EXPERTS PRAISE BELGIUM'S INNOVATIVE PROMOTION OF GENDER EQUALITY, URGE COORDINATION OF ACTION BY COUNTRY'S FEDERATED BODIES

10 June 2002
WOM/1344

EXPERTS PRAISE BELGIUM'S INNOVATIVE PROMOTION OF GENDER EQUALITY, URGE COORDINATION OF ACTION BY COUNTRY'S FEDERATED BODIES

10/06/2002
Press ReleaseWOM/1344

Committee on Elimination of

Discrimination against Women

559th & 560th Meetings (AM & PM)

EXPERTS PRAISE BELGIUM'S INNOVATIVE PROMOTION OF GENDER EQUALITY,

URGE COORDINATION OF ACTION BY COUNTRY'S FEDERATED BODIES

Congratulating Belgium on the progress it had achieved in advancing equality between men and women, expert members of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women nevertheless expressed concern over the intricacy and complexity of its national machinery today.

During a day-long examination of the status of women in Belgium, the Committee’s 23 experts -- charged with monitoring implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women -- wondered about coordination between various bodies at federal and local levels, saying that their multiplicity could lead to confusion and duplication in implementation of the Convention.  Most speakers agreed, however, that Belgium’s equality-oriented policies were, in many ways, exemplary and should serve as an example to other countries.

Presenting his country’s third and fourth periodic reports on compliance with the Convention, which cover the period from 1989 through 1997, Jean De Ruyt (Belgium) said that his country was a federal State, where jurisdiction was split between federal and federated entities, without hierarchy between them.  Belgian society did not have a claim to perfection, but the cause of gender equality was among its priorities at all levels.  Since 1989, the country had made significant progress in gender mainstreaming.  Recently, actions had been taken to integrate a gender perspective in all actions of both federal and federated authorities.

The Government’s priorities included the fight against domestic violence and trafficking in women, he said.  In particular, a sensitivity campaign had been initiated to condemn violence.  The Flemish-speaking community had started a campaign to demonstrate that violence within the home was unacceptable.  New local policies on physical and sexual violence had been initiated, including measures to gather statistical data on that phenomenon and provide assistance to victims.  Various Government ministries were currently considering a national plan in that respect.

Among other actions undertaken in the country, he listed a coordinated employment policy, introduction of election quotas, and a cooperative agreement on women and new technologies in order to increase use of modern means of communication and make them accessible to all.

Several speakers in the ensuing debate wondered about the inter–relation between Belgium’s actions in accordance with the European Union’s provisions to advance the position of women and those in implementation of the Convention, which was frequently described as the women’s bill of rights, being a broad human rights instrument. 

An expert expressed concern that the reports referred more to the Beijing Platform for Action than to the Convention itself.  Another speaker stressed the complementary nature of those instruments, with the Convention providing a legal framework, and the Beijing Platform for Action outlining concrete measures to achieve the goals of equality.

With migration the focus of attention in Europe, an expert expressed surprise that Belgium had not given due attention to that question in its reports.  The country had received many migrant workers and refugees in the past, and several speakers wanted to know about the country’s current policies in connection with those issues.

Also stressed in the discussion was the importance of embracing the Convention without reservations.  Speakers welcomed the fact that Belgium had removed its objections to article 7 of the treaty, having revised its constitutional provisions on transmission of royal powers to female heirs.  Similar action was being considered on article 15 regarding matrimonial property of rural women.

The experts also urged Belgium to speed up its ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention, which entitles the Committee to conduct inquiries into grave or systematic violations of the Convention and consider petitions from individuals or groups of women who have exhausted national remedies.

It was interesting that the reports contained information not only about discrimination against women, but also discrimination against men, an expert said, wondering if such “gender neutrality” was premature.  It could be dangerous to present information in such a symmetrical and politically correct way long before systemic correction of discrimination against women had been achieved.

Among other issues addressed today were prostitution, teenage pregnancies and the country’s achievements in the area of women’s health.

Responding to questions and comments from the floor were the following members of the delegation of Belgium:  Alexandra Adriaenssens, Responsible de l’egalité des chances du Ministère de la Communauté française de Belgique; Valerie Verzele, Conseillère auprès de la Vice-Première Ministre, Ministre de l'Emploi et de la Politique d’égalité de chances; Marie-Paule Patternottre, Conseillère, responsable de la Direction de l’égalité de Chances; Martha Franken, Directeur de la Cellule égalité de chances, Communauté flamade de Belgique; Variska Huygh, Adjointe du Directeur de la Cellule égalité de chances, Communaute flamande de belgique; and Birgit Stevens of Belgium’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations.

At 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 12 June, the Committee will take up the situation in Denmark.  [Because of visa problems, the reports of Republic of Congo, initially scheduled for tomorrow, were rescheduled for next week.]

Reports before Committee

According to Belgium’s third and fourth periodic reports (document CEDAW/C/BEL/3-4), which cover the period from 1989 through 1997, the country’s law forbids any discrimination between men and women.  The only discriminatory provision in the Constitution regarding women was found in the former article 60, which read that the power of the King was hereditary, passed from male to male, to the perpetual exclusion of women and their descendants.  That discriminatory provision was eliminated in 1991, and the reservation to the Convention, which was originally entered by Belgium in that regard, is now null and void. 

Conscious of the fact that even the most perfect legal and regulatory texts are not sufficient to achieve full de facto equality, Belgium has launched a series of campaigns aimed at breaking down the stereotypes that tend to hold back progress.  The country’s efforts range from the way duties and responsibilities are shared within the family to media treatment of the issue, and affirmative action has been taken in both the public and private sectors to increase women’s access to decision-making and improve their situation in general.  Action is being taken not only at the national, but also at the European level. 

Since the end of the 1980s, the country’s legislation has provided for the implementation of measures to promote equal opportunities for men and women.  Steps are taken to correct situations prejudicial to women and promote their participation in working life.  In the public sector, it is mandatory for all civil service departments to design and implement equal opportunities plans.  In the private sector, the Government urges implementation of affirmative action on behalf of women, and financial incentives have been introduced in that regard.  In June 1997, for the first time, an “Equal Opportunities Prize” was awarded to two employers, following a selection process based on the model of the European Foundation for Quality Management.

The Government is promoting balanced distribution of duties and responsibilities between men and women in various areas of social, economic and political life, the report continues.  To consolidate the thrust of this policy, a Council on Equal Opportunities between Men and Women was created in 1993; its main purpose is to contribute to eliminating all direct and indirect discrimination between the sexes.  The Council consists of representatives of employers’ and workers’ organizations, women’s organizations and competent advisory bodies, as well as the Ministers of the civil services, employment and labour. 

The World Conference on Women in Beijing highlighted the need to collect data broken down by sex, and the general lack of statistics on women, the report states.  To meet that demand, two universities have been charged with carrying out an inventory of existing official statistics broken down by sex, and preparing proposals on supplementary data needs in the areas of employment, decision-making, health, taxation and demography.  The results of this research should help in preparing a strategy and recommendations in those areas. 

Among other issues addressed in the report is feminization of names of occupations, functions, grades and titles.  In the French-speaking community, the decree of June 1993 calls for such measures in all public-sector documents, as well as in education and training institutions and associations.  To make female employees more visible, the Flemish community has drafted a circular to encourage all personnel to make use of their first names.  Regularly published is a brochure listing hundreds of women active in various areas, which has been widely distributed to journalists and institutions. 

As far as discrimination in the workplace is concerned, Belgium reports that women are no longer alone in suffering from discrimination in job offers and hiring procedures.  Indeed, men are also affected, for example in the health-care sector.  This new trend is perhaps the result of the crisis in the industry, where traditionally male-oriented lines of work are disappearing.  This is pushing more men to seek jobs in occupations classified as female-dominated. 

Among the measures to overcome traditional stereotypes is a major sensitization campaign about the sharing of household tasks, which was started in 1995.  It included radio spots, posters in public facilities, distribution of posters for use by women’s organizations, schools and other organizations, and postcards for sale in railway stations and cafes.  Among other activities to promote equality was a Flemish media campaign and newspaper and magazine advertisements; provision of funding to promote female artists; and publication of 10 children’s books dealing with equal opportunity.

Regarding violence against women, the report states that a scientific study has been conducted in Belgium on the nature, scope and consequences of physical and sexual violence, and a public awareness campaign has been launched.  Efforts have been made to improve the legal situation of victims, as reflected, for example, in the new rape law of 1989, which includes “any kind of sexual penetration of whatever sort and whatever means, committed on a non-consenting person”.  Rape within marriage is also punishable by law.

Since many victims of sexual violence do not report such crimes, medical attestation forms and a procedural brochure have been provided to doctors for reporting acts of violence.  Special training is provided to medical and other personnel dealing with the victims, and several shelters have been set up in the country.  Sexual harassment in the workplace is also receiving significant attention from the Government.

One of the main objectives of the Belgian 1984 Nationality Code was elimination of any discrimination with respect to the transfer of nationality to a spouse or children.  The provision that “marriage has no automatic effect on nationality” is consistent with international conventions, including the Convention.  With respect to the granting of nationality to children, Belgian legislation does not make a distinction between maternal and paternal descent.  A child born in Belgium of a Belgian mother and a father who has another nationality or is stateless, acquires Belgian nationality.  In a case of a child born abroad, the Belgian mother can claim Belgian nationality for her child within five years after the birth. In the absence of such a declaration, the child will acquire Belgian nationality anyway, provided it does not have another nationality by the age of 18.

A pregnant woman enjoys protection against dismissal for reasons related to her condition from the moment she informs her employer of her pregnancy until one month after the end of her maternity leave.  The new legislation accords a woman the right to demand that the employer give her written justification for her dismissal, and the amount of dismissal indemnity in cases of violation of the law has been increased from three to six months’ gross pay.  A female employee is entitled to 15 weeks of paid maternity leave, including nine weeks’ mandatory leave.  The social security law of 1990 makes it possible for the father to take the remainder of the childbirth leave in place of the mother, in the event of the death of a mother, or hospitalization of the mother and child.

Introduction of Reports

Presenting the reports, JEAN DE RUYT (Belgium) said that his country was a federal State, where jurisdiction was split between federal and federated entities, without hierarchy between them.  Belgian society did not have a claim to perfection, but the cause of advancing equality between men and women was among its priorities at all levels.  Since 1989, the country had made significant progress in that respect, with each ministry designing policies to ensure the advancement of women.  Recently, actions had been taken to integrate a gender perspective in all actions of both federal and federated authorities –- gender mainstreaming.

He told the Committee that in November 1998, the country had lifted its reservation on article 7 of the Convention and started the process aimed at lifting its reservation on article 15 of the treaty.  [Article 7 conflicted with Belgium’s constitutional rules for accession to the throne; article 15 deals with the marital property rights of rural couples.]  It had also started ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention.

As of February, the country’s Constitution explicitly guaranteed equality between men and women, he said.  Belgium was also currently considering draft legislation condemning all forms of discrimination, including discrimination based on gender, religious or philosophical convictions, state of health and race.  The draft called for action to put an end to all forms of discriminatory behaviour.  Also considered was creation of a public and independent body in defence of women’s rights, which would, inter alia, conduct research.  Certain structural changes had recently been introduced in Belgium’s French-speaking community to coordinate equal opportunity measures.  To ensure consistency of measures by federal and federated authorities, a conference on equal opportunity had been instituted in the country to combat violence against women, improve their access to information technologies and ensure balance between men and women in advisory bodies.

Among the Government’s priorities was the fight against domestic violence and trafficking in women and sexual exploitation, he said.  In particular, a sensitivity campaign had been initiated to condemn violence.  The Flemish-speaking community had started a campaign to demonstrate that violence within the home was unacceptable.  New local policies on physical and sexual violence had been initiated, including measures to gather statistical data on that phenomenon and provide assistance to victims.  Various Government Ministers were currently considering a two-year national plan in that respect.

Belgium had also continued to combat trafficking in people, paying special attention to trafficking in women and children for sexual exploitation.  The legislative act of 1995 was a good tool in that respect, giving greater weight to statements of victims and providing them increased protection.  More than 200 judgements and arrests had been carried out in 1999 and 2000, and some 230 victims had been treated at specialized centres. 

Belgium had also developed a coordinated employment policy, he continued, integrating equality between sexes.  This year, a national plan had been introduced.  It recognized the need to focus coordinated efforts on high-risk groups which found it particularly difficult to find employment, including seniors, women and the under-skilled.  Among the Government’s actions to increase women’s employment and give them better chances was introduction of a monthly bonus to long-term unemployed with children who took jobs; compensatory time; promotion of training; and development of services.  A plan was designed to increase the number of day-care centres, which would allow women to blend their professional and home lives. 

Regarding new information and communication technologies, he said that in November 2001, federal and federated authorities had concluded a cooperative agreement on women and new technologies in order to increase use of modern means of communication and make them accessible to all.  It was also important to make traditionally male spheres of employment open to women.  Steps were being taken to promote equal pay for work of equal value.  Negotiations were under way to increase the participation of social partners in those efforts.

Regarding women’s participation in public life, he said that in 1994 Belgium had been the first European country to introduce quotas in balloting, which by 1999 had raised women’s participation as electoral candidates well above the minimum figure required by law.  The number of women actually elected to legislative, communal and regional bodies had risen to one quarter of the total.  Efforts were being made to fight stereotypes and change the political culture of the country.  Making women more active politically was also among the priorities of both the French and the Flemish communities.

Continuing, he described the country’s efforts to promote women’s participation in sports and its policies in the area of women’s health.  Regarding education, he said that men and women had equal opportunities.  Among future challenges was the need to combat indirect discrimination, and the notion that all bastions had already fallen.  It was important to take positive actions to sensitize the population to matters of gender equality and overcome stereotypes in that respect.

Experts’ Comments

As members of the Committee started their discussion of the reports, they stressed the importance of withdrawing reservations to the Convention, welcoming the fact the Belgium had lifted its objections to article 7 of the treaty, having revised its constitutional provisions on transmission of royal powers to female heirs, and was considering similar action regarding article 15 on matrimonial property rights of rural spouses.  They also urged Belgium to speed up its ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention. 

Congratulating the country on the progress achieved, several speakers agreed that Belgium was one of the countries that should pave the way for others as far as equality between men and women was concerned.  Some said that the equality-oriented policies pursued by Belgium were, in many ways, exemplary. 

Despite recent achievements, however, an expert raised concern about the multiplicity of women’s issues machinery in Belgium, and the possibility of duplication and overlap of functions.  She asked how the various actions were coordinated.  Questions were also raised regarding the inter–relation of the country’s actions in implementation of the Convention and compliance with the European Union’s directives in that respect.  There was a difference between the labour directives of the European Union and the recognition that labour rights were human rights under the Convention, for example. 

The Convention should be a living instrument in Belgium, an expert said.  How was it publicized in the country?  How effective were its positive measures for the advancement of women?  What finally counted were the results, another speaker added.  How were the efforts for gender equality monitored in the public sector?  What were the major obstacles towards achieving a better balance in the public and private employment sectors?

Defining a broad concept of equality, the country’s Constitution did not include any specific articles dealing with discrimination on the basis of sex, a speaker pointed out, inquiring about the reasons for that. Did the country’s sexual harassment law apply only to employment, or to broader aspects as well?  Questions were also posed on enforcement mechanisms as far as rights guarantees were concerned.

There seemed to be a lack of participation of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the country’s efforts aimed at gender equality, another speaker said.  How had they participated in the preparation of the country’s reports, for example?

A speaker noted a code recently developed by the country’s commission on ethics in telecommunications as an important contribution as far as the use of information technology was concerned.  She wanted to know if there was a database regarding child victims of pornography and sexual attacks.

Country Response

MARIE-PAULE PATTERNOTTRE, a representative of Belgium, said that, as Belgium had signed and ratified the Convention, it was now part of the country’s domestic legal system, and it might be referred to in court cases.  It was up to the judge to determine whether or not the terms of the Convention were specific enough. 

She said that although it was true the Constitution did not make mention of gender discrimination, as such, it made reference to “gender equality”.  In response to another observation, she confirmed that Belgium did not have systematic case law.

On sexual harassment, she explained that there were more general laws that fought against harassment in a general way.  A draft bill which addressed violence at work, including harassment and physical violence, was now being worked on.  She said that the Equality Council was merely an advisory body which did not receive complaints.  Both organizations and individuals could indicate to the Council instances of harassment and abuse, and the Council could then provide an opinion.

Commenting on the incidence of Internet and associated crime, she said that efforts were under way to centralise and institute ways of dealing with that type of crime in Belgium.  Some measures to deal with trafficking in children already existed, but they had not been widely supported.  She added that there was now, however, a strong will among citizens and policy makers to implement them.

Another speaker responded that the federal State existed for policy and coordination.  With respect to policy development in that area, Belgium’s international development and cooperation laws guaranteed equality for both men and women.  She cited Afghanistan, noting that most aid that country received from Belgium was predicated on how much of it would directly affect women and children.

On NGOs, she said that the Government took into account their voice and concerns when reports were being prepared.  Although they were not involved in the writing of this report, they had been widely consulted just before it in the preparation and follow-up of the Beijing Conference.  She said that since 2001 different coordinating NGOs had received a yearly structural financial support in order to act as a partner between the federal Minister and the administration in charge of equal opportunity policy and all Belgian NGOs.

MARTHA FRANKEN, a representative of Belgium, said that both the federal and community levels coordinated their activities in the equal opportunity area.  A research centre to develop statistics on gender issues such as culture and education had been set up.  Policy makers and NGOs participated in that research, during which several goals were established.  Priorities based on the Beijing platform were then defined as the basis for implementing them at the local level, she said.

ALEXANDRA ADRIAENSSENS, a representative of Belgium, said that the French community organizes meetings between representatives of different Ministers of education in order to promote policies of equality between boys and girls in the educational system.  Responding to an observation on how budgetary allocations were used, she said that allocations were given to finance research, as well as to projects which provided access to study for young women and those providing care to children

Experts’ Comments

Several speakers commended the country’s efforts to eliminate negative stereotypes about women.  An expert asked about the implementation of the law on feminization of names of occupations, functions, grades and titles, which had been introduced in the French-speaking community some 10 years ago.

The structure of the national gender equality machinery was confusing, another speaker said, asking for clarifications in that regard.  The fact that there were different levels of autonomy and authority within the country could negatively impact the implementation of the Convention, for discrepancies and duplication could arise at various levels.  One of the speakers pointed out, however, that the existence of numerous local and central structures ensured that adequate attention was given to women’s issues in the country.

The problem of migration in Europe was a cause of serious discussion, an expert said, and it was surprising that Belgium had not given due attention to that problem in its reports.  The country had received many migrant workers in the past, and several speakers wanted to know about the current trends in that area.  What was the country’s policy for integration of migrant women in its society?  How were inter-ethnic marriages treated there?  Did migrants enjoy equal protection under the law?  How were the Convention’s provisions implemented with regard to migrant women within Belgium?

Questions were also asked about such issues as the number of women journalists in high-level positions; statistics on women in the legal profession; the country’s refugee policy; the mechanics of gender mainstreaming; and victims’ recourse to the courts and the sentencing policy in cases of violence.

Country Response

Ms. PATTERNOTTRE, a representative of Belgium, responded that the structure Belgium had in place allowed different communities and regions to be reached.  Admitting that the system might at first appear too complicated to outsiders, she said it nevertheless allowed for meeting the needs of different communities.  It also encouraged the formulation of better initiatives on violence against women.

Responding to a speaker who wanted to know if aid was given on the basis of different ethnic groups, she said there were instances when specific actions targeting specific groups on those lines arose.  But that was purely a result of the special needs of such specific ethnic groups.  “In sexual violence and abuse, for example, we are targeting languages rather than ethnic groups”, she said.

The administration had been prompted to elaborate these programmes by working directly with various sectors of the Belgian economy or with sectors where there was low representation.  There was nothing specific being done with regard to violence in the workplace per se.  Women-specific issues were taken into account by relevant designated advisors.  As for the role played by the courts, she explained that when the report stated that courts were not best for solving domestic violence, it in no way meant they were irrelevant to efforts against violence.

Women and children so victimized had an established avenue for recourse, as indicated by the 1996 law designed to combat domestic violence against women.  That law had had an impact, she said.  Furthermore, work was under way to refine those laws, so that in the future mainstreaming such issues would be more targeted.  Once conclusive results had been obtained, it was intended that they would then spread throughout society, she said.

The involvement of NGOs and other associations in the entire process was just as important as that of the courts, she added.

VALERIE VERZELE, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, said that exploitation of prostitutes was punishable under the law in Belgium.  Trafficking in human beings affected and involved people from many places -- not just from Belgium.  Victims of trafficking had the right to temporary asylum.  Belgium also supported voluntary repatriation of victims of sexual as well as human trafficking.

Refugee women could get political asylum on account of their sex, but there had to be reasonable grounds of fear of persecution.  Women represented 45 per cent of the accepted total of refugees.  Belgium also punished cases of genital mutilation. 

Outbreaks of racism and xenophobia across Europe were also of major concern, she said.  Discrimination based on race was punishable in Belgium.  Various steps were being taken to fight violence and gender discrimination nationwide at both the local and federal levels.  Women from abroad formed a large proportion of the victims.

She said that gender mainstreaming involved all sectors.  It was complex and could not be expected to be accomplished overnight.  The situation of women in public service was not just the responsibility of the Ministry of Equal Opportunity but of all ministries, and took into account many elements and involved various parties.  

She said that communities and regions had each developed initiatives suited to their own situation.

Ms. ADRIANSSENS said that French-language gender mainstreaming accounted for a total of 750,000 Euros of the budget.  The Ministry of Sport had also launched a campaign to involve more women.

That coordination would need to provide an “opportunity plan” that would include the improvement and upgrading of management training.  As with the speaker before her, she said this would again take time and could not be achieved overnight.  She said she would provide a written response at a later time to a question about the number of women in senior media management.

Ms. FRANKEN said that because Belgium’s Flemish- and French-speaking communities were truly different cultures, the methods used in mainstreaming were equally different.  Because of that, there was no mainstreaming in the French community from the point of view of the Flemish community, and it had been stressed that it was each respective community’s responsibility to mainstream gender issues in their own communities.

What was important was that the Prime Minister would at the same time be in charge of overseeing the programme in Flanders, and that would make it possible for the programme to be implemented more effectively.  Different instruments had been developed in order to be able to implement the programme efficiently.

She agreed that the Flemish community found it easier to work with the Beijing Platform for Action rather than the Convention because the former had already been translated, unlike the Convention itself.  She added that whatever happened in the media ought to be screened with regard to gender balance and neutrality.  She was unable to provide the exact number of women in senior media positions and hoped that would also be answered in the written response.

Further Expert Comments

An expert wondered if mediation was the best way to deal with the question of violence, for instead of confronting the problem, it sometimes pressured the victim into staying with the offender.  What was being done in Belgium to mitigate the dangers of such practices?

The law of 1994 designed to increase women’s participation in public life was an impressive positive step, several experts said.  However, in some cases, the quotas in the election system had not been achieved.  A new law was now being elaborated in that respect, and questions were asked about the challenges that the country had encountered in achieving the goals set. 

Speakers also pointed out that, despite the country’s efforts, there were still very few women in such areas as the diplomatic service, for example.  Concern was also expressed about the sustainability of affirmative action to increase political participation of women, for achievements should not be evaluated through the introduction of legal provisions alone.  Final results should serve as a measure of success. 

Among Belgium’s attainments, the experts listed its efforts to allow women to develop both the public and private aspects of their life and its assistance to women in pursuit of their careers. 

Several speakers were concerned that the reports referred more to European Union policies and the Beijing Platform for Action than to the provisions of the Convention itself.  One expert stressed the complementary nature of those instruments.  While the Convention provided a broad legal framework for action for the advancement of women, the Beijing Platform for Action provided suggestions for concrete action in pursuing the goals of equality.

Country Responses

Ms. VERZELE said that provision of paternity leave of 10 working days had also been implemented, and it was thought that this would help make men more aware of their responsibilities. 

She said there had been signs of resistance, especially by some political parties, against the law passed in 1994, which sought to redress the imbalance between men and women.  The project had been revised:  instead of allocating one third of National Assembly lists to women, it proposed one quarter as a transitory measure before effectively reaching one third.  Last month a further piece of legislation was again voted into law, providing for the allocation of 50 per cent of places on the lists to women.

Another law provided for quotas in the advisory bodies but it was very difficult to fully implement them all because women were under-represented in certain fields.  However, she went on, “we have gone more or less from 10 per cent to about one third in many areas”.

On the admission of women into the diplomatic corps, there were plans to launch a publicity campaign stressing that all posts were equally open to both men and women.  Aspiring candidates would then take an examination in order join the service.

BIRGIT STEVENS, of Belgium’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations, said that “an interesting phenomenon” was women’s declining interest in serving in the diplomatic service.  That was now the subject of a study aimed at finding the reasons behind the trend.  There was no evidence that the Ministry had discouraged spouses from taking up posts in the diplomatic service.

Ms. PATTERNOTTRE added that an inquiry had been conducted after the last diplomatic entrance examination, involving young men and women who had initially attended an “informational” meeting, but had later failed to take the examination.  There was also concern raised that it was a problem for some spouses to find employment abroad.

Ms. FRANKEN said focus had also been placed on encouraging voters to vote for women candidates.  Secondly, political leaders were targeted to help in the campaign to encourage more women to compete for available posts.  That campaign became more pronounced during election time, although it was an ongoing one.  There was also the “Sofia mentoring programme”, targeting women with the same intention:  to encourage women candidates.  Additionally, there was also a training course aimed at political leadership in Flanders.  A database had also been established through which women were sought and made readily available for all kinds of activities and positions.  In spite of all those efforts, the trend indicated that many women quickly lost interest, declined or pulled out after having been elected.  Many cited lack of sincere support from the menfolk once they entered those jobs.  As a result, many rapidly lost interest in their new jobs.

Experts' Comments

Experts also congratulated the country on its “tremendous achievements” in ensuring women’s health, in particular as far as efforts to combat HIV/AIDS were concerned.  However, the results in various regions of the country were not uniform, a speaker pointed out, stressing the need to better coordinate the implementation of the Convention all over the country.

Expressing concern over the phenomenon of teenage pregnancy and voluntary pregnancy termination at ages as low as 14, a speaker asked for further information in that regard.

It was interesting that the reports contained information not only about discrimination against women, but also discrimination against men, an expert said, wondering if such “gender neutrality” was premature.  It could be dangerous to present information in such a symmetrical and politically correct way, long before systemic correction of discrimination against women had been achieved.

It was also noted that Belgium’s law on sexual abuse referred to sexual abuse as a crime of morals, but it should be seen as a violent crime.  That was a problem.  The language of the law could benefit from the insights of women lawyers in that respect.

Having responsibilities under the Convention, asked one expert, did the federal Government ensure universal compliance with its provisions as far as educational policies at the provincial level were concerned?.

Questions were also raised about protection of older women and the situation of women with disabilities.  Several speakers expressed a wish to receive more detailed statistical information on several articles of the Convention in Belgium’s future reports.

Responses

Ms. PATTERNOTTRE said that within the framework of gender mainstreaming, there was a lot of work being done to give the opportunity to the elderly, primarily women, to remain at homes.  Otherwise, there were no specific measures aimed at the country's elderly as such.  With regard to the disabled, a series of measures had been developed to cover that group of men and women equally.  That aspect would be covered by her colleagues, she said.

In conjunction with social partners and Belgium’s European colleagues, she said, a new system was being developed to consider harmonization of the current salary disparities.  Further, there had been complaints and cases brought to court concerning salaries.  But often those came into the open only after the complainants had lost their jobs.  Most such cases were, therefore, often old.

Unemployment benefits had no time restrictions in Belgium.  During the last two years, there had been a drop in a certain type of female unemployment, she noted.  The Government’s primary goal was to insist on quality employment.  That took into consideration both young people coming on to the labour market as well as those with lower salaries.

Another major area of activity was the finalizing of a non-discriminatory tax system.  As that was a lengthy process, it needed careful examination and analysis.

Ms. FRANKEN added that figures were not available on the number of disabled in Flanders.  They would endeavour to provide more statistics in future reports.

Experts’ Questions

In the final round of questions, several experts addressed the way the Government made adjustments for certain cultural traditions on Belgian soil.  For example, it recognized the Muslim tradition of repudiating a wife, and that was disturbing, an expert said.

Questions were also asked about the increase in the country’s divorce rate and the rules governing the transmission of family names from parents to children.

An expert also asked what the Belgian Constitution said about the obligations of the federal Government in implementation of international law.

Country Response

Members of the delegation explained that under the country’s civil code, if a couple was married, the child took the father’s name.  A discussion was currently under way on the possibility of letting the parents choose the name, or the combination of both.  But in that case, a question arose regarding the names of future generations and the preservation of the family name.

As for the custom of repudiation, a decision by a foreign court was not recognized in Belgium if a woman was not present at the time of such a decision, if she did not accept it, or if one of the spouses was Belgian.  The custom was alien to Belgian law, but in certain cases when people came to Belgium and a woman wanted to be married again, the law recognized that right.

An international treaty became obligatory in the country immediately following its ratification.  The federal Government did not impose any laws on the entities of the federation, but it had to convey to the communities and regions the text of the Convention.  Under the existing procedure, the Convention had to be ratified by the entities of the federation.

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For information media. Not an official record.