WOMEN’S ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE URGES CONGO TO ELIMINATE TRADITIONAL PRACTICES, CUSTOMARY LAWS UNFAIR TO WOMEN

27 January 2003
WOM/1382

WOMEN’S ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE URGES CONGO TO ELIMINATE TRADITIONAL PRACTICES, CUSTOMARY LAWS UNFAIR TO WOMEN

27/01/2003
Press Release
WOM/1382


Committee on Elimination of

Discrimination against Women

606th & 607th Meetings (AM & PM)


WOMEN’S ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE URGES CONGO TO ELIMINATE

TRADITIONAL PRACTICES, CUSTOMARY LAWS UNFAIR TO WOMEN


Commending the Congo for its frank acknowledgement of serious obstacles to gender equality, expert members of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women also stressed the need for the Government to take concrete measures to eradicate the deeply entrenched traditional practices and customary laws that continued to subject women to unfair treatment.


The Committee was considering the combined initial, second, third, fourth and fifth periodic reports of the Congo on compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.


Introducing the report, Delphine Emmanuelle Adouki, Director of the Cabinet of the country's Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and the Advancement of Women, said there had been a marked improvement in the situation of women in the Congo in recent years.  The Department for the Advancement of Women had been set up, supported by various groups and non-governmental organizations, and it had begun to yield fruit.  Women in the country had become highly mobilized.


Much remained to be done, however, for the full development of Congolese women, she said.  In the context of economic constraints and recurring conflicts, Congolese women had become increasing vulnerable.  And while women had recourse to justice, both de jure and de facto discrimination existed.  The man was the head of the household and, in cases of disagreement, decided the choice of the conjugal domicile.  Husbands could prohibit woman from working in the interest of the family.  Inequality also persisted in the application and prevalence of customary law.


Highlighting specific areas of concern, she said that maternal mortality came to 890 per 100,000 live births.  Pregnant women were given prenatal monitoring late in the pregnancy.  Most deliveries took place in public hospitals, but post-natal monitoring was not a common practice.  Regarding violence, there were several different forms of domestic violence in the country, and women did not dare to complain of the abuses they suffered.


The present Government’s policy had been to re-establish the confidence of Congolese women, she said.  The new head of State, elected last March, had contributed to the establishment of stable and democratic foundation.  The 2002 Constitution, as well as the country’s previous Constitutions, reaffirmed the principle of equality.


The expert from the United Republic of Tanzania noted that Congolese laws existed for gender equality, but were not implemented, which suggested benign neglect from the Government.  It seemed paralysed by traditions and taboo.  She asked what immediate action the Government planned to take to sensitize the community about the Convention and about the discriminatory nature of customary practices.


Several experts questioned the rationale behind placing the body responsible for the advancement of women within the country’s Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries. 


Other concerns raised today included lack of awareness of the Convention, women’s lack of access to higher education and the need to improve employment opportunities.  One expert said it was regrettable that Congolese women, as the lifeline of Congolese society, did not have basic rights regarding wages and working environment.


The Committee's next open meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, 29 January, at 3 p.m., when it is expected to hear replies from the Congo.


Background


The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women met today to consider the combined initial, second, third, fourth and fifth periodic report of the Congo (document CEDAW/C/COG/1-5).


The Congo, which is classified as a “heavily indebted poor country” (HIPC), ratified the Convention in 1982.  Women account for more than half of the country’s population –- some 52 per cent –- and make a considerable contribution to the country’s economy.  They account for some 70 per cent of the agricultural workforce and produce between 60 and 80 per cent of the country’s food.  Rural women activities are limited to subsistence farming.  They receive no welfare coverage and are not entitled to bank credit.


While the Convention may be invoked before the Congolese courts, judges have never ruled on the basis of the Convention and are largely ignorant of its provisions, the report states.  Women are largely unaware of their rights under the Convention and generally do not appear before courts for fear of repudiation, divorce or sorcery. 


Describing the evolution of the national machinery responsible for the advancement of women, the report says that until 1990, the Revolutionary Union of Congo Women (URFC) almost exclusively represented women at the national and international levels.  In cooperation with other women’s organizations, it played a determining role in the struggle for the emancipation of Congolese women. 


The Ministry responsible for women’s integration in development was created in 1997, the report states.  In 1999, for economic reasons, the Department for the Advancement of Women was made a part of the Ministry of Civil Service Affairs and Administrative Reform.  Within that Ministry, the General Directorate for the Advancement of Women is responsible for implementing the national policy for the advancement of women.


The principle of equality has been a part of Congo’s national laws for decades, the report states.  The 1963 Constitution, however, formally enshrined the principle of equality between men and women.  The Basic Act of 24 December 1997, by which authorities are governed during transition, upholds the constitutional tradition.  Legal equality is also enshrined in the General Service Statute and the 1960 Collective Agreement for public employees, as well as the labour, criminal and social security codes. 


Several laws, however, do contain discriminatory provisions, the report says.  Labour, taxation, criminal and family law all discriminate against women.  According to family law, for example, when there is disagreement in the choice of the conjugal home, the husband’s decision prevails.  Likewise, men are legally considered the head of the household.  While a woman can chose her activities, her husband can ban those activities, if he feels they conflict with the interests of the household. 


The provisions of the criminal law related to adultery also discriminate against women, the report notes.  A woman can be convicted of adultery if she maintains an extra-conjugal relationship, whereas a man can only be convicted if he is keeping a concubine in the conjugal home.  In the case of a polygamous household, an extra-conjugal relationship may be regarded as seeking a partner with a view to marriage.  The criminal code also absolves a husband from responsibility for the murder of his adulterous wife and her lover in the case of a “flagrant offense” occurring in the conjugal home.  If a woman commits the same crime, however, she is guilty of manslaughter.


Despite the existence of a modern legal system, customary law is followed, the report adds.  Such laws include taboo and prohibition in dietary matters; wrongful widowhood rites; the subjection of women in sexual and reproductive health; differences in inheritance rights; acts of violence; and access to credit.


In a positive development, the Congo now has a policy document and three-year plan of action for the advancement of women, the report says.  That document, adopted by the Government in 1999, governs all decisions for the advancement of women at the national level and involves the State, non-governmental organizations, the private sector and development agencies.  The national policy has four main goals:  to promote and protect the rights of women and girls; to create follow-up and monitoring organs; to develop women’s economic potential; and to improve the living conditions of Congolese women.


Concerning women’s rights in the public sector, the report says that women are entitled to maternity leave, during which she receives full salary.  Private sector employers, however, are reluctant to recruit women because of what they consider frequent abuses of maternity leave. 


Regarding the issue of violence, the report says that traditional practices and modern law are perceived as conferring upon men the right to chastise their spouses, the report says.  Women suffer varying degrees of ill treatment in the home.  Violent acts are perpetrated under the seal of silence and are generally regarded as normal.  Women are silent victims of husbands, fathers and brothers and would never denounce an act of aggression.  The rape of a wife by her husband is not considered an offence under the law.


Introduction of report


DELPHINE EMMANUELLE ADOUKI, Director of the Cabinet of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and the Advancement of Women, introduced the report, saying that while the Congo had acceded to the Convention in 1982, it had not yet reported to the Committee, which was a matter of great concern.  Most of the Congo’s population was young, with some 75 per cent under the age of

45.  Congo followed a dualist legal system.  Customary law also existed.  The country had known various political regimes and now had a multi-party system.  The 2002 Constitution had led to a bicameral Government. 


According to the Congo’s Constitution, all citizens were equal before the law, she said.  Women had the same rights as men.  The law ensured their advancement and representation in political and administrative functions.  The head of State, who was elected on 10 March 2002, had won the election on the basis of a programme called, “The New Hope”.  The elections had contributed to the establishment of stable and democratic foundation. 


The Congo had, since ratifying the Convention, been able to accomplish many things for the advancement of women, she said.  Economic constraints and recurring conflicts, however, had increased women’s vulnerability.  The present Government’s policy had made it possible to re-establish confidence in the mind of Congolese women. 


All of the country’s previous constitutions had been based on the principle of legal equality between men and women, she added.  The 2002 Constitution had confirmed the tradition of equality.  Congolese legislation formally ensured equal rights for women, enabling them to use the legal system and participate in all areas of life.  Polygamy was an option and the man was considered the head of the family.  Married women could maintain their names.  Either spouse could request a divorce.


The Congo had signed several international treaties that had primacy over Congo’s domestic laws, she said.  Women did have recourse to justice.  Both de jure and de facto discrimination existed, however.  The man was the head of the family.  The man, in cases of disagreement, decided the choice of the conjugal domicile.  Husbands could prohibit a woman from working in the interest of the family.  Despite formal progress, inequality persisted, including in such matters as taboos and abusive widow rights. 


The Ministry for the integration of women into development was created in 1992, she said.  The issue of the advancement of women was under the purview of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries.  The Ministry in charge of the advancement of women had set up various departmental offices, providing a gender dimension to public administration.  Ministerial departments acted as partners, working with some 450 non-governmental organizations and associations.  Several measures had been taken to advance women, including an awareness campaign on women’s health rights. 


Regarding stereotypes, she said that education was a function of gender.  Girls were left at home to work in the kitchen, whereas boys were left to play.  Certain stereotypes existed in textbooks.  Women were not sufficiently educated and often fell victim to sexual harassment.  The media, which was male-dominated, furthered stereotypes. 


On women’s participation in political life, she said that women had been in the minority in organized elections.  The increase in the number of women candidates was the result of awareness campaigns.  Of the 1,205 women participating in legislative, senatorial and local elections, some 89 women had been elected, including 12 in the National Assembly, or 9.3 per cent; 9 in the Senate, or 15 per cent; and 68 at the local level or 8.5 per cent.  To date, Congo had no women ambassadors. 


Regarding nationality, Congolese legislation gave women the right to keep their nationality when they married and when their husband changed his nationality.  As for education, the Education Act ensured that all children had equal access to education, and public schooling was free and mandatory until the age of 16.  Pre-schools were open to all from the ages of three to six, and were attended by a majority of girls, although all children did not have access to them.  The proportion of boys in primary schools was almost equal to that of girls, but the number of girls in those schools had dropped more than boys since 1990.  The rates for repeating years, dropouts and failure had been high in recent years, with an especially high dropout rate for girls.  At the level of secondary school, the attendance rate for girls was low, due to such factors as poverty and traditional customs.  In technical institutions, girls were generally unrepresented.


At the level of higher education, she said, girls represented 18.6 per cent of students at the University Maruien Ngouabi.  Out of 1,000 students admitted to the first cycle of the first year, only 60 were women.  Women were poorly represented in scientific courses, with 11 per cent enrolled in natural sciences, 18 per cent in economics and 21 per cent in medicine.  Female staffing was high at the primary level, but decreased as the level went up, until it became insignificant in higher education.  The Government was beginning to rehabilitate literacy centres, and open schools that had been closed during the country’s armed conflict.  To cover the shortfall in teachers, it had recruited new ones, and built new classrooms.  Regarding labour, women mainly held middle-level posts because of inadequate education.  Women represented 65 per cent of workers in food production, and 100 per cent of those in the processing of agricultural products.


Concerning health, she continued, maternal mortality came to 890 per

100,000 live births.  Pregnant women were given prenatal monitoring late in the pregnancy.  Most deliveries took place in public hospitals, but post-natal monitoring was not a common practice.  The prevalence for contraception was about 3 per cent among women.  A law prohibiting abortion had led to a high level of illicit abortions, which often led to death.  An attempt was being made in the country to repeal that law.


Regarding violence, she went on, there were several different forms of domestic violence in the country and women did not dare to complain of the abuses they suffered.  Institutions attempting to assist in that area included the International Relief Committee, the Red Cross, the Congolese Association for Family Well-being, the Association of Women Lawyers of Congo, and Women of Hope, which had carried out programmes to raise awareness and assisted with legal services.  In addition, the Government had set up six health centres for the victims of sexual violence, run by psychologists, doctors and midwives.


In concluding, she said there had been a marked improvement in the situation of women in the Congo in recent years.  The Department for the Advancement of Women had been set up, supported by various groups and non-governmental organization s, and it had begun to yield fruit.  Women in the country had become highly mobilized.  However, much still remained to be done for the full development of Congolese women.


Experts Comments and Questions


HEISOO SHIN, expert from the Republic of Korea, noted that international treaties took precedence over domestic laws, and asked whether the Government planned to review discriminatory laws and amend them.  She also asked what governmental measures existed to tackle discrimination.  In addition, had there been any active participation of non-governmental organizations in advancing the rights of women?


FATIMA KWAKU, expert from Nigeria, noted that it had taken the Congo

20 years to submit its initial report.  Was the country aware that assistance was available in the writing of reports?  She also asked why women’s affairs were joined in a ministry with animals and fish.  What was the rationale for that?


REGINA TAVARES DA SILVA, expert from Portugal, noted that the report mentioned no commitment to improve certain problems for women.  Noting several discriminations against women in the report, she asked why there seemed to be an attitude of tolerance and resignation about those practices.  Why were some of the measures to combat inequalities, such as the practice by men of polygamy, considered to be long-term projects?

GORAN MELANDER, expert from Sweden, said the report suggested that the Convention was unknown in the country.  Did the Government plan to correct that, especially with respect to key groups responsible for applying the Convention?  Had there been any legal cases in the country where reference had been made to the Convention, and, if so, what had been the result?  Would it be possible to copy the description of “discrimination against women” found in the Convention and put it in the country’s Constitution?


CHRISTINE KAPALATA, expert from the United Republic of Tanzania, noted Congolese laws existed for gender equality, but were not implemented, which suggested benign neglect from the Government.  It seemed paralysed by traditions and taboo.  She asked what immediate action the Government planned to take to sensitize the community about the Convention and about the discriminatory nature of customary practices.


KRISZTINA MORVAI, expert from Hungary, asked several questions about discriminatory criminal law, which was problematic in the both the spirit and letter of the Convention.  What was the punishment for adultery?  How many cases of adultery had been decided upon by the courts and how many women had been punished for the crime?  Was there political will to abolish the discriminatory nature of the crime of adultery?  What steps had been taken to eliminate discriminatory criminal laws? 


She was impressed with awareness of the problems facing women, as well as the critical voice of the report.  That critical voice was missing, however, regarding sexual harassment.  She asked for information on the obstacles to implementing the Convention.  There seemed to be “phantom” groups opposing change.


DUBRAVKA SIMONOVIC, expert from Croatia, asked about the Congo’s implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action.  Was the Government planning to remove discriminatory laws regarding adultery and the murder of the adulterous wife?


HUGUETTE BOKPE GNACADJA, expert from Benin, asked what the Government was doing to encourage the application of the Convention by the country’s judiciary.   Despite the description of an “evolution” in the advancement of women, there seemed to have been a backward trend.  It was unfortunate that in 1999 the Department responsible for women had been diluted into a secretariat within a Ministry.  What was the nature of the problem?  Was it war or a lack of money?  What international assistance was being given to the Congo?  The country had made international commitments and, as such, had to encourage change.  Customs could be changed; they were not written in law.   


FUMIKO SAIGA, expert from Japan, asked for clarification on the placement of women’s issues within the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries.


Ms. SHINN, expert from the Republic of Korea, said she had serious concern about the Congo’s national machinery for women.  The general thrust of the Department for the Advancement of Women was from the perspective of women in development, rather than eliminating discrimination against women.  It emphasized the incorporation of women in development, rather than compliance with the Convention.  She hoped that future work would emphasize ways to eliminate discrimination against women.


CHRISTINE KAPALATA, expert from the United Republic of Tanzania, said that article 4 of the Convention addressed itself to activities to accelerate equality between women and men.  There were so many areas where article 4 could be used to the benefit of women, including in education, health and employment.  The report said that, while women favoured the unofficial sector, they had no other choice.  Article 4.1 meant apportioning quotas to accelerate the equality of women. 


CORNELIS FLINTERMAN, expert from the Netherlands, appreciated the willingness of the Government to advance the status of women.  The adoption of special temporary measures was one important step.  The provision of maternity leave, however, did not constitute a special measure.  What kind of special temporary measures was the Government envisaging to accelerate the full realization of women’s rights?


Ms. KWAKU, expert from Nigeria, stressed the importance of article 4 of the Convention for African countries.  The use of affirmative action was important in the African continent.  She wanted to see a more diverse use of that article.  Had the Department for the Advancement of Women proposed any measures to make use of article 4?


Ms. MELANDER, expert from Sweden, asked what the Government planned to do to change stereotypical attitudes.


Ms. TAVARAS DA SILVA, expert from Portugal, said that in the area of violence, there was vast room for legal change, raising awareness and victim support and protection.  The responsibility to address violence rested with the Government, not non-governmental organizations, which seemed to be the main actors in the country.


Ms. SHINN, expert from the Republic of Korea, asked for information on short-term and long-term plans to fight gender role stereotyping, including the elimination of violence against women.


FRANCOISE GESPARD, expert from France, said that while the report was late, it was never too late to do good.  The penal code prohibited prostitution and severely punished prostitutes and those who profited from prostitution.  Putting those who profited from prostitutions on an equal footing with the prostitutes was troublesome.  All means must be used to combat trafficking in women.  What was being done to help women emerge from prostitution?


Also, the report mentioned nothing about the impact of the recent war on women, she continued.  What role did women have in the peace process and the reconstruction of the country?  She also requested information on women refugees.  The Congo hosted many refugees, which was laudable.  Women refugees, however, were often victims of violence, trafficking and prostitution. 


Ms. TAVARAS DA SILVA, expert from Portugal, asked about the clients of prostitution?  The national policy document did not include measures to combat prostitution.


MERIEM BELMIHOUB-ZERDANI, expert from Algeria, stressed that the President of the Congo must lift the country out of the state of lethargy it was in.  The majority party must use its political will to strive for gender parity in parliament.  An effort must be made to help parties that had women candidates, and give only token grants to those that did not have them.  She noted that the country had suffered through several structural adjustment programmes.  In such situations, women were the first to be discriminated against and lose their jobs.


Mr. FLINTERMEN, expert from the Netherlands, noted that some of the obstacles to gender parity were of a structural nature requiring long-term solutions, but that others needed immediate attention and resolution in the short-term.  What policies, for example, did the Government have in terms of promoting women’s political rights?


Ms. TAVARES DA SILVA, expert from Portugal, expressed the hope the country’s plans for advancing women’s rights would continue to occur because all people –- both men and women -– would benefit from them.


Ms. KAPALATA, expert from the United Republic of Tanzania, asked what measures the Government was taking to recruit women in the country’s diplomatic service.  The country said it had no discrimination in terms of nationality.  A Congolese woman, however, who married a foreigner was not supposed to take that nationality, and the same was not true for men.  Could they be clearer about that distinction in the next report?


FUMIKO SAIGA, expert from Japan, asked for clarification about the nationality status of a foreign man married to a Congolese woman.  She also asked about the nationality of a child with a Congolese mother and foreign father.


SJAMSIAH ACHMAD, expert from Indonesia, asked whether the country had already taken steps to implement the most important principles of the Convention, such as equality and non-discrimination.  Was educational reform in the country heeding those principles?  There seemed to be some progress in terms of educating girls, but discriminative attitudes persisted.  Had anything been done to educate the public in an attempt to eradicate those attitudes?


Mr. FLINTERMAN, expert from the Netherlands, was concerned that the female dropout rate in law school was so high, especially since women lawyers elsewhere had taken significant steps to make laws gender-neutral.  He added that the number of females studying in general was low.  What was the Government doing to increase the number of female students at all levels of education?


PRAMILA PATTEN, expert from Mauritius, asked whether the Government had set up any educational programmes for boys and girls together -- integrated programmes to raise their awareness of gender equality.  Also, had it provided any support for child care and other services, so that mothers could continue their schooling?  Had it created flexible education to facilitate the transition from women’s activities at all stages of their lives?  In the current socio-economic context in the country, what measures had been taken to improve employment opportunities for young women, as well as those re-entering the labour market?


SALMA KHAN, expert from Bangladesh, asked whether women employed in the unofficial sector were covered by the country’s labour code.  Also, why did women’s advancement come under the jurisdiction of the agricultural ministry?  What was the role of non-governmental organizations in the country?  Had they addressed the exploitation of women in the labour force?  Did women in the agricultural sector have any access to credit?


Ms. PATTEN, expert from Mauritius, asked what the Government had done to address severe employment inequalities.  She urged the Government to rethink its employment policies, and pay attention to negative gender patterns.  Had the Government taken any measures to enhance rural women’s income-generating capacity?


Ms. BELMIHOUB-ZERDANI, expert from Algeria, expressed concern about a lack of family planning.  Countries were not forced to ratify the Convention.  Once the Convention was ratified, however, it was superior to domestic law.  In all developing countries there were problems with family planning and population growth.  She asked the Government to ask United Nations bodies, including its specialized agencies, to help in the area of family planning.  The Congo, as well as its neighbouring countries, would benefit from increased family planning.  All available means must be used.  Rich countries must provide resources to assist developing countries.


Ms. KHAN, expert from Bangladesh, asked if there had been any measures to cover women’s primary health needs.  Congo had one of the highest maternal mortality rates.  Were high maternal mortality rates due to delivery-related complications, or HIV/AIDS?  What was the Government planning to do regarding both high maternal mortality and fertility rates?  What did the Government plan to do to arrest the spread of HIV/AIDS?  A national health survey should be carried out and its results included in the next report.


Ms. KWAKU, expert from Nigeria, said economic independence was one of the average African woman’s greatest weapons.  Aside from a 1993 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) project, there was nothing to afford women economic empowerment.  She also asked about the participation of rural women in decision-making in regional directorates.


Ms. KUENYEHIA, expert from Ghana, asked about the minimum age of pre-marriage.  Were women entitled to inheritance rights before marriage?


HUGUETTE BOKPE GNACADJA, expert from Benin, noted that women had some legal advantages in the Congo, and needed to exploit those.  If the winds of change had already started in the country, that must continue, and the texts of those laws must be applied.  The problem was that the laws had not caught up with customary practices.  She asked about judicial practices in the country.  Did judges strictly apply the laws?  Statistics were needed to show what laws were applied, which would demonstrate which customs had been more easily eliminated than others.


Ms. KAPALATA, expert from the United Republic of Tanzania, asked for a time frame for the review of legislation affecting women in the Congo.


Ms. KUENYEHIA, expert from Ghana, asked for information about the conditions for obtaining divorce in the country.  Regarding polygamy, she noted that a wife’s permission must be sought by the husband to carry out that practice.  What sanctions existed under the Family Code for not seeking such consent?


Ms. GASPARD, expert from France, noted that the accepted age for marriage in the Congo was different for men than for women -– 18 for women and 21 for men -- and stressed that that age must be the same for both sexes.  Also, the custom of men being heads of families must be eliminated.  She then asked whether a man who left a marriage had any obligations towards the children of that marriage, especially in terms of alimony? In addition, were polygamous unions recognized by civil law, and had there been any campaigns attempting to reduce the practice?

Ms. GNACADJA, expert from Benin, asked for clarification about women and polygamy.  Did the wife need to give oral or written consent to her husband so that he could carry out this practice?


Ms. SAIGA, expert from Japan, was concerned about the age limit on pre-marriage, which appeared in the country’s Family Code.  What did the Government intend to do to address the issue in the short term?


Ms. KWAKU, expert from Nigeria, asked what the Government was doing to bring the minimum age for pre-marriage to the age of 18, which was the age in the Family Code.  What possibilities existed for waiving the minimum age of marriage for girls?


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For information media. Not an official record.