrative and other measures that the Government had taken to provide a climate conducive to the advancement of women. The principle of equal rights of men and women, although laudably enshrined in the Constitution, was not legally enforceable. The other legislative provisions –- the Equal Rights Act (1990) and the Prevention of Discrimination Act (1997), which would give legal effect to that principle, had been used minimally by women, due to lack of awareness of the Acts, and education in their provisions.
Fortunately, the limitation inherent in the relevant Article of the Constitution had been addressed during the constitutional reform process, which began last year. Religious organizations, civil society and all political parties had been represented on the constitutional reform committee, which concluded its work in February. It was agreed that there should be an enforceable fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution providing for non-discrimination on the basis of sex, gender, marital status and pregnancy. In addition, seven human rights conventions were to become part of the constitutional provisions that would be applicable both to the public and private sectors. Those provisions would be operational through the establishment of several constitutional commissions, which would monitor implementation of those human rights conventions, thereby protecting the inalienable rights of all citizens.
A Bill passed on 31 May had established a broad and inclusionary Women and Gender Equality Commission, which was responsible for ensuring that women and girls were not discriminated against in any sector of society, she noted. The Commission would also monitor compliance with the Convention. Special attention would be paid to the rights of Amerindian women, through the establishment of an Indigenous Peoples Commission and to children by the Rights of the Child Commission. A Women’s Affair Bureau, set up in 1981, had been responsible for coordinating national efforts to remove discrimination against women and ensuring their full participation in the political, social, economic and cultural life of the country. During the past 20 years, it had recommended policy changes, and legislative and administrative measures to guarantee women equal opportunities in the fields of education, training and employment.
Continuing, she said that the Bureau had also implemented a diverse range of programmes and projects, such as consciousness-raising and gender-sensitive programmes, and had organized small business management training programmes to equip women with skills for self-employment. It had also managed a revolving loan fund to finance micro projects for women. It had been recognized, however, that the Bureau’s multidimensional functions were limiting its capacity to deal effectively with policy initiatives and gender mainstreaming in different sectors of economic and social life. Thus, the process of streamlining its work had begun. That goal was partially achieved by 1997, through the establishment of two programmes funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Guyana Women’s Leadership Institute, and the National Resource and Documentation Centre. The Bureau would soon be institutionally strengthened in terms of organizational structure, staffing and finance.
She said that the Guyana National Plan of Action for Women, 2000-2004, constituted a comprehensive approach to addressing factors affecting women in the key sectors of health, education and agriculture, as well as other critical areas affecting women, such as unemployment, violence against them, and leadership. The plan also outlined strategies for practical action at a micro level, such as skills training to support women’s economic empowerment. It also highlighted initiatives for action at a macro policy level, to ensure that developmental policies and strategies were designed to guarantee gender equality. The plan also recognized that women’s access to power and decision-making at all levels of public life was essential for ensuring that women benefited equally with men from the allocation of resources and programmes at every level.
In terms of politics and decision-making, she said, the constitutional reform process had provided a mechanism for the sustainable increase of women’s representation in Parliament. She was pleased to record a significant increase in women’s representation in Parliament. There were currently 20 women among
65 parliamentarians -- a 15 per cent increase from 1997. One of those women served as Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly. Also, the number of women holding ministerial office had increased from 14 per cent to 21 per cent. For the first time in the history of Guyana, a woman of Amerindian background held a ministerial office. Increased measures would be taken to ensure that women benefited substantially and qualitatively from their increased representation in Parliament. Another important dimension of women’s participation in politics and decision-making was local participation. In that area, women’s representation in the local Councils had grown from 21 per cent in 1997 to 30 per cent in 2001.
Also for the first time, she continued, the position of Chancellor of the Judiciary was held by a woman, Desirée Bernard, who was also a former Chairperson of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Without the greater inclusion of women in politics and decision-making, other areas of advancement for women would be jeopardized. The goal was to provide a critical mass of women in all areas of decision-making at national and local levels, so that they could influence changes in male-dominated values and priorities, which had prevented women from benefiting as full partners with men in the development process.
In the area of women’s health, there was national concern about the increasing number of citizens affected with HIV/AIDS, she said. Women had become a vulnerable group due to poverty and unemployment. Recent statistics had shown that Guyana had the second highest infection rate in the Caribbean, where women so far represented 45 per cent of the persons reported as being infected with the HIV/AIDS virus in 2001. Several efforts were under way to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS. The Women’s Affairs Bureau would be mobilizing women through non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the wider civil society towards implementation of a multifaceted programme to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. The Government had allocated additional financial resources to the health sector for related programmes and was also actively involved in regional and international initiatives to prevent the spread of AIDS. In addition, several youth and specialized non-governmental organizations were involved in a programme using the strategies of advocacy and education in several regions of the country.
She highlighted several significant achievements in the area of women’s and children’s health, including a reduction of female mortality from 81 per cent per 10,000 people in 1997 to 50.9 per 10,000 in 1999. There was also a reduction in child mortality from 16 per 10,000 per people in 1997 to 14.1 per cent per
10,000 in 1999. The Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act had legalized abortions conducted by registered doctors and in approved hospitals. Abortions had been legalized under different circumstances, which had included pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, where a woman was HIV positive, where the pregnancy posed a risk to a women’s health, or where there was a risk of a child being born with physical or mental abnormalities. Under the Act, it should take place not more than eight weeks until the pregnancy, and its termination should be a non-surgical procedure, administered or supervised by a medical practitioner. There was also a requirement for mandatory pre- and post-abortion counselling by government and NGO members.
Special education programmes had been promoted, with the support of government agencies, she said. On 20 June, 159 women had graduated from the first cycle of a training programme in non-traditional skills, such as carpentry, masonry, electrical installation, plumbing and joinery, and many of those had already secured jobs with private construction companies. In the field of employment, the Equal Rights Act and the Prevention of Discrimination Act had been the major legal instruments for the protection of women against employment discrimination.
Measures to reduce unemployment among women were being implemented through education and training programmes. In addition, a four-year National Action Plan for Women’s Development would be implemented. Its programmes would focus on leadership training for involvement in politics and decision-making, as well as education and training.
The absence of a national policy for maternity leave in the governmental and private sectors had infringed on women’s rights in employment, she went on. The National Insurance Scheme, a governmental institution, had provided for women to be paid for maternity leave for a period of three months. Governmental agencies had facilitated that leave process, but there were no legal or administrative provisions guaranteeing similar maternity benefits for women employed in the private sector. As a result, many women were dismissed consequent to pregnancy and maternity leave, even though that was done covertly. The Ministry with responsibility for women’s affairs would treat the need for a national policy for maternity leave as an area of priority action. That process would require a wide range of consultations with the private sector, individually and collectively.
She said that Guyana had been facing a high debt burden. Although significant progress had been made in debt forgiveness, the country’s economy had been negatively influenced by that responsibility. In that context, women had been more severely affected by poverty than men, in both rural and urban areas. The National Development Strategy of 1999 was the major framework in which poverty reduction strategies were articulated. The Government had continued to take steps at poverty reduction, through programmes implemented at the community level.
Another strategy of the Government, the Interim Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper, would pave the way for further debt relief to be provided by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Consultations were presently under way to finalize that paper. Women would be involved at all stages of the local, regional and national consultations.
Guyana was facing a major challenge with respect to the incidence of violence against women and children, she said. Like many other countries, Guyana had had to address, and in some cases to counter, cultural beliefs and practices in that regard. While some in society viewed that form of violence as a private matter, several efforts were being made to move that critical issue into the public domain. The lead for such action had already been taken by civil society, and the Domestic Violence Act of 1996 had laid the basis for action by Government agencies and institutions. Counselling services and legal aid had been provided, and additional non-governmental organizations (NGOs) had been established. Also, members of the police force and social work agencies had been trained in that regard.
She concluded that one of the greatest challenges to women’s development in Guyana had been the present climate of instability, owing to the politically inspired disruptions following the 19 March general elections. Women at all levels of society could serve as a unifying force in bridging the ethnic and other forms of insecurity, which had historically plagued the country. Against that background, the National Plan of Action for Women’s Development was a broad-based initiative for unifying women to work across religious, social, cultural and political differences, in order that women and men might be fully integrated into the economic and social development of the country. That should also promote the development of analytical systems, which would ensure that all data was disaggregated by sex and geographical location. As a developing country, Guyana had made significant strides in the field of legislative and administrative measures to remove gender inequality, and in the spheres of education, employment and health.
Comments by Experts
Several speakers in the ensuing discussion expressed their gratitude to the Minister and her team for their frank and clear presentation of the report and welcomed the Government’s response to the questions posed by the Committee’s pre-session working group. Commending the Government for its implementation of legal reforms and efforts to improve the situation of women in the country, they noted that Latin America and the Caribbean was the only region that had universally ratified the Convention, and that Guyana was currently holding the Chair of the Inter-American Commission on the Status of Women. Other countries should follow Guyana’s example in accurate and timely presentation of the reports, it was said.
Numerous legislative measures, including the Equal Rights Act, reinforced the country’s Constitution, an expert said. However, not many women took advantage of those provisions, because they were not familiar with the laws. For that reason, it was important to build the women’s awareness of their rights and the recourse they had for their protection.
Several experts remarked on the difficulties in the implementation of the legislation. In that connection, questions were asked about the interaction between the bodies established by the Government to promote gender equality. How were their activities coordinated? How could the women bring their concerns before the inter-ministerial commission on gender equity and the national commission on women? Were those bodies part of the same entity? Would their activities complement each other? What was the role of the Guyana Association of Women Lawyers? What budget was allocated for the functioning of the women’s issues machinery?
Concern was also expressed about teenage mothers. It was unfair that young fathers were allowed to remain in school, but the mothers were not. What was being done to provide for their education?
As clearly pointed out in the report, an expert observed, debt payments made it difficult for the country to overcome poverty and achieve its development goals. Poverty was an important problem in Guyana, and up to 29 per cent of female heads of household lived in abject poverty, many of them in rural areas. She wanted to know how their needs were addressed in Guyana. Additional information was also required about the situation of the Amerindian women and ethnic relations in the country.
Regarding abortions, which had been legalized under certain circumstances, it was said that they were allowed only until 8 weeks. An expert wanted to know what happened if an abnormality of the fetus was detected later in pregnancy. Also, had research been conducted regarding the spread of HIV/AIDS in the country?
Regarding the questions on the links between the constitutional commission and other agencies, Ms. SHADICK said that a recent constitutional amendment provided for the establishment of the commission on gender matters, but it had not been put in place yet. Members were to be appointed by the National Assembly upon consultations within the country. Two members had already been specifically named: the Administrator of the Women’s Affairs Bureau and a representative of the trade unions. The new body would be responsible to the Human Rights Commission. The role of the existing women’s agencies would be decided when the new body came into force. The commission would be financed by the Government.
On the implementation of the discrimination and equal rights acts, she said that with the consolidation of labour, human services and social security issues within a single ministry, it had become easier to carry out the work in that respect. The National Commission on Women and the Women’s Affairs Bureau collaborated in the implementation of relevant legislation, and the Association of Women Lawyers provided assistance in the training of personnel. The budgetary allocations for Women’s Affairs Bureau represented 0.0065 per cent of the national budget. That could not be adequate, but it was satisfactory in comparison with other agencies. Women’s agencies were not discriminated against, as far as budgeting was concerned.
Regular training of police officers regarding violence against women was being carried out in the country, she said. However, having become a Minister for women’s affairs, she had discovered violations in documenting cases of domestic violence that were reported to the police. Measures were being taken to address that problem. Seminars on domestic violence were also being arranged by the Government and NGOs in various regions of the country for Government officials and social workers, who could bring cases before the courts. Specific penalties were provided for violations of protection and restraining orders granted by the country. Charges could also be made under the criminal code for such offences as assault and rape. Establishment of a family court was also being discussed.
Regarding teen-age mothers, she said that it was not true that they were not allowed to return to school after having babies. In fact, they were encouraged to continue their education.
Turning to the question on female poverty, she said programmes were in place to address those issues, particularly in the rural areas. As a first step, the Ministry of Labour, Human Services and Social Security had created a fund for the people in difficult circumstances. It was part of a larger governmental fund for poverty reduction. Legal aid was being provided to the poor people in some parts of the country, and that programme would be expanded in the near future. Women who were particularly vulnerable were provided with small grants to sustain their families and get a certain degree of dignity and independence. She knew that what was being done was not enough, but she hoped that with the initiatives relating to the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC), Guyana would be able to do more.
Regarding Amerindian women, she said much was being done for their communities. There were women representatives on the Amerindian community councils. Health facilities had been set up, and schools were functioning throughout the areas where Amerindians lived. Water supplies were being provided to some of the communities.
In statistical terms, the heads of households in Guyana were not ethnically grouped, she said. With the computerization of the statistical data, it would be possible to receive more accurate information, disaggregated by gender.
Continuing, she said that Amerindians were not the least educated group in Guyana. In fact, secondary education had been provided in areas populated by that ethnic group, and several other measures were being taken improve their lives.
She referred to the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, that had provided for termination at up to eight weeks. She said it had not addressed the question of what happened if an abnormality of the fetus was discovered after eight weeks. In such a case, a surgical procedure might be needed, but it was true that that had not been provided for under the Act.
To date, she said, no research had been done on the cause of HIV/AIDS in Guyana, but she had information that the upsurge had occurred. From her dealings with young people, she had seen a marked indifference or reluctance to accept the need to curtail or protect their sexual activity. A common response of a young person had been that HIV/AIDS had not applied to him or her. Strategies were being evolved to change those attitudes, through advocacy and education, since it was people between the ages of 18 and 30 who were most vulnerable and had been most infected by HIV/AIDS.
Comments by Experts
One expert said, that clearly, women in Guyana had achieved wonderful positions of power, but that had coincided with hard figures of poverty and sex-based stereotypes, which had posed a kind of schizophrenic situation. The low figures of women’s labour force participation, at 26 per cent, was worrisome. What legal measures could be taken improve their participation? she asked.
In terms of the legal enforcement of women’s right to equality, in the labour force and as a whole, it had seemed that enforcement of the Legal Rights Act and Discrimination Act had rested largely on criminal prosecution to be brought by the Chief of the Labour Ministry. That had certain disadvantages in terms of empowering women and non-governmental organizations to seek remedies. Also, when the concentration was on criminal, and not civil, remedies, the burden of proof was heavier. In that context, she called for bureaucratic intervention.
On the question of maternity leave, she said its provision was not mandatory on employers. It had seemed that if a woman was dismissed for pregnancy, she was protected, but if she was dismissed because she took maternity leave, then she was not necessarily protected. Was that true? If so, what measures were being taken to give women an absolute entitlement to some maternity leave, preferably for one month or more? For women who took maternity leave, what was being done to ensure that such leave was paid from the National Insurance Scheme?
She asked for specific data on violence against women, and whether the training of police officers would be extended to more officers.
Noting that there would be some consultations in the Women’s Bureau in connection with women’s maternity benefits, especially in the private sector, another expert commented that women should not go into those talks empty handed. Was there any chance of instituting a law or administrative provision to ensure that maternity benefits became compulsory, especially in the private sector? she asked.
The question of maternity leave was at the core of the Convention, another said. Indeed, it was unfortunate that having achieved so much, the country had not been able to conform to the relevant policies with the provisions of the Convention. On that issue, it was critically important for the Government to refer to the standards of the International Labour Organization and other human rights standards, especially as elaborated in the Convention.
She added that the presence of women in politics meant that the country must be able to improve those areas in which harmonization with the Convention had not yet been achieved.
Concerning the national machinery, she said that although it was in place, it had been the experience of many countries that an independent commission had a strong role to play in realizing women’s human rights. She urged the Minister to look at the comparative experience of India in setting up its human rights commission and its women's commission. Those had been independent, and with the representation of non-governmental organizations, had facilitated that critical partnership.
Also, there was an urgent need to review and reform the laws on prostitution, which criminalized the prostitute and had not penalized the solicitor.
Another expert praised the delegation for its frank and clear report. Real efforts had been made to achieve universal literacy, but the country was lagging behind with respect to the percentage of individuals able to read. That was of great concern.
Guyana had been able to achieve a 30 per cent representation of women in Parliament and was working with local governments to ensure their greater representation in that area. Were other measures being considered to ensure that their representation was sustained? she asked.
Another expert congratulated the country and the women of Guyana. She said that, coming from a developing country, she had been heartened to see a fellow country that was not only doing well but exceedingly well. It had produced a woman President, Chief Justice and even President of the Bar. For the women of Guyana, nothing had seemed impossible -- “more grease to your elbows”, she said. Hopefully, the next report would show that Guyana had been the first developing country to achieve 100 per cent education for rural women.
Responding to the Committee members’ comments and questions, Ms. SHADICK said that although there was no legislation making it mandatory to employ a certain number of women in any sphere of work, there was no bar that prevented women from applying for positions and acquiring jobs. In the teaching profession, there were over 80 per cent females graduating from the teaching colleges.
Many women became lawyers. The Equal Rights Act did not focus exclusively on labour, but the Prevention of Discrimination Act did. The country’s civilian courts had a severe backlog of cases, and for that reason, women were reluctant to take civil action in cases of work discrimination. In those cases that did go to court, however, large amounts had been awarded in damages, and in some cases, women had been reinstated in their jobs.
On maternity leave, she said the National Insurance Act provided for the obligation of every employer and every employee to contribute to the relevant fund. There were penalties under the act for failure to pay. The act also provided for a mandatory maternity leave of 6 weeks before and 6 weeks after childbirth. In the private sector, however, employers sometimes tried to circumvent the provisions regarding maternity leave through contractual arrangements. Women could file complaints about the terms of their contracts inconsistent with the law, but they needed to be educated about their rights to do
that. Whenever complaints were received, the provisions of the Prevention of Discrimination Act could also be applied.
Concerning the representation of women in parliament and other Government bodies, she said that women’s representation reached up to 30 per cent. Many women, including herself, held important Government positions. Efforts were being made to increase women’s representation to 50 per cent.
She then presented statistical data regarding the cases of rape and sexual assaults tried in Guyana’s courts and said that severe penalties were applied for that crime. She also introduced statistics regarding domestic violence and personal injury cases. Part of the curriculum of the police training involved recognition of violence against women and work with the victims. At least one policeman at every station had to be trained in those matters.
More efforts were needed to recognize indirect discrimination against women, she said, for the Prevention of Discrimination Act did not address that problem. Her delegation took the experts’ recommendations in that regard seriously. The Government of Guyana had never excluded NGO and civil society participation, and when the Commission on Gender Issues was set up, the issue of non-governmental participation would be discussed.
Prostitution was punishable under the laws of her country, she said. The legal acts in that respect seemed to be outdated and needed to be reviewed.
Illiteracy was still a factor, she continued, despite the fact that education was available throughout the country. Remedial reading and adult education courses were being elaborated to address that problem.
The responsible parenthood association provided advice on contraception and distributed contraceptives, she said. However, there was a marked reluctance on behalf of the young people to take the need for contraception seriously. It was important to take action in that respect.
The budget for 2002 would be prepared later this year, she said, and she would make sure that the agencies and bodies involved with women’s affairs received proper funding.
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