WOMEN’S ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE URGES GAMBIA TO REVISE DISCRIMINATORY LAWS BASED ON RELIGIOUS, CULTURAL PRACTICES
WOMEN’S ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE URGES GAMBIA TO REVISE DISCRIMINATORY LAWS BASED ON RELIGIOUS, CULTURAL PRACTICES
Committee on Elimination of
Discrimination against Women
697th & 698th Meetings (AM & PM)
Women’s anti-discrimination committee urges Gambia to revise
discriminatory laws based on religious, cultural practices
Laws Can Be Changed More Quickly Than Attitudes, Say Experts;
Gambia Says, With US, UK Assistance, Overhaul of Laws Has Begun
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women urged the Gambian Government to undertake an immediate revision of discriminatory laws that sprang from religious and cultural practices as a way to begin to change attitudes toward women, as they examined a report on the situation of women there.
The Committee’s 23 members, acting in their personal capacity, monitor compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which Gambia ratified in 1992.
As experts commended the Gambian delegation for their frankness and openness, one pointed out that discrimination was first rooted in the law and not in customary attitudes and practices. Laws and school curricula could be changed more quickly and easily than beliefs, attitudes and stereotypes, another said. Moreover, publicizing and explaining discrimination did not always change individual or collective convictions.
Another expert said that, despite the perceived restrictions of cultures or religions, it was possible for governments to intervene, if they possessed the necessary will and commitment. Adding that she did not see that type of conviction in Gambia’s Government, she recommended that it amend parts of its Constitution to bring it in line with the Convention
Another expert said she objected to the practise of making religion a regular justification for shortcomings in gender equality. Gambia seemed to possess a certain resignation to customary practises, in some cases, and that was unacceptable. Human rights were above sensitivity to cultural norms.
Bai Mass Taal, Minister for Fisheries and Water Resources of the Gambia, introduced his country’s report and said that his delegation had come before the Committee not only to provide information, but also to receive feedback on successful implementation of the Convention. He had learned a lot from the dialogue. Before he came, he believed that the best approach to change was to sensitize and educate the people and then go for the law, but he now understood the value of going for the law first.
A month ago, he added, the Government, with assistance from the United Kingdom and the United States, had begun a complete overhaul of its laws to make them compatible with international conventions.
In response to questions, Mr. Taal told the Committee that his Government knew that it had a problem in several areas concerning women’s rights, but it believed that it was not enough to change a law -- mindsets needed to be changed as well. The Government was engaging in a dialogue with religious leaders and others in civil society to influence attitudes.
Discrimination was not sanctioned by the Government, he stressed. Overcoming discrimination also meant fighting fundamentalists and existing cultural norms. As an example of the Government’s political will to eradicate female genital mutilation, he recounted a story of a young 12-year-old who refused to join her family in a repatriation scheme because she would have been subjected to female genital mutilation, if she went back to the village. The Government had supported her, and was giving her asylum.
He said he cultural dynamic was changing in the Gambia and the education of woman would further accelerate that change. As women became educated, it was hoped that the discriminatory practices would go away. His country was proud to be among the top 10 countries in Africa to be en route to meeting the Millennium Development target goal for education of girls.
Gambia’s delegation also included several other representatives from various Government departments, as well as officials from its United Nations Mission.
The Committee will meet again at 10 a.m., Monday, 18 July, to consider the initial report of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met today to consider the combined initial, second and third periodic report of the Gambia (CEDAW/C/GMB/1-3) on its compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The report reviews developments in related legislation, gender stereotyping, political representation, education, employment, health, rural women and family life.
The report notes that the Gambia is a small state in West Africa with a population of 1.3 million. Women comprise 51 per cent of Gambian nationals. A high fertility rate and low life expectancy have resulted in a very youthful population structure with over 45 per cent of the population below 15 years and 19 per cent between ages 15 and 24. The Gambia is also one of the poorest countries in the world, ranked in the 148th place of 162 on the United Nations Development Programme’s 2001 National Human Development Index. The economy is mainly agrarian with 63 per cent of the population involved in some kind of crop production.
To demonstrate the strides made in the advancement of women in the Gambia, particularly in the legislative area, the report analyzes the differences between its 1970 Constitution and the most recent one adopted in 1997. For the first time in Gambian law, a definition of discrimination was extended to include “on the basis of gender”. Also, for the first time, a child born out of Gambia to a Gambian mother was entitled to Gambian citizenship by descent, irrespective of whether the father was Gambian. The 1997 Constitution also guaranteed a new right to marriage based on full consent of both parties, and that women should be accorded full and equal dignity of the person with men, as well as the right to equal treatment, including equal opportunities in political, economic and social activities.
While those innovations were a step in the right direction toward adherence to the Convention, the report states that they are not sufficient. Not only are those rights not unqualified rights, but in many cases they do not counter the daily realities that Gambian women face. Also, the same Constitution recognizes and preserves the application of customary laws and practices which, to a large degree, are discriminatory against women.
The Vice-President of the Gambia is a woman, making her the first female vice-president in the subregion, and that post was also entrusted with the position of Secretary of State for Women’s Affairs in recognition of the vital and important role that women played in national development.
Also, a National Women’s Council and Bureau was established and a deliberate effort was made to ensure that its chief executive was represented at all policymaking levels. That body articulated a national policy for the advancement of women, which was adopted by the National Assembly in 1999. The policy addressed issues of priority concern for women, and its effective implementation would greatly enhance the status of women. An umbrella body had been established to coordinate all non-governmental organization activities, a number of whom worked toward promoting the development and advancement of women and the girl-child.
The report notes that the Convention is not directly enforceable in Gambian courts and its ratification requires modification and review of national legislation. On that point, the report notes that the provision affording protection from discrimination was excluded from national laws on adoption, marriage, divorce, burial, devolution of property on death or other matters of personal law. There is no provision for legal aid in the Gambia and women, being the poorest in the country, cannot afford the legal fees involved in enforcing their rights. Tremendous assistance was needed to facilitate their access to redress.
The report makes it clear that the prevalence of discrimination against women in all areas of their lives is based on customary practices and traditional stereotyping that assigns an inferior role to women. No legislation existed banning female circumcision. Apart from customary law, religious Islamic law on marriage, divorce and inheritance, which governs 90 per cent of the population, was discriminatory against women. A bill that was geared toward the improvement of the lives of Muslim women had been submitted, but to date there was little reaction to it. Efforts were being made to improve the status of the family and to encourage both men and women to play an active role in the process. The Government, with funding from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), was integrating the subject into the formal education curricula of the country.
Extreme poverty and a growing tourist industry were luring young girls into prostitution. Prostitutes were the most vulnerable group to HIV/AIDS. The health department was collaborating with UNAIDS in raising awareness among the public and sex workers of the dangers of unsafe sex.
Only 27 per cent of Gambian women are literate, while the male literacy rate is twice that. Of urban women, 40 per cent are literate, while only 18 per cent of rural women are literate. The report states that the Government is faced with a Herculean task in redressing the current education imbalance, but was committed to redoubling its efforts to afford women equal access.
While the law did not discriminate in terms of employment, discrimination was experienced in practice. There were campaigns to extend maternity leave from the current six weeks. Men were not entitled to paternity leave. The idea of a childcare support system did not exist in the Gambia.
A key component of the national health policy, launched in 2001, to work toward the provision of quality health-care services, addressed the prevailing maternal and infant mortality rates. Health funding in the Gambia was heavily dependent on donor assistance and was, therefore, vulnerable to donor fatigue.
The Committee also compiled a list of issues and questions in a pre-session working group seeking further information on some aspects of the report (CEDAW/PSWG/2005/II/CRP.1/Add.4).
Introduction of Report
BAI MASS TAAL, Minister for Fisheries and Water Resources of the Gambia, introducing the report, said that it was clear that there had been significant progress; yet despite the political will and commitment of the Government, there was still room for improvement. For the first time in the constitutional history of his country, the definition of discrimination was extended to include discrimination on the basis of sex. Even before ratification of the Convention, the Gambia had established a national women’s bureau. There was now also a gender focal point network which included representatives of key Government departments and civil society organizations. There was also a special committee on women and children in the Parliament. Of particular importance was the creation of the Department of State for Women’s Affairs under the office of the Vice-President.
The Government had created girl-friendly schools and instituted free State primary schools, he said. Currently women occupied 25 per cent of managerial positions and 4.9 per cent of the skilled labour force. It was hoped that the new educational policies would increase those numbers for women significantly. As a result of the national health policy launched in 2001, the maternal and infant mortality rates had declined and the use of contraceptives had risen.
While recognizing that a lot more needed to be done for rural women, the Government and non-governmental organizations had embarked on several initiatives concerning literacy, enterprise development, skills training and microfinancing, he added. For the first time, women had been elected as alkalos (village head). Landmark legislation on children provided stiff penalties against trafficking in children and addressed child marriage and child betrothal. The Government acknowledged that a lot more needed to be done to counter cultural patterns which discriminated against women.
Experts’ Questions and Comments
Opening the discussion, experts posed questions covering the first six articles of the Convention, which deal with such issues as measures to eliminate discrimination; the full development and advancement of women on a basis of equality with men, including the adoption of temporary measures to accelerate that equality; social and cultural stereotyping of women; and trafficking and prostitution of women.
DUBRAVKA ŠIMONOVIC, Rapporteur, an expert from Croatia, noting that the country’s constitutional provision to protect women was brief and did not extend to all fields, recommended that it be put in compliance with the Convention. Could the Government provide further clarification on that provision?
CORNELIS FLINTERMAN, an expert from the Netherlands, observed that Gambia had recently ratified the African Women’s Protocol with three reservations. Noting that those reservations dealt with matters covered by the Convention, he recommended that the country lift its reservations to the African Protocol, in light of its obligations to the Convention.
NAELA GABR, and expert from Egypt, disagreed that the Muslim religion was a prime obstacle to gender equality, as the country’s report had claimed. The State had a clear responsibility to introduce the Convention into national legislation and apply it in its entirety. How would the State assume that responsibility, given that certain conditions required immediate action, such as female genital mutilation, and equality for men and women in the workplace?
FRANÇOISE GASPARD, an expert from France, noted internal contradictions on gender equality within the country’s Constitution, and the existence of ongoing discriminatory customs that violated civil rights. What obstacles to the introduction of gender equality legislation remained in the country?
FUMIKO SAIGA, an expert from Japan, observed that Gambia’s National Women’s Council advised the Government on traditional practices and their adverse impact on the advancement of women. Had the Council recommended revising some of the country’s laws, and was the Government reviewing discriminatory provision of domestic laws?
HEISOO SHIN, an expert from Republic of Korea, urged Gambia to eliminate its discriminatory laws, and to develop legislation prohibiting existing practices that discriminated against women. What had happened to the country’s Law Reform Commission of 1987? If it no longer existed, would it be reassembled to review discriminatory laws?
SALMA KHAN, an expert from Bangladesh, noting that the majority of the country’s poor were women, asked what kind of long-term economic plans the country had to emerge from the poverty trap. Also, was the country attempting to attain the first Millennium Development Goal of halving extreme poverty?
KRISZTINA MORVAI, an expert from Hungary, asked how many non-governmental organizations promoting women’s issue Gambia had, and whether the Government cooperated with them. Adding that such groups must face oppression, even violence, from traditional society in trying to bring about change, she asked what the Government did to protect them. Also, how were non-governmental organizations funded, and did they have free access to information? Could they communicate with each other easily? Were there radio programmes for women?
Mr. TAAL, in responding, said that poverty was endemic in the Gambia, as it was in most African countries. Under the aegis of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Government was coordinating its planning process for programmes and policies that were linked to poverty eradication in accordance with Millennium Development Goals. A gender perspective was mainstreamed into the plans.
The Government knew that it had a major problem with the high illiteracy rates and other impeding issues for women, but it also realized that it was not enough to change a law; mindsets needed to be changed as well. The Government was engaging in a dialogue with religious leaders and others in civil society to influence attitudes towards, for example, female circumcision. The application of both sharia law, which was limited to family issues, and customary law was recognized. However, the Constitution provided for redress to a higher court concerning either form of law. A very recent draft law on children banned female genital mutilation.
A month ago the Government had begun a complete overhaul of its law to make it compatible with international conventions, he said. It would be receiving assistance from the United Kingdom and the United States in that endeavour.
In response to the question on the African Union Protocol on Women, a representative said that there was some concern that if it were resubmitted, there would be even more reservations made to it.
On microfinancing, he said that the target of Government and non-governmental organization programmes was to provide 80 per cent of the microfinance available to women. The minister said the microcredit interest rates, which varied between 18 and 35 per cent, were far too high and needed to be brought down for microcredit to be considered truly accessible to the poor. As for collateral, credit was usually given to a group of women, and peer pressure was viewed as sufficient collateral. The National Women’s Council was the advisory body to the Government.
On access to information, he said radio reached every corner of the country. There were community radio stations for which women were trained in specific topics to communicate information at the local level.
Mr. TAAL said that women who asserted their rights were not harassed. The Gambia had a long history of peaceful demonstration and speaking out on issues.
Experts’ Questions and Comments
ZOU XIAOQIAO, an expert from China, expressing confusion about the country’s national machinery to advance women, asked about the relationship between the various organs. Also, what was the structure and composition of National Women’s Council members? Did it have the power to implement policies and promote the status of women?
She added that the country seemed to have no comprehensive national policy to address women’s issues. Was the country planning a mid-term evaluation for such a policy, and what challenges was it still facing?
Ms. SHIN, noting that report mentioned equality, equity and integration of women into development, asked how the country distinguished equality and equity? What was the relationship between the country’s “Vision 2020” development plan and its policy on the advancement of women and girls?
HUGUETTE BOKPE GNACADJA, an expert from Benin, stressed that the Government was primarily responsible for implementing policies to promote gender equality. Considering all it was doing in that area, why was there so little impact on women’s advancement? Was it lack of resources? What measures were being undertaken to promote women by the National Council for Women?
Addressing the question on “equality” and “equity”, Mr. TAAL said the country promoted equal rights in all sectors of economic development, emphasizing the fundamental right to be part of the development process. All stakeholders in the country were equal in political, economic and social development.
To another query, he said discrimination was not sanctioned by the Government. Overcoming discrimination also meant fighting fundamentalists and existing cultural norms.
Another representative provided details on the functioning of the women’s council and its coordination with other bureaus. In response to the question on the specific policies for women, she said the Government was planning a mid-term review this year. It would also be revising its policy on gender issues this year.
Another representative, responding to the question on the women’s council and access to justice, said that there was no Government legal aid. Such a provision required resources that the Gambia, as a poor country, did not have. Some non-governmental organizations, though, did provide legal assistance, both formally and informally. The Minister added that Government assistance need not be the only option. He pointed out that, in Kenya, a group of women lawyers had formed a network to offer legal assistance to other women free of charge.
Experts’ Questions and Comments
HANNA BEATE SCHÖPP-SCHILLING, expert from Germany, said she appreciated the frankness of the delegation in replying to questions. There were not many examples of temporary special measures in the report. She said they could be useful in some cases. For example, in the literacy campaigns, overcoming the gap between women and men could be accelerated through temporary measures. She also asked for more information on the Government dialogue with religious leaders.
MAGALYS AROCHA DOMÍNGUEZ, an expert from Cuba, noted that laws and curricula could be changed more quickly and easily than beliefs, attitudes and stereotypes. Further, publicizing and explaining discrimination did not always change individual or collective convictions. What concrete, local integrated action had been carried out to address such beliefs, including the training of community leaders? Also, what formal methods were being followed among the poor and illiterate to change the traditional attitudes of both sexes? What impact had awareness-raising programmes had on sexual stereotypes?
MARY SHANTHI DAIRIAM, an expert from Malaysia, disagreed that gender equality could be achieved simply by educating the illiterate masses or that it was simply a matter of changing rigid mindsets. The country’s National Assembly that placed reservations on the Optional Protocol, and the Head of the Islamic Council had congratulated religious leaders for the stand they took. It was the country’s powerful elite that was resistant to gender equality, and education in the area should be provided for them.
MARIA REGINA TAVARES DA SILVA, an expert from Portugal, objected to the practise of making religion a regular justification for shortcomings in gender equality. The country seemed to possess a certain resignation to customary practises in some cases and that was unacceptable. Human rights were above sensitivity to cultural norms.
Ms. GASPARD noted that laws were one way to change attitudes towards gender equality, but political will was also important. Most people in Gambia lived in rural areas, and the Government, together with non-governmental organizations, must wage campaigns to raise the awareness of CEDAW and gender equality.
Adding that family events affected the lives of girls and women, she asked for more information on the recently adopted law on negative practises affecting children. Did that law include sanctions for those who practised such mutilations, and had the population been informed of it?
DORCAS COKER-APPIAH, an expert from Ghana, noted that culture and tradition were constantly changing, sometimes with no urging from the State or society. Despite the perceived restrictions of cultures or religions, it was possible for governments to intervene, if they possessed the necessary will and commitment. Adding that she did not see that type of conviction in Gambia’s Government, she recommended that it amend parts of its Constitution. What was the actual definition of harmful traditional practises, as stated in the law?
Mr. TAAL said that his delegation had come before the Committee not only to provide information, but also to receive feedback on successful implementation of the Convention. “We want to find out how it is being done. We did not come here to be defensive”, he said. He had already learned a lot from the dialogue. As an example, before he came, he believed that the best approach was to sensitize and then go for the law, but now understood the value of going for the law.
Another representative said the new law on children had been drafted on the basis of broad consultation. The first draft, which had attempted to identify and ban specific practices, had met with great resistance. So the accepted law had resorted to more general language. While there were no specific references to female genital mutilation, the new law did make reference to “harmful traditional practices”. The Government considered that female genital mutilation fell into that category.
Another representative said it was the hope and expectation that, as women became educated, the discriminatory practices would go away. The cultural dynamic was changing in the Gambia and the education of woman would further accelerate that change.
When people did not understand the issues, it was very hard to get their cooperation. She spoke of the success of previous information and sensitization campaigns, where pains were taken to help people understand the reasons behind a law or policy. Even though many of the people involved had been illiterate, it had not prevented them from grasping the essence of issues and then often becoming allies in the effort.
As an example of the Government’s political will to eradicate female genital mutilation, Mr. TAAL recounted a story of a young 12-year-old who refused to join her family in a repatriation scheme because she would have been subjected to female genital mutilation if she went back to the village. The Government had supported her and was giving her asylum.
Experts’ Questions and Comments
Mr. FLINTERMAN asked if one of the reasons for the growth in the tourist industry might be the easy availability of prostitutes, including minors. Was the Government cooperating with other governments, such as those in Europe, to foster a sustainable tourist industry? Was there a law prohibiting sex with minors? How many men -- since it was usually men -- had been prosecuted for that offence, if a law existed?
GLENDA P. SIMMS, an expert from Jamaica, asked about the country’s efforts to combat the trafficking of women and girls into neighbouring countries. She also said prostitution could not be solely blamed on tourism, but one must also examine the reasons men used prostitutes. The majority of men who used prostitutes in Gambia were probably local.
Mr. TAAL said Gambian girls under the age of 18 were not allowed in the country’s tourist areas, which activists said interfered with their freedom of movement. Some sex tourists did not even stay in hotels, but went to apartments to meet young girls, and the State was currently trying to clamp down on that. It was also trying to collaborate with the sex tourists’ countries of origin, but those nations did not always cooperate. Instead, they often assisted the perpetrators with new passports, so that they could flee prosecution. Sex tourists had also been known to buy their way out of the country.
He added that most maids came from other countries, but that was not the same as “trafficking”, where people were put in trucks and snuck across borders. The arrival of maids or other service workers from other countries was not something that raised eyebrows in Gambia. Trafficking had occurred in various countries of Africa, but not in Gambia, apart from isolated cases.
Another representative explained that the country had laws criminalizing sex with minors (under 16 years of age), and had been attempting to cooperate with sex tourists’ countries of origin to combat the practice. Regarding trafficking, the country had no data or information, except about a case in 2004 when some Ghanaian children had been trafficked into Gambia and used as street vendors. Gambia had worked with the Government of Ghana and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and eventually had repatriated the children. The penalty for trafficking of children in Gambia was life imprisonment.
Experts’ Questions and Comments
VICTORIA POPESCU, an expert from Romania, noted that the participation of Gambian women as voters was higher in 2002 than that of men, which suggested that women were interested in participating in the political process. However, they must also be encouraged to act as candidates. She recommended temporary special measures to enhance the participation of women in political life.
MERIEM BELMIHOUB-ZERDANI, an expert from Algeria, said the Islamic religion was not against the presence of women in politics. Adding that each country must find its own way to advance women, she said the quota system had recently allowed women to become more visible in Morocco. She also observed that women had been nominated in Gambia to high positions, and urged the country to apply the Convention in all its aspects.
Mr. TAAL said all women in the National Assembly had voting rights, whether they had been elected or nominated, adding that the Chairperson for the Committee on Women and Children was a woman who had been nominated. Regarding Islam, he said it posed no limitations to women’s rights in the country.
Experts’ Questions and Comments
Ms. AROCHA DOMÍNGUEZ noted that the number of girls at the elementary and junior high level school levels had slightly increased, but the number of girls in high school was still low, compared to boys. Adding that the country had perhaps taken insufficient measures to reverse that trend, she asked whether it planned other actions to promote literacy among girls. Also, was Gambia considering ways of furthering the educational development of young women?
Ms. SAIGA asked for clarification on the country’s “girl friendly” schools. She also asked about its policy on education -- whether it had been implemented, what measures had been taken, and what results had been achieved. Was compulsory education in the country free?
SILVIA PIMENTEL, an expert from Brazil, commented that the country had paid insufficient attention to domestic violence, asking for more information about its compliance with international instruments in the field. In particular, what measures had Gambia taken to implement the Convention’s provisions on domestic violence?
Mr. TAAL said that Gambia was proud to be among the top 10 countries in Africa to be en route to meeting the target goal for education of girls in the Millennium Development Goals.
Another representative said that in terms of alternative means of educations, there were several adult literacy programmes. Two projects by the Government had a target of 80 per cent participation by women countrywide. The programmes were not only literacy, but functional, as well, teaching entrepreneurial and management skills. Girls’ education was being done in coordination with the United Nations Children’s Fund and a non-governmental organization. The fund helped pay school fees and supply materials and uniforms. The programmes also contained a component of literacy classes for the mothers of enrolled girls.
Another representative said that, while there was no specific legislation on violence against women, there was a general criminal code that was made use of in those cases. Unfortunately, most cases were not reported. There were publicity campaigns, but she was not aware of the subject being integrated into school curricula.
Experts’ Questions and Comments
PRAMILA PATTEN, expert from Mauritius, asked for more information on labour laws, as well as temporary special measures to increase the number of women in political and public life.
Ms. COKER-APPIAH said women’s participation in the economy -- even though it is informal -- should be taken more into account. The next report should contain data on women’s participation.
Mr. TAAL agreed that data was lacking on women, including in the informal economic sector. The Government was taking steps to gather statistics.
As he had said earlier, the dialogue was a learning process. Gambians had never felt that there was any discrimination in the employment field. It was not like in the developed world. Certain Western values and problems had never existed in Gambian society. In Gambia, there was open competition in the formal sector and, in some ways, he had marvelled at how far ahead of the developed world Gambia was. For example, there had long been a policy of three months paid maternity leave. Women and men had always been equal in the workplace. Each had always received equal pay. Women were well represented in the civil service and prominent in Government. “In this area, we can hold our heads high up”, he said.
As for the disabled, Gambia was learning how to accommodate the disabled, both men and women.
Experts’ Questions and Comments
Ms. DAIRIAM noted that data was lacking on health care in the country, especially on access to it by vulnerable groups, and that efforts had been made to make contraceptives available, but only for women over the age of 21 who had their husbands’ permission. Also, sexually transmitted diseases were spreading, due to polygamy. The influence of religious leaders in those areas needed to be addressed.
Ms. GABR commented on malnutrition in young girls in the country, urging the Government to become more active in that area. Also, contraceptives seemed to be available in the private sector, but was the Government pursuing any measures in that field? The country also needed to focus more attention on HIV/AIDS and other diseases affecting women. What efforts were being made to sensitize the population to health concerns?
Ms. KAHN asked whether the country’s national health policy had a time-lined target to bring down its fertility rate, noting that several countries had applied successful measures in that area.
Mr. TAAL said the Government was launching a programme under “Health Care for All” to roll back malaria and other diseases affecting women. Commitment to improve health was there, but the country was poor and people did not always receive the nutrition they should. In addition, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had instructed the country not to subsidize medicines.
On contraceptives, a representative said the country had launched a programme promoting the use of contraceptives, and was also working with women’s groups to sensitize them to various diseases. Each group would report back on how many pregnant women they had met and whether they had raised their awareness on health concerns. Regarding the high fertility rate, Gambia had developed a strategy to reduce population growth.
Another representative added that health-care services were present in both urban and rural areas, but that they differed in services and facilities offered. The educational level of women was lower in rural areas, which the Government was working to correct. It was also trying to sensitize communities about what health-care remedies were available.
Regarding the country’s high population growth, a representative said Gambia had population task forces that were helping to reduce the population figures using best practices from other countries.
Experts’ Questions and Comments
Ms. GABR said she hoped the next report would include statistics on the interest rates for microcredit and women in the informal sector. The International Labour Organization (ILO) indicated that there was a discrepancy between the equal pay mandated by the law and the practice. She also recommended ways to raise the visibility of women, for example by encouraging women’s role in sports.
Mr. TAAL acknowledged the advice on how to increase women’s visibility.
ANAMAH TAN, expert from Singapore, recommended that the Government expedite the development of a comprehensive policy for rural women, which included time lines and targets.
Ms. ZOU expressed regret that the report did not have statistics on rural women. That made it difficult to evaluate Convention compliance. She was sure that the women in Gambia needed to improve their status. What were the major obstacles confronting rural women and girls? What was the status of the strategic policy?
Ms. SCHÖPP-SCHILLING asked how the national Government intended to identify the priorities for rural women. What type of cooperation and funding was envisaged for local Government?
Ms. PATTEN also expressed disappointment about the lack of information on rural women, who constituted the majority of women in Gambia. What concrete measures were in place or envisaged to address their plight?
Mr. TAAL said the country must do more to assist rural women. Previously, development aid had contributed to rural development programmes, but many of them were unsustainable. Starting in the 1970s, rural women had been trained in various skills, but the economy had then collapsed. Now, the country was getting its feet back on the ground, projects were becoming more sustainable, and the Government was trying to turn subsistence farming into commercial agriculture.
A representative noted that urban women had become isolated, lacking intervention to improve their situations. In some villages, there were savings schemes, women had access to credit, and labour-saving devices had been introduced. Production had been increased through appropriate technologies, and access to safe drinking water had been increased. She then described several national and international projects to assist rural women in developing businesses or more effectively managing agricultural pursuits.
Experts’ Question and Comments
Ms. ŠIMONOVIC asked for clarification on the rules of divorce and inheritance. How did the Government plan to address the discriminatory laws?
Ms. TAN said the family laws were not favourable to women. What concrete steps was the Government willing to take in order to comply with article 16 of the Convention? Perhaps the harmful practices should be named in law in order to avoid any ambiguity.
Ms. SIMMS said there was no law regarding abuse of the wife. She strongly urged the Government to adopt a domestic violence law. “The Government has to take the lead. Governments were elected to give equality and justice to all”, she said.
Ms. GNACADJA pointed out the various ways that sharia and customary law discriminated against women. For example, sharia law did not allow women to marry several men and widows were considered a part of the deceased husband’s inheritance. Discrimination was first rooted in the law and not in customary attitudes and practices, she said.
Ms. BELMIHOUB-ZERDANI asked for data and more information on the country’s four types of marriage -- Christian, Moslem, civil and customary. What proportion of women married according to each type of marriage? Could all women marry according to civil law, regardless of their religion?
Also, could either spouse ask for a divorce, and who would gain custody of the children? Did Gambian women enjoy freedom of movement? Could they leave the country with their children without paternal authorization?
Ms. MORVAI observed that the Gambian Government seemed to have little information about domestic violence, and encouraged it to take the phenomenon more seriously. Noting also that the Government seemed to be unaware of sexual harassment, viewing it as a term used by international organizations, she said that women did not enjoy being abused in the workplace. Gambia should engage in serious dialogues with non-governmental organizations in the field, and raise awareness in society at large about the problem.
Mr. TAAL said there were two Gambias, the one the Committee knew and the one he knew. Too much generalization was occurring -- from Africa as a whole to Gambia. It was a small country and what occurred there was well-known by people who lived there. The country was told that it was hiding behind cultural values, but many women were happy, and any evidence of violence would be evident. As for polygamy, Christian marriages allowed only one wife, but that did not necessarily guarantee happiness. On the types of marriage, he said that Gambians had the right to choose the type of marriage they desired. On divorce, both the Muslim man and woman had the right to request it.
Another representative explained that Gambia law proclaimed anyone under the age of 18 to be a child, and no child could be forced into marriage. On divorce, she said personal laws applied, whether they were Muslim, Christian, civil or customary. Personal laws also applied to inheritance, following the customs of the individuals involved. Some 90 per cent of the country’s population was Muslim, governed by its personal laws. She added that citizens of Gambia all had access to passports. As for moving children from the country, she said both parents were required to inform the other if they did so.
Mr. TAAL added that the country had no law stating that a father could take the children in a divorce.
ROSARIO MANALO, the Chairperson, in concluding remarks, welcomed the measures taken so far to improve the situation of women. While she understood the difficulties in fully implementing the Convention, she hoped to see a full embrace of the Convention in its totality for the future. She also urged Gambia to ratify the Optional Protocol.
She expressed the hope that Gambia would revise its discriminatory laws and adopt new ones in such areas trafficking in children, violence against women and harassment in the workplace. No political vision seemed to have been defined by the Government. She expressed the hope that one would be in place by the next report.
Stereotypes were not being addressed through education, nor through the media, she continued. She was struck by the statement that religious leaders called the shots concerning the private lives of women. Gambia was a secular State. She could not understand why the Government did not make it clear to religious leaders that they had no right to meddle in the secular, private lives of women and interfere with the rights which women were entitled to in secular Gambia.
She hoped the next report would include statistics on the improvement in the lives of rural women.
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For information media not an official record