COMMITTEE EXPERTS LUKEWARM ON SITUATION OF WOMEN IN SURINAME, AS REFLECTED IN THAT COUNTRY'S REPORTS
COMMITTEE EXPERTS LUKEWARM ON SITUATION OF WOMEN IN SURINAME, AS REFLECTED IN THAT COUNTRY'S REPORTS
Committee on Elimination of
Discrimination against Women
557th and 558th Meetings (AM & PM)
COMMITTEE EXPERTS LUKEWARM ON SITUATION OF WOMEN IN SURINAME,
AS REFLECTED IN THAT COUNTRY'S REPORTS
Persistence of Discriminatory Legislation among Reasons for Concern
During a day-long examination of the status of women in Suriname, the expert members of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women appealed to the country’s delegation to overcome the ingrained stereotypical attitudes and complacency that threatened to undermine the rights of women and girls.
The experts -- charged with monitoring implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women –- were deeply concerned about the status of the Convention in Suriname’s domestic law. Although the country ratified the Convention in 1993, in many cases -- particularly regarding the legal status of women and their full participation in decision-making -- there were still a number of clearly discriminatory laws in effect.
Presenting her country’s combined initial and second periodic reports (document CEDAW/C/SUR/1-2) on compliance with the Convention, Urmilla Joella-Sewnundun, Minister for Home Affairs, highlighted the fact that her office -- responsible for setting the Suriname’s gender policy -- had actively cooperated with the National Women’s Movement and other women’s groups and agencies, including the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), to developed the current study, which covered 1993 to 1998.
She stressed, however, that the Government had not diverted its attention from women’s issues during the last four years and much progress had been made to ensure equality between men and women. To that end, the Integral Gender Action Plan (2000-2005), a national priority-based action strategy, had been developed. To promote implementation of the Plan, a gender management body had been set up to manage and coordinate gender initiatives within various ministries. That mechanism would also enable the Government to enhance its efforts at gender mainstreaming.
Ms. Joella-Sewnundun told the Committee it was important to take into account the impact of the country’s current economic crisis on efforts to effect national gender policy. She said the Constitution prohibited all forms of discrimination, but that there was no special institution under the law to which women could turn for protection when they encountered discriminatory practices. Still, women who
were discriminated against could take their cases to court. Further, women’s non- governmental organizations and professional groups provided a broad outreach network to which they could turn.
As the experts began their examination of the reports, they stressed that ratifying the Convention and creating agencies was one thing, but ensuring implementation was another. Several were surprised, given the Government’s familiarity with the principles of the Convention, that adequate temporary special measures were not in place to accelerate gender mainstreaming. Such measures were necessary to help identify and eradicate discriminatory cultural and traditional practices -- often prevalent in ethnically diverse societies.
Several experts were also concerned that statements in the report seemed to reveal that the Government had accepted the stereotypical marginalization of women in public and political life. Such apparent complacency was particularly disturbing when women made up nearly half of Suriname’s population. The experts warned that pervasive traditional stereotypes in which women were generally restricted to the home, as well as discriminatory provisions in the country's legislature and common law, were seriously affecting women’s lives. Were awareness-raising campaigns under way to promote equality for all -- within the home, as well as in the workplace?
Further concern was expressed about ambiguous or inconsistent government policy in many areas, particularly on the issue of prostitution and trafficking in women, penalties for pimping and access of sex workers to health-care services. Several experts said the argument that “no data existed” on trafficking was not an excuse to ignore the problem. Suriname was like any other country, and there would probably never be a truly clear picture of the sex trade. What was clear, however, was that trafficking was a violation of human rights. The delegation was strongly urged to clarify policies on the matter.
Turning to education, an expert expressed concern about teenage mothers having to return to separate schooling programmes rather than to regular schools, fearing they would have a negative impact on other students. Also troubling was the fact that teenage mothers were not always readmitted to junior secondary schools. Meanwhile, teenage fathers were not prevented from returning to schools. How would the Government address that obvious discriminatory practice? An expert wondered whether the Government had considered the influence young fathers who returned to school would have on other young men, as well as on other young women in the schools.
Also addressed during the debate were the problems of illegal abortion, sexual harassment, credit access for rural women, their legal capacity to administer property, and family planning.
As a country presenting its reports for the first time, Suriname will be given an opportunity to respond to today’s comments and questions on 13 June.
At 10 a.m. Monday, 10 June, the Committee will take up Belgium’s combined third and fourth periodic reports.
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this morning to consider the combined initial and second periodic reports of Suriname (document CEDAW/C/SUR/1-2), submitted in compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The present report covers the period from March 1993 to December 1998.
According to the report, Suriname is a multi-ethnic society, whose cultural diversity is also manifested in the experience of women’s rights. In crucial areas, there were discrepancies between the Convention and current cultural patterns. There was a dilemma between respecting culture, on the one hand, and allowing culture to legitimize discrimination, on the other. Extensive education with regard to the Convention was essential in this connection.
The Constitution of Suriname, the highest law in the nation, regulates the protection of women’s rights and the equality of men and women to a great extent, states the report. However, there are statutory regulations in the lower legislation which contradict the Constitution and the Convention. This conflict results from the fact that the Constitution and the Convention are relatively recent -– 1987 and 1981, respectively.
In the past two decades, continues the report, relevant measures have been taken by the Government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to achieve equality of men and women in various areas. However, these measures are insufficient. Discriminatory provisions should be abolished, while national legislation needs to be reconciled with the Constitution and the Convention. The principle of equality should be integrated into the national legislation.
The report states that there is insufficient reliable gender-specific data available, which is an obstacle to the development of an adequate policy regarding the equality of men and women. Government and non-government agencies at all levels and in all sectors should be trained in the near future, with the goal of collecting gender-specific statistical data. Moreover, qualitative and quantitative studies on the position of women in various sectors should be carried out periodically.
With regard to political life, the visibility of women in political decision-making bodies is limited, especially at higher levels. Existing measures and programmes for increasing political participation must, therefore, be further extended. In the last decade, there have been positive developments in the area of education. More girls and women are participating in higher and more diverse forms of education. Stereotypes of women in curricula must, however, be corrected. The large number of women in the labour market is growing, although women are still under-represented in higher positions. Discriminatory provisions in the labour legislation must be abolished.
The health-care crisis, states the report, has influenced the availability and accessibility of medical services for women. While Suriname had a reasonably well developed public health system, a reduction in access to medical facilities has emerged since the early 1990s. Access is a particular problem for those in
the State Health Service, as they must pay a substantial contribution for consultations, hospitalization and medication. The Government and NGOs will have to take appropriate policy measures to solve the crisis in the near future. Police reports of violence against women are on the increase. This increase is mainly the effect of heightened awareness among women as a result of extensive education in recent years.
The position of rural women is closely linked with the agricultural sector, notes the report. Problems in the agricultural and related sectors -- poor infrastructure, limited markets, obstacles in availability and accessibility of agricultural land and agricultural credit -- affect the position of rural women. The situation is further worsened by low literacy rates, ignorance of existing regulations, lack of services and environmental pollution. An integrated rural policy, which includes the areas populated by the Maroons and indigenous peoples, will contribute to improving the position of rural inhabitants, particularly women.
Introduction of Reports
URMILA JOELLA-SEWNUNDUN, Minister for Home Affairs of Suriname, introduced her country’s initial and second periodic reports. She said Suriname had ratified the Convention in 1993. Shortly thereafter, Home Affairs, the office responsible for setting the country’s gender policy, had asked the National Women’s Movement, an NGO, to coordinate a study that would lead to the report’s formulation. With the help of that and various other national women’s groups and agencies, including the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), Suriname had developed the current study, which covered 1993 to 1998.
She stressed, however, that the Government had not diverted its attention from women’s issues during the last four years -- much progress had been made to ensure equality between men and women. One of the Government’s foremost initiatives had been the elaboration of the Integral Gender Action Plan (2000-2005), a national action strategy based on essential priorities recognized by Government and civil society agencies. The follow-up report before the Committee contained information on many recent initiatives.
She added that in order to further implementation of the Plan, a gender management body had been set up to manage and coordinate gender initiatives within various ministries. That mechanism would also enable the Government to enhance its efforts at gender mainstreaming. The Government had also appointed a Commission on Gender Legislation, which reviewed national gender laws during the drafting stage to ensure they were in conformity with the Convention, as well as the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women.
After giving a brief overview of the cultural, socio-economic and political development of Suriname -- highlighted by statistics on the country’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious character, as well as its struggle for independence and political stability -- Ms. Joella-Sewnundun told the Committee it was important to take into account the impact of the country’s current economic crisis on efforts to effect national gender policy.
She said the Constitution prohibited all forms of discrimination, namely, by affirming the equality of men and women before the law. However, there was no special institution under the law to which women could turn for protection when they encountered discriminatory practices. But women who were discriminated against could take their cases to court. Further, women’s NGOs and professional groups aiming to guarantee women’s rights and interests provided a broad outreach network to which they could turn. Also, the National Gender Bureau had been incorporated into the Home Affairs Office to ensure the protection of women’s rights and to formulate relevant government policy.
She said the Government had been spurred to further action on behalf of women as a result of the many regional and international conferences held during the last decade with the goal of increasing awareness and improving the worldwide situation of women. The recommendations of those meetings, particularly the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, had been instrumental in providing Suriname with a blueprint to enhance the situation of its women. In particular, various ministries had become aware of the very important role the media played in promoting women’s rights.
Women in Suriname had the right to vote and stand for election, she continued. The law allowed women to hold office at any level of government. Presently, women made up about 18 per cent of political bodies, and the Government was doing its utmost to promote their increased participation through educational programmes and gender-mainstreaming initiatives. Participation in local administration was about 21 per cent as of 1998. In the judiciary, 31 per cent of the Public Prosecutor’s Office was female. She added that the first woman judge had been elected in 2001.
She said the low participation of women in the Government could be attributed to psychological and cultural factors -- in a nutshell, perceptions about traditional female roles were serious obstacles to women’s participation and advancement throughout the Government. She added that further studies on the conditions underlying limited participation in the political sphere needed to be carried out.
Turning to other issues, she said almost all levels of the education system in Suriname were State funded. She cautioned that that situation would probably change, however, due to the current economic crisis. There was, at present, no data available on dropout rates, but a recent study had revealed only a 50 per cent graduation rate for students enrolled in schools. Statistics were particularly poor for boys. Suriname believed that perhaps the main reason for dropouts among girls was teenage pregnancy.
Those girls did, however, have the option of participating in “student-mother” programmes aimed at ensuring they completed their education, developed self-worth and prevent further unwanted early pregnancies. She added that -- at least at junior secondary schools -- teenage mothers were not always allowed to return to school, mainly because it was felt they would negatively influence other students. Teenage fathers, however, were not barred from attending school.
On the issue of health, she said Suriname had always maintained a reasonably well developed public health-care system, with an extensive network of preventative and curative care services. During the 1990s, however, increased poverty had curtailed access to such services and medical facilities for a large part of the population. She went on to note that abortion was a crime in Suriname. It was believed that illegal abortions were generally performed safely. There was no law that prescribed family planning, but the Lodi Foundation carried out activities in that area and in the area of sex education, even though such activities could be penalized under Suriname’s Criminal Code.
She said that the Government did its utmost to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS. While prophylactics and other contraceptives were widely available, infection rates had increased, and, as of 2002, some 6,000 people were reported as HIV-positive. The majority of those persons were young people between the ages of 15 and 29. Sadly, girls tended to be infected at a younger age than boys. She added that various activities within the framework of HIV/sexually transmitted disease prevention for women were being funded by the Government, as well as outside agencies and foreign donors.
On violence against women, she said the Constitution guaranteed the right to physical, mental and moral integrity, as well as freedom from torture and degrading punishment. Studies in 1993 had shown that 94 per cent of police reports involved mistreatment of some sort, usually women abused by their husbands or partners. She said that several NGOs and community groups were working to reduce violence, and various government ministries were active in combating violence and protecting women and children from all forms of mental and physical abuse. Particularly, the Ministry of Justice monitored all efforts to step up the appropriate national machinery.
General Comments by Experts
Suriname was commended for having ratified the Convention without reservations and for writing its report in collaboration with civil society, especially NGOs. It was regrettable, though, said one expert, that data was lacking in several areas, including health. Also, in some cases in which data was provided, it was not current.
While it had ratified several international treaties, there were others that Suriname could accede to such as the Optional Protocol to the Convention, as well as the International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions, stated some experts. It was noted that ratification was one thing and application was another. Questions were raised regarding the status of the Convention in domestic law and whether the Convention was directly applicable in the courts of Suriname.
Some experts felt that education and training on the human rights of women should be provided to specific professions, such as police, prosecutors and judges, particularly in questions of violence against women. It was also necessary that there be women in those professions, said one expert. What was the percentage of women among the police, prosecutors and judges? Another speaker noted the need not only to educate professionals, but to raise awareness among the general population to overcome traditional attitudes. The delegation was asked to illustrate what the traditional roles were for men and women in Suriname.
Much improvement was needed regarding the legal status of women, it was noted by Committee members, as there were still a number of laws which clearly and directly discriminated against women. Article 2 of the Convention specifically requested States parties to change discriminatory legislation without delay. Was there the required political will to tackle those discriminatory laws?
After hearing that Suriname had established a Commission on Gender Legislation, another expert asked whether it had been entrusted with reformulating the discriminatory laws and given a time frame in which to do so. Had the Penal Code, submitted in 1993 to the State Council, been taken up? Was it not seen as a priority? asked another expert. What was preventing the Government from repealing discriminatory laws, asked one Committee member, since they were not really applied in practice anyway.
Also, what was the current status of the national institute for the promotion and protection of human rights? What recourse did women have in registering complaints of human rights violations? Noting the existing gap between laws and provisions and the actual situation on the ground relating to discrimination against women, what positive steps, policies and programmes had been put forward by the Government to ease the restrictions in equal access for women to political, economic and social development? Why not adopt temporary special measures to remedy situations resulting from deep-rooted social patterns affecting men and women?
Another expert wanted to know what priority the Government accorded to the implementation of its Integral Gender Action Plan, as well as how much of the national budget was devoted to its implementation. Questions were also raised on the National Gender Bureau, its structure and the means, both human and financial, made available to it. Also, was there a specific ministry in the Government devoted to equality?
Several experts said it was surprising, in light of the Government’s familiarity with the principles of the Convention, that Suriname had not developed more temporary special measures to accelerate gender mainstreaming throughout society. One speaker said that such measures were particularly important to identify and eradicate traditional discriminatory cultural and traditional practices. This was crucially important in such a multi-ethnic society. What was being done to eliminate cultural stereotypes?
Another said that statements in the report seemed to reveal that the Government accepted as status quo the stereotypical marginalization of women in public and political life. That was most disturbing when women made up nearly half of Suriname’s population. What was being done at all levels to change the existing situation, in which women were generally restricted to the home and excluded from participation in public life? Were awareness-raising campaigns under way to promote equality for all, within the home, as well as in the workplace?
On the issue of prostitution and trafficking in women, an expert expressed frustration that the report contained very little information. She said the Government’s relevant policies appeared very ambiguous and inconsistent, particularly regarding the situation of sex workers, penalties for pimping and access of sex workers to health-care services. That sentiment was echoed by several other experts, who said the argument that “no data” existed on trafficking in women was not an excuse to ignore the problem. One stressed that Suriname was
like any other country and that there would probably never be a truly clear picture of the sex trade. What was clear, however, was that such trafficking was a violation of human rights. The delegation was strongly urged to clarify government policies on the matter.
Turning to women’s roles in the general life of Suriname, several experts wondered what positive measures were contemplated for effectively increasing women’s participation in decision-making bodies. Suriname’s multi-ethnic nature required the Government to ensure the broadest possible participation of women to achieve adequate representation at all levels. One expert asked if a quota system had been established to increase women’s participation in parliament. Had there been adequate attempts to raise the gender consciousness of men in political bodies, the judiciary and civil society? Another expert drew attention to apparent discrepancies in the high numbers of women involved in training programmes, while actual participation in the decision-making sphere was very low.
In the area of nationality, an expert noted that children born in wedlock were placed under the father’s passport. She wanted to know whether such children could also be placed under the mother’s passport. Also, permission was required from the father for children to travel. Was permission also sought from mothers, as well?
Turning to education, an expert expressed concern about teenage mothers being allowed to return to separate schooling programmes rather than to regular schools. Also, the report had stated that, unlike in senior secondary schools, teenage mothers were not always readmitted to junior secondary schools. The reason given was the negative influence those young mothers would have on other girls. Meanwhile, teenage fathers were not prevented from returning to schools. What did the Government have in mind to address that obvious discriminatory practice? The expert wondered whether the Government had considered the influence young fathers who returned to school would have on other young men, as well as on other young women in the schools.
One expert asked whether there were programmes for older women, and if so, to what degree were older women and women from various ethnic backgrounds participating in those programmes.
On employment, an expert noted some discriminatory practices in areas such as reproductive health and maternity. In the civil service, women could be discriminated against when entering into marriage or becoming pregnant. How compatible was that with the Constitution? She also noted that there were no regulations on flexible working hours, no after-school activities and no provisions for lactating mothers. Changes were needed in legislation, as well as practical measures to address those issues.
In the area of health, one expert asked why there were criminal provisions in the penal code regarding family planning and sex education. Also, it was stated that 94 per cent of police reports in 1993 concerned the mistreatment of women. That was a good sign in that it meant that many women were reporting to the police, which many women in other countries did not do because they feared the police. It was also good to hear that Suriname had a plan of action for dealing with violence against women.
In addition, she hoped that the Government would establish a hotline, as well as an adequate number of shelters. In dealing with violence against women, it was important to have a network of various professionals, including the police, health-care professionals and counsellors. Also, a long-term plan was needed to educate people to prevent violence against women.
It was not enough, said an expert, to have laws on the books and then turn a blind eye to the implementation or effectiveness of those laws, particularly with reference to abortion. The report only mentioned abortion under reproductive health, although reproductive health encompassed so much more. Also, what was being done to correct the imbalance in the health situation among different groups of women in society? Furthermore, no information was provided regarding substance abuse, the mental and psychological health of women and the situation of menopausal women in Suriname. In addition, it seemed that only men were targeted with regard to contraception. What was being done to create more awareness regarding the use of contraception?
Also on contraception, another expert asked if there were any plans to abolish the laws punishing the display and offering of contraceptives.
On the issue of sexual harassment, it was stated that, according to a 1998 study, 50 per cent of women indicated being subject to sexual harassment in the workplace. Were there any measures taken to address that issue? She suggested that the State party might want to approach the ILO for assistance in that area. An expert asked whether the Government had encouraged women to complain and seek recourse to address sexual harassment.
Another expert asked what steps were being taken or being envisaged to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, particularly among the young.
Concern was also expressed for Suriname’s social service and public health-care structures. An expert wondered whether claims for and receipt of benefits were based on income or marital status.
On the issue of Suriname’s indigenous women, an expert wondered if special temporary measures were under way to close the wide gap in disparity those women faced. Another said the reports lacked clear information on the situation of rural women. She said the report had too many “Nos” on important issues such as employment in the agricultural sector, the status of tribal women, and health care and education for rural women. She hoped subsequent reports would provide “Yeses” in those instances.
Another expert was concerned by the very low age set for marriage, particularly under the Hindu and Muslim Civil Codes. Even broader civil laws set the age of marriage at 15, which was below that prescribed by the Convention. Several experts noted apparent discrepancies between the various domestic codes that existed in Suriname, and there was the suggestion that while being respectful to other cultures, discriminatory laws should be eradicated in all levels of society.
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