PROTECT ARGENTINE WOMEN FROM EFFECTS OF CRISIS, COMMITTEE URGES NATIONAL COUNCIL

16 August 2002
WOM/1360

PROTECT ARGENTINE WOMEN FROM EFFECTS OF CRISIS, COMMITTEE URGES NATIONAL COUNCIL

16/08/2002
Press Release
WOM/1360


Committee on Elimination of

Discrimination against Women

584th Meeting (AM)


PROTECT ARGENTINE WOMEN FROM EFFECTS OF CRISIS,


COMMITTEE URGES NATIONAL COUNCIL


Experts Concerned by Government Bid to Hold Up Optional Protocol’s Ratification


Expressing profound concern at the unfortunate events unfolding in the wake of Argentina's ongoing economic, financial, political and social crisis, the expert members of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women this morning urged that country’s delegation to take every precaution to ensure women did not suffer disproportionately from job loss, interrupted or delayed payment of wages, shortages of food, medicines, or health services.


The Committee was considering the combined fourth and fifth periodic reports of Argentina on compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women as it continued its three-week exceptional session, being held to reduce a backlog of country reports.


Opening today’s meeting, Charlotte Abaka (Ghana), the Committee's Chairperson, decided to dispense with the traditional article-by-article review of national implementation of the Convention in favour of a broader examination of the impact of the crisis on Argentina's female population.


Expert Committee members noted that according to the news coming out of Argentina, 40 per cent of the population was living in poverty -- 15 million people lived below the poverty line and 2 million were living in extreme poverty.  According to the current President, production and trade were at a standstill, the payments chain had been broken and there was not enough money in circulation to get the economy up and running.


The expert from the Republic of Korea expressed solidarity with Argentina, highlighting some of her own country’s experiences during the 1997 Asian financial crisis.  She said women had suffered greatly during that period, particularly because they were the first to be affected by massive employment layoffs.  With the deepening of the Asian crisis, women and girls had witnessed increased violence against them as well as a troubling return to patriarchal attitudes and norms.


Looking back, she said, the will of the people, as well as broad cooperation between women’s organizations and the Government had helped the nation overcome the sad side effects of the crisis.  She urged Argentina to follow a similar path, using the expertise of women’s groups and other civil society organizations to


ensure that women’s issues remained in the forefront.  She urged the Government to also take advantage of the fact that woman had achieved 30 per cent representation in the legislature.  Their knowledge and expertise would be critical as the country struggled to emerge from the crisis.


While the experts applauded Argentina’s progress on behalf of women's advancement in the face of dire circumstances, they were troubled by the Government's withdrawal of its intention to ratify the Convention's Optional Protocol, citing additional obligations that would infringe on national sovereignty.  The expert from Mexico stressed that the Protocol placed no further obligations on the State -- it merely provided an avenue for women to address human rights issues before international institutions.


The expert from the Philippines said that whatever the political reasons, the National Women’s Council should fight for the Protocol's ratification.  If there were difficulties in enlightening the powers that be as to why the Protocol should be ratified, and on the advantages ratification would afford women, the Council should seek assistance from relevant United Nations agencies, she added.


Gloria Del Socorro Aban, President of the Women’s National Council of Argentina, introduced her country’s reports, saying that the crisis, which started abruptly in December 2001, had grown out of a concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, an increase of poverty, growing unemployment, and a deterioration of social rights.  All those factors had directly affected the status of women.


She said that the Government, through the Council, had implemented the Federal Plan for Women (PFM) to develop the political, technical and operating capacities necessary to design, develop, follow up and assess public policies on the basis of equality between men and women.  The programme had suffered a 33 per cent reduction in budget allocations, which had caused the postponement of certain activities.  However, it had been developing and adjusting, and was now seen as the principal transformation tool for the situation of women.


Zelmira Regazzoli, expert from Argentina, did not participate in today’s meeting, in accordance with the Committee's decision 18/III, which precludes the participation of a member who is a national of a State party whose report is under consideration.


The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women will meet again at 10 a.m. on Monday, 19 August, to take up the combined fourth and fifth periodic reports of Greece.


Background


The fourth periodic report of Argentina (documents CEDAW/C/ARG/4), covering the period from August 1996 to October 1999, says that during the 1990s, President Carlos Menem promoted and supported a resolute and consistent policy for the elimination of discrimination against women.


According to the report, the important achievements of his administration in that regard were the creation of the National Women's Council; the Quotas Act for women; efforts to establish the Act's legitimacy and thus ensure its fulfillment; the constitutional ranking accorded to the Convention; incorporation in the national Constitution, of positive action measures for access to elective office, promoting equal opportunities for men and women; the creation of Women's Offices within the provinces; the Plan for Equal Opportunities in the Workplace; and the Federal Plan for Women, currently being introduced into law.


The report also details actions taken to implement the Committee's recommendations on Argentina’s third report.  Among the measures adopted by the Government was the Women and Human Rights Programme of the Office for Human and Social Rights in the Ministry of the Interior, and the creation of a National Institute against Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism.  Their main operational focus involves:  promoting the issue of discrimination through events and dissemination campaigns; maintaining a free telephone line for reporting cases of discrimination; and conducting research into opinions and attitudes on discrimination, xenophobia, and racism.


Argentina's fifth periodic report (document CEDAW/C/ARG/5), covering the period from February 2000 to December 2001, says that initial economic evaluation of certain institutional changes, such as the creation in 1983 of the Directorate for Women, and the transfer in 1999 of the National Women's Council to the Executive Office of the Cabinet of Ministers, suggest that insufficient resources were allocated.  The Government recognizes, however, that since a cross-cutting approach is regarded as essential to the attainment of the desired objectives, the nominal amount should be adjusted upwards. 


According to the report, the National Women's Council has been pursuing the following goals since 2000:  to justify to society the importance of gender equity for the consolidation of democracy; to promote public policies with a gender perspective in order to help overcome various forms of discrimination against women and encourage appropriate social conditions for guaranteeing women the effective exercise of their rights; and to strengthen local and provincial women's offices.


The report states that among the main activities carried out under the Federal Programme for Women 2000-2001 were institutional strengthening, which included an international seminar on women's and children's rights, training and technical assistance for personnel, and the creation of the Domestic Violence Register.  The report also details Argentina's compliance with the Convention and the Committee's suggestions and recommendations on the country’s third report.


On the question of sexual harassment, for example, several bills had been submitted to the National Congress, including amendments to legislation on labour contracts and on the establishment of a system of sanctions in labour matters.  Some bills proposed the inclusion of sexual harassment in amendments to the Criminal Code. 


Introduction of Reports


CHARLOTTE ABAKA, (Ghana), Committee Chairperson, said the Committee was sensitive to the current situation in Argentina and would not go into details about the implementation of the Convention, but would focus on the general situations regarding discrimination against women.


GLORIA DEL SOCORRO ABAN, President of the Women’s National Council of Argentina, introducing her country’s fourth and fifth periodic reports, said they corresponded to two presidential periods under different political parties.  The Women's National Council had been created 10 years ago and had continuously worked on specific objectives to materialize the commitment made under Argentina’s ratification of the Convention, despite political changes in the country.  The agency’s cumulative and sustained experience allowed it to promote and articulate actions with women in Congress and the political field and with civil organizations.


On progress in legislative matters, she mentioned the enactment and regulation of the Quotas Law, constitutional reform, the Family Violence Law, and an amendment to the Criminal Code.  Follow-up actions as well as the filing of appeals seeking compliance with the incorporation of women in the National Congress had been implemented.  The creation of provincial and municipal women areas had been a priority objective as it was essential to have local women’s mechanisms in a federal country like Argentina.  Twenty-one provincial women’s areas had been created and there were 240 women’s areas operating at the municipal level.


The Women’s Federal Council, created in 1996, was made up of federal counsellors appointed by provincial governments and by representatives of the women provincial areas, she said.  The Council dealt with the different situations and problems of women and approved the annual working schedules of the Women's National Council.  The Ad-Hoc Commission for the Follow-up of the Beijing Action Platform was under the control of the Women’s Directorate, created in 1995, which depended on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Worship.  The Women's National Council was currently working on the creation of a working committee on labour and production integration, political rights and reform, as well as women’s health, with the participation of political women and women non-governmental organization (NGO) members.


She said that the economic, political and social crisis in Argentina, which started abruptly in December 2001, had grown out of a concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, an increase of poverty, growing unemployment, and deterioration of social rights, which had had a direct effect on the status of women.  In 2002, the unemployment rate among women was the same as that of men at 20.3 per cent.  However, several indicators showed a three-month increase in industrial production and a two-month surplus and increase in tax collection.  The Government’s principal plans to respond to the national emergency involved an emergency food plan, a plan for male and female household heads, an emergency health and a national programme for the universalization of the access to medicines.


In Argentina and the rest of the region, most mechanisms for women were vulnerable to adjustments and reductions of public expenditure, she said.  Since 2000, the Women's National Council had undergone serious budget cuts, whereas until 1999, it had depended on the Presidency.  In the present administration, the Council depended on the Presidency of the National Council in charge of Coordinating Social Policies, within the Presidency.  That Council had entered into agreements with the Ministry of Labour and the Ministry of Health.


She said that the Government, through the Council, had implemented the Federal Plan for Women (PFM) to develop the political, technical and operating capacities necessary to design, develop, follow-up and assess public policies on the basis of equality between men and women.  The programme had undergone a total resource reduction of 33 per cent, which had caused the postponement of certain activities.  However, the programme had been developing and was the principal transformation tool for the situation and position of women in society.


In general, she said, Argentine legislation did not discriminate against women in matters of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and provided for the straightforward elimination of all forms of discrimination against women.  However, Legislative reform was necessary to adapt provisions to the different human rights treaties.


The decree regulating the Quotas Law had established general criteria for the application of the law and provided for the minimum number of elected national female senators, she went on.  In the national election of October 2001, women had achieved the 30 per cent minimum elective positions in the National Congress and there were now 76 female deputies and 25 senators.  In April, the Government had sought to withdraw a bill on the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention from Congress, but the bill was still before the Senate.


Stressing the need to adjust the Penal Code to the provisions of the Convention, she said an Act on crimes against sexual integrity had been passed, eliminating the concept of “women of virtue”.  It defined sexual abuse, rape and defloration of minors.  On sex-disaggregated data, she said five national reports had been produced in the areas of labour, health, justice, education and decision-making.  The council had also prepared a gender gap indicatory system, which had become a useful tool in formulating corrective policies.


Apart from legislation in matters of family violence, she said, there were fundamental situations to reinforce, such as specialized assistance to women victims of violence; coordination among different services and the operation of NGO networks; legal protection provided free of charge; and a wider dissemination of the rights being protected.  There was a national Training, Technical Assistance and Awareness Plan on violence against women, as well as an information and monitoring system.  Seminars were also being held on the issue.


She said a comprehensive action plan against the sexual exploitation of children had been agreed upon in 2000.  However, the Penal Code did not define prostitution as a crime, but provided for the punishment of those who promoted, facilitated, profited from or exploited the prostitution of others.  Research on that section was extremely necessary, but had not yet been conducted.  At present, there were about 10 bills before Congress to address sexual harassment.  The Council advised women victims of sexual harassment and had been involved in cases brought before the Central Civil Service.

Over the last decade, she said, maternal mortality had fallen by 25 per cent to 39 for 100,000 births.  Around 90 per cent of those deaths might have been prevented by the availability of adequate health services at all levels.  To address the problem, a national Plan for Reducing Maternal and Children Death Rates had been created.  The Ministry of Health sponsored the Maternal-Childhood and Nutrition Programme.  There was an initiative to create a Responsible Parenthood National Programme.  Besides the capital, Buenos Aires, 14 provinces had had laws or programmes that recognized the rights of women and men to control parenthood.


Experts’ Questions


Ms. ABAKA (Ghana) Committee Chairperson, said she had hoped the Argentine delegation would have given more information on the current situation of women in the country so that ways could be identified to make improvements through a constructive exchange.


MARIA YOLANDA FERRER GOMEZ, expert from Cuba, expressed concern about the plight of women in Argentina as a result of the breakdown in the country’s social, economic and political fabric.  It was important for the Government to ensure that women did not suffer disproportionately during this time.  News reports of events unfolding in the country had been particularly disturbing, specifically stories of women and children roaming the countryside in search of employment, food and shelter.


Noting that all the experts wished to know how the needs of women in the more vulnerable sectors of society would be addressed in the midst of the dramatic events taking place, she expressed particular concern about reports of increased violence against women as well as exploitation through prostitution and “white slavery” rings.  She asked how women themselves were being mainstreamed into programmes aimed at improving the situation of the most vulnerable.


AIDA GONZALEZ MARTINEZ, expert from Mexico, noted that Argentina had worked hard since the beginning of its democratic emergence, it had worked hard to fulfil its obligations under the Convention.  It was particularly troubling, therefore, that its notification to ratify the Convention’s Optional Protocol had been withdrawn under the justification that the Protocol would impose additional requirements that would infringe on national sovereignty.


Stressing that the Protocol did not place any further obligations on the State, she said it merely provided an avenue for women to address human rights issues before international institutions.  Moreover, since it had ratified other international human rights instruments, Argentina should be familiar with the complaints procedure.  Had the Government changed its posture on the issue since the submission of the report? she asked.  If not, refusal to ratify the Protocol was a clear example of discrimination against women.


AYSE FERIDE ACAR (Turkey), Committee Vice-Chairperson, endorsed Ms. Gonzalez’s comments, and particularly underscoring the question of whether Argentina’s refusal to ratify the Optional Protocol was an example of discrimination.  She also expressed concern that the Committee’s concluding comments following Argentina’s previous submission had not been widely distributed.  What were the procedures regarding dissemination of those remarks as well as raising awareness of the Convention?  Could the Committee count on the Government to distribute to women and civil society the experts’ final analysis of today’s review? she asked.


HEISHOO SHIN, expert from the Republic of Korea, expressing solidarity with Argentina and highlighting some of her own country’s experiences during the

1997 Asian financial crisis, said women had suffered greatly during that period, particularly because they had been the first to be affected by massive employment layoffs.  Also, with the deepening of that crisis in the Republic of Korea, women and girls had witnessed a troubling return to patriarchal attitudes and norms.  Moreover, studies had revealed a 35 per cent increase in violence against women.


Looking back, she said, the will of the people, and broad cooperation between women’s organizations and the Government had helped the nation overcome the sad side effects of the crisis.  With that in mind, she urged Argentina to follow a similar path by using the expertise of women’s groups and other civil society organizations to ensure that women’s issues remained in the forefront.  She added that the Government should take advantage of the fact that woman had achieved 30 per cent representation in the legislature, because it would be critical to use their knowledge as the country struggled to emerge from the crisis.


FUMIKO SAIGA, expert from Japan, said that in light of the serious crisis, it was commendable that Argentina had specific programmes for women’s employment and health.  However, she had some difficulty in understanding the division of labour and responsibilities among the many agencies and ministries.  Could the delegation shed some light on how those institutions coordinated their work?


SJAMSIAH ACHMAD, expert from Indonesia, expressing great sympathy with the delegation as well as admiration for the National Council of Women, asked how the agency had been able to achieve so many of its goals during difficult times.  How had the delegation been able to get the support of such a large and diverse group of civil society organizations?  She asked whether the agency was similarly cooperating with local leaders, religious groups and academics concerned about the situation of women and urged the Government to keep the door open for grass-roots organizations, particularly women’s groups, to monitor and report on the conditions of women in local communities and rural areas.


Country Response


Ms. ABAN, responding to the experts’ questions, said Argentina was a federal country divided into autonomous provinces, which in turn were divided into more than 2,000 municipalities, the smallest units responsible to the people.  The Women's National Council was composed at the national level of a directorate made up of representatives from all ministries.  There was also a Federal Council for Women, presided over by the President of the Women's National Council, and composed of women representatives from the provinces.  Every province had a women’s office and each municipality had a representative who was in touch with the provincial office.


Despite the current problems, she said, the Women's National Council could continue its work because of the strong links forged over the last decade with governmental and non-governmental bodies throughout the country.  The coordination between the Council and the Ministries for Social Development, Labour and Health was due to the fact that the Women's National Council took part in Cabinet meetings, thus being present at the highest decision-making level.  Argentina tried to make sure that ratified conventions would not remain mere pieces of paper, but would become enforceable law.


She agreed that during the current emergency, violence against women had increased and that women were overburdened.  As many men had become unemployed, women looked for jobs while continuing to take care of the household.  In order to address those problems, some programmes had been eliminated to finance food programmes in remote areas as well as social insertion programmes for heads of households.  Half the recipients of such programmes were women.  There was an attempt to make the social programmes more transparent by having representatives at every municipal level.  Where consultative bodies existed, NGOs were involved, as was the private sector.  The programmes themselves were insufficient, however, because of lack of resources.  There was much to be done, particularly for young people, an issue that had not been dealt with.


Agreeing also with experts’ remarks about the Optional Protocol, she said the Women's National Council felt that Argentina should use the same criteria it had used when signing other Optional Protocols.  The Council would continue to work for ratification and the Committee’s recommendations would be disseminated throughout the country through the existing network.


She said two additional programmes would be implemented in the near future. PROGEM was an emergency health programme financed by the World Bank.  $21 million had been earmarked for medical supplies, including birth control devices.  The programme was aimed at, among other things, reducing maternal mortality by promoting reproductive health, making contraceptives available at the community level and involving men and adolescents.


PROGEM and a food emergency programme of the Social Development Ministry would provide funding for dining halls where some 1,000 disadvantaged people could be fed for five days a week for a month, she said.  It included a training programme for men and women beneficiaries as well as NGOs, and a gender-disaggregated registry for recipients.  Training on family violence took place in Cordoba and Greater Buenos Aires, the most critical areas in that regard.


She said that the greatest challenge now was not only to work for equality between men and women, but also to ensure that the greatest number of people could have access to basic services, work, culture and education.


Experts’ Questions


ROSARIO MANALO (Philippines), Committee Vice-Chairperson, concerned by the Government’s request to withdraw its intention to ratify the Optional Protocol, said that whatever the political reasons, the National Women’s Council should fight for ratification.  If there were difficulties in getting information on why the Protocol should be ratified to the powers that be and on the advantages ratification would afford women, the Council should seek assistance from relevant United Nations agencies.


She said she was heartened by efforts to address the exploitation of women and children and applauded efforts to improve conditions for domestic workers.  She asked about Government policies to address the issue of women emigrating during the current crisis.

Country Response


Ms. ABAN, agreeing that the issue of the Protocol was indeed a source of great concern, said it was a very important instrument and the Council was fighting for its ratification.  It was hoped that the presentation of the Committee’s comments and observations on the issue would help change the Government’s current stance.


She said Argentina was also concerned about emigration, during the current crisis, of young women.  She did know how the problem could be solved, but elections were coming up in a few months and campaigns would no doubt focus on employment.  Meanwhile, the current administration was struggling to reactivate the job market.  So far, however, not much progress had been made in that regard.


Experts’ Questions


IVANKA CORTI, expert from Italy, expressing solidarity with Argentine women as they bore the heaviest burden of the current crisis, said she was, nevertheless seriously troubled by the fact that that even in the midst of such dramatic events, the Government had time to express its displeasure with the Optional Protocol.  It should be particularly focused on ensuring women’s right to health and food.  What was the current situation of Argentine hospitals? she asked.  What was being done to address the increase in HIV/AIDS cases?


She also asked what was being done to address the situation of elderly women, particularly their health care concerns.  She also asked if Ms. Aban had spoken to the Prime Minister about how the political machinery could ensure that all programmes envisaged by the Council would be put in place?


CHRISTINE KAPALATA, expert from the United Republic of Tanzania, also expressed concern about Argentina’s health sector and the increasing cases of mother-to-child transmissions of the AIDS virus and hoped the delegation would provide further information on that issue in its next report.


Ms. ABAKA (Ghana), Committee Chairperson, echoed concerns on women’s health issues and strongly recommended the inclusion of women living with HIV/AIDS as beneficiaries in proposed health initiatives.  She also noted that when country’s social fabric had broken down, there was often an increase in violence against women, particularly rape.  With that in mind, how did doctors and other medical professionals -– who often imposed their own beliefs on their patients -- react to female patients who entered their care following self-induced abortions?


She asked whether the Government was considering expanding laws on the termination of pregnancies in cases of rape for women who were not disabled?  All women in such circumstances experienced tremendous mental and psychological torture and needed specific attention.  She also expressed concern about laws that prevented women from transferring their social benefits to their spouses.


Country Response


Ms. ABAN said the public health situation had been deteriorating even before the crisis and was therefore one of the country’s highest priorities.  It was thanks to the fact that most provinces had health instructors going door to door

to create awareness of health rights that the situation had not deteriorated even further.


She said the health emergency had been declared by decree in order to recover many health services that had been eroded.  The objective was to ensure a normal supply of medication and basic services, including the necessary care to prevent disease.  Nowadays, contraceptives were included in the provision of medical supplies.  The agreement between the Women's National Council and the Ministry of Health included the aim of creating awareness among professional health workers of health care as a basic human right.


The Women's National Council was concerned about the lack of provisions regarding interruption of pregnancy and had made the issue a priority, she said.  Although no statistics on violence against women were available, the Council was aware that violence had increased.  Efforts were underway to establish a unified register and to disseminate guidelines.  Promising to provide the requested statistics on HIV/AIDS as soon as possible, she said the population had access to medicines for the treatment of AIDS through the health services.


Ms. ABAKA (Ghana) Committee Chairperson, said in concluding remarks that the real concern of experts was that women should not suffer disproportionally in Argentina’s current difficult situation.  However, the implementation of some aspects of the Convention did not require financial resources, but only political will.


Expressing the hope that the concluding remarks, would be widely disseminated in Argentina, at all levels of power and among NGOs, she urged a genuine partnership with NGOs in the implementation of the Convention.  The Latin American subregion had been very serious in its international obligations and had achieved universal ratification of the Convention, she noted, adding that she expected the same with the Optional Protocol.


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For information media. Not an official record.