COMMITTEE ON ELIMINATION OF DISCRIMINATION AGAINST WOMEN CONSIDERS INITIAL REPORT OF FIJI
COMMITTEE ON ELIMINATION OF DISCRIMINATION AGAINST WOMEN CONSIDERS INITIAL REPORT OF FIJI
Committee on Elimination of
Discrimination against Women
530th and 531st Meetings (AM and PM)
COMMITTEE ON ELIMINATION OF DISCRIMINATION AGAINST WOMEN
CONSIDERS INITIAL REPORT OF FIJI
Participants Express Concern at Discriminatory Elements
In Family Law, Domestic Violence, Pauperization of Fijian Women
Members of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women today commended Fiji for being the first country from the Pacific Region to present a report to the Committee, expressing hope that it would serve as an example for other countries in that area.
In two meetings, held this morning and this afternoon, the Committee considered Fiji’s initial report, which has been submitted in compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The Committee’s 23 experts from around the world (acting in their personal capacities) monitor compliance with the Convention. Operational since 1981, it requires States parties to eliminate discrimination against women in the enjoyment of all civil, political, economic and cultural rights and sets an agenda for national action to end such discrimination.
Calling today’s meeting a “historic moment”, Committee Chairperson Charlotte Abaka (Ghana) expressed hope that other countries of the Pacific region would benefit from Fiji’s experience, which might give them an incentive to follow suit. She also commended the Government of Fiji for ratifying the Convention and withdrawing its initial reservations to that instrument.
[Fiji acceded to the Convention in 1995, with two reservations. The reservation to article 5(a) on measures to change sex roles and stereotypes was initially put forward on the grounds that “it impinges on our cultural values and social norms of behaviour that are the mainstay of traditional societies like Fiji”. Article 9 deals with nationality and citizenship, and the reservation in this respect was expressed on the grounds that it was inconsistent with the provisions of Fiji’s Constitution, which contained different provisions for men and women who marry aliens. The reservation to article 9 was removed in 1999, and the reservation to article 5 (a) was removed in 2000.]
Introducing the report, Assistant Minister of Fiji’s Ministry for Women, Social Welfare and Poverty Alleviation, Losena Salabula, described the difficulties the country faced in implementing the Convention, which included its isolation from the rest of the world; political instability; sluggish economy; job
losses; emigration and an increase in poverty and crime. A May 2000 coup d’état
attempt had especially affected women in several areas of employment. Following general elections last August, however, constitutional democracy and political stability had been restored in the country.
Progress had been made in a number of areas, she said. In particular, the country had undertaken a review of domestic legislation, and girls’ access to education had greatly improved. The Government was trying to achieve equal access to health care and education for rural women. The Ministry of Women continued to function as a policy- and service-delivery arm for the Government’s targets for women. Gender mainstreaming approaches were being pursued, especially in the implementation of the Plan of Action for women. The Government supported programmes and training workshops on the issue of violence against women, and provided financial support to civil society organizations that assisted victims of violence.
Responding to the oral presentation, several experts commended the Government of Fiji for its transparent relations with civil society and stressed the importance of creating an enabling environment for the work of non-governmental organizations. Speakers also asked whether the Convention was a “living legal reality” in relation to Fiji’s domestic law. Was there a time frame for the adoption of legal reform in compliance with the Convention?
It was pointed out that in order to see decisions implemented, it was important to seek the highest level of participation in the national gender machinery. In that connection, speakers asked about the functioning of various bodies for the advancement of women and gender mainstreaming in the Government’s policies. The Government was urged to place the issue of violence against women high on its agenda. Also of interest to the speakers were the means of enforcing the laws already in place in order to avoid de facto discrimination against women.
Members of the Committee stressed that the question of employment was central to solving many women’s issues in Fiji. Legislation on equal employment was needed, which should guarantee equal opportunities for employment, retirement and promotion. Speakers also agreed that the Government’s broad gender policies needed to be harmonized with the family law, which, in many instances, was inconsistent with the Convention.
As the experts turned their attention to traditional patriarchal attitudes towards women, questions were also posed about such practices as “bulu-bulu”, which imposed only a custodial sentence on convicted rapists. The victim’s father had a right to accept an apology from such an offender, and the victim herself had no say in that situation. Noting “a certain discrepancy between goals and accomplishments” in the country, an expert said that it was important to reflect on the causes of such distortions, which included tribal traditions.
At the conclusion of the meeting, the Committee adopted the report of its Pre-session Working Group, which was introduced by that body’s Chairperson, Zelmira Rigazzoli.
The Committee will continue its work at 10 a.m. tomorrow, 17 January, when it is scheduled to take up the reports of Iceland.
This morning, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women was expected to begin its consideration of the initial report of Fiji, submitted in compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
The initial report of Fiji (document CEDAW/C/FJI/1), dated 14 March 2000, notes that when Fiji acceded to the Convention in 1995, it expressed reservations on two articles of the Convention, namely articles 5(a) and 9. The reservations were removed, however, in 1999, following the promulgation of Fiji's 1997 Constitution.
[The reservation to article 5(a) on measures to change sex roles and stereotypes was initially put forward on the grounds that “it impinges on our cultural values and social norms of behaviour that are the mainstay of traditional societies like Fiji”. Article 9 deals with nationality and citizenship, and the reservation in this respect was expressed on the grounds that it was inconsistent with the provisions of Fiji’s Constitution, which contained different provisions for men and women who marry aliens.]
A section of the Government has existed since 1960 to oversee women's interests, the report says. In 1998 the Ministry of Women and Culture was created. The Ministry is responsible for assessing the impact of Government policies on the social, economic and political situation of women. The Ministry also monitors the integration of women in national development. As the Ministry is strengthened, it will play a significant advocacy role for the advancement of women. A number of women's civil society organizations, both local and international, have also done much to raise public awareness about socially unjust practices.
According to the report, protection against discrimination on the basis of sex was first included in the 1990 Constitution. The 1997 Constitution, however, broadened the definition of fundamental rights and freedoms by including gender. While Fiji law provides protection against discrimination, in practice women still experience some forms of discrimination both directly and indirectly. The absence of equal opportunity legislation has allowed for the de facto segregation of job opportunities by gender through institutional restrictions on the employment of women in particular fields.
The differential treatment of men and women is evident in gender-based violence, the report says. Domestic violence and sexual abuse are significant causes for injury and illness among women. The prevalent attitudes towards gender-based violence are often reflected in the relatively lenient penalties imposed on offenders. Fiji's courts treat rape and indecent assault as reconcilable in the same way as common assault. The Fijian custom of apology and reconciliation --"Bulu bulu" -- is legally accepted as a reason not to charge a convicted rapist. In some cases, the victim's father accepts the apology and the victim has little say in the outcome. The situation is changing, however, in large part due to of the active lobbying of women's organizations.
The 1997 Constitution called for the establishment of a Human Rights Commission, the report says. Since human rights include women's rights, this is an important mechanism for women to address instances of discrimination. The Human Rights Commission, established in 1999, is expected to have a wide influence on the implementation and monitoring of the Women's Convention. In 1996, a Legal Aid Commission was established to provide legal assistance. Earlier, in 1979, an Ombudsman Office was established to provide a mechanism by which people who have been unfairly treated by Government agencies can complain.
The Law Reform Commission is working to bring Fiji's laws into conformity with new principles of family law and gender equity, the report says. In 1998, the Government launched the Women's Plan of Action 1999-2008, which identifies the directions for commitments made at the 1995 Fourth World’s Conference on Women in Beijing. Those commitments include the allocation of additional resources to develop women's micro-enterprises, the achievement of a gender balance partnership at all levels of decision-making, and the review of laws disadvantageous to women.
Several institutional mechanisms have been set up to promote gender equity, including the National Women's Advisory Council, the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Women, Gender Focal Points and the establishment of task forces to address issues such as gender mainstreaming, women and law and violence against women and children. Gender training is conducted at the public, private sector and community level. Within the public sector, the Centre for Training and Development has overall responsibility for public service training. Although it does not offer gender-specific courses, the Ministry has been able to integrate general gender training into its training programmes.
Regarding women’s participation in politics and public life, the report says that in the 1999 general elections, 27 of some 251 candidates were women. Of the 27 candidates, eight women were elected. Three women have been appointed cabinet ministers and two assistant ministers. Seven women currently serve in the Upper House, which consists of 38 senators. Women’s representation in public offices and national affairs has been limited by general social attitudes and a lack of confidence on the part of women.
Primary school education is accessible to almost all children in Fiji, with some 98 per cent of five and six year-olds enrolled in school, the report says. In secondary schools, boys and girls have almost equal enrolment rates and they share the same curricula, examinations and teaching staff. At the post-secondary level, however, boys outnumber girls, particularly in the fields of science and technology and in vocational training. The overall proportion of male and female teachers in Fiji schools is fairly even, with women comprising some 52 per cent of all teachers in 1995. Women are disproportionately employed, however, at senior levels.
On the issue of employment, the report states that women comprise the fastest growing group of job seekers in Fiji. There is no legal provision, however, to protect pregnant women from harmful substances and long hours. Women accounted for some 32.6 per cent of total paid employment in 1997. Despite their growing participation in the formal employment sector, women remain concentrated in lower-paid, lower-level jobs. On average, women earn the equivalent of some
88 per cent of male wages. While some employers -- such as the Government -- provide maternity benefits to women workers, there is no law that makes maternity leave or benefits mandatory or equal for all workers. Many types of work are not covered under law, including garment factory work and domestic work.
Regarding rural life, the report says remoteness is not so much a factor of geographic distance as it is of unreliable transport and poor communication services. Transport is expensive and unscheduled. While rural people have good access to health facilities, rural women are the most disadvantaged group in terms of educational attainment. Rural women are mostly involved in household work, semi-subsistence agriculture and fishing. Some nine per cent of households depend on fishing as their main source of income and some 45 per cent of Fijian women -- the most active fishing group -- regularly undertake some fishing. Environment degradation and commercialization, however, are threatening this source of income.
Introduction of Fiji Report
LOSENA SALABULA, Assistant Minister of Fiji’s Ministry for Women, Social Welfare and Poverty Alleviation, introducing that country’s report said the delegation had “braved the weather” and “traveled day and night” because they believed in the spirit and goals of the Committee. Fiji took the implementation of the Convention seriously. Shortly before submitting the initial report, in early 2000, Fiji had withdrawn its second and last reservation under Articles 5(a) of the Convention.
Updating the Committee with additional information since early 2000, she said that Fiji’s isolation from the rest of the world made it susceptible to global economic and sporadic political upheavals. Changing weather patterns made it susceptible to the fierceness of the elements. National goals and priorities were affected by social, economic and environmental vulnerabilities. Women, who made up some 49.2 per cent of the population, were predominantly rural dwellers.
Fiji was proud to be the first Pacific Island State to report to the Committee, she continued. Today was a historic day for Fiji and the Pacific region, and signaled Fiji’s unwavering commitment to the goal of advancement of women nationally, regionally and internationally. Fiji was party to a number of regional agreements, including the Pacific Platform of Action for Women. However, recent “out migration” of highly skilled and qualified professionals had impacted the nation. Over 50 per cent of the 5,664 emigrants were women.
Regarding the political system, she said that on 19 May 2000, an attempted civilian coup d’état had disrupted parliamentary rule by the democratically elected Government. The President had then appointed a caretaker Government. Although the Presidential Constitutional powers were challenged, Fiji’s High Court upheld the 1997 Constitution. In compliance with the court ruling, the President had appointed an interim regime. The interim regime had successfully conducted general elections within 18 months of the coup, thereby restoring constitutional democracy and political stability. The 1997 Constitution remained intact and formed the basis for the 2001 elections.
On the economic system, she said that challenges to the development of Fiji’s economy included its geographical isolation, vulnerability to cyclones and droughts and its reliance on a small export base. The political crises in 1987 and 2000 had deflated investor confidence and the sluggish economy had led to job losses, emigration, “brain drain”, a lowering of living standards and increased poverty and crime. May 2000 saw the closure of several factories which adversely impacted the labour market, especially for women employed in the manufacturing and garment industries. Poverty continued to be a concern for Fiji, with some
25.5 per cent of households living below the poverty line. Single-headed households made up some 20 per cent of the poor, and one in seven were female-headed households.
The Government had reconstituted the Ministry for Women to sit alongside the Department of Social Welfare and the Department of Poverty Alleviation, she explained. The reorganization recognized the thread linking women, gender and poverty. The Ministry of Women continued to function as a policy and service delivery arm for the Government’s development targets for women. Gender mainstreaming approaches were being pursued, especially in the implementation of the Government’s Women Plan of Action. Part of the Government’s commitment included economic support to promote a more equitable development for indigenous Fijians and Rotumans.
She said the Constitution underwent major challenges during the attempted coup and civilian unrest in May 2000. While the past two years of political crises had focused priorities on maintaining national security, some progress had been made since the issuance of the initial report, including a review of the penal code on sexual offences. Following an increase in child pedophilia offences, the Juvenile Act was amended to address loopholes in the legislation that dealt with such cases. Women had followed the reform of the Company and Commercial Law with interest, especially in the protection of intellectual property rights in the copyright act. The protection of indigenous and cultural knowledge and property rights was also of concern.
On the issue of violence against women, she said that awareness of the growing prevalence of violence against women was reflected in the Government’s commitment at the Fourth United Nations Conference in Beijing to campaign against violence suffered by women. In that connection, the Government supported programmes and training workshops that educated the community on the issue and provided financial support to civil society organizations that aided and sheltered victims of violence. Civil societies were at the forefront of work in that area and had succeeded in throwing additional light on the crime. The Ministry of Women Task Force on Violence against Women was working closely with women’s organizations and civil societies on a domestic violence reference for appropriate legislation. The Ministry hoped to realize that goal in 2002.
Much progress had been made in terms of access and participation of girls in education, she said. From 1970 to 1999, for example, the number of girls attending secondary schools had increased by some 405 per cent. Women lagged behind, however, in the area of science and technology. Gender stereotyping in curriculum materials at all levels continued to pose a challenge. Role models for science and technology for girls at primary and secondary schools did not exist in textbooks. Schools now provided career counseling and girls were being encouraged to pursue studies in science and technology.
On the issue of health, she said Fiji had a well-developed primary health care system compared to other developing countries. Cancer was becoming one of the major causes of mortality in women. Women’s reproductive health was fairly well cared for and a multi-disciplinary approach was being implemented to ensure community awareness and understanding. Women’s mental health, however, was often neglected. Sexually transmitted infections were escalating at an alarming rate, and the Ministry of Health had set a number of priorities, including HIV prevention, care and support for people living with HIV/AIDS, safe blood supply and HIV testing. The health sector had suffered from the spate of migrations of health professionals.
Turning to the situation of rural women, she said that the work they did was rarely acknowledged in national statistics. Statistics were not available for female farmers, fisherwomen, forestry workers or rural businesswomen. While rural women had access to education and health, the quality of access needed to be improved. The Government was now pursuing the development of the rural areas and the Ministry of Women was making all efforts to ensure that equitable development was received by both rural and urban women.
On the issue of women and family, she said gender roles for men and women were deeply rooted in all the communities of Fiji. In spite of education and changes in traditional gender roles, women were denied equal status with men. Changes were occurring among urban families, however. Domestic violence had only recently become a public issue. Most homes in Fiji had endured some level of domestic violence. The breakdown of the family unit was a major concern. Applications for legal aid assistance in matters relating to family law had increased from 20 in 1999 to 377 in 2001.
Concluding, she said that Fiji’s specific vulnerabilities underscored the need to strengthen technical support and assistance at the international and regional levels, as well as the need to build effective partnerships with non-governmental organizations, civil society and private sector groups.
Comments by Experts
The Committee’s Chairperson, CHARLOTTE ABAKA (Ghana) commended Fiji’s commitment to the implementation of the Convention. Indeed, she said, today was a historic moment: Fiji was the first country from the Pacific region to present its report, and it deserved praise for setting the pace. She hoped the other countries of the region would benefit from Fiji’s experience, giving them incentive to follow suit. She also commended the Government of Fiji for ratifying the Convention and for withdrawing its initial reservations. That was a very positive aspect.
Most speakers joined the Chairperson in praising the Government of Fiji for its efforts and congratulating the delegation for its well-prepared report.
The country’s report was frank, an expert commented, showing its determination to implement the Convention. Also commendable were the transparent relations between the Government and civil society, which should be further developed. Speakers were impressed with the role played by the country’s non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the efforts to achieve gender equality.
It was important to ensure an enabling environment for the effective work of NGOs, an expert said, for they represented a valuable resource which needed to be tapped in order to achieve effective implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
What was the status of the Convention in relation to the domestic law? experts asked. Was it a living legal reality? Commending the Government for its review of domestic laws following ratification of the Convention, they also asked how many intended reforms had been adopted by the Parliament. Was there a time frame for the legal reforms to be adopted in compliance with Article 2 of the Convention, which stipulated that such reforms were to be undertaken “without delay”? Following the recent crisis in the country, were there plans to amend the 1997 Constitution? Would women’s socio-economic rights be recognized in that instrument? Did women’s NGOs have legal protection?
Questions were asked about the functioning of the national machinery for the advancement of women, including the Human Rights Commission, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the Office of the Ombudsman. Also of interest were the means of enforcing the laws already in place in order to avoid de facto discrimination against women. An expert said that there were no laws establishing equal pay for equal work. Did the Government plan to enact legislation guaranteeing equal rights of women in the workplace? Was legal protection contemplated for domestic employees?
Regarding violence against women, an expert said that the role of the law of the country seemed “somewhat unsatisfactory”. For example, evidence of past sexual experience of the victim was still allowed in courts when cases of rape were tried, and corroboration of evidence in such cases was still required. She urged the Government to place the issues of violence prevention high on its agenda. Protection for the victims of domestic violence was needed, another expert added.
A question was asked about the custom of “bulu-bulu”, which imposed only a custodial sentence on the convicted rapists. The victim’s father had a right to accept an apology from him, and the victim herself had no say in that situation. What was being done to abolish such practices?
Addressing the issue of family law, an expert noted that divorce was practically impossible for women. She wondered about efforts to address the problem.
Another speaker wondered if the provisions of the Convention were studied by law students in the country. Were seminars organized to promote the goals of the Convention? An expert wanted to know about specific training of teachers and doctors in order to achieve gender sensitivity, and the role played by the mass media with regard to women’s issues.
It was pointed out that Fiji’s report referred to some “very promising policies”, including those on poverty alleviation and achievement of sustainable development. Were women’s issues mainstreamed in the Government’s efforts in various areas?
In that connection, a speaker noted that the list of programmes undertaken by the Government included only four or five programmes directed specifically at women. Was the gender dimension integrated into Ministries’ plans? If women were not in decision-making positions, it was hard to ensure implementation of gender-equality goals.
Entrenched patriarchal attitudes were affecting the position of women in the country, a speaker said. Were women aware of that and what was done to address the situation? The problems of unequal pay and segregation in the labour market, as well as “inadequate protection of women during pregnancy”, needed to be addressed along with other policy priorities.
An expert asked if there were specific programmes to combat women’s poverty. The problem of prostitution was linked to the issue of poverty. Was the Government providing training to poor women and taking measures to prevent them from turning to prostitution?
Clarification was sought regarding the composition of various bodies, including the gender focal point and the membership of the committees dealing with women’s issues. In order to see the decisions implemented, it was important to seek the highest level of participation in the national gender machinery. Was there communication between the women’s advisory council and the inter-ministerial committee, as well as various task forces and the women’s committees?
An expert said that despite the progress achieved in Fiji, there was a certain discrepancy between goals and accomplishments there. It was important to reflect on the causes of such distortions, which included tribal traditions. What actions did the Government contemplate to redress the situation in that respect?
Many other questions were asked in the debate, including those concerning affirmative action efforts; Constitutional guarantees for women in the private sector; differential treatment at work; the “gender budgeting” initiative and “gender audit” of policies; the extreme poverty of households headed by women; and gender mainstreaming.
On the issue of sex role stereotyping, a speaker stressed the importance of training teachers to promote change in that area. It was also important for women to be able to lodge complaints in cases of domestic violence. What percentage of women were in the police force? Were there incentives for women to become police officers in Fiji? Another speaker reiterated the need to encourage the media to publicize the issue of violence against women. A speaker noted that children often learned about violence in the home.
The Committee Chairperson, endorsing the concerns raised by the experts, asked whether the Fijian Constitution contained a provision for the right to life. Noting that most cases of homicide were related to domestic violence, what urgent measures were being put in place to ensure the basic right to life of women?
Another expert asked about the specific nature of stereotypes. With Fiji’s ethnically diverse population, were different values attached to women from Fijian and Indian backgrounds?
Turning to the issue of prostitution, a speaker noted that while prostitution was illegal, clients were not punished. Why were the victims of prostitution punished while clients were able to go free? What was the view of the State in that regard? The issue was a human rights problem. Another expert, noting that the penal code dated back to 1944, asked whether the penal code was derived from the same legislation that had traveled to other former British colonies. She assumed that the Sexual Offences Act did not cover the area of sexual exploitation of women.
The report alluded to the fact that prostitution was growing for economic reasons, one speaker noted. That was particularly worrisome, especially in the case of girls dropping out of school. What was being done to address the issue? The problem of trafficking in women must also be studied, since that phenomenon was often the result of economic hardship.
On an interrelated issue, sexual violence against women and girl children, an expert noted an alarming increase in the number of incest cases. What measures had the Government adopted to come to grips with that problem? What sanctions were imposed on offenders and what kind of rehabilitative treatment was accorded to victims? Did prostitution exist at the child level? Was there data on violence against women?
On the participation of women in political and public life, in terms of Constitutional revision, had thought been given to legislative means to increase the participation of women in decision-making?
Turning to education, an expert asked whether the Government had the power to regulate the curriculum of religious schools. On the number of girls applying for scholarships, had girls been encouraged to apply for scholarships or had they been given preference? What did the Government plan to do regarding the low number of women teachers at higher levels? Were all sports equally open to girls? Another speaker wondered whether measures had been taken to encourage girls to pursue technical training. Were students offered courses on sex education? Were courses on women’s studies offered at the university level?
Another expert emphasized the importance of gender training for lawmakers and not just for civil servants. When had gender training been integrated in civil service training, and was it possible to observe changes in the attitudes of civil servants as a result of that training? To what extent was similar training being planned for lawmakers, law enforcement officials, prosecutors and judges?
Taking up the issue of employment, an expert noted that the 1996 law on the health and safety of the workplace did not contain provisions on the specific needs of women. Had thought been given to reform of that law to ensure the safety and security of women in the workplace? What kind of working conditions were women afforded? Noting that women earned some 88 per cent of men’s salaries, she exhorted the Government to ask the Legislative Reform Commission to incorporate into legislation guarantees of equal pay for female workers. Had anything been done with regard to pay definitions and were there legal provisions for sexual harassment in the workplace?
Another speaker reiterated the urgency of the need to ratify legislation that addressed matters of discrimination. Serious work needed to be done as regards women’s employment if the Convention were to be a living document in Fiji.
While some would argue that the current economic situation might not be favourable for change, one expert thought that times of crisis could be used to promote new legislation that would be beneficial to women. A country would not be prosperous if its prosperity was based on the exploitation of women. She was concerned with the non-existence of paid maternity leave. The issue of merit, as enshrined in many constitutions, was often narrow. Discussion on the concept of merit should include the work experience of women in the informal sector or as homemakers. Some European States had expanded the notion of merit to include skills gained in areas not before recognized.
Another speaker stressed that the question of employment was central to solving many women’s issues in Fiji. Relevant provisions for non-discrimination needed to be promulgated in the country. She asked why women’s participation in the labour market was so low and what was being done to address the situation. What was being done in terms of affirmative action to ensure that qualified women could find employment?
Criminal prosecution was not the most effective way of dealing with sexual harassment, she added, asking if it was possible to file civil action in connection with that phenomenon. Another speaker agreed that legislation on equal employment was needed, which should guarantee equal opportunities for employment, pay, retirement and promotion.
An expert also addressed the issue of the “brain-drain”. It was important to look at that question very seriously, for eventually it became prohibitively expensive to bring specialists from outside. Pointing out the impact of tobacco on the health of women, she praised the Government for the bill regulating tobacco in the country.
Rural women were disadvantaged as far as many services and credits and loans were concerned, a speaker said. It was important that the Government was trying to address that problem, and she hoped that the next report by Fiji would contain some information on the progress achieved in that regard.
It was pointed out that no measures were indicated in the report to turn formal equality into reality. It was important to educate the population, improve legal literacy in the country and train lawyers and public employees. While the country’s Constitution upheld equality before the law, specific instances were lacking to protect women and allow them to sue for such offences as job discrimination, harassment and marital rape.
In many instances, Fiji’s family law was inconsistent with the Convention, an expert said, drawing the Committee’s attention to the fact that the marriage age was set at 16 for women and 18 for men. A woman asking for a divorce had to prove that she was a victim of violence, and that made divorce practically impossible. Such inequality needed to be redressed. Also important was discrimination against women belonging to various ethnic groups. Under the common law, women’s rights were subject to the traditional interpretation of their role in society. The law also differentiated between legitimate and illegitimate children.
The Government’s broad gender policies needed to be harmonized with the family law, several speakers agreed. The contradictions and discrimination needed to be eliminated, for they had a bearing on the everyday existence of women. One of the experts presented as an example the fact that early marriages often led to women dropping out of school. They were also connected to a number of health issues. It was said that there was an urgent need to adopt a new family code, with enforcement procedures built into it.
Family violence was obviously not regarded in Fiji as the dreadful phenomenon it was, an expert said. Special education programmes were needed in schools, and domestic violence programmes should be introduced to train the police, the prosecutors and other civil servants. Society should not tolerate domestic violence, and prosecution of some exemplary cases with exemplary punishment should send a clear message in that respect.
Among other issues addressed in the debate were methods of contraception; infant and maternal mortality; the spread of HIV/AIDS and other communicable diseases; family benefits and women’s property rights.
One speaker expressed surprise not only at the alarming reality of inequality within the family but also at the report’s frank description of the problem. Deep awareness of the problem would be the beginning of solving it. On the inheritance system, did children have the same property inheritance rights?
In response to comments from the floor, Ms. SALABULA said the country would answer questions on the morning of Tuesday, 22 January.
Before adjourning the meeting, the Committee turned its attention to the report of the Pre-session Working Group for its twenty-sixth session. ZELMIRA REGAZZOLI, Chairperson of the Group, introduced the report, which was adopted by the Committee.
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