COMPLETING CONSIDERATION OF FIJI REPORT, COMMITTEE TOLD CONVENTION IS 'A LIVING REALITY' IN FIJI

22 January 2002
WOM/1311

COMPLETING CONSIDERATION OF FIJI REPORT, COMMITTEE TOLD CONVENTION IS 'A LIVING REALITY' IN FIJI

22/01/2002
Press ReleaseWOM/1311

Committee on Elimination of

Discrimination against Women

Twenty-sixth Session

538th Meeting (AM)

COMPLETING CONSIDERATION OF FIJI REPORT, COMMITTEE TOLD

CONVENTION IS 'A LIVING REALITY' IN FIJI

But Experts Still Concerned over Negative Impact

Of Traditional Reconciliation Customs in Cases of Violence against Women

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women was a “living reality” in Fiji, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women was told this morning as it completed its consideration of the initial report of Fiji.

The Committee, which monitors States parties’ compliance with the Convention first began consideration of the situation of women in Fiji on 16 January.  At that time, Committee members commended Fiji, which acceded to the Convention in 1995, for being the first Pacific region country to present its report.

Responding to the numerous questions posed by the Committee’s 23 experts last week, the Assistant Minister of Fiji’s Ministry for Women, Social Welfare and Poverty Alleviation, Losena Salabula, provided detailed information regarding national efforts to improve the situation of women in Fiji.

On the Convention’s place in domestic legislation, she explained that ratification of the Convention automatically triggered its domestic application.  Fiji’s Constitution had also established a Human Rights Commission to educate the public about international conventions and to make recommendations about matters affecting compliance with human rights instruments.

Turning to the Fijian custom of “bulu-bulu” or "apology and reconciliation”, she said it was a vital custom for the indigenous Fijian community to “cement” kinship ties.  The acceptance of “bulu-bulu”, however, often caused women not to report crimes such as rape.  The Government was addressing the recurrent abuse of the “bulu-bulu” custom by enhancing awareness of the practice.  Some families were now declining the offer of “bulu-bulu”.

Fiji’s presentation also included responses to experts' questions on measures to improve the social and cultural rights of women; women in decision-making; equal employment opportunities; affirmative action programmes for indigenous populations; domestic violence; gender stereotypes; the role of the media; and prostitution.

Stressing the importance of creating equal opportunities for women in Fiji, several experts urged the Government to continue its work to promote the advancement of women in Fijian society.

Committee Chairperson Charlotte Abaka of Ghana said it was important to do away with traditions that discriminated against women, especially in the cases of domestic violence.  While national customs were important, measures were needed to increase public awareness of the issues involved.

The Committee will meet again tomorrow, 23 January, at 10:30 a.m. to take up the combined initial, second and third periodic reports of Estonia.

Background

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this morning to hear replies from the delegation of Fiji to questions raised by members last Wednesday (16 January), following the introduction by representatives of that country of its initial report and oral presentation.  [For more information, see Press Release WOM/1307, dated 16 January 2002.]

Response of Fiji

The delegation of Fiji supplied detailed written responses to questions posed by experts at the previous session. 

Ms. LOSENA SALABULA, the Assistant Minister of Fiji’s Ministry for Women, Social Welfare and Poverty Alleviation, referring to the Convention’s relation to Fijian domestic law, said the Constitution took account of social and cultural developments.  The Bill of Rights chapter of the Constitution incorporated the legislative, executive and judicial branches of Government at all levels.

Regarding the implications for ethnic groups, she said the Cabinet had endorsed a “blueprint” for the protection and advancement of indigenous Fijians and Rotumans in July 2000.  The blueprint provided an enabling environment through legislative actions and policy directives, so that indigenous Fijians and Rotumans could fully exercise their rights to self-determination, safeguard their interests and improve their opportunities.  Fijians and Rotumans comprised some 51 per cent of Fiji’s population.  They also comprised the majority of landowning units, with customary proprietary rights to more than 83 per cent of all land and to associated traditional fishing rights of “i qoliqoli”.  The Ministry for Women had provided the Government with information to include gender mainstreaming into the blueprint. 

Regarding the status of the Convention in domestic law, she said there was no implementing legislation to incorporate the Convention -- or any other international convention -- into domestic law.  Ratification triggered its domestic application, and the necessary legislative reform agenda to align domestic law with international standards.  Article 42 of the Constitution established a Human Rights Commission with the purpose of educating the public about the content of the Bill of Rights and the responsibilities of the Human Rights Committee, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and other United Nations human rights organs.  It also made recommendations to the Government about matters affecting compliance with human rights.  The Constitution did recognize the Convention as a “living reality”.

Turning to the custom of “bulu-bulu”, she said it was a vital custom of the indigenous Fijian community for the reconciliation and cementing of kinship ties.  The Government was addressing its recurrent abuse in relation to modern court processes and the legal system in handling sexual offences such as rape.  The acceptance of “bulu-bulu” often led women victims not to report crimes.  Offenders were discharged and sentences mitigated.  Improved awareness of the practice had allowed the law to take its course on sexual offences.  In some cases, families had declined the offer of “bulu-bulu”.  In other cases, families had accepted “bulu-bulu” but had agreed that the law should take its course.  The reform of the sentencing law, which was at an advanced phase, was aimed at codifying sentencing options and guidelines.

She said that only one woman served on the bench as a High Court Judge.  At the magistrate level, four women were serving.  Two women magistrates had resigned in the wake of the May 2000 coup.  Following the recent crisis in Fiji, most draft bills and reform processes would need to go through the reintroduction process in Parliament.

She said the Human Rights Commission Act of 1999 empowered the Commission to investigate allegations of human rights violations and discrimination in employment.  Although it did not specifically monitor the Convention, it protected and promoted the human rights of all Fijians.  The Commission was headed by the Ombudsman and was funded through appropriations of the Parliament.  The Human Rights Commission and the Ombudsman provided all avenues for addressing violations of human rights.

Regarding measures to improve the social and cultural rights of women, she said the biggest barrier was a lack of understanding of gender by development agents in the Government, private sector and the community.  Social and cultural beliefs were deeply entrenched at all levels of society among men and women alike.  The challenge for the Ministry of Women and women’s rights advocates was to educate Government and community leaders.  At the national level, the Ministry of Women had promoted women’s strategic concerns through all levels of decision-making for national and community developments.

On women in decision-making, the Public Service Commission estimated that as of August 2001, women’s participation in Boards, Councils and Commission was some 18.9 per cent, she said.  The Government’s target, as contained in the Women’s Plan of Action, was between 30 and 50 per cent by 2008. 

Regarding poverty alleviation, she said that Government programmes included a family assistance fund for persons unable to work, housing benefits and micro-enterprise development.  The Ministry of Women had a micro-credit project that targeted poor women.  Women received training before being given a small loan.  The Ministry of Commerce also assisted women living in poverty. 

On employment legislation and labour market restrictions, she said there was no specific legislation providing for equal pay for equal work.  Fiji was a young nation.  When women entered the work force in the early 1950s, they entered through traditional vocations such as stenographers, nurses and teachers.  Women were increasingly aware of the restrictions they faced in the labour market and were now applying for positions that traditionally belonged to men.  The Government was promoting the empowerment of women in the labour market. 

Regarding equal employment opportunities, she said that conditions of employment were governed by the Employment Act of 1965.  While the provisions of that Act were suitable for the time, updated legislation was now critical.  Domestic workers were commonly known as “house girls”.  Despite its shortcomings, the Act included provisions for legally binding “verbal” contracts and the right to timely payment of wages. 

The affirmative action programme for Fijians and Rotumans was a policy of the present Government, which came into power in September 2001, she said.  The Government, through programmes covering the different sectors, would monitor and ensure the implementation of affirmative action programmes.  A “gender audit” initiative would be headed by the Ministries of Agriculture and Health. 

She said domestic violence had been considered a private affair for too long and had only recently been given a public airing.  There was growing awareness that violence in the home was a crime.  Public media campaigns and community workshops were creating awareness and providing education.  The police were executing a “no-drop” policy whereby women reporting spousal abuse could not withdraw cases once reported.  The perpetrators of domestic violence must appear in court even if reconciliation had taken place.

Regarding gender stereotypes, she said women from Indian families often had a difficult time within their marriage home.  Abuse by in-laws made them more susceptible to suicide.  An Indian woman or girl was always accompanied in public by her spouse, in-laws or children.  Public movement for Fijians and other ethnic women was less restricted.  Stereotypes were changing, however, as women and girls received more exposure to education. 

She said that the police academy in Fiji had integrated gender concerns in all aspects of training.  Women were encouraged to apply for posts as police officers.  Civil society organizations had worked with the media in educating journalists on gender stereotyping, especially in reporting sex crimes such as rape.  The Ministry of Women and the Ministry of Information had been actively involved in training and disseminating the provisions of the Convention to media organizations. 

The media were a powerful influence in shaping attitudes and promoting gender awareness, she continued.  Media Watch, a non-governmental organization established in 1993, had implemented a number of media awareness workshops.  The Fiji National Council of Women had initiated a project on women and the media.  While the Media Watch and the Fiji Media Council would play a key role in the future, they faced a number of concerns, including advertising, sexual abuse and sensational reporting.  Women were sometimes portrayed as being ultimately to blame for their plight.  Concerted efforts to improve the image of women in the media were needed. 

Regarding the issue of prostitution, she said the Fiji Law Reform Commission was recommending that prostitution be decriminalized and that the prohibition on prostitution be replaced by a regime of licensing and relegation.  Decriminalizing prostitution was a controversial issue, with some 68 per cent of Fiji’s population opposed to it.  The elusive nature of prostitution made law enforcement difficult.  Police were duty-bound to arrest and charge prostitutes, often issuing warnings only.  The police and the courts often found sympathy with prostitutes and saw it as a “waste of time” to go after prostitutes.  Strict enforcement would only drive prostitution underground.  The police considered prostitution a serious economic problem that warranted Government attention.

She said violence against women and children was the most pervasive violation of human rights.  It occurred at every level of society and in diverse forms.  Some entrenched forms were not recognized by society and were often explained as “family discipline”.  Such social attitudes perpetuated violence.  At the national level, the prevalence of violence could only be understood in the context of its socio-economic milieu.  A great deal of importance was placed on family relationships.  Increasing social problems, such as crime and drug abuse, indicated that changes were occurring in the family.  Although the dynamics of family relationships had changed, society continued to view exposure of violence against women and children as a violation of privacy and a threat to family unity.

“There is deep-seated resistance to accepting violence in the home as an offence and violation of individual rights”, she added.  The Government was addressing the issues of violence and abuse through the Ministry of Education’s Family Life Education Programmes.  Economic dependency was a major reason for women’s high tolerance for violence.  Some 30 per cent of women in employment were concentrated at the lower wages level.  Violence against women and children was a multifaceted problem.  While the law was applied in tackling the problem, law reform was inadequate.  Legislative remedy was critical to address violence against women and children.

Experts’ Comments

Several experts expressed gratitude to the Fijian delegation for the responses provided today, and urged the Government to continue its work, encouraging it to utilize its civil society and women’s non-governmental organizations to further the goals of the Convention.  They also stressed the importance of creating equal opportunities for women in Fiji.

While recognizing the importance of efforts to meet the needs of the country’s indigenous population, one expert expressed concern that they should not place women of other ethnic groups at a disadvantage.

The Committee’s Chairperson, CHARLOTTE ABAKA of Ghana, pointed out that, according to the information provided by the delegation, the ratification of international instruments automatically triggered domestic implementation in Fiji.  The provisions of the Convention needed to be applicable in domestic courts. 

While acknowledging the importance of national traditions, especially the practice of reconciliation, she said that it was important to do away with traditions discriminating against women, especially in the cases of domestic violence.  The country should pay more attention to such negative aspects of the problem as the practice of “bulu-bulu”.  Measures were needed to increase public awareness of the issues involved.  It was also disturbing that some cases of violence were referred to as “family discipline” in Fiji. 

She went on to say that prostitution was also a serious issue in the country:  attitudes towards that phenomenon were a source of great concern, for only the women and not their clients were penalized.  Most women were forced into prostitution because of poverty, and it was necessary to provide them with alternative forms of earning a livelihood.  She sincerely hoped that the experience of Fiji -– the pace-setter among the Pacific Islands -– would be widely disseminated in the region. 

Ms. SALABULA thanked the members of the Committee for their comments, adding that her country was prepared to work together with women of other countries to prevent discrimination against women.

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For information media. Not an official record.