CAMPAIGN NEEDED TO RAISE AWARENESS OF WOMEN’S HUMAN RIGHTS IN BELARUS, ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE TOLD
CAMPAIGN NEEDED TO RAISE AWARENESS OF WOMEN’S HUMAN RIGHTS IN BELARUS, ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE TOLD
Committee on Elimination of
Discrimination against Women
643rd & 644th Meetings (AM & PM)
CAMPAIGN NEEDED TO RAISE AWARENESS OF WOMEN’S HUMAN RIGHTS
IN BELARUS, ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE TOLD
But Delegation Says Increased Opportunities Have Provided
Diverse Possibilities for Women’s Participation in All Spheres of Life
Following the presentation in two meetings today by the delegation of Belarus on government efforts to implement the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, one expert of the Committee that monitors progress in that regard called for a “massive paradigm shift” to provide women in Belarus with an enabling environment for change.
The expert from Germany, serving with 22 others in their personal capacities on the Committee on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, said that, as long as women in Belarus were associated only with family responsibilities, they would be discriminated against in the labour market. Belarus was moving into a market economy, and women were at risk of discrimination in that process without a concerted campaign to raise awareness about their equal human rights, she said.
Economic reforms and a reassessment of spiritual values in the past decade in Belarus had been accompanied by a rethinking of women’s role in society, according to that country’s combined fourth through sixth periodic report as a State party to the 1981 Convention. Heading the delegation today was the Deputy Permanent Representative of Belarus to the United Nations, Aleg Ivanou, who said that the period 2000-2004 was a vibrant one in Belarus’ national gender policy.
He said it was hard to find any sphere of public life today that had not undergone major change. According to the human development index, Belarus ranked 53 out of 175 and now had a high level of human development. Increased opportunities had provided diverse forms for women’s participation in all spheres of life. The uncertainty, stress and lack of confidence that characterized the situation of women in the beginning of the 1990s no longer existed.
Nevertheless, he pointed to recently concluded research that had indicated that nearly 30 per cent of women in Belarus had suffered physical violence by their spouses, and about 12 per cent had suffered sexual harassment in the workplace. Violence against women was one of the most serious obstacles to achieving gender equality, and family violence not only undermined the viability of each family, but also the foundation of future security of society. Now that it was “visible”, the subject was being addressed at all levels, he said.
Experts, including the Chairperson from Turkey, Ayse Feride Acar, thanked the delegation for its reports and for the oral presentation, which had shed further light on the steps taken by the Government to “bring the Convention to life for the women on the ground”. They commended the legislative reforms, which had included adoption of new laws on marriage and labour, and the anticipated passage in 2004 of a law on gender equality. Steps had also been taken to overhaul school curricula, aimed at eliminating gender stereotypes, they noted.
Despite the legislative reforms, a Committee Vice-Chairperson and expert from Romania worried that those measures were still overly protective of women as mothers. The approach had been to focus attention solely on women’s reproductive and social responsibilities, which could create further obstacles for women in employment and public life. That could also discourage the sharing of responsibilities in the household with men.
Similarly, a Committee Vice-Chairperson and expert from the Republic of Korea said she had the impression from the report and oral presentation that, in Belarus, maintenance of the family was seen as more important than promoting and protecting women’s human rights. Throughout the reports, the family was considered very important, and, of course, it was, but she doubted whether the Government had a sense of women as individuals whose rights should be protected within the family.
Another dominant theme in today’s discussion was the relationship of women’s non-governmental organizations with the Government. Warning that it was too early to speak of the women’s movement in Belarus as a mass movement with influence on decision-making, the expert from Hungary, along with several other experts, sought more information about the application process, the distribution of funding by the Government and the level of independence of those organizations.
The expert from Nigeria asked about the “severe persecutions” of non-governmental organizations in Belarus. She specifically wanted to know if the Government was experiencing any difficulties in collaborating with them and which non-governmental organizations had actually participated in drafting the country reports. She also asked the delegation to identify the “specific projects” being carried out by those groups and their impact on women’s rights.
Regarding the functioning of non-governmental organizations, a Government representative explained that a non-governmental organization could only be eliminated through legal proceeding, as in any democratic country, and the justifiability of such action could also be taken to court. A relevant presidential decree of April 2003 had been harshly criticized by non-governmental organizations and had been sent back for further improvements to ensure that the rights of civil-society groups were protected, he said.
Other members of the delegation were: Anzhela K. Karnyaluk, Councillor, Department of humanitarian, ecological and scientific-technical cooperation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Irina A. Chutkova, Head of the Department of family policy and gender issues, Ministry of Labour and Social Protection; Rehina A. Davidovich, Co-Chair of the Belarusian Women’s Union; Andrei A. Taranda, Second Secretary of the Permanent Mission to the United Nations.
The Committee will meet again at 10 a.m. on Monday, 26 January to consider the combined fourth and fifth reports of Ethiopia.
When the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met today to consider the situation of women in Belarus, it had before it that country’s combined fourth, fifth and sixth period report (document CEDAW/C/BLR/4-6), dated 19 December 2002.
Part I of the report provides an overview of the social and economic situation in Belarus, its demography, as well as institutional mechanisms established to implement the provisions of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Part II describes the legislative, administrative and other measures adopted to give effect to the Convention. Part III provides an overview of progress achieved in advancing the status of women there, as well as remaining obstacles.
Concerning the latter part, the report says that the social and economic reforms carried out in Belarus during the 1990s contributed to the establishment of the elements of a market economy, the creation of a non-State sector and the emergence of new relations in the labour market. These economic reforms and a reassessment of spiritual values were accompanied by a rethinking of women’s role in society.
The resulting changes expanded women’s opportunities for self-fulfilment and provided them with many opportunities for participation in the country’s social, employment, political and public life, the report finds. Throughout the period under review, efforts to improve national legislation continued, bringing it into line with international legal norms. This has been supplemented by efforts to enhance women’s legal literacy. The most significant changes in this area have been the adoption of the new Marriage and Family Code and the new Labour Code.
The period 1994-2001 also saw the government approval of 15 documents, which have major significance for the effort to increase the social protection afforded to families, women and children, and for the development of a system of social services. The period overall was characterized by a marked strengthening of the role of local authorities and administrative bodies and the implementation of measures to enhance the status of women in all areas and prevent gender-based discrimination.
The report notes that, also in that period, a national mechanism was established to implement a policy for ensuring gender equality and the elimination of discrimination against women. To promote the development and implementation of a gender policy in Belarus, a National Council on Gender Policy was established within the Council of Ministers of the Republic in May 2000. An important mechanism for action has been the holding of a series of applied scientific conferences, round tables and training seminars at the national and local levels to review the current situation and formulate strategies and tactics for enhancing women’s status.
Also according to the report, there has been a significant increase in the activities of women’s organizations, and cooperation between them and governmental bodies in the implementation of national policy to enhance women’s status is increasing. The review period was marked by a gradual increase in women’s participation in decision-making in the political, economic and social spheres. In May 2001, the Government approved the second national plan of action for gender equality, through 2005. Above all, the plan seeks to create conditions that will provide equal opportunities for both genders and reduce the gap between their de jure and de facto equality in all areas of life.
Notwithstanding those and other achievements, the report states that “In Belarus, as in other countries, serious obstacles stand in the way of a solution” to gender discrimination. Among them is the inertia that tends to characterize social processes. This is reflected in the lag between the time a measure is adopted on women’s behalf and the time significant results are achieved through its implementation. Also, it takes a long time to develop new protective mechanisms capable of responding to possible new socio-economic phenomena.
The report finds that another factor slowing down the process is the complex economic situation, which is further aggravated by the need to allocate more than 10 per cent of the State budget for efforts to eliminate the effects of the disaster at the Chernobyl atomic energy plant. Moreover, although there are no legislative provisions that discriminate against women, the guarantees set out in these measures are not always fully implemented. That process is not helped by the fact that neither draft legislative and regulatory texts nor the legislation in force are informed by the requisite gender expertise.
There are instances of violations of Belarusian legislation with respect to women’s entry into and dismissals from the workforce, the report states. More than 12 per cent of working women are employed in facilities that do not meet sanitary or health standards. Over the past decade, financial insecurity has grown among both women and men. The share of men having per capita incomes below the standard minimum rose from 39.4 per cent in 1995 to 42.9 per cent in 2000, while the corresponding figures for women rose from 37.4 per cent to 41 per cent.
Also, the persistence of stereotypes regarding men’s and women’s social roles, the inadequate development of civil-society structures and the reluctance of society as a whole to accept new notions of equal opportunity all have an impact on efforts to enhance women’s social status, the report states. Problems of gender equality are still viewed by many as being exclusively women’s issues rather than being viewed in the overall context of socio-economic problems.
The report says that another serious obstacle is the insufficient involvement of men in efforts to ensure gender equality. A major problem is the lack of statistical data on many issues and the lack of in-depth research on the influence of transformational processes on all aspects of women’s and men’s activities. While a national mechanism for the implementation of gender policy at the local level is slowly being created, the level of qualification of experts in this field is noticeably inadequate. Today, women in Belarus continue to be “insufficiently represented” at the decision-making level in legislative and executive government bodies.
Introduction of Report
ALEG IVANOU, Deputy Permanent Representative of Belarus, emphasized the importance of the period 2000-2004 which represented a vibrant period in Belarus’ national gender policy. Today, it was hard to find any sphere of public life that not undergone major change. The social and economic changes of the second half of the 1990s had resulted in the privatization of the economy and new labour relations. Today, Belarus was a dynamically developing European country. According to the human development index, Belarus ranked 53 out of 175 and now had a high level of human development. Increased opportunities had provided diverse forms for women’s participation in all spheres of life. The uncertainty, stress and lack of confidence that characterized the situation of women in the beginning of the 1990s no longer existed.
Belarus had taken a major step forward, he said, including by adopting legal, organizational and administrative measures to enhance the status of women and to protect their rights and interests. After the Beijing Conference, the 1996-2000 platform for action had been successfully implemented. Much work had been done to improve legislation and bring it in line with international standards. A new civil code, code on marriage and the family and labour code had been adopted. Belarus had fully implemented the Convention and had made the Optional Protocol part of its law. [In 2002, Belarus signed the Optional Protocol.]
The implementation of Belarus’ State policy to eliminate distinctions between men and women depended on the capacity of national mechanisms, he said. In May 2000 the National Council on Gender Policy had been created. In 2003, the composition of that body was changed, and a new work programme was prepared.
In recent years, there had been a notable intensification of local bodies in implementing strategies to advance women, he said. Special programmes were being carried out to promote the employment, health care, and reproductive rights of women. A positive step had been the development of the women’s movement. There had been improvements in gender statistics, as well. The status of women was more broadly covered by the mass media.
Despite such measures, however, the inertia inherent in social processes had hindered progress, he said. The lack of funding for the implementation of the national gender policy, the persistence of stereotypes, and insufficient involvement of men in women’s issues represented obstacles to the advancement of women. Although the level of legislative decrees had increased, the guarantees enshrined in them were not fully implemented.
Gender policy today was aimed at overcoming all forms of gender discrimination, he said. Priority areas included human rights, the economy, social protection, education, health, decision-making, violence, the mass media and the development of institutional mechanisms to improve the status of women.
Regarding women in political life, following the 2001 elections, the number of women deputies to the house of representatives had increased, he said. In the national council, 28.1 per cent were women. There had been a gradual increase in the number of women in local councils. In 2003, local councils saw the election of some 10,422 women, or 44.4 per cent of the total number of deputies. In 2000, there had been one woman minister in the Government. In 2003, there were 10 women deputy ministers.
Women were also well represented in the judicial branch. Some 46 per cent of judges were women, and about 62 per cent of lawyers were women. Some 93.4 per cent of State notaries were women. In 1990, there had been only three women in the Supreme Court, or 13.6 per cent. In 2003, there were 11, or 28.9 per cent. He also noted that of 44 State institutions of higher learning, three had women provosts. A master’s degree in women’s leadership was also offered as of 2002.
On the status of women in the labour market, he said that in accordance with the law, State employment services provided equal opportunities for all citizens. Citizens were guaranteed free training, assistance in finding jobs, opportunities for participation in paid public work, free information on job vacancies and legal protection. High priority areas had included assistance in finding employment, development of territorial mobility, vocational training, support for independent employment and quotas for jobs in existing enterprises. Highest priority had been given to finding jobs for unemployed women. Employment centres carried out job fairs and open houses. Last year, vocational training had been given to more than 17,000 unemployed women. Vocational training expanded the opportunities for unemployed persons to find work.
The Government supported women’s entrepreneurship, he said. In 2003, financial assistance had been given to more than 1,100 women. The major forms of self-employment included sewing, knitting, wholesale buying, hairdressing, cosmetology and tailoring.
He said the Government also provided leave entitlements for childcare to both mothers and fathers. State allowances were given for children, with some 30 per cent of all children receiving allowances. Allowances were financed from State social insurance budgets. The State also offered tax abatements, school allowances and free food. A crucial part of the State system for social protection was providing social services for a broad range of economic, legal and pedagogical social services.
There had recently been an unfortunate trend in the population, namely, a sharp rise in the death rates for men and a worsening of the health situation overall, he continued. There had also been an increase in “socially dangerous” illnesses, such as alcoholism, drug abuse, venereal disease, and so forth. Some encouraging indicators were emerging, however, in terms of ensuring women’s reproductive health, including through new medical technology, which permitted early identification of disease. Preventing problems in pregnancy and childbirth was a priority, and measures had been put in place to improve pregnant women’s nutrition. Information now was also being made available on family planning and “reproductive conduct”.
He said that the number of abortions had dropped and the number of women using modern contraception had increased. Also, the gender aspect was increasingly taken into account, involving mothers and fathers in childbirth. That had also helped to encourage responsible parenthood on the part of the men. The number of fathers attending births had been increasing annually, and greater emphasis had been given to menopause and both male and female infertility. Efforts were also under way to prevent HIV/AIDS transmission from mother to child through free voluntary testing for women. The Government was studying international experience in combating AIDS. As in many other countries with transitional economies, the main problem in preventing HIV/AIDS in Belarus had been the lack of adequate budgetary resources.
Concerning violence against women, he said that that was one of the most serious obstacles to achieving gender equality. The problem of domestic violence against women had been analysed and results were in from five research endeavours spanning the past seven years. According to one finding, 29.4 per cent of women polled had suffered physical violence in their families by their spouses, and about 12 per cent had suffered sexual harassment in the workplace. That situation certainly demanded intervention by the State and society, as a whole. The Ministry of Internal Affairs had developed a special system of monitoring “troublemakers”, and more than 17,000 had been identified. Official warnings could be lodged against them, and they could be sent to training or labour centres, and deprived of their parental rights.
Family violence not only undermined the viability of each family, but also undermined the foundation of the future security of society, he said. Psychological help for victims was also being provided. Belarus had participated in the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) project, as well as the regional information and educational campaign, “A Life Free of Violence”. Preventing violence against women had also been discussed often at seminars and meetings with non-governmental organizations. Such violence had become visible to society as a whole and had become the focus of social organizations and the media.
Another extremely serious problem of great concern to the Government and society was prostitution and the sexual exploitation of women and children. His Government had fully accepted the Committee’s recommendations on that issue. Awareness of the complexity of trafficking in women was being enhanced by the Government’s programmes (2002-2007) to counter that phenomenon and prostitution. The Government had also ratified the United Nations Convention on Transnational Crime along with three of its additional protocols, including one on trafficking. Also, preparatory work had begun on establishing social services in Minsk and setting up a shelter for women who had been “dragged” into trafficking. He hoped that the Committee would take duly into account the steps taken by Belarus to try to achieve genuine gender equality.
Committee Chairperson and expert from Turkey, AYSE FERIDE ACAR, thanked the delegation for its reports and expressed the Committee’s gratitude for the oral presentation, which had shed further light on the steps taken by the Government to bring the Convention to life for women on the ground. Some good news had also been provided regarding the fate of the Optional Protocol, as that instrument had now become law in Belarus, but in order for it to truly come into force, the Government must ratify it.
GORAN MELANDER, expert from Sweden, sought clarification about who participated in the preparation of the report. It seemed that establishing a women’s organization or non-governmental organization was a rather complicated procedure in Belarus. The registration procedure seemed to be protracted and might even be impeding the establishment of a new organization. Such a procedure might run contrary to the principle of freedom of association. He wished to be further enlightened about the existing procedure to establish a new non-governmental organization.
Regarding the status of the Convention, he said he still had the impression that it was not yet directly applicable to domestic law. To what extent was the Convention known in the country? Specifically, were the judicial authorities aware of its existence; was it being applied; and had any reference been made to it in any legal cases?
VICTORIA POPESCU SANDRU, Vice-Chairperson and expert from Romania, noted some of the elements of progress, such as the steps forward in legislative reform and the adoption of several new laws on marriage and labour. It was stated that a draft law on gender equality would be adopted in 2004. What were its objectives and what was the time frame for elaboration and adoption?
She noticed from the report, however, that the concerns expressed by the Committee in 2000 were still valid concerning legislation, as it was overly protective of women as mothers. That legislative approach had focused on mothers’ protection and women’s reproductive functions and social responsibilities. That emphasis could create further obstacles for women in employment and in their social role. That also discouraged the sharing of responsibilities in the household with men. What concrete steps were being taken in that regard? she asked.
KRISZTINA MORVAI, expert from Hungary, said she appreciated the Government’s frankness regarding the problems with the women’s movement and women’s non-governmental organizations, but it was still too early to speak of the women’s movement as a mass movement with influence on decision-making. That was what it should be all about, and together perhaps a checklist could be made to improve that situation.
Exactly how many women’s organizations were there right now in Belarus? she asked. Had that changed since the 2001 to 2005 gender equality plan? How were women’s non-governmental organizations funded and had that procedure changed in the past five years? How was the money distributed by the Government, and were grant applications and procedures open and transparent? Also, what exactly had been the role of non-governmental organizations in the report preparation process?
HANNA BEATE SCHOPP-SCHILLING, expert from Germany, said she saw some progress, but some major problems still remained. Engaging fathers in family work was welcomed, but what was really needed was a “massive paradigm shift”. As long as women were associated only with family responsibilities, they would be discriminated against in the labour market. Belarus was moving into a market economy, and women would be at risk of discrimination in the labour market. She wanted to see a concerted effort, a campaign, so that a paradigm shift would take place, without which the lack of an enabling environment for women would continue.
She said she had the impression that many of the women’s projects were financed by international organizations. While she welcomed that, she feared for their sustainability. She had been impressed by the high number of female judges and advocates, but there was a discrepancy between that high level of available training and the lack of court cases. Something was missing: either women were not sufficiently aware of their rights, or they were too distraught, disappointed and overworked that they did not avail themselves of their legal options. To what extent had there been a massive dissemination of information on the rights of women based on the Convention? she asked.
NAELA GABR, expert from Egypt, stressed the need to enhance the national machinery for women, particularly in the areas of their health and social status. She also sought additional details about its ability to function, as well as its sustainability and structure. What about women’s participation in formulating development strategies? She had noticed that the role of women was diminishing in the hierarchies of decision-making and asked whether women could be enabled to formulate strategies.
HEISOO SHIN, Vice-Chairperson and expert from Republic of Korea, said she had the impression from the report and oral presentation that, in Belarus, maintenance of family was seen as more important than promoting and protecting women’s human rights. Throughout the reports, the family was considered very important. Of course it was, but she doubted whether the Government had a sense of women as individuals whose rights should be protected within the family.
She said she had been pleased to learn that domestic violence against women was now considered to be a social problem. Noting that 29.4 per cent of women had experienced physical violence, she asked if the research had also probed the extent of sexual, verbal and psychological violence. She was troubled by a monitoring system that would characterize the male perpetrators as “troublemakers”. Describing them in those terms only trivialized the issue, which was really terribly important.
DORCAS AMA FREMA COKER-APPIAH, expert from Ghana, wanted to know exactly what the Government was doing to deal with domestic violence. Concerning the penal code, she was interested to know more about the choice of words regarding rape, which seemed to imply that that was a crime only if the victim was under the age of 16.
DUBRAVKA SIMONOVIC, expert from Croatia, said all transitional countries faced many difficulties and challenges. Nevertheless, it was very important to uphold international treaties when changing national laws. Also, did the Constitution contain a prohibition of discrimination based on sex, and was there an explicit provision on gender equality? Concerning the report’s preparation, had it been approved by the Government, by the Ministry of Labour or by the national machinery?
FATIMA KWAKU, expert from Nigeria, asked for a comment about the “severe persecutions” of non-governmental organizations in Belarus. Was the Government experiencing any difficulties in collaborating with them? Which non-governmental organizations had actually participated in the writing of the report, and what was the actual extent of their participation? The end of the report stated that there had been a significant increase in the activities of women’s organizations -– currently about 20 in number -- which were carrying out a series of specific projects. Could the delegation provide specific examples of those and of their impact on women’s rights? Were those non-governmental organizations carrying out those activities on their own or in collaboration with the Government?
Addressing the issue of ratification of the Convention’s Optional Protocol, a member of the delegation said the Optional Protocol would be ratified by the Parliament. In accordance with national legislation, however, the relevant law regarding the ratification of the Convention had to be adopted first. Ratification was not just a political gesture, which was why there had been a delay in submitting the ratification documents. He believed those documents would be submitted in the next month. The Convention was directly applied in national legislation, and the primacy of international law was certain.
On the participation of non-governmental organizations, he said there might be some problems regarding interpretation. The law provided only for the concept of “public association” in Belarus. The activities of such organizations, starting with the registration process, were bound by law. One could argue that the registration process was protracted or difficult, but it was consonant with law. He did not wish to indicate that everything was wonderful. However, the number of public associations per inhabitant in Belarus was among the highest in Europe.
Another delegate noted that one of the basic components of the national plan was the section on women and human rights. In accordance with the national plan of action, the draft law on gender equality was to be adopted in 2004. She regretted, however, that the timetable for the draft law’s adoption had been deferred. The ratification of the Optional Protocol, however, would serve as a trigger in convincing the necessary agencies that the draft must be adopted. Two working groups had been established to assist in the process. By April 2004, they would draw up the outline for the draft law.
She noted that the law on demographic security, adopted in 2002, stated that in each family, the man and woman concerned had the right to choose their type of reproductive behaviour. As of now, Belarus was drawing up its sustainable development strategy for the period up until 2020, which included a section on gender policy. Unfortunately, the strategy had not yet been approved. The draft document contained approaches to establish gender equality and to ensure the equal division of responsibilities, in terms of both family and professional obligations.
The draft bill to change the labour code was designed to eliminate the dual approach for dealing with mothers in the labour market and to ensure that all childcare benefits were applicable to both women and men.
Regarding the participation of non-governmental organizations in the report’s preparation, she said a mechanism allowing them to directly participate did not exist. However, since the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare cooperated with the various women’s associations, the report represented the range of their activities. Activities to improve women’s knowledge of the law were carried out with the active participation of women’s associations. For the first time, a gender based evaluation of the labour, marriage and family and criminal codes had been carried out.
Financing for non-governmental organization activities was carried out primarily through grants, she said. She hoped the draft bill on social projects would make it possible to create a mechanism for the redistribution of funding so that non-governmental organizations could carry out socially significant projects. The financing of any non-governmental organization from the State budget was forbidden. Funds could be allocated to finance special projects presented by such organizations, however.
Concerning the Gypsy community, another delegate said the most recent census showed that the Gypsy community was extremely small in Belarus and it would be hard to cite precise statistics. That did not mean that attention was not given to the subject of national minorities, as Belarus was a multinational republic. It was probably the only country of the Commonwealth of Independent States region not to have experienced ethnic conflict.
FRANÇOISE GASPARD, the expert from France, said the report showed that much remained to be done to ensure equality between men and women in Belarus. Regarding the participation of women in public life, she asked for clarification regarding the report’s text on women in leadership positions. While it might be a matter of interpretation, the language seemed to be full of prejudice, such as women not having learned how to compete in politics. Political parties were often reluctant to include women. Had any research been carried out in that regard and was there a specific commission in the Parliament to deal specifically with gender equality?
MERIEM BELMIHOUB-ZERDANI, the expert from Algeria, said she appreciated the country’s significant efforts to improve the situation of women. Belarus had become independent not so long ago following great political, economic, social and cultural upheaval. Some 20 per cent of natural resources had been used to recover from the Chernobyl accident. Belarus depended on the outside for many of its provisions, including oil and fuel.
In general, Belarus had accomplished much in record time given great financial difficulties. She was pleased that progress had been made in the number of women in the national assembly. Significant numbers of women were also in the civil service, the judiciary and the diplomatic community. State institutions could help in ensuring that women were represented in public life.
CORNELIS FLINTERMAN, expert from the Netherlands, noted that the Constitution of Belarus guaranteed the right of association. A number of women’s organizations had been established and were playing an increasingly important role. He was concerned, however, that despite the recognition of the need to expand social partnership, the lack of legislation on social needs had limited the process in that regard.
He said he had received information that non-governmental organizations in general, and women’s non-governmental organizations in particular, were facing serious problems. The Government was adopting selective policies, and engagement depended on a degree of loyalty. He understood that the Government could not directly finance non-governmental organizations, which meant they were dependent on foreign support. The Government was monitoring financial support, and non-governmental organizations were subjected to re-registration procedures, which imposed heavy financial burdens on the organizations. He had also been informed that non-governmental organizations were not allowed to represent women members of their own organization in court procedures. He asked for further clarification of the Government vis-à-vis the role of non-governmental organizations, in particular women’s organizations.
ROSARIO MANALO, the expert from the Philippines, said that while Member States had the obligation to take steps to strengthen the role of non-governmental organizations, they had the bigger obligation of providing them with a considerable measure of autonomy and a reasonable degree of freedom in their work to encourage greater participation without the fear of repressive action.
On women in public life, she asked for a breakdown in the number of women in the judiciary. Were there measures to inspire women to become a Supreme Court chief justice? What was the State policy to create an enabling environment to climb to top judicial positions?
Ms. KWAKU, expert from Nigeria, asked about women in foreign service and the diplomatic corps, as there had not been much information about that in the report. How many women represented the country at the international level? She said she particularly wanted to hear statistical details, if possible.
CHRISTINE KAPALATA, Rapporteur and expert from the United Republic of Tanzania, agreed that there was a lack of data about women in the diplomatic corps. What were the constraints, and was the Government happy with that situation? she asked. How comprehensive was the National Plan of Action for Gender Equality 2001-2005, and had it taken into account the promotion of women in foreign service? Four women ambassadors was a low figure, she added.
Ms. KWAKU, expert from Nigeria, said the report seemed to indicate that, in Belarus, there was absolutely no discrimination in citizenship and nationality law. She asked for confirmation that a woman in Belarus could pass her citizenship onto her children, just as a man could. She also asked if the woman could transfer her citizenship to her foreign husband, and whether both men and women had the same requirements and opportunities to acquire citizenship.
A representative of Belarus said that in the country’s 40 or so foreign missions, women accounted for about 12 per cent of the staffing with fewer serving at the rank of ambassador. In addition, one woman was ambassador-at-large in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Among the central ministry staff, women accounted for more than 37 per cent. He could not speak about discrimination concerning those women abroad, but he assured the experts that, on both the legislative and daily-life level, there was “absolutely no discrimination of any kind” on women’s right to choose their work or to work abroad.
He also detailed the number of women in “joint enterprises”, which amounted to some 10 per cent. Twice as many women, about 300, had State enterprises. The number of women leaders in both State and non-State organizations was practically identical. In terms of the absolute number of non-governmental organizations, Belarus ranked near the top.
Regarding the functioning of non-governmental organizations, he explained that a non-governmental organization could only be eliminated through legal proceeding, as in any democratic country, and a judgement as to the justifiability of such action could also be taken to court. Under existing legislation, any citizen or public organization could sue for their rights, particularly under article 62 of the Constitution. All citizens had the right to legal assistance. The relevant presidential decree of April 2003 had been harshly criticized by non-governmental organizations and had been sent for further improvements to ensure that the rights of civil society groups were protected.
In drawing up the national gender policy, an expert had rightly understood that without women’s participation in formulating strategies, problems would arise. Virtually every ministry had personnel charged with the promotion of women staff, which would promote them along the hierarchy and eventually “move them upstairs”, another representative said.
At the same time, however, she said that no one could deny that there were long lasting stereotypes in society and biases in terms of women becoming full-fledged members in the decision-making process in Belarus. But, step by step, progress was being made. A great impetus had been the adoption in 1999 of a programme requiring a human rights information campaign in all educational institutions. As a result, courses had been introduced, with special emphasis on the human rights of women. When monitoring the National Plan, information was received regularly from the Education Ministry to see what measures were being taken to ensure that the courses of study made human rights issues a reality. Refresher courses were being given to schoolteachers and university instructors, and textbooks were being reviewed.
In the judiciary, she said it was true that there was a high level of women judges, but a low level of women’s cases. To another question, she said that there was no separate commission for women in the National Assembly, but several commissions throughout the government dealt with women’s issues. A separate commission, however, would help resolve concerns more easily, she acknowledged.
In terms of citizenship, she said that both women and men, in terms of acquiring citizenship and transferring it to their foreign spouses, had equal rights. If a child was born on the territory of Belarus and one parent was a citizen and one was not, the child would automatically assume citizenship of Belarus. If the child was not born on the territory, then it was up to the parents to apply for citizenship on an equal footing. That was also reflected in the code on marriage and family, which stated that both husband and wife in the family had equal rights and equal opportunities.
On domestic violence questions, she said the data had indicated that psychological violence was more widespread than physical -- 70 to 80 per cent of women experienced it, both in family and in public life. The UNIFEM project and the consciousness-raising programme on a life free of violence had made it possible to enter that topic into discussion. Results of the data had also showed that both the State and the general population were giving greater attention to that problem.
FUMIKO SAIGA, expert from Japan, asked about discrimination regarding retirement age and pensions. Was that included in the draft amendment of the Labour Code, or was it contained in another law? She reiterated that many replies had not been contained in the delegation’s written responses to the pre-session working group’s questions. For example, there had been a question about migrant workers, but the Government had responded by discussing refugees. Were migrant workers accorded refugee status?
SJAMSIAH ACHMAD, expert from Indonesia, said that the educational measures taken within the context of the Plan of Action for Gender Equality 2001 to 2005 to eliminate gender stereotype among the young generation through school curricula had been commendable, and not many countries had done that. At the same time, she sought additional information about the attitudes and behaviours of boys and girls, as it was important to monitor those.
Did the curriculum review include an introduction of human rights education in schools? She also asked for information about the master’s course in women’s leadership, specifically about its content, objectives and principles. How many women and men were enrolled in that programme?
Ms. POPESCU-SANDRU, expert from Romania, asked for clarification on measures to encourage women to work in less traditional areas. She also wanted information on school dropout rates among girls. She noted that abortion continued to be the main method of birth control and asked for more clarification in that regard. She asked for sex-disaggregated data on the number of people with HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases.
PRAMILA PATTEN, expert from Mauritius, asked what measures the Government was taking to address pay inequalities. Given the vulnerable situation of women in employment, she asked what measures were being taken to address the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace. Would the draft labour code include a specific provision on sexual harassment? Had there been a study on the obstacles to fully implementing such legislation? Were women aware of their rights, and was legal assistance available? Concerning women entrepreneurs, did women have easy access to credit? She also wanted information on women in public-sector employment.
Ms. KAPALATA, expert from the United Republic of Tanzania, said that women in Belarus were becoming more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. Poverty was a debilitating factor in providing assistance. Were there any programmes to make women aware of the specific risks facing them regarding HIV/AIDS? What services were available to women who had been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS? Despite lack of discriminatory legislation, why was there still a lack of women foreign service workers?
Ms. SIMONOVIC, expert from Croatia, asked for information on the new leave programme for parents. How many women and men were using the childcare leave? Were there any special conditions to receive the leave?
Mr. MELANDER, expert from Sweden, said that any change of attitude would be difficult unless non-governmental organizations had the possibility to work freely without any kind of restrictions.
Ms. KWAKU, expert from Nigeria, noting that several questions from the pre-session working group had not been answered, asked for more information on family planning, the impact of the Chernobyl disaster on women’s health, and the impact of HIV/AIDS on women’s health.
Ms. GABR, expert from Egypt, noted that, while health services were free in Belarus, the health situation of women was not very good. Given the ageing of the population, she was concerned about the access of elderly women to health care. Women were most vulnerable to poverty. What was the Government’s position regarding the rights of immigrant workers and their families?
Ms. GASPARD, expert from France, noted gaps in the data provided in the report on the number of women in higher education. Establishing local mechanisms for the advancement of women required qualified personnel. Education played an important role in that regard. Higher education was also needed to undertake gender budgeting.
Ms. MORVAI, the expert from Hungary, raised the issue of prostitution. Scientific research proved that prostitution had a terrible effect on all aspects of a woman’s health –- physical, emotional and psychological, including the health of the wives of the clients. Governments generally followed two approaches regarding prostitution. One approach was to envision a society free from prostitution. The other was to normalize prostitution, making it a profession. In that case prostitution was often called “sex work”. There was great pressure for countries receiving development assistance to call prostitution “sex work”. Belarus was one of the last bastions in the region to call it prostitution. Under the umbrella of trafficking, there was an effort to normalize prostitution. She asked the delegation to study the so-called Swedish model of prostitution, as it was the only one that was compatible with gender equality.
Ms. SCHOPP-SCHILLING, the expert from Germany, said she was concerned about women’s position in the labour market. How had privatization of the economy impacted women? Did women cluster in jobs such as teaching and administration? Those sectors were severely underpaid. Had anything been done to raise wages in female-dominated sectors of State-controlled employment? She was surprised about the large number of women working in high-risk jobs. What was being done to help women in already difficult financial circumstances as they grew older?
Responding to comments on women’s employment, a member of the delegation said measures to stabilize the labour market were a key part of the Government’s strategy. There were a number of issues of concern to the Government, including unemployment. Women comprised 53 per cent of the unemployed. Men with higher education were less affected by unemployment than women. In addition, the unemployment period among women was longer than that of men. A key element in the strategy to reduce unemployment was to assist women in acquiring new skills.
Recent statistics showed that the wage gap was narrowing between men and women. Regarding pension issues, she said there was a five-year difference in the pension age for men and for women. Women’s pensions were some 25 per cent lower than men’s. She believed there would be a gradual increase in the pension age. A draft pension reform bill was under consideration. The number of men taking childcare leave was increasing.
Answering other employment questions, she said lawyers were provided free of charge in cases of labour disputes. The issue of sexual harassment in the workplace had been receiving increased attention, with law journals publishing articles on the topic. The problem of sexual harassment occurred more in the private sector, however, where social safeguards were not always followed.
Regarding the effects of the Chernobyl disaster, another delegate said that although the accident had happened some time ago, the effects were still felt. Over 2 million people had suffered from radioactivity, including over 1 million women. Thyroid cancer was the most noticeable effect of the disaster. The rate of thyroid cancer in Belarus was some 700 times greater. Cancer tended to develop over decades, so the impact of the disaster would be felt for years to come. The psychological and emotional impact of the disaster had resulted in falling birth rates. In fact, the birth rate had fallen by 40 per cent since the disaster.
Regarding other health issues, another speaker noted that the number of abortions had sharply dropped, and the number of births among teenagers had dropped by about 14 per cent. Almost one third of women said they regularly used contraception. In recent years, the number of women using oral contraceptives had doubled.
On HIV/AIDS, she said the official number of people affected by the disease was about 4,800. Women comprised some 30 per cent of those affected. The main source of transmission was drug use. Pregnant women were invited to test for the disease and women had the right to decide whether they would have the child or not. The Ministry of Health had proposed a set of measures to prevent mother-to-child transmission. During pregnancy, HIV-positive women were provided with medicine, and the delivery was by Caesarean section. Women and children did receive material support from the State.
She said a great deal of work was being done to train medical workers. Psychological counselling was also available. The majority of people under 30 with gonorrhoea and syphilis were women. Another factor in sexually transmitted diseases was alcohol and drugs.
Another representative reminded experts that legislation in Belarus provided equal opportunities in terms of education. On enrolments in “general educational institutions”, 49.2 per cent were girls, and 50.8 per cent were boys. In technical vocational schools, 30 per cent of the students were women. Women made up almost half of students enrolled in graduate school and in doctoral programmes. Many women also headed schools. Among the primary schools, 96.7 per cent were headed by women. In the secondary schools, about half were headed by women.
Replying to experts’ comments about the link between the elimination of gender stereotypes, including via education, she said that a system of gender education had begun to be established in the country, which was aimed at both sexes. Such courses of study were being provided in six institutions of higher learning, but that fell short of society’s needs. Unfortunately, she lacked gender-disaggregated data on the dropout rate among girls.
Concerning prostitution, another delegate said it was illegal, and no steps had been taken to weaken those laws. Regarding the low involvement of women in foreign service, he did not know the reasons for that, but if the Committee felt that that situation needed to be corrected, the necessary consultations would be carried out in that regard.
Ms. MORVAI, expert from Hungary, said she was glad that domestic violence was a real concern of the Government, but she wished to know more about its coherent strategy. There must be clear legislation. She recognized that there was a draft bill, but did it clearly criminalize domestic violence? Did it include protective or restraining orders, which provided immediate and effective protection for women? Also, how many shelters were available, and how long could women stay there? Was training envisaged for the various key practitioners, such as the judiciary? she asked.
HUGUETTE BOKPE GNACADJA, expert from Benin, was expecting further information from the report about the areas in which the lack of full implementation was the most glaring, but that had not been provided. She also asked about the divorce rate, specifically why it was increasing each year more rapidly than the number of marriages. Also, how long would it be before the draft law on violence was enacted?
Ms. ZERDANI, expert from Algeria, said that the new code on marriage and the family, which entered into force on 1 September 1999, proclaimed the equality of the spouses and stated that the consent of both parties was required. It also put the marriage age at 18 and said that the rights and obligations of both parties would be noted at the time of marriage. That was a civil marriage, so that was registered, and any family or marriage problems were to be resolved by “common consent”. Also, spouses had an equal right to the use, ownership and disposal of all property acquired during marriage.
She said that the marriage code could serve as a model for all countries. Belarus had made enormous strides in the legal arena. It had taken a whole arsenal of laws in three or four years and revised them. It should consider taking concrete steps in the meantime until those laws were really “de facto”.
A Government representative reiterated that domestic violence was of paramount importance, and the Government was taking many concrete steps to overcome it. There was one women’s shelter in Minsk; there were six or seven similar places elsewhere; and the intention was to have a second shelter established for battered women. Great hopes in that regard were pinned on social services and psychological and legal interventions. Should the draft law on domestic violence be adopted, that would be one more instrument to have a further impact on those who resorted to violence. On hiring, guarantees under the law were not always implemented in practice. So, the reasons were often hidden regarding hiring or not hiring.
Ms. POPESCU, Vice-Chairperson and expert from Romania, asked if it was possible to make available in written form to the Committee the whole range of available statistics disaggregated by sex.
Ms. SIMONOVIC, expert from Croatia, asked again whether the constitution contained an explicit prohibition of discrimination based on sex and a specific provision on gender equality or equal rights of men and women.
Much work had been done to compile disaggregated data in the past five years, and a lot had been done to match that work with the needs of the end-users, a representative of Belarus said. That proved valuable because the collection of statistical data was a very costly undertaking. She would provide the Committee with its data, which was in English and Russian only, in the near future.
She said that the Constitution did have a provision that citizens of the country were all equal. Specific provisions on gender-based discrimination existed in the labour and civil legislation and the marriage and family code, as well as in the education and rights of the child law, and health care law. Hopefully, the draft law on gender equality would be adopted. In it, in article 1 provided a definition of gender discrimination, and, for additional measures leading to the prosecution of persons who discriminated based on gender.
Statement by Chairperson
AYSE FERIDE ACAR, Committee Chairperson and expert from Turkey, in concluding remarks, congratulated the delegation for presenting the combined fourth through sixth reports. The Committee was happy to hear that steps were being taken to ratify the Optional Protocol and looked forward to Belarus completing the domestic and international procedures to ratify the Optional Protocol very soon.
While progress had been achieved regarding women in political decision-making, that area was not yet “problem free”, she said. The fact that the number of women at the top levels of the political hierarchy was low was a problem. Studies into the reasons why women shied away from high-level politics were needed. Women’s presence in civil society was also important for enabling them to participate as full-fledged citizens on an equal footing with men.
Similarly, women’s full participation in civil society was a way for them to develop their potential, she continued. The Committee attached great importance to the role of non-governmental organizations in the protection and promotion of women’s human rights. It was critically important that women’s non-governmental organizations participate in the different phases of report preparation and implementation of the Convention in the social and political spheres. The Committee urged the Government to consider ways to ensure the participation of women’s non-governmental organizations in that regard, since the Convention’s full implementation could only be achieved with the active participation of civil society.
She said the Committee was grateful to hear about legislative steps to eliminate discrimination and ensure gender equality in the country. Such steps must lead to concrete legislation reform to send the much-needed message that Belarus had the political will to prioritize women’s rights. She urged the Government to take determined and sustained action in the near future in the area of legal reform.
The widespread presence of gender stereotypes was of concern, she said. The situation required more targeted action and the cooperation of non-governmental organizations to eliminate patriarchal traditions and norms. Patriarchal traditions formed the foundations of discrimination against women. Enlisting the cooperation of civil society in overcoming stereotypes was a prerequisite. She urged a concrete and sustained campaign to eliminate gender-discriminatory stereotypes.
As dear as motherhood was, the stereotypical view of women exclusively as mothers helped to perpetuate stereotypes against women, she said. The Committee was aware of the difficulties facing the country, and the worsening health situation was troubling. Studies and measures were needed to implement effective measures to combat discrimination against women. The decrease in the number of abortions, and the increasing use of contraception were positive. Induced abortion, however, continued to be a main method of birth control. Systematic sex-disaggregated statistics on health and other issues were needed.
Regarding prostitution and trafficking of women, she said that much needed to be done to address the root causes of the phenomenon. Violence against women was another area of great salience, and she urged the Government to demonstrate a more rigorous commitment in that regard. Especially crucial was the need for a special law on violence. Awareness raising on the forms and manifestations of violence was needed, particularly among law enforces and the judiciary. International experience suggested that increased cooperation with women’s non-governmental organizations had yielded positive results in that area.
Regarding employment, the Committee had raised concerns about gender-segregated labour markets and the issue of sexual harassment, she said. Information on measures taken in the face of growing poverty levels and unemployment was needed in the next report.
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