CUSTOMS, TRADITIONS REMAIN OBSTACLES TO WOMEN’S RIGHTS IN EQUATORIAL GUINEA SAY ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE EXPERTS

8 July 2004
WOM/1452

CUSTOMS, TRADITIONS REMAIN OBSTACLES TO WOMEN’S RIGHTS IN EQUATORIAL GUINEA SAY ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE EXPERTS

08/07/2004
Press ReleaseWOM/1452

Committee on Elimination of                                      

 Discrimination against Women                                    

651st & 652nd Meetings (AM & PM)

CUSTOMS, TRADITIONS REMAIN OBSTACLES TO WOMEN’S RIGHTS IN EQUATORIAL GUINEA

SAY ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE EXPERTS

Country Presents Periodic Report, Stressing

Government’s Efforts to Ensure Equal Opportunity

While the Government of Equatorial Guinea took its international obligations seriously, there was every indication that customs and traditions constituted an obstacle to women’s’ enjoyment of their human rights, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women concluded today, as it examined the situation of women in that country. 

The Committee’s 23 members, acting in their personal capacities, monitor compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, often described as the international bill of rights for women and which came into force in 1981.

Throughout the day-long discussion, Committee members agreed that regardless of how deeply rooted traditions were, if they perpetuated discrimination against women they needed to be directly addressed with the goal of modifying or eradicating them.  That was the obligation of a State party.  Traditions would not change on their own.  The Government was urged to put in place polices and measures to counter discrimination in areas including education, marriage, divorce, land ownership and politics. 

The presence of multiple legal traditions resulted in women being disadvantaged, according to the Committee.  For that reason, the Government was encouraged to put a family law in place to respect women’s rights in all types of marriage.  The Committee remained concern about early marriage and polygamy, and urged the Government to take legal and policy actions to discourage practices that were not only discriminatory, but also incompatible with the integrity of women.  While welcoming efforts to banish imprisonment in cases of the non-payment of dowries, the Committee also remained concerned about customary law marriages. 

Introducing her country’s report, Jesusa Obono Engono, Minister of Promotion of Women, said the Government was making great efforts to ensure equal opportunities for women.  When Equatorial Guinea signed the Convention in 1984, it had accepted the obligation to fully recognize women at the same level of men in all spheres of society.  Among its significant achievements was the adoption a national policy for the promotion of women, which focused on legal, economic and educational improvements for women.  A Presidential Decree prohibiting the imprisonment of women due to the failure to repay a dowry had been another important step. 

Overcoming stereotypes was truly difficult in a Bantu society, she said.  Traditional marriage led to many cases of abuse, including the commercial utilization of a dowry.  A common law bill, which covered the areas of dowry, consent and inheritance, had been before the authorities for three years.

There had also been a significant increase in prostitution in recent years, owing to mass migration to cities and a growing oil business, which had brought many foreigners, primarily western men, to the country, creating a demand for sex worker services.

On the increase in prostitution, the expert from Hungary noted that western men went to Equatorial Guinea without their families and, therefore, used the country’s women and girls for their sexual needs.  As clients, those men must be targeted and prosecuted for child abuse and rape.  The Government should make clear that women were not part of some kind of hospitality service.  It was not the duty of women and children to satisfy the sexual needs of men. 

Several experts felt that there was a discrepancy between the country report, which stated that there was no discrimination against women in Equatorial Guinea, and the situation on the ground, in which it seemed that women were inferior to men.  Responding to those concerns, members of the delegation stated that there was no institutional discrimination against women in the country.  The low rate of women’s participation in socio-political life was not due to discrimination or non-compliance with the provisions of the Convention, but rather to internal customs and reluctance on the part of the women themselves. 

The fact that there were few women in political life, for example, was due to women themselves, not the State, Ms. Engono stated.  Today, women in Equatorial Guinea had equal rights and opportunities with men, but still a lot had to be done to inspire women to act.  Most women still stayed at home.

It was one thing for the law to establish equality and another for the State to ensure that women were able to enjoy the rights established for them by law, stated the expert from Mexico.  The delegation had stated that women did not value themselves, but rather they followed customs and traditions inherited from the past.  That meant that women had not been duly educated as to the scope of their rights.  In the final analysis, the State was ultimately responsible and the requisite political will was required to move forward. 

Also participating in Equatorial Guinea’s delegation was Ela Librada Asumu, Director-General for the Promotion of Women; Gertrudis Nzang Ndong, National Coordinator for Health and Reproduction; Lino-Sima Ekua Avomo, Permanent Representative of Equatorial Guinea to the United Nations; Antonio Ebale Ayingono, Deputy Permanent Representative of Equatorial Guinea to the United Nations; Job-Obiang Esono Mbengono, First Secretary at the Permanent Mission of Equatorial Guinea in New York; Aquilina Mangue Evuna, Secretary at the Permanent Mission of Equatorial Guinea in New York; and Lourdes Angue Oyono, Secretary at the Permanent Mission of Equatorial Guinea in New York.

The Committee will meet again at 10 a.m. tomorrow, 9 July, to consider the fifth periodic report of Bangladesh.

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met today to consider the situation of women in Equatorial Guinea.  Before it was the combined second and third periodic reports of Equatorial Guinea (CEDAW/C/GNQ/2-3) and the combined fourth and fifth period reports (document CEDAW/C/GNQ/4-5).  Equatorial Guinea ratified the Convention in 1984.

The combined fourth and fifth periodic report notes that according to a 2001 population and housing census, the country’s population consists of five ethnic groups, namely Fang (82.9 per cent), Bubi (9.6 per cent), Ndowe and Bissio and Annobonesa (1.5 per cent).  All of the country’s ethnic groups are patriarchal.  The Fang, Ndowe, Bissio and Annobonesa are patrilineal, that is, children belong to the father and only sons can inherit.  The Bubi, however, are matrilineal:  the children belong to the wife of the marriage of which they were born and inheritance passes from mothers to children.  While there are plans to establish a marriage age, there is currently no minimum age for marriage.  

Equatorial Guinea’s economy is based on agriculture, the report notes, with women comprising some 81.47 per cent of the workforce.  Despite women’s role as mothers, producers and community managers, their work is not really rewarded, and although they make up more than half the population, as most of the money belongs to men, they own only one tenth of the money in circulation.  Also, while women perform 52 per cent of manual work, only one third of that is paid labour.  The only sector in which women outnumber men is agriculture.  Women play a smaller role in commerce, public services, the informal sector and the public sector.  The proportion of women among senior executives and other employees in the private sector is particularly low, at only 0.3 per cent.

Regarding women in decision-making and political power, the report notes that women account for 8.1 per cent of government officials, including traditional chiefs, local council members, mayors or members of Parliament.  While equal representation has not been achieved in any aspect of life, considerable progress is being made.

Following 200 years of colonial rule, and a decade of dictatorship, the first step for the advancement of women was the establishment of the State Secretariat for the Advancement of Women in 1980, the report states.  In 1992, it was upgraded to an independent ministry, the Ministry for the Advancement of Women and Social Affairs.  It is currently called the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Status of Women (MINASCOM), headed by a Minister and Secretary of State, both of whom are women.  In May 2002, the Government adopted the text of the National Policy for the Advancement of Women (PNPM), drafted by Ministry of Social Affairs and the Status of Women, which clearly sets out strategies for the advancement of women.

Another measure for the protection of women is a presidential decree prohibiting the imprisonment of women for dowry-related reasons, the report states.  The Council of Ministers is considering draft legislation on customary marriages with the main objective of regulating traditional marriage, which is often prejudicial to women.  The draft law attempts to provide a legal framework for the dowry, consent, inheritance, widowhood and other important matters, which, up to now, have left women at the mercy of the husband or his family.  According to the report, the text of the draft law, which has been in the drafting stage for three years, represents a threat to some men, who are doing everything possible to prevent its adoption. 

Another issue is that of domestic violence, the report says.  Men traditionally have the right to “discipline” family members.  It is considered a “man’s right” to strike his wife.  It is not seen as abnormal or as any kind of wrong or offence.  That viewpoint, the report adds, is shared by both the man and the woman, who accepts her role as victim, seeing it as a “normal part of her status as a woman and a wife”.  The Ministry of Social Affairs and the Status of Women has become actively involved in the issue, holding awareness raising seminars and round tables on domestic violence.  The aim is the adoption of legal measures condemning the practice. 

Concerning prostitution, the report notes that there has been a significant proliferation of prostitution in recent years, particularly in the biggest cities.  Initially the security forces and the municipal authorities took drastic measures, detaining the young women who were engaging in prostitution.  That has been discontinued, however, because of “numerous excesses” on the part of the security forces.  The Department of the Status of Women continuously conducts awareness-raising activities among prostitutes, encouraging them to abandon the activity and to take preventive measures against diseases such as HIV/AIDS.  The Ministry of the Interior recently promulgated a ministerial order prohibiting the prostitution of minors. 

On the issue of education, the report notes that while the proportion of girls in primary education is similar to that of boys, the percentage of girls starts to drop in secondary education.  The gap widens at the higher education and university levels.  A national literacy programme has been established as part of the National Programme of Education for all.  Literacy projects have the goal, the report adds, of reducing literacy among women from 60 to 23 per cent. 

Introduction of Report

JESUSA OBONO ENGONO, Minister of Promotion of Women, introduced her country’s report, saying the first step for the advancement of women in Equatorial Guinea had been the creation of the Ministry of State for the Promotion of Women in the 1980s.  That ministry later became annexed to the Ministry of Labour and later became the Ministry of Social Affairs.  The Government was making efforts to ensure the equality of opportunities for women in keeping with the provisions of the Convention.  When Equatorial Guinea signed the Convention in 1984, it accepted the obligation to fully recognize women at the same level of men in all spheres.  Through decree 79/2002, the Government had adopted the national policy on the promotion of women elaborated by the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Promotion of Women.  The national policy was part of the country’s general overall development strategy.  Its conceptual framework was inspired by the concept of sustainable human development.  The policy focused on improvements in the country’s legal framework, the sustainable economic advancement of women and the equitable access of women to health services, education, training and literacy programmes. 

A Presidential Decree prohibiting the imprisonment of women due to the failure to provide a dowry had been an important step for the protection of women, she said.  Many women had been imprisoned because they could not pay for their dowry.  Implementing the decree had been difficult in rural areas due to ignorance and lack of communication.  To ensure greater legal protection for women, a family code was in the process of being elaborated.  Having a family code would harmonize traditions and customs with domestic law and international conventions.  Women and men who married foreigners preserved their nationality.

Overcoming stereotypes was truly difficult in a Bantu society, she said.  Traditional marriage led to many cases of abuse, including the commercial utilization of a dowry.  A common law bill, which covered the areas of dowry, consent and inheritance, had been before the authorities for three years.

Regarding women’s participation in public life, she noted that women had the right to vote and could take public and political positions.  While women were represented in the legislative, executive and judicial branches, their level of representation remained low.  There had been 150 women candidates in parliamentary elections.  Women were represented in all diplomatic missions as well as in several subregional agencies.

Concerning education, she said that despite equal opportunity policies, the percentage of women diminished significantly in the secondary level and was drastically lower in higher levels.  Illiteracy was greater among women, especially in rural areas.  Pregnancy and early marriages meant that women left school to look for jobs in the main cities.  Adolescent girls were often forced to leave school due to early pregnancy.  Adolescent fertility rates were high.  In that respect, the Government had taken steps to provide sex education.  The Ministry for Social Affairs and the Status of Women carried out literacy programmes in different parts of the country.  Starting in 2002, it had started programmes for the re-education of girls and boys who had dropped out of school.  Religious groups had also started programmes for girls who had abandoned their studies.

On the issue of employment, she said agriculture formed the basis of the country’s economy with women forming most of the agricultural workforce.  There had been high growth in national gross domestic product due to recent oil exports.   Women were most involved in three areas of the economy:  agriculture; fishing and livestock; and informal trading.  Although the constitution ensured equal opportunities, women did encounter difficulties in competing with men.  Some Government measures included free vocational training, social security and special protection for women during pregnancy.

Prostitution was not legal in Equatorial Guinea, she said.  There had been a significant increase in prostitution in recent years.  Causes for that increase included the country’s economic situation, mass migration to cities and the oil business, which had brought many foreigners, primarily western men, to the country, creating a demand for sex workers.  One could say that there had been on increasing professionalization of prostitution.  Trafficking in women was also prohibited in the penal code.  While there were several isolated cases, it was not a deeply rooted phenomenon.

On the issue of health, she noted that women received special care during pregnancy and during childbirth.  A reproductive health programme offered prenatal and post-natal care, as well as post-abortion care.  Family planning services included programmes against HIV/AIDS.  The national policy on reproductive health, which was currently before the Parliament, dealt with the issue of safe childbirth and pregnancy.  The bill gave special attention to mothers and children with HIV/AIDS.  Abortion was considered an offence, with only few exceptions.  Those most affected by HIV/AIDS were between the ages of 30 and 34.  More women than men had HIV/AIDS. 

She said that while women in urban areas had sufficient information and access for pregnancy prevention, that was not the case in rural areas.  The National Institute on Social Security was responsible for providing family benefits.  Single women had assistance and more assistance was provided if they had more children.  If a woman was married, however, then the husband received the assistance.

The Government, she noted, was making unprecedented efforts and some positive progress had been achieved to advance the status of women.  It believed that “educating a woman was educating a people.”  Numerous seminars had been held over the past few year, including on women and development; on publicizing the conventions ratified by the Government relating to women and children, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child; on prostitution and HIV/AIDS, targeting young prostitutes in particular and the wider public in general; on domestic violence; and on the collection of data on women and children. 

She also cited legislation adopted by the Government in recent years, such as the 1993 Presidential Decree setting up the National Committee on Women and Development, the 1996 law on family planning, and the 1999 law on non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which set up a national network of NGOs to deal with social problems.  She stated that the country needed more support from the international community to achieve gender equality, including financial, material and human resources.  Also, it was necessary to support the Ministry for Women in its efforts to get the bills on violence against women, dowry and trafficking in women and migrants approved.

Experts’ Questions and Comments

CORNELIS FLINTERMAN, expert from the Netherlands, said it was clear that Equatorial Guinea was facing important problems in implementing the Convention and he hoped today’s dialogue would help in overcoming some of those problems.  He noted that the National Committee had not been a success and was being restructured.  He sought more information on that restructuring.  Also, had the Commission on Human Rights, which was established in 1990 and had the power to deal with complaints and violations, been a success?  What was its mandate and how many women were members of the Commission?  Had the judiciary been trained in international human rights law, particularly the Women’s Convention?  In addition, how important was the role of non-governmental organizations and what was their legal status?  Had they been involved in the preparation of the country’s periodic report?

HANNA BEATE SCHOPP-SCHILLING, expert from Germany, wondered whether the new family code and the law on customary marriages were two different codes, and wanted to know what efforts the Minister was undertaking to get support from the local people regarding codifying customary marriages.  Also, what was the time frame for finishing those two codes and the likelihood of their approval?  In addition, what was the time frame for the elaboration of the national plan of action for women, and were grass-roots women involved in that?  What was the budget envisioned for the implementation of that plan, and would it come out of the State budget or from donors?  Furthermore, what percentage of the overall State budget was allocated for the Women’s Ministry, and to what extent was the Ministry dependent on donor support for implementing its projects?

PRAMILA PATTEN, expert from Mauritius, sought clarification on the status of the Convention in the legal system and requested specific cases in which it was invoked before the Supreme Court.  Had there been any training programmes for the judiciary on the Convention and other human rights instruments?  Also, she sought more details on the composition of the customary courts, as well as the number of courts in the rural areas.  Did the Government have a legal aid system?  In addition, were there any legal provisions to address violence against women in the domestic sphere?

SJAMSIAH ACHMAD, expert from Indonesia, sought more information on the draft law to regulate customary marriage.  Was granting divorce also included in the draft law?  What strategies were being taken to seek the understanding and support of those opposing the draft law, as well as of the legislators?  She was concerned about the conciliation and mediating function of the Women’s Ministry. 

FUMIKO SAIGA, expert from Japan, requested clarification on the national policy for the advancement of women.  What was its relationship with the national gender policy and the national plan of action for women?  What was the main document for pursuing women’s policy?

MARIA YOLANDA FERRER GOMEZ, expert from Cuba, said that it had been admitted in the report how difficult it was to overcome stereotypes.  While the Government was making efforts in that area, they were colliding with deep-rooted conceptions in the population and among leaders.  It was urgent to systematically carry out activities geared to all segments of the populations in that area.  She also wanted to know whether there was a permanent relationship between the network of non-governmental organizations and the Women’s Ministry.  Some traditions, such as dowry, marriage contracts, the right to polygamy and mistreatment of women, were extremely harmful to women.  She wanted to know whether there was a programme to combat discrimination from the viewpoint of ideological conceptions.  Women were considered inferior beings in Equatorial Guinea.  She also wanted to know who had participated in creating the family code and when it would be adopted.

HUGUETTE BOKPE GNACADJA, expert from Benin, asked whether there were difficulties in the preparation and adoption of the plan of action relating to the national policy for women.  It seemed that the process of preparation was dragging on for too long.  It seemed a matter of urgency to adopt the plan of action.  Also, what would the status of the law on customary marriage be vis-à-vis the adoption of the family code?  What was the area of competence for the family code?  Who prepared the country’s report and what part did non-governmental organizations play in the preparation?

MARIA REGINA TAVARES DA SILVA, expert from Portugal, asked if the restructuring of the national women and development committee would maintain that committee’s ambitious mandate.  She was struck by the prevalence of stereotypes and cultural traditions in Equatorial Guinea.  Stereotypes seemed to form the basis for the unfavourable situation of women in many regards.  Regarding draft laws, not much had been said about measures to educate people on the laws.  How were women made aware of their rights, and how were they able to exercise them?  Women generally followed the traditional law.  Were they in a position to bring complaints before the courts when their rights were violated, or was there a gap between theory and reality?  How did the Government plan to address that gap? she asked.

KRIZTINA MORVAI, an expert from Hungary, asked for information on the women’s non-governmental organization community in Equatorial Guinea, including how they were funded and how they cooperated with the Government.  On the issue of domestic violence, she asked for clarity on the dispute settlement division.  What was the Government’s position on domestic violence?  Was it seen as a private, family issue, or as a human rights violation requiring Government intervention?  Was there a protocol for police interference and were there restraining orders and orders of protection?  The delegation had said that western men went to Equatorial Guinea without their families and, therefore, used the country’s women and girls for their sexual needs.  As clients, those men must be targeted.  The Government should make clear that women were not part of some kind of hospitality.  It was not the duty of women and children to satisfy these sexual needs.

DUBRAVKA SIMONOVIC, expert from Croatia, asked how the Minister used the Convention in her work.  Did the country’s legislation contain a compatible definition of discrimination?  The report indicated that many customary practices should be changed.  It was incumbent on the Government to use the Convention as a tool to bring laws and customary practices in line with the Convention. 

FATIMA KWAKU, expert from Nigeria, asked about the reason for the late submission of the two reports, as well as the prospects for receiving the report due in 2005 on time.

Country Response

Responding to the many questions raised, Ms. OBONO ENGONO said the Government was making enormous efforts.  Equatorial Guinea was part of an African family, in which women had been viewed merely as objects.  It had been difficult for the Government to reach the current situation.  The Government annually assigned special funds to the Women’s Ministry to cover women-related programmes.  The Ministry was comprised of delegates from the various provinces, regions and districts.  The Ministry was related to all Government ministries working in the social field.  Regarding the late submission of reports, she said the Ministry would do everything possible to submit the 2005 report on time. 

Another member said there had been no specific reason for the report’s late submission.  The country had emerged from a very difficult political situation in the 1980s.  The status of women had not really been the main issue.  The delegation had done everything necessary to be here today and to present its reports.  Social and political circumstances had changed, and the Government was trying to resolve the inequalities facing women.  It was the Government’s desire to implement the Convention in all spheres of live.

Regarding the Convention’s implementation in national legislation, she said the constitution established that the Convention, once ratified by the President, became law, and was even stronger than national legislation. 

Regarding the national programme for the advancement of women, that document served as a basis for policies to achieve gender equity.  Prepared by the Ministry, the document was presented to a board for internal evaluation.  After approval, it was presented to an inter-ministerial council.  It was then passed onto the council of ministers, presided over by the President.  The document was then submitted to Parliament.  Once there, it became a legal document.  The document and the national policy included Government guidelines for the advancement of women.  The Government and international agencies worked together to guarantee the document’s implementation.  The document focused on gender, access to decision-making, the economy, education, health and access to drinking water, as well as institutional mechanisms for the support of the Women’s Ministry.

Another member of the delegation clarified that the national policy on women was the basic document for ensuring equality for women.  As to why the national committee had been ineffective, she noted that it had been established before the Government had the national policy.  There was no gender policy when the committee was set up.  Now that the national policy was approved and the Government was working on finalizing the plan of action, it was important for the committee to be more successful.  The Women’s Ministry would be heading the committee and coordinating its work.

Ms. ENGONO said that the country’s Commission on Human Rights sought to ensure respect for human rights throughout the country.  The Commission received complaints and investigated any possible violations.  Currently, there was no law on violence against women.  The Government was now trying to draw up a specific law dealing with violence against women.  Pending its promulgation, women could invoke the Constitution when submitting complaints.

Another member of the delegation said that Commission was autonomous and independent of the Ministry of Justice.  Every year, the Commission submitted a report to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.  As to whether the mediation efforts by the Ministry of Social Affairs were prejudicial to women, she said that often there were misunderstandings among couples and a complaint was made about a specific incident.  In that case, the Ministry tried to mediate.  However, if there was no possibility of reconciliation, then the Ministry did not try to convince the woman to withdraw her complaint.  The matter was then referred to the competent court.

She said that there were many women’s groups and associations in the country, even though they might not be what were commonly known as non-governmental organizations.  Most women worked in agriculture and they got together to produce collectively.  The Ministry was not just sitting back until the plan of action was adopted.  It was holding seminars, round tables and meetings on such issues as educating the girl child and gender relations.  It was trying to get across the message of the national policy and explain the Convention.  There was a lot of illiteracy among women and so it was difficult for them to grasp the content of the Convention.  Traditions were very strong and the Government could not try to impose directives that ran against traditions.  It was necessary to move step by step, so that people had time to absorb the information.

Customary marriages, Ms. ENGONO said, were a “thorny issue” and part of the country’s tradition.  Customary marriage did have some problems.  In her country, families negotiated marriages, which did not involve the consent of the two people getting married.  The girl was negotiated as though she were goods or chattel, and dowry was part of the negotiations.  It was as if the parents were selling off their daughter.  The dowry was paid in cash or in kind, or a combination of both.  If the marriage broke up and the dowry was not repaid in full, the girl was put in prison.  The dowry must be paid in full in order to release the girl from prison.  The Government was trying to adopt a law to avoid putting the girls in prison.

Now, she continued, it was possible to get divorced under the law, whereas before women were automatically put in prison if the dowry was not repaid.  Before, women did not inherit if the husband died.  What the husband owned went directly to his family and women had no rights whatsoever.  Such situations still arose.  There was currently a bill, to be part of the new family code, to ensure that widows and children could inherit the property of her late husband.  There were “loads and loads of problems” relating to customary marriage, relating to social customs and traditions.  The problem of machismo was also a factor.  It was difficult to convince men to adopt the law on customary marriage.  It was necessary to fight, she stressed, to get the bill adopted by 2005.

Regarding the budget of the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Status of Women, she said there was no discrimination regarding the approval of budgets.  On the Convention’s application in the domestic legal system, she said the Constitution stated that the ratified Convention had the same level as national legislation.  Training was being planned to make judges aware of the contents of the various ratified conventions and treaties.

Concerning the drafting of the family code, she said there was a difference between the family code and customary marriage.  The family code was undergoing its first stages, whereas the law regulating customary marriage had been under consideration for three years and they hoped it would soon be promulgated.  The family code was still in its first stages.  In principle, she believed there would be no contradiction between the two legal instruments.

In working on the report, another member said the delegation had thought that non-governmental organizations would be presenting their own report.  Most projects implemented in the country were co-funded by the State.  The State identified a project in a sector and started negotiations with a body working in that sector.  A joint programme was then worked out.  Projects to build training centres were being financed by the State.

Another member of the delegation addressed the issue of stereotypes.  A training programme had been carried out between 2001 and 2004 for teachers working in rural areas to explain the fact that girls should have access to education.  The Ministry was also organizing awareness seminars to stress the importance of education.  Some 20 per cent of scholarships were given to girls.

Prostitution was punished by law, another member of the delegation said.  The law specifically prohibited the practice of prostitution.  Punishment for prostitution included four-to-six-year prison terms.  The situation had worsened due to the presence of Westerners employed in the oil sector.  With the oil boom, there had been an inflow of Westerners with high purchasing power.  Oil companies employed Westerners for a short duration.  Looking for fun, they encouraged girls to become prostitutes.  Despite the Government’s efforts, it had not been able to regulate the problem.  The Ministry of the Interior constantly promoted and enacted legislation to “threaten” men, so that poor innocent girls were no longer manipulated.  The Government was looking for different mechanisms to solve the problem.  Groups of policemen patrolled the streets to ensure that girls returned home.  The police did not have access to certain areas, however, and Westerners knew where those areas were.  Any man who opened an establishment for sex trafficking went directly to prison.

The delegation was not trying to justify prostitution, another member noted.  It was simply a matter related to supply and demand.  Much had been said about the topic and many awareness campaigns had been organized.

Experts’ Questions and Comments

MERIEM BELMIHOUB-ZERDANI, expert from Algeria, noted that Equatorial Guinea was not the only country in Africa with customary laws and traditions.  However, the Convention must be recognized as having precedence over customary law.  National legislation must be harmonized with the provisions of the Convention.  Twenty years had passed since the Government ratified the Convention.  It was now time to ensure its implementation. 

The best law to get women into parliament, she said, was proportional representation.  If proportional representation was not acceptable, perhaps a quota system could be established or seats could be reserved for women.  Also, political parties could be encouraged to have women candidates and those that did not do that could be penalized.  No one could stop the President of the country from appointing more women ministers.  What was required was willpower, which she believed existed in Equatorial Guinea.  Women had to be on an equal footing with men in today’s world. 

DORCAS AMA FREMA COKER-APPIAH, expert from Ghana, said that the report had stated that foreign spouses could become nationals of Equatorial Guinea upon marrying nationals of that country.  Could foreign spouses attaining citizenship retain their original citizenship?  What effect did divorce or death have on the citizenship gained by foreign spouses?  Also, could women, whether married or unmarried, obtain passports or travel without the permission of male relative?

FRANÇOISE GASPARD, expert from France, said that the reports contained no statistics on the number of women in parliament.  It was said that 14 per cent of parliament were women.  Were there any discussions about increasing the number of women in elected bodies?  Was there a committee in the parliament entrusted with dealing with women’s issues?  What part did women play at the local level?  Could foreign women married to nationals of Equatorial Guinea keep their own nationality, while at the same time acquiring the nationality of Equatorial Guinea? 

Delegation’s Response

On the question of nationality, Ms. ENGONO said that spouses were entitled to the nationality of Equatorial Guinea upon marriage and could retain their own nationality.  Children of a mother or father with the nationality of Equatorial Guinea would also have that nationality, regardless of the status of the couple.  A man or woman could remain in the country or return home to his or her country of origin upon divorce or death of a spouse.  Also, nationality was not lost in the event of divorce or death of a spouse.  Getting a passport depended on the sector the women were in.  A high official of the State would not require the permission of her husband to travel.

In rural areas, things were more difficult, she admitted.  Customary marriages were not yet regulated, so there was still a situation where men felt they had authority over women.  Women would not be able to leave the countryside without first getting the husband’s consent.  In the cities, women were free to travel.  A woman working in the informal sector could travel, because the husband would be happy to let her travel so she could continue her trade.  As a general rule, one would not leave to travel somewhere without telling the spouse. 

She stated that 14 per cent of the current parliament were women.  She herself had stood for election to parliament and there had been no discrimination.  The fact that there were few women was due to women themselves, not the State.  Today, women in Equatorial Guinea had equal rights and opportunities with men, but still a lot had to be done to inspire women to act.  Most women still stayed at home.  It was not the Government that prevented them from standing as candidates.  She was trying to hold seminars to encourage women.  This year, there were 150 women candidates standing for parliament.

Comments and Questions by Experts

PRAMILA PATTEN, expert from Mauritius, asked about discrimination in the education sector.  What measures was the Government taking to obtain the same conditions for girls and boys access to education?  Girls, the report said, chose certain professions.  Unless the weight of traditions and customs were identified, she failed to see how the measures taken by the Government would be effective.  Was there a system for compiling data on such issues as the number of girls attending university in rural, as opposed to urban, areas?  Regarding re-education programmes sponsored by religious groups, did those programmes perpetuate stereotypes?

SALMA KHAN, expert from Bangladesh, noted that some 57 per cent of the population lived without adequate nutrition and that 70 per cent of women did not have access to health care.  Was female genital mutilation being practiced among any of the ethnic groups and, if so, was it legally banned?  Another concern was that more women were being infected with HIV/AIDS.  Was there a national AIDS policy?  Were women subjected to voluntary or forced screening, and what treatment options were available?  Also, had the Convention been translated into all local languages?

HEISOO SHIN, expert from the Republic of Korea, noted that education was key to national development.  The report said that the reason girls were less educated was that families preferred to educate boys.  Not acting on that preference was discrimination.  The Convention talked not only about legal opportunity, but also equality in reality, or equality of results.  Measures must be taken to address the imbalance in literacy.  Also, why were only 20 per cent of scholarships given to girls?  Regarding women in agriculture, did women have control over the money they gained from agricultural activities?  Did women keep the money they earned?

Ms. SAIGA, expert from Japan, asked for clarification on the educational system, including the duration of compulsory education and what was being done to reduce the drop-out rate.

Ms. ACHMAD, expert from Indonesia, also expressed concern about conflicting statements in the report regarding a lack of discrimination in education.  Did the revised curriculum include subjects on life skills for both girls and boys?  Were efforts to correct curriculum and textbooks complemented by steps to enable teachers to reflect gender equality principles in teaching?

Delegation’s Response

Ms. ENGONO said that there was no place for discrimination against women in the country under the fundamental law.  The low rate of women’s participation in the country’s socio-political life was not due to discrimination or non-compliance with the provisions of the Convention, but rather to internal customs on the part of the women themselves, who still needed to be made aware so they played their rightful role in society.

She emphasized that there was no discrimination against women in the field of education.  There was compulsory education from age five for both boys and girls.  Equatorial Guinea was an African country in which women followed social customs and those customs did not grant them much importance in society.  Everyone under the fundamental law had the same rights and enjoyed the same opportunities.  The rate of schooling was the same at the start of enrolment.  But midway through the courses perhaps 50 per cent of the girls got pregnant, dropped out and did not finish.  Parents did not have the mechanisms to ascertain whether their daughters actually went to school or went somewhere else when they left home in the morning.  Girls were entitled to restart their education following divorce.  Adult training was available throughout the country.  There was also no discrimination in choosing a career at the university level.

When the report states that there was no discrimination, added another member of the delegation, it referred to institutional discrimination.  Education from pre-school onwards was co-education, meaning that both boys and girls received the same education.  At the higher levels, students chose their careers, which was up to the individual.  The problem of pregnancies was a major obstacle when speaking of school dropouts.  That was why sex education was included in the new school curricula.  That was also an effort to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS. 

Another member of the delegation said that the Government offered bonuses to private enterprises that hired women after they completed their studies.  The Government also tried to promote women who were university graduates.  That enabled women to occupy posts of responsibility, and those women served as an example to others who had not completed their studies.  The Government promoted associations, so that women who married at an early age and then divorced could lead financially autonomous lives.  Equatorial Guinea did not have laws that were detrimental to women.  The 20 per cent of scholarships that were guaranteed for women was only a minimum figure.  The Government did not go into homes to tell families how to educate their children, he stated. 

Until recently, he said, compulsory education was for five years, but now nine years were compulsory.  If a student completed nine years, he or she would be able to work at the level of secretary, for example, and would have access to the workplace.  To address dropouts, the Government had recently begun offering incentives to low-income students.  Such students received subsidies to help them continue their studies.  The Government was strengthening sex education in schools and trying to create awareness about contraception, so that the country’s youth was better prepared when starting sexual activity, which was often at an early age. 

On the issue of HIV/AIDS, Ms. ENGONO said that the Government had undertaken programmes throughout the country to combat that scourge, including organizing awareness and information seminars, so that all citizens were informed about the disease.  

Another member of the delegation, who was the Coordinator for Health and Reproduction of Equatorial Guinea, said that there was a health policy document prepared in 2001 and approved in 2003, which needed to be approved by the Government.  Among its provisions was that no one could be forced to undertake laboratory analysis without his or her consent.  If a person was found to have HIV/AIDS, then counselling would be provided.  The Government had bought a sufficient amount of drugs.  The drugs and the tests were given free of charge, especially in the case of pregnant women and children born with HIV/AIDS. 

As for the high rates of HIV/AIDS among women as opposed to men, she said that while there had been campaigns to make the population more aware, there was still a low rate of condom use.  It was felt that sexual pleasure was reduced through the use of condoms.  Other factors for the high rates were multiple partners and prostitution.  AIDS was not only a medical problem, but a social problem.  Despite all the information campaigns about the use of contraception and the advice to have stable couples, it was difficult to really create awareness among the people.

Experts Questions and Comments

Ms. SCHOPP-SCHILLING, expert from Germany, said there did not seem to be adequate information regarding the spread of HIV/AIDS in rural areas.  In the 1996 family planning act, were women given the right to decide on the use of contraceptives?  Could young girls easily access contraceptives?  Was termination of pregnancy possible under certain conditions? 

Continuing, she asked if women could own land.  What percentage of women worked the land to feed their families?  She requested that the country’s next report contain more information on rural areas.

Ms. TAVARES DA SILVA, expert from Portugal, said that although there was no formal discrimination, hidden discrimination existed, for example, in access to credit.  Although women comprised more than half the population, they owned less than 10 per cent of the money in circulation.  Access to credit was essential to development and was the responsibility of the State. 

Ms. MORVAI, expert from Hungary, said early pregnancies and motherhood had a devastating effect on gender equality.  Without that recognition by the Government, there was no hope for equality.  Who were the partners of young girls getting pregnant and contracting HIV/AIDS?  There should be no illusions that everything would be fine if young girls were provided with contraceptives.  The real way to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS was to prevent children from starting sexual lives before they were ready for it. 

Country Response

Ms. OBONG ENGONO said there was a low rate of HIV/AIDS in the rural areas.  There were stable couples in rural areas that formed respectful families.  Sexual promiscuity was not a major problem in villages.  In the major cities, however, there was a daily increase in the rate of HIV/AIDS among women, not because boys and girls had not been educated, but because they did not know to whom to attribute the problem.  The Government financed 100 per cent of everything carried out in that field.  The Ministry of Health had many programmes.  It was not a question of a lack of programmes.  Equatorial Guinea had done everything it could to find a solution to the problem.

She said all women had access to the necessary information for family planning.  Contraceptives were free of charge to all women in the country.  Everything was free of charge.  Concerning abortion, she noted that it was a crime penalized under the existing code.  Some abortions were allowed, however, including when it was to save a human life.  Bank credit was not open to all women and the situation was more difficult in the rural areas. 

Seminars did contribute to raising awareness about HIV/AIDS.  AIDS and prostitution were worldwide problems.  No country had done more to eliminate HIV/AIDS.

Experts’ Questions and Comments

Ms. BELMIHOUB-ZERDANI, expert from Algeria, pointed out that Africa was the poorest continent, and as such had the right to avail itself of assistance from the international community and the United Nations system.  African countries should “claim that right” and “demand what was due to us”, she stressed.

Ms. GNACADJA, expert from Benin, said that in one report it was stated that the minimum age for marriage was 12, while in another the legal age for marriage was listed as 18 for both men and women.  Which civil code was the basis for the minimum age of 18?  Also, what was the legal basis on which the decision to allow men and women to choose their partners was carried out?  Was it the family law or the civil code?  Who decided which law was applicable in cases of conflict or contradiction?  What was the hierarchy among the legislation?  There seemed to be a sense of resignation concerning responsibility for the state of women in the country.

HEISOO SHIN, expert from Republic of Korea, said that family and marriage were at the heart of the problem in Equatorial Guinea.  Did the Government see the necessity to change the customs and traditions, which were out of control, such as dowry and polygamy?  She had information to the effect that sometimes marriages were arranged while children were still infants, in order to pay back dowry.  It was the obligation of the State party to change customs, traditions and stereotypes.  In addition, she felt the name of the Dispute Settlement Division within the Ministry should be changed to Violence Complaint Centre or crisis hotline to better serve the needs of women.

NAELA GABR, expert from Egypt, said that there was discrimination in practice, which required intervention by governmental authorities, particularly in altering harmful stereotypes.  The law in itself was not able to do away with all forms of discrimination.  Equatorial Guinea should look at other African countries, which had made progress in achieving equality between men and women.  While it was true that there was a draft family code, it was not known how it would be implemented.  How would all the concerns be made part of the family code?  She also sought clarification on whether women needed the authorization of their husbands to travel.

AIDA GONZALEZ-MARTINEZ, expert from Mexico, said it was her impression that the law, in fact, established equality between men and women.  But it was one thing for the law to establish equality and another for the State to ensure that women were able to enjoy the rights established for them by law.  The Minister had stated that the State could not impose education on families, and that women did not value themselves, but rather they followed customs and traditions inherited from the past.  That meant that women had not been duly educated as to the scope of their rights.  They were unable to enjoy those rights, as they had not been made aware of the true scope of the rights they had under the law.  In the final analysis, the State was ultimately responsible and must exercise the requisite political will in order to move forward. 

SALMA KHAN, expert from Bangladesh, asked whether polygamy was legal in the country.  Also, did men and women enjoy equal rights in divorce, inheritance and child custody?  It was up to the Government to implement the provisions of the Convention. 

Ms. SIMONOVIC, expert from Croatia, asked whether the country’s laws contained a definition of discrimination.  Also, it was said in the report that the majority of the country’s ethnic groups were patriarchal and patrilineal and that only sons could inherit.  Only one group was matrilineal and in it inheritance passed through the mother.  In that second case, could both sons and daughters inherit from the mother?  How was that practice perceived in the country, and were there any plans to change it?

Country Response

Responding to a question on the civil code, a member of the delegation said Spanish civil code existed in Equatorial Guinea, as there was no civil code.  Traditional marriages were not regulated and there was no established marriage age, as the law had not been approved.  Customary marriages constituted the majority of marriages.  Marriages depended on ethnic groups, customs and families.  In general, in the case of separation, mothers had custody for children under the age of seven.  Currently, individuals had to provide consent as to whether they wanted to marry.  Some marriages were, however, not based on consent.

Polygamy was part of traditional marriage, she added.  As there was no law, it could not be declared legal or illegal.  Polygamous marriages were entirely valid.  Civil marriages were under their own regulations and separation was subject to the civil code.  Traditional marriages depended on family negotiations.  In African Bantu families, customs and traditions almost had the force of law.  The law would be stillborn if it were applied.  Marital issues were settled under traditional customs.  It would counterproductive to apply a law to traditional marriages.

Ms. EBONO ENGONO said the State did have the will to affirm equality between men and women.  Even though the bills outlined today had not been enacted, measures were being applied in the absence of the adoption of those laws.  Those measures had the force of law, which was why she insisted that there was no discrimination before the law or before the Government.  In the case of customary marriages, if a man wanted to divorce the women after a certain period of time -- twenty years or more -- that woman was not compelled to return the dowry.  Although the law had not been enacted in customary marriages, those marriages often favored women.  At the time of divorce, the woman did not have to return a single penny.  That the Government was making such efforts was proof of its determination to safeguard the rights of women. 

In civil marriages, women had the same rights to enter into marriages on the basis of consent, she added.  Equatorial Guinea was evolving and was coming out of the era of traditions.  The Government was doing everything it could to abandon discriminatory practices.  Negotiating girl marriages was gradually disappearing.  When a couple married today under civil law, the judge asked them what kind of marriage they were choosing.  If the man chose polygamy and the woman agreed to it, she was not being coerced. 

Another member of the delegation explained that the dowry was the traditional means of consummating the marriage.  Polygamy was one of the forms of a traditional marriage.  The problem was the consent of both parties.  There were happily married women in polygamous marriages.  She could not say that it would be eliminated.  The delegation had not come to New York to take decisions that were not viable.  The constitution said that women, before the law, had the same rights and opportunities as men in public, private and family life.

Experts’ Follow-up Questions

Ms. MORVAI, expert from Hungary, said she still did not understand how masses of young women got pregnant or how so many girls ended up in prostitution.  The Government should prosecute male clients for child abuse and rape. 

Ms. SIMONOVI, expert from Croatia, said she had previously asked about a definition of discrimination and what the delegation read out was the definition of gender equality.  Perhaps a clear definition of discrimination could be placed in the new family code.

Ms. PATTEN, expert from Mauritius, asked about the content of the new family code.

Delegation’s Response

Ms. ENGONO said that anything contrary to the definition read out constituted discrimination.  Equatorial Guinea had ratified the Convention and an international convention took precedence over national legislation, according to the Constitution, provided there was no harm to national interests.  Equatorial Guinea, in ratifying the Convention, had made the Convention a domestic law of the country.

Another member of the delegation said that, if the country renounced dowry, it would be renouncing traditional marriage, and thus, denying its heritage.  On the issue of the sexual abuse of minors, she said that it was not true that all girls who became pregnant early were prostitutes.  Equatorial Guinea was a country that had many early pregnancies, but did not have as many abortions as in other countries. 

One of the problems which prevented the advancement of girls and their education was their pregnancies, added another member of the delegation.  The Government was taking measures to ensure such girls continued classes even during their pregnancies.  He concurred that it was not correct to say that all girls who became pregnant early were prostitutes. 

In concluding remarks, Committee Chairperson AYSE FERIDE ACAR, expert from Turkey, said she was happy to hear that the Government took its international obligations seriously.  The Committee was also aware of socio-economic problems facing the country.  It was essential that the root causes of discrimination be analyzed and addressed.  There was every indication that customs and traditions constituted an obstacle to women’s enjoyment of their human rights.  Regardless of how deeply rooted traditions were, if they perpetuated discrimination against women they needed to be directly addressed, with the goal of modifying or eradicating them.  That was the obligation of a State party.  Traditions would not change on their own. 

Efforts in Equatorial Guinea needed to be stepped up in that regard, she said.  As the country was presenting its fifth report, the Committee expected tangible results for the elimination of traditional practices.  She urged the country to put in place polices and measures to counter discrimination in such areas as education, marriage, divorce, land ownership and politics.  Parents could not be expected to prioritize the education of their children on their own.  Government incentives and programmes were needed to eliminate discriminatory practices. 

Women would not enter politics just because the law gave them the right to, she continued.  Likewise, women would not refuse polygamy because they had the option to, but rather needed to be encouraged through temporary special measures.  They also needed to feel secure that the State was behind their efforts to reach equality.  It was a cause of concern that there did not seem to be much evidence of wholesale mobilization of forces in Equatorial Guinea to eradicate discrimination against women.  Media campaigns and educational reform would be essential components of such a campaign.  She urged the Government to demonstrate political will by embarking on a countrywide campaign.  The presence of multiple legal traditions resulted in women being disadvantaged.  For that reason, she encouraged putting a family law in place to respect women’s rights in all types of marriage.  The Committee remained concerned about early marriage and polygamy, and urged the Government to take legal and policy actions to discourage practices that were not only discriminatory, but also incompatible with the integrity of women.  Polygamy was considered in contravention to article 5 of the Convention. 

While welcoming the efforts of authorities to banish imprisonment for non-payment of dowries, the Committee remained concerned about customary law marriages, she said.  It was also concerned about the comprehension of discrimination in Equatorial Guinea.  Discrimination meant both direct and indirect under the Convention.  It was the responsibility of the State to instruct women on how to use the law.  The existence of laws was not enough, in itself.  There was a clear need to prioritize women’s human rights in Equatorial Guinea.  That had not been the case in the past.  A switching of gears was absolutely essential.  She also encouraged the country to ratify the Optional Protocol, as well as article 20.1 of the Convention. 

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For information media. Not an official record.