WOMEN’S ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE CONSIDERS REPORT OF BANGLADESH;
EXPERTS FOCUS ON LEGAL STRUCTURE, ELIMINATING VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN
Country’s Representative, Presenting Fifth Report,
Describes BroadRange of Political, Economic, Educational Advances
Members of the Women’s Anti-discrimination Committee today stressed that Bangladesh’s achievements, such as having women in the country’s highest political office for a considerable period of time, should be used as a positive foundation on which to build further legislation and policies to ensure the protection and promotion of women’s human rights, as they considered the situation of women in that country.
Acting in their personal capacities, the Committee’s 23 expert members monitor compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Bangladesh ratified the Convention, with several reservations, in 1984. In 2000, Bangladesh was one of the first 10 countries to ratify the Convention’s Optional Protocol, which allows individual women or groups of women to petition the Committee.
During the article-by-article consideration of Bangladesh’s compliance with the Convention, many experts expressed concern that the country continued to operate with a legal structure in which the constitution and legislation fell short of incorporating the principles of the Convention. Two areas were of particular concern: the fact that the constitution did not contain a definition of discrimination in full compliance with the Convention; and the status of the implementation of laws on violence against women.
The Committee stressed the need for more rigorous attempts to eliminate violence against women. In a society where culture and society overlooked or justified violence against women, comprehensive and well-balanced approaches needed to be found to combat that scourge. Having too strong punishment often mean no punishment at all. The death penalty for perpetrators could be deterring women from coming forward. The Government was encouraged to adopt a comprehensive law on violence against women, as it would send a powerful message to society at large and demonstrate the Government’s political will.
Personal laws that allowed for inequality, experts agreed, not only contravened the constitution, but also went against the grain of the Convention. Violations of women’s human rights could not be justified in the name of respect for religion. It was the Government’s obligation to find a creative solution to ensure that laws relating to marital relations did not contravene the Convention’s fundamental provisions.
Experts expressed the hope that the remaining reservations to the Convention would soon be withdrawn. The expert from Algeria said the time had come to lift the reservation to article 2, which was the very heart of the Convention. Doing so would open the door for the total implementation of the Convention and would serve as an example to other countries. As nearly 20 years had passed since Bangladesh’s ratification of the Convention, not removing the reservation would signal a lack of commitment, experts agreed.
Introducing her country’s report, Khurshid Zahan Haque, Minister for Women and Children Affairs, said her Government had increased budgetary allocations in the social sector, largely benefiting women. It had invested heavily in women’s education. As a result of financial assistance, girls’ enrolment in primary schools had increased dramatically, brought about parity and decreased drop-out rates. Women were also increasingly being integrated into the economic mainstream in Bangladesh. Innovative, home-grown ideas like microcredit had immensely facilitated their empowerment.
In addition, her Government promoted the participation of women in the political arena, she said. Women had succeeded as both Prime Minister and leader of the opposition in the general elections in 1991, 1996 and 2001. Also, the number of reserved seats in the national Parliament had been increased to 45 from 30 through a constitutional amendment.
Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, Bangladesh’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York, said his country was on the cusp of great changes. Described just three decades ago as a “basket case” from a development point of view, it had come a long way since then. Change in any society, however, must come from within and could not be imposed. Bangladesh had largely relied on its own intellectual resources and had drawn upon its ancient and rich cultural heritage, leading to the efflorescence of homegrown innovative ideas, such as microcredit and non-formal education.
Also participating in Bangladesh’s delegation was Md. Mortuza Hossain Munshi, Secretary in Charge, Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs; S.M. Jahrul Islam, Additional Secretary, Ministry of Home Affairs; Md. Lutfor Rahman Chowdhury, Additional Secretary, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare Affairs; Mu. Asahabur Rahman, Additional Secretary, Ministry of Education; Ferdous Ara Begum, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs; Ismat Jahan, Director-General, Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Nasreen Begum, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs; Masuda Hossain, Chairman, Jatio Mohila Sangstha (National Women Council); and Surat Zaman, Private Secretary to the Minister, Ministry of Women and Children Affairs.
The delegation also included Shamima Nargis, Senior Assistant Secretary, Ministry of Women and Children Affairs; Mahmuda Islam, Project Coordinator, PLAGE, Ministry of Women and Children Affairs; Nurun Nahar Begum, Senior Assistant Chief, PLAGE, Ministry of Women and Children Affairs; Samina Naz, First Secretary, Permanent Mission of Bangladesh to the United Nations in New York; Sigma Huda, President, Bangladesh National Women Lawyers’ Association; and Salma Ali, Executive Director, Bangladesh National Women Lawyers’ Association.
The Committee will meet again at 10:30 a.m. on Monday, 12 July, to take up the combined initial, second and third periodic report of Angola.
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met today to consider the situation of women in Bangladesh. It had before it Bangladesh’s fifth periodic report (document CEDAW/C/BGD/5), which covers the period from 1997 to 2002. Bangladesh ratified the Convention in 1984. In 2000, it ratified the Convention’s Optional Protocol.
When Bangladesh ratified the Convention, it also registered reservations to several articles of the Convention. The Government has withdrawn reservations from article 13(a), the right to family benefits, and article 16.1(f) on marriage and family relations, specifically the right to guardianship, trusteeship and adoption of children. It has also taken steps to address remaining reservations to article 2, by which States Parties condemn discrimination against women in all its forms and agree to pursue by all appropriate means a policy of eliminating discrimination against women, and article 16.1 (c), on rights and responsibilities during marriage and at its dissolution.
Regarding the reservation to article 2, the report says that the Government is assessing whether its reservation directly contradicts Religious Personal Law. While the country is largely governed by the civil and criminal procedure codes enacted during British rule, Personal Law is followed in the case of marriage, divorce, custody, alimony and property inheritance. In 1996, the Government set up an inter-ministerial committee under the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs to review the overall situation and recommend changes.
Bangladesh is one of seven countries in the world where the number of men exceed the number of women, the report says. Women have limited opportunities for education, technical and vocational training and employment. Socio-economic changes, triggered by increasing rates of landlessness and impoverishment, have profoundly impacted women’s lives. Nearly 76 per cent of women fall under the category of “poor” in terms of income and resource endowments. Women routinely face discrimination in terms of food, education, health care, shelter and work.
On the issue of employment, the report notes that 43 per cent of women are involved in agricultural work and that 70 per cent of women work as unpaid family labour. A 1991 census indicated that 11 per cent of all women were economically active. Women work longer and harder than men, working some 16 to 18 hours a day. Women’s participation in formal sector employment was, until recently, negligible. In the industrial sector, however, more than two million women work in some 3,500 garment units, constituting over 90 per cent of the total labour force in that sector.
Many steps have been taken to change traditional attitudes and practice, the report states. One of the more important measures was the passing of the Local Government Election Bill in 1997 to ensure grass-roots level women’s political participation. Women activists and women organizations are currently lobbying the Government for the direct election of women to the National Parliament.
To promote the overall development activities for women, the National Council for Women’s Development (NCWD) approved the National Policy for Women’s Advancement in 1997. The policy’s major goals include the establishment of women’s human rights, the recognition of their contribution in the social and economic spheres, and the elimination of all forms of oppression against women and girls. Major obstacles towards the policy’s implementation include the personal laws that govern family life. Tackling increasing violence, rape and oppression of women, especially acid throwing, has become a challenging issue.
During the reporting period, the Prevention of Women and Child Repression Act 2000 has been enacted, the report states. The law makes provisions for the punishment of kidnapping and abduction of women or children, a large majority of whom are forced to engage in prostitution or illegal cohabitation. Acid throwing is a recent phenomenon. While young women are generally the targets, wives are increasingly being targeted for failing to meet dowry demands. In 2002, the Government passed two bills, namely the Acid Crime Prevention Act and the Acid Control Act. These Acts restrict the import and sale of acid in open markets and apply the death penalty as the ultimate punishment for acid throwing.
Regarding the situation of women in political life, the report notes that since 1991 both the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition in parliament have been women. Women voters are gathering political strength and their participation in parliamentary elections as voters in recent years has been remarkable. Until 2001, Bangladesh’s National Parliament had reserved 30 seats for women. The Government has also taken a number of steps for empowering women at the local level, including reserving three seats for women out of the total seats in each “Union Parishad”. In 1997, half a million women participated in the Union Parishad election, providing an example for the entire world.
Concerning economic life, the report notes that one of the most important factors for empowering women is access to credit facilities and other economic resources. Bangladesh has earned international reputation for its non-governmental organization-sponsored schemes for lending to women without collateral. The Grameen Bank is playing a pioneering role in that field. About two million of all the clients of the Grameen Bank programme are women and the recovery rate of Grameen Bank loans is around 98 per cent.
Introduction of Report
KHURSHID ZAHAN HAQUE, Minister for Women and Children Affairs, introduced her country’s fifth periodic report. She said that her Government had increased its budget allocation in the social sector to help more people out of poverty, which had largely benefited women. Data showed that expenditures related to women’s empowerment and child development had gradually risen every year from 2002-2005. That reflected the Government’s commitment to the overall well-being of women and children. The Government had expressed its solidarity and commitment to almost all the international instruments related to women’s advancement. It was among the first countries to ratify the Convention and the Optional Protocol. She conveyed her Government’s acceptance to the proposed amendment of article 20.1, extending the Committee’s annual meeting time.
Her Government had invested heavily in women’s education, she stated. Primary education had been made compulsory and free for girls up to the 12th grade. They were also awarded stipends and scholarships. As a result of such financial assistance, girls’ enrolment in primary schools had increased dramatically and had brought about parity. It had also decreased the dropout rates. According to World Bank figures, nearly 73 per cent of girls ages 11 to 15 and 80 per cent of girls ages 6 to 10 were enrolled in secondary and primary schools, respectively.
The Government’s Health and Population Sector Programme 2003-2006 was expected to effectively address the health needs of the rural poor, particularly women and children, she said. Under that program, maternal health services had been extended to cover the women of rural areas through establishing community clinics and mobile clinics. The Essential Service Care under the Programme included basic and emergency obstetric care, safe delivery, antenatal and prenatal care, reduction of unsafe abortion and increased use of clinical contraceptive services.
While HIV/AIDS prevalence was still very low in Bangladesh, compared to many countries in Asia, the Government had taken several measures, such as the formation of a National Committee for the Prevention of HIV/AIDS. In addition, awareness campaigns were being carried out through the mass media. She added that total fertility had dropped from 6.3 to 3.3 births per woman over the last two decades, and the average number of desired births per woman was 2.3.
She said the women were increasingly being integrated into the economic mainstream in Bangladesh. Innovative, home-grown ideas like microcredit had immensely facilitated their empowerment. Support services such as day-care centres for children and working women’s hostels had also been introduced to foster women’s participation in gainful economic activities. The World Bank reported that the total number of women microcredit borrowers had reached 12 million, with loans reaching $1.2 billion and a loan repayment rate of over 90 per cent. In addition, her Government promoted the participation of women in the political arena. Women had succeeded as both Prime Minister and leader of the opposition for the last 14 years in the general elections in 1991, 1996 and 2001. The number of reserved seats in the National Parliament had been increased to 45 from 30 through a constitutional amendment.
She stated that her Government was determined to eliminate all kinds of violence against women, and had a number of laws in that regard. Those included The Suppression of Violence Against Women and Children Act of 2000 and the Acid Crimes Control Act of 2002. Also, One-Stop Crisis Centres had started working to provide speedy legal, medical and other required assistance to women victims. In addition, the Speedy Trial Tribunal Act, 2002, had been in operation to expedite trials on violence against women to set examples and to work as a deterrence for such crimes.
Regrettably, she noted, trafficking in women and girls continued in Bangladesh. The Government was addressing the issue with the utmost seriousness and had signed and ratified a number of legal instruments, including the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Convention on Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Women and Children for Prostitution in 2002.
The Government promoted women’s participation in all spheres of national life, including the decision-making level, she aid. A 10 per cent quota was reserved for women in the Civil Service at the entry level. In addition, women could be directly appointed at the decision-making level through the President’s quota. Women had also been encouraged in non-traditional professions, such as the armed forces and law enforcement. Approximately 7,574 women were now working in Bangladesh’s Civil Service and the number of women in the Foreign Service was 25.
Though Bangladesh had no reservation on article 9 of the Convention with regard to the Citizenship Act, women in Bangladesh could not transmit their nationality to their husbands and their children in case they married a foreign national. The Ministry of Women and Children Affairs had taken the matter to the National Council for Women’s Development and the Government was seriously working towards the amendment of the relevant part of the Citizenship Act.
IFTEKHAR AHMED CHOWDHURY, Permanent Representative of Bangladesh to the United Nations, said his Government had demonstrated its commitment to women’s issues by fielding so powerful a delegation, which was larger than the delegation it received for regular General Assembly sessions. Bangladesh was on the cusp of great changes. Described just three decades ago as a “basket case” from a development point of view, it had come a long way since then. Bangladesh had quietly but steadily established a track record of progress on many important socio-economic indicators. A large developing country of some 130 million people, it had been said, to be in the midst of a “silent revolution”. Bangladesh was a State Party to almost all major international instruments concerning women’s rights. It was also a signatory to the Convention on Violence against Women Migrant Workers. Domestically enabling laws had been enacted to implement those instruments at the national level.
In the Assembly’s Third Committee and in the Commission on the Status of Women, Bangladesh had been actively involved in co-sponsoring all resolutions that concerned the “advancement of women”, he said. During its tenure as Security Council member, it had been closely associated with the adoption of the landmark resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security.
Change in any society must come from within, and could not be imposed from outside, he added. Bangladesh had largely relied on its own intellectual resources and had drawn upon its ancient and rich cultural heritage that had led to the efflorescence of home-grown innovative ideas, such as microcredit and non-formal education. Development was a holistic phenomenon and was facilitated by the presence of a large middle class, democratic and pluralistic institutions and a vibrant civil society. Bangladesh had a long way to go. More than most societies of comparable milieu, and despite its many and varied constraints, Bangladesh was forging ahead. The correct mindset was in place. Progress, often slow and painful, was also palpable.
Experts’ Questions and Comments
MARIA YOLANDA FERRER GOMEZ, expert from Cuba, said that it was stated in the report that there had been an alarming increase in recent years in acid attacks and an increasing number of innocent women had become victims of that crime. Then it had been stated that there had been a rapid decrease in that crime. How did the Government assess the situation, and had those cases increased or decreased? Most sources had agreed that there had been an increase in violence against women. In 2003, out of 314 recorded cases, only 159 had been concluded. She sought further clarification on that. Furthermore, another answer to the written questions stated that an alternate dispute mechanism had been created in the family court. What were the types of problems settled by that mechanism and did they include violence against women? Had the mechanism’s implementation been studied and did it work for women?
ROSARIO MANALO, expert from the Philippines, noted that in areas where legislation had been enacted regarding women, their enforcement was relatively weak, such as with laws related to labour, acid attacks and trafficking in women. While there was the Law on Suppression of Violence against Women and Children, there was no law on domestic violence, marital rape and marital abuses. It was necessary to adopt a uniform family code to protect all Bangladeshi women within the family. In political life, it would be best to allow women to sit in Parliament through direct elections. Also, maternity leave had to be backed up by legislation. In addition, the proposed children marriage restraint act still needed to be enacted into law. The Government needed to carry out a review of existing legislation to ensure harmonization with the Convention. She was glad to hear that all that remained to be done regarding the withdrawal of reservations was for the Cabinet to act, and she hoped that would be done very soon.
HANNA BEATE SCHOPP-SCHILLING, expert from Germany, underlined Ms. Manalo’s request for legal reform. What was the time frame for the withdrawal of reservations? What were the remaining obstacles in that regard? In case active consideration by the Cabinet was not successful, would Bangladesh consider making the reservation to article 2 more specific? Also, had the issue of a uniform family code been addressed in gender training with Muslim imams? Had there been similar training with leaders of other religious groups? While she applauded the early ratification of the Optional Protocol, she noted that Bangladesh had opted out of the Protocol’s inquiry procedure. What was the reasoning for that, and was the Government reconsidering it?
AIDA GONZALEZ-MARTINEZ, expert from Mexico, noted a contradiction in statements as to whether or not changes had been introduced in legislation. She was also concerned in the delay in resolving cases against perpetrators of violence against women. Why had all the cases not been concluded and why had some gone on for years? It was necessary to strengthen the measures adopted thus far, by, among other things, providing more resources to help centres and punishing very severely law enforcement officers who committed violence against women. There was a particular need to fight the exclusion of domestic violence from the realm of violence against women.
GÖRAN MELANDER, expert from Sweden, noted that the Convention was not applicable as the law of the land, and it was necessary to enact a law which repeated the wording of the Convention. That way, the Convention could be made part of the law. Also, the difference between the definition of discrimination in the Constitution and that in the Convention should be rectified in the long run.
DUBRAVKA SIMONOVIC, expert from Croatia, said that Bangladesh had ratified the Optional Protocol, but it had reservations on the Convention. Given that the Protocol was not applicable in a country that had reservations, how would the Protocol work in Bangladesh? It was necessary to speed up the process of withdrawing the Government’s reservations.
Responding to the questions posed, MAHMUDA ISLAM, Project Coordinator, Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, said there had been a number of measures on violence against women. It was difficult to say to what extent violence had increased as the reporting of violence had increased. Many measures had been taken, including awareness raising campaigns. Domestic violence had only recently come into focus. There was much pressure and lobbying for the law against domestic violence. She hoped the Government would soon take steps to address domestic violence. Marital rape was considered a taboo issue and, as such, had not yet been addressed. Only very recently, had certain organizations begun to discuss the issue.
SIGMA HUDA, President of the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers’ Association, said there had been an increase in awareness concerning violence, as a result to that end. More non-governmental organizations were providing legal aid. The State had also started work in that respect. Violence against women was a serious issue. The lack of evidence often meant acquittal. There was no law on domestic violence and marital rape. It had been stated, however, that marital rape of a married girl below the age of 16 would be considered rape. Women’s rights lawyers and the Government were working together to introduce the concept of marital rape.
Another member of the delegation noted that trafficking in women and children was punished severely. Trafficking was a global crime and was related to other issues. With a porous border, it was difficult to control trafficking. Law enforcement agencies and non-governmental organizations were working on the matter. The Government was sensitizing young adults through song and drama.
There were certain constitutional barriers to the adoption of a family code, another member of the delegation said, including the constitutional right to practice religion the way one wanted to. The Government was currently trying to address the issue of religious freedom and a uniform family law. There was no provision in the law entitled “safe custody”. However, the courts had introduced provisions of safe custody, which while not part of the law, had developed as a practice.
Fatwas were not part of the law or practice, said another member. Bangladesh followed the English common law system only.
MD. MORTUZA HOSSAIN MUNSHI, Secretary-in-Charge, Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, also addressed the issue of violence against women. Four people had been given the death penalty in dowry-related cases. After the introduction of the Acid Control Act, the number of convictions had increased. Such cases had to be concluded within six months.
Another member of the delegation said his Government was much aware of the problem and was highly compassionate to women and children victims, especially the victims of acid crimes and trafficking. The Government had recently formed three high-powered committees in that regard. Another institutional arrangement had been formed to monitor such cases. As a part of that arrangement, a secretary would coordinate prosecution of such cases, so that they were quickly concluded and the victims received early redress. Acid throwing, rape and trafficking were considered as severe an offence as murder. The Government and civil society condemned violence against women and children.
Another member of the delegation noted that poor litigants received legal aid from both the Government and non-governmental organizations.
SALMA ALI, Executive Director, Bangladesh National Women Lawyers’ Association, said it was difficult for the Government to combat the issue without intervention with civil society. The Government and non-governmental organizations were cooperating. The Government did provide health and legal aid. On trafficking, victims sometimes refused aid and failed to cooperate. Cooperation with source and destination countries also needed to be strengthened. The Ministry of Women and Children Affairs had taken many initiatives and had held many meetings with numerous non-governmental organizations.
The Government had zero tolerance for violence, another member said. Steps had been taken to educate people about dowry violence and acid throwing, including the punishments for such crimes. A crisis centre provided aid for victims of violence. Trafficking was considered the worst form of abuse. Trafficking was not only a cross border issue, but also an issue of poverty issue. In that regard, poverty alleviation projects were needed. The number of judges in family courts had been increased.
Regarding reserved seats for women in Parliament, another member of the delegation noted that the cabinet had approved a constitutional amendment, raising the number of seats for women candidates to 45 from 30. The bill had been passed by the Parliament. The political parties had no restrictions for direct nominations in constituencies. Many women had contested in general elections. People could also participate in elections as independent candidates.
Also addressing that issue, Ms. HAQUE said there had been a time when women could only serve in schools. Today, they were doctors, lawyers and scientists. If a woman could be a physicist, she could also be a parliamentarian. On another issue, a member of the delegation said imams were trained.
Experts’ Questions and Comments
FRANÇOISE GASPARD, expert from France, said that the withdrawal of the reservations on article 2 and 16 would have both practical and symbolic impact. She wanted to know what the Government was doing to prevent fatwas, which threatened the integrity of women, and what had been done to protect those women who had been threatened physically.
PRAMILA PATTEN, expert from Mauritius, asked what steps the Government was taking to improve the implementation of the cruelty act of 2000, in terms of giving adequate resources to courts and police to complete investigations and trials within the statutory time limits. Also, she was concerned about a provision whereby a woman could be tried for filing a false complaint. There had been reports that that provision acted as a deterrent to women filing complaints. Were there training programmes for police and the judiciary on recent legislation relating to violence against women? Concerned about data, she asked if the Government intended to put into place a proper methodology for the collection of data and to disaggregate it by gender. She noted that, currently, there were only two One-Stop Help Centres. Would such centres be opened in rural areas and what were the budgetary allocations for such centres?
HUGUETTE BOKPE GNACADJA, expert from Benin, noted that a number of laws on violence and discrimination had been enacted. However, violent acts against women had persisted and even increased. In principle, greater awareness should lead to a reduction in violence, provided that punishment was effective and had a deterrent effect. If the situation worsened, then there was a problem with the implementation of the law. How many trials had been concluded? She also noted that a number of the laws enacted had been amended, such as the law on dowry. She wanted to make sure that none of those amendments had weakened those laws. Also, did those laws cover the entire territory of the country, and if not, why not?
NAELA GABR, expert from Egypt, stated that some of the provisions of the Convention were in keeping with national laws, while some of the national laws were in contradiction with the Convention. How did the Government intend to remedy that situation, to incorporate the provisions of the Convention into national legislation? What problems prevented the withdrawal of certain reservations?
FATIMA KWAKU, expert from Nigeria, wanted to know what the procedure was for directly applying the Convention in the country, and how long would that process take.
MARIA REGINA TAVARES DA SILVA, expert from Portugal, noted that the National Council for Women was the highest body on women and the national policy for women was adopted in that forum. Who were the members of that Council? Also, was there an evaluation procedure for those policies?
CORNELIS FLINTERMAN, expert from the Netherlands, applauded the early ratification of the Optional Protocol, but noted that it was not possible for women to invoke the provisions of the Convention in the courts of Bangladesh. How did the Government intend to address that problem? He also noted the limited role of the courts in monitoring the implementation of the Convention, especially given the non-applicability of the Convention in Bangladeshi courts. What was the mandate of the national human rights commission, and would it be accessible to women who wanted to invoke the Convention?
FUMIKO SAIGA, expert from Japan, asked what changes had been made to facilitate the withdrawal of the reservations. She was struck by the data on trafficking in women. While there were many accused and on trial, the number of convicted was very few. Why was that the case?
KRISZTINA MORVAI, expert from Hungary, said that, put simply, the ratification of the Optional Protocol and the reservation on article 2 did not line up. The reservation sent the wrong signal to the international community. What was the reason for keeping the reservation on article 2? The whole idea of safe custody places was disturbing. It was unfair that the victims of violence -- women and children -- were the ones that had to leave the home, rather than the perpetrator. What was the police protocol on domestic violence? As there was a clear link between trafficking and prostitution, what was being done to address prostitution?
SJAMSIAH ACHMAD, expert from Indonesia, asked whether there was a national or institutional mechanism to monitor progress achieved in combating violence against women. A national mechanism was needed, as well as international cooperation in dealing with that issue.
MERIEM BELMIHOUB-ZERDANI, expert from Algeria, insisted that it was time to lift the reservation on article 2, which was the very heart of the Convention. Doing so would open the door for the total implementation of the Convention. Also, the withdrawal of the reservation to article 2 would serve as an example to other countries.
HEISOO SHIN, expert from the Republic of Korea, asked if the non-governmental organizations in the delegation would be in a position to implement the Convention and the concluding comments issued by the Committee, and if they would be funded for those activities. It was the obligation of the State party to implement the Convention and that responsibility should not be relegated to non-governmental organizations. On legal reform, she noticed that Bangladesh had a Law Reform Commission. Were there women in that Commission and what mechanisms existed to guarantee that a gender perspective was incorporated into any future law reform? On violence against women, it seemed that the Government did not recognize the significance and magnitude of domestic violence. She recommended that all types of violence be included in legislation on violence against women.
Addressing the issue of prostitution, Ms. HUDA said the Constitution obligated the State to take all necessary measures to eliminate prostitution from society. The reality was, however, that women were involved in prostitution. While prostitutes were not criminalized under the law, traffickers and customers were targeted as offenders. The national human rights commission was in the process of being established. While the law had been passed, the commission had yet to be set into motion. Once established, she hoped women would participate in it. Although there were no specific laws on domestic violence, women could seek the protection of the courts under assault and battery provisions in penal law. The Ministry of Women Affairs and Children and non-governmental organizations were concerned with the issue of domestic violence. She hoped to have a law on domestic violence, which would be enlarged to encompass mental abuse and marital rape.
On the matter of fatwas, she said there was no law that gave the right to issue fatwas. If fatwas harmed persons, the penal code provisions would apply. There had been instances where the fatwa giver had been punished under law.
Bangladesh had ratified the Optional Protocol without reservations, she added. Regarding the reservation to article 2, the withdrawal of that provision had been placed before the cabinet. It had not yet moved, however. Given the wording provided to the cabinet, she did not think there would be a problem regarding the removal of the reservation.
JAHRUL ISLAM, Additional Secretary, Ministry of Home Affairs, said many trials had been held under the cruelty to women and children act, a few thousand in fact. Some 3,264 cases had been registered for dowry-related cases. So far, nine people had received life terms and 124 persons had been sentenced to jail terms of different durations. Some 2,312 persons were acquitted. Most of the complainants settled the cases outside the court. Bangladesh had a traditional arbitration system. Mediators played the role of negotiators. That was why most cases ended in acquittal.
Trials for acid crimes, rape, trafficking and murder of women had also been held, he said. There had been a good number of convictions. By May 2004, one person had been sentenced to death, and six had been given different jail terms. Only four cases had been adjudicated and nine had been acquitted. Two hundred seven cases had been investigated for crimes related to children. Many trials were in the final cases. He hoped that at least 60 per cent of cases would end in conviction.
Regarding the practice of safe custody, he said that, as judges did not have a safe place, women were placed under government custody. The Government provided food and security. Under the Ministry of Social Welfare, a few homes were being set up. Regarding legal aid, the government had placed district judges to represent those who could not bear the cost of a legal contest. While there was no specific law regarding domestic violence, other laws were available. The wife could go to any court to seek redress for violence under the penal code. The Ministry of Home Affairs had taken many measures to protect women. Agencies had been asked to stop trafficking in airports and at borders.
Ms. ISLAM said the media had become more sensitized to the issue of violence. Regarding the domestic violence law, Bangladesh had developed a comprehensive definition of domestic violence, which encompassed all kinds of violence within the family. On that basis, the law would be passed. On monitoring, Bangladesh had well elaborated national machinery. Different committees within the women’s ministry reviewed progress in women’s advancement. There was continuous monitoring and several projects had been developed to monitor actions taken. The Government worked in partnership with non-governmental organizations. There were specific gender awareness training programmes for government officials. Non-governmental organizations also provided training for judges and lawmakers in the area of violence.
On the issue of gender training, FERDOUS ARA BEGUM, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, said gender training was important for gender mainstreaming. The Ministry was developing a project entitled “capacity-building for gender mainstreaming”. There were four public training institutions, including the NationalAcademy for Educational Management. They were key training institutions for promoting gender-responsible governance. The women’s ministry had developed a module to sensitize and improve the juvenile justice system training. The ministry also arranged workshops. Without gender sensitization, government policies, such as quotas, would not be implemented.
As to why Bangladesh had opted out of the inquiry procedure of the Optional Protocol, ISMAT JAHAN underscored that it was not done out of lack of good intention, but in an effort to minimize duplication and overlap in the United Nations human rights system. Gender was a cross-cutting issue and there were other human rights mechanisms in the United Nations system, such as special rapporteurs on violence against women, arbitrary detention and torture. There were various mechanisms already in place. The Government took the communications from those special rapporteurs very seriously and investigated them. When they proved to be true, remedial measures were taken, including legal action. The Government had also welcomed the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women to Bangladesh.
NASREEN BEGUM said that the law on the establishment of an ombudsman had been made effective in 2002. A Cabinet Committee had been constituted to update that law, in accordance with the parliamentary system of government.
SIGMA HUDA added that, despite the reservations and the fact that the Convention was not part of domestic law, the Convention had been used in Bangladeshi courts. Articles of the Convention had been used for relevant petitions and remedies had been claimed under the Convention. The courts, while not fully accepting the Convention, had agreed to implement various articles.
Concerning the delay in the withdrawal of Bangladesh’s reservations, Ms. HAQUE said that within the last 20 years, society had advanced. She did not believe the lifting of the reservations would take long.
Experts’ Questions and Comments
DORCAS AMA FREMA COKER-APAIAH, expert from Ghana, noted the Citizenship Act provided that only a man could transfer citizenship to a child. A foreign husband of a Bangladeshi woman could not obtain Bangladeshi citizenship. It was unfortunate that nothing had been done to change the situation. What was causing the delay in repealing that provision of the Citizenship Act?
Mr. FLINTERMANN, expert from the Netherlands, said he was pleased to hear that Bangladesh was working to amend the Citizenship Act. He asked for more information regarding the thrust of the amendment and its compatibility with article 9 of the Convention. The Government had approved a constitutional amendment bill, which had become an act, allowing for 45 women seats in Parliament. Did the Government consider the act to be a temporary special measure? In what way would it contribute to the long-term objective of creating gender balance in Parliament? Had the Government considered alternative measures for increasing women’s representation in Parliament? In the preparation of the act, had consultations taken place with women’s organizations?
Ms. KWAKU, expert from Nigeria, asked for information on the level of participation of women in diplomatic service. Regarding amendments to the Citizenship Act, were there any other aspects of the act that needed to be addressed other than the transfer of citizenship?
Ms. SCHOPP-SCHILLING, expert from Germany, asked whether the women’s ministry had been able to evaluate the impact of the quota system in Parliament and at the local level. Had there been an improvement because of the quota system? Thirty per cent representation should not be the ceiling, but the minimum. On the Optional Protocol, while she understood the multiplicity of demands placed on Bangladesh by the various human rights mechanisms, the inquiry procedure under the Optional Protocol was unique. The mandate of the Committee under the Optional Protocol was much broader. It was a very powerful instrument, which helped governments understand the requirements under the inquiry procedure.
Ms. ZERDANI, expert from Algeria, said it was excellent that Bangladesh had a system of reserved seats in Parliament. As the aim was to reach parity, it was good to ask political parties putting forward candidates to present men and women. It was important to have women in other sectors as well. Regarding the appointment of female ambassadors, she noted that international representation was not high. It was important for Bangladesh to have female representation abroad. More women should serve in United Nations bodies. It was also important that women head universities. The committee was counting on Bangladesh to be a beacon for other countries in the region.
Replying to queries on the Citizenship Act, Mr. ISLAM said that a draft had been prepared by the Government, which he hoped would be approved soon in Parliament, which would eventually eliminate discrimination regarding the transfer of citizenship to foreign spouses and children.
On the issue of women in diplomacy, Ms. JAHAN said that there were 25 women in the diplomatic service, which had a quota of 10 per cent women, out of a total of 222 officers. She underlined that those women had come through competitive exams, having competed with men. There were three women at the level of ambassador, including Bangladesh’s ambassador to Indonesia. As a woman in the Foreign Service, she did not feel there was any discrimination. There were two female diplomats at the Permanent Mission in New York.
There was one Bangladeshi woman in the United Nations system, who was at the rank of Assistant Secretary-General and would be going to Afghanistan as the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General. She noted that the United Nations itself had not met the quota of 25 per cent women. As for women in peacekeeping operations, Bangladesh had 10 female civilians serve in various operations, as well as one currently serving in Liberia. The opportunities existed and if women wanted to avail themselves of them, they could do so, she said.
Mr. CHOWDHURY added that 30 years ago the diplomatic service was not even open to women. Also, 50 per cent of his office in New York consisted of women. Bangladesh was the largest troop contributing country in the United Nations system, and its contribution was organized by a female officer in his mission, who served as the military adviser.
Ms. HOSSAIN, replying to questions on parliamentary seats for women, said that gradually Bangladesh would achieve the goal of direct elections for women members of Parliament. There had been many women candidates in the general elections. Also, the political parties had many female members, who could raise their voices and could be nominated by their parties. Ms. ISLAM added that Bangladesh had a quota system for women in local government, which was one third of the seats through direct election.
Experts’ Questions and Comments
Ms. GASPARD, expert from France, asked about the number of women in higher education. Were there statistics regarding the percentage of men and women in the different areas of higher education? She also asked about the participation of girls and boys in sports. With the upcoming Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, what percentage of girls would be participating?
Ms. SHIN, expert from the Republic of Korea, raised the issue of women employed oversees. She was pleased that the ban on overseas employment had been lifted. What was being done to ensure the protection of Bangladeshi women working abroad? She hoped the country was working to seek bilateral agreements to protect migrant workers.
Ms. GABR, expert from Egypt, asked for the ratio of women working in the formal and informal sectors. Were there differences in wages between men and women and what measures were being taken to protect women in the workplace?
Ms. ACHMAD, expert from Indonesia, asked for statistics on female student participation in science and technology. She also asked for women’s participation in research facilities of the major industries.
Ms. MORVAI, expert from Hungary, said safe drinking water was a major concern for women. The Government had rightly identified it as a gender issue. International agencies and other foreign donors had helped the country in putting millions of well tubes into the ground. Arsenic-poisoned water was coming out of the ground through the tubes. The tragedy had affected some 1.2 million people, many of them women. Would there be compensation for women who had suffered due to water poisoning?
Ms. PATTEN, expert from Mauritius, asked for clarification on the Governments’ position regarding quotas. Also, there were examples of gross pay inequalities in Bangladesh. Was the private sector governed by labour legislation and what mechanisms were in place to monitor the private sector? What measures were being made to improve access to and quality of heath care for acid victims?
Ms. SAIGA, expert from Japan, asked about free education for girls and literacy rates. She also asked about maternity leave policies and day care centres.
Ms. MANALAO, expert from the Philippines, said many rural women worked in the garment industry. What measures had the Government taken to provide social safety nets for those women? What programmes were available to protect women with disabilities?
Mr. ISLAM said that training would be provided to women going abroad for employment, so that they could be aware of the society and system in which they would be working.
On the arsenic problem, another member of the delegation said that the Government had recently finalized a policy on arsenic, which addressed all the issues related to that problem. The Government had undertaken several exercises and had provided alternative sources of water. The DhakaMedicalCollege had a 50-bed burn unit, which would be enhanced further. Currently there were two One-Stop Service centres, and those would be expanded in the plan of action 2003-2006, as well as extended to rural areas.
Turning to women in higher education, Mr. RAHMAN said that 24 per cent of students at the university level were women and 39 per cent at the college level. Twenty per cent of students in technical and vocational education were women. While he did not have any figures relating to women in sports, he noted that the Government encouraged female participation in sports. One of the two joint secretaries in the Ministry of Science and Technology was a woman, and the chairperson of the national nuclear agency was a female scientist.
Mr. CHOWDHURY added that the main sports in Bangladesh were cricket and football, which were dominated by men. Shooting was one sport in which Bangladeshi women had excelled.
Ms. JAHAN said that there was good interaction between the Government and non-governmental organizations in providing care to acid victims. In addition to burn units within hospitals, the Acid Survivors Foundation, a private organization with Government representation, had a separate hospital catering to specialized burns, such as acid burns. Acid attacks were monitored closely by the national acid committee and various non-governmental organizations.
Concerning women in the garment industry, Mr. MUNSHI said that almost half a million garment workers would be jobless soon, most of whom were women. Most of them were not in a position to return to their homes. The Government had undertaken to provide training to those workers and to provide microcredit and subsistence allowances to assist them. The Government had allocated $200 million to assist in the training and re-employment of those garment workers.
Experts’ Questions and Comments
Ms. SIMONOVIC, expert from Croatia, asked for clarification on the minimum marriage age for boys and girls. She had received information that the marriage age was 15.
Ms. GNACADJA, expert from Benin, asked for information on alimony, the rights of divorced women to child custody, and inheritance rights.
MS. HUDA said Bangladesh was a multi-religious society. Religion governed the family laws of each individual. In the Muslim law, women’s inheritance rights were marginalized. In the Christian law, however, women enjoyed equal inheritance rights. The minimum marriage age being 18 was a complex question. Hindu and Islamic law allowed child marriage, to an extent. If a child was born outside of marriage, the child was deemed illegitimate. In Islam, there was acknowledgement of paternity. Under Christian law women were entitled to alimony. Under Islamic law, alimony was only up to a certain period. Hindus did not have the right to divorce.
Follow-Up Questions by Experts
Ms. GONZALEZ, expert from Mexico, said the situation was a bit muddled in her mind. The Committee had received a lot of information. Individual laws were discriminatory against women. How were marriages registered under the Hindu and Buddhist laws? What happened if one did not profess a certain religion? She agreed that changes in society had to come from inside and not necessarily in accordance with religious preferences.
Ms. MANALO, expert from the Philippines, asked if polygamy was sanctioned in Bangladesh.
Ms. ZERDANI, expert from Algeria, said the fact that Hindu women could not divorce was discriminatory. Bangladesh was under British common law. How could there be two different female citizens, one who could divorce and the other who could not? The law should be the same for one and all. By introducing a marriage contract, spouses would be free to discuss the terms of the marriage and its possible dissolution.
Ms. SHIN, expert from the Republic of Korea, asked about the role of non-governmental organizations included in the delegation.
Ms. MORVAI, expert from Hungary, said she was pleased to hear that the arsenic problem had been solved. She asked for information on the Government’s decision regarding the arsenic water issue.
Ms. SCHOPP-SCHILLING, expert from Germany, expressed concern about the personal status laws. The situation had not seemed to have changed over the years. Training of Muslim imams could have been an innovative way to reconcile personal laws with the constitution.
Ms. SAIGA, expert from Japan, noted that her questions on maternity leave and day-care facilities had not been answered.
Ms. ACHMAD, expert from Indonesia, said Bangladesh had taken gender mainstreaming as a specific strategy for eliminating discrimination. She proposed that the science and technology sector be included in the gender-mainstreaming plan.
Ms. SIMONOVIC, expert from Croatia, asked if the Optional Protocol was directly applicable. If not, what was being done to achieve its application? Was it correct that the majority of girls were married by the age of 15?
Ms. BEGUM clarified that maternity leave for Government workers had been increased from three to four months. The private sector and industry were subject to the relevant labour laws in determining the length of maternity leave. Four months was the normal practice. There were about 32 day-care centres in the country.
On the various personal law issues, Ms. HUDA said that, from colonial times, respect for the individual in the law prevailed in the Indian subcontinent and continued to do so. Family law had always been governed by religious law. Under the Christian and Hindu acts, marriages were registered, but there was no law governing the registration of Hindu and Buddhist marriages. Recently, Hindus and Buddhists had begun registering their marriages, of their own accord. Under the Christian Marriage Act, Christians could marry someone of any other faith. While Islamic law recognized marriages between Muslims and non-Muslims, there would be questions raised regarding it. Most citizens who wanted to have an interfaith marriage opted to register under the Christian Marriage Act.
Turning to polygamy, she said that Christian law did not permit polygamy, but Muslim and Hindu law permitted it. Under Islamic law, the permission of the first wife was needed for polygamy and the reasons for it must be stipulated. There was dialogue between the relevant ministry and non-governmental organizations on coming to a consensus on a secular law on the matter. Under Christian law, divorce was restricted. For Muslims, divorce was spelled out in the marriage contract.
Another member of the delegation said that the presence of non-governmental organization representative in the delegation reflected the belief of the Government in partnership and a participatory approach. Non-governmental organizations had been consulted for the preparation of the fifth periodic report. They were also included in all high-level committees.
Ms. SHIN, expert from the Republic of Korea, said it was extraordinary that non-governmental organization representatives were included in a delegation. She stressed that it was the obligation of the State party to implement the Convention and non-governmental organizations could not be held responsible for such implementation. It was not appropriate, she stated, to let the non-governmental organization representatives answer most of the questions posed.
Mr. CHOWDHURY said that the non-governmental organization representative had come to support the Governmental delegation. That in no way diminished the responsibility of the State.
Committee Chairperson, AYSE FERIDE ACAR, expert from Turkey, highlighting some of the issues from today’s exchange, said the Committee had been duly impressed with the many accomplishments Bangladeshi women had achieved, including increased literacy, school attendance, education and integration into the economic sphere. In the recent past, microcredit programmes had been areas of example for other countries. Very few countries could boast of having women in the highest political office for a considerable period of time. That example needed to be applauded and used as a positive foundation on which to build further legislation and policies to ensure the protection and promotion of women’s’ human rights.
Many experts had been concerned that Bangladesh continued to operate with a legal structure in which the constitution and legislation fell short of incorporating the principles of the Convention, she continued. The implementation of some laws faced serious obstacles. The Committee experts were concerned about two areas in particular: the fact that the constitution did not contain a definition of discrimination in full compliance with the Convention; and the status of the implementation of laws on violence against women left much to be desired.
The absence of a law on domestic violence was a major concern, she said. In that regard, she urged the Government to enact such a law immediately. The delegation had assured the Committee of Bangladesh’s political will to eliminate violence against woman. The need to modify social attitudes and violence against women was of utmost importance in Bangladesh. Cooperation with non-governmental organizations was a blessing and provided an edge over other countries. She encouraged such cooperation, although it did not diminish the major responsibilities of the Government in that regard.
She stressed the need for more rigorous attempts to eliminate violence against women. That issue must be prioritized. There were severe punishments for dowry-related cases. Punishment and police measures, while essential, were not enough. In a society where culture and society overlooked or justified violence against women, comprehensive approaches needed to be found to combat that scourge. Having too strong a punishment often mean no punishment at all. Women could be deterred from coming forward if their accusations result in the death penalty. She urged the Government to adopt a well-balanced approach. She also encouraged a comprehensive law on violence against women, as it would send a powerful message to society at large and demonstrate the Government’s political will.
She was pleased that the withdrawal of reservations to the Convention was imminent. That would not only ensure effective implementation of the Convention, but also send a message to other Muslim countries around the world. Personal laws that allowed for inequality not only contravened the constitution, but also went against the grain of the Convention. Violations of women’s human rights could not be justified in the name of respect for religion. It was the Government’s obligation to find a creative solution to ensure that laws relating to marital relations did not contravene the Convention’s fundamental provisions.
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