ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE URGES INDIA TO LIFT CONVENTION RESERVATIONS, TAKE STEPS ON BEHALF OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE VICTIMS, MOST-MARGINALIZED WOMEN

18 January 2007
WOM/1594

ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE URGES INDIA TO LIFT CONVENTION RESERVATIONS, TAKE STEPS ON BEHALF OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE VICTIMS, MOST-MARGINALIZED WOMEN

18 January 2007
General Assembly
WOM/1594
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Committee on Elimination of

Discrimination against Women

Chamber A, 761st & 762nd Meetings (AM & PM)

ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE URGES INDIA TO LIFT CONVENTION RESERVATIONS,

TAKE STEPS ON BEHALF OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE VICTIMS, MOST-MARGINALiZED WOMEN

Head of India’s Ministry of Women and Child Development Introduces Report;

Says Government Initiatives, Proactive Judiciary Strengthened Women’s Rights

As the world’s largest democracy, India, with its vast population and complex cultural, religious and communal system, should join the ranks of other democracies by removing its reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and ratifying its Optional Protocol, lifting barriers to justice for the victims of sexual violence, and intervening on behalf of its most marginalized women, experts on the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women said today, as it considered the country’s combined second and third periodic reports.

The Convention was for every woman in the country, not just the upper class or upper caste, one expert said.  Dalit women –- the lowest caste in the Hindu system -- and tribal and minority groups were part of deeply rooted structural discrimination.  Women in power needed to recognize that they, too, benefited from discrimination against other women.  Forced to scavenge and displaced from their land, it was not just a question of “sensitizing” Dalit and other vulnerable women about their rights, but of removing the facilities that dehumanized them.

It was difficult to understand how India’s Government could claim democratic rights for all, yet see women killed because they could not pay dowry and young girls given away in marriage, another expert added.  Still other experts pointed to an apparent contradiction between Constitutional guarantees of equality and the Government’s position of non-interference in the affairs of individual states, others stressing the need for the Government to initiate measures rather than wait for male-led communities to overcome deeply entrenched attitudes.  Harsh patriarchal frameworks, unless removed, could not be consistent with the aim of the Convention.  Given the country’s colonial-era Penal Code, experts also stressed the need for legislation to include a broader definition of rape and address such issues as child abuse, as well as dowry and bride burning.

Noting that many other States with a proven track record on democracy had ratified the Convention’s Optional Protocol, which allows the 23-member Committee to receive and consider complaints from individuals or groups, experts also urged India’s Government to withdraw the reservations -- on stereotypes, family life and marriage -- it had registered upon ratifying the Convention in 1993.  The Optional Protocol, one expert explained, was not an attack on the independence of the judiciary of any country, but an additional monitoring mechanism to assist a country in better implementing the Convention.

Decrying a lack of clarity surrounding the 2002 riots in Gujarat, which had resulted in extensive violence against women, several experts requested exact information regarding the number of victims, saying the data they had received from reputable non-governmental organizations and other sources indicated a much higher number of women killed, abused or assaulted than what the Government had provided.  According to those figures, some 2,000 people had been killed in Gujarat, with at least 380 sexual assaults against women.  Given the specific discriminatory thrust against women within the Gujarat disaster, one expert stressed the need for the Government to acknowledge that women, as in 1947, had once again been singled out and brutalized in order to shame and destroy the community at large.

Introducing India’s report, Deepa Jain Singh, Secretary of the Ministry of Women and Child Development, said her Government endeavoured to address India’s huge diversity in terms of culture, tradition, practices, languages and communities through laws, polices and programmes.  With its time-tested and time-honoured parliamentary system and a fiercely independent judiciary, women were guaranteed the right to equality, right to life, and the right to equal protection before the law.  Amendments to existing legislation and new laws had further strengthened the practical realization of women’s rights in India.  Government initiatives had been buttressed by the proactive role of the higher judiciary, particularly India’s Supreme Court, which had handed down a series of proactive judgements in rape cases.

Referring to the Gujarat riots, she described the incidents as an aberration that should never happen again.  India had learned some important lessons from those unfortunate events.  The Supreme Court had acted at the instance of the National Human Rights Commission and a series of orders had been passed between 2003 and 2004, acquittals had been set aside, cases had been ordered to be reinvestigated, cases had been transferred out of the State of Gujarat and over 2,000 closed cases had been ordered to be reviewed.  A larger concern was the aspect of witness protection, particularly for women, which was pending before the Court.  Other areas of judicial activism were directed at compulsory registration of marriage, tackling issues of sexual harassment, protection in the case of inter-caste marriages and securing the rights of maintenance for divorced Muslim women.

Addressing the issue of the Optional Protocol, she noted that the Protocol was, indeed, optional.  The Government was committed to dealing with the issue of the reservations.  While she could not indicate a time frame, her understanding was that the Government would like to see it through and that it was only a matter of time.

Also responding to the debate, India’s Solicitor General, G.E. Vahnavati agreed that the events at Gujarat were a shameful aberration, which should not have happened.  Regarding the most highly publicized case, he said that there had been an acquittal, and an appeal to the high court had been dismissed.  At the intervention of the National Human Rights Commission, the Supreme Court had allowed an appeal, which was heard expeditiously.  Recognizing the existence of barriers to justice, the Supreme Court had decided to transfer the case out of Gujarat, against the opposition of the accused.  A special judge was appointed to conduct the trial, which resulted in a conviction.  The Supreme Court had also reopened over 2,000 cases that had been closed because the indicted persons could not be found.  Six other cases had been identified that had to be transferred out of the State to be properly tried.  Several cases were coming before the Supreme Court in February.

Experts participating in today’s meeting included:  Dorcas Coker-Appiah ( Ghana), Shanti Dairiam ( Malaysia), Cees Flinterman ( Netherlands), Naela Gabr ( Egypt), Ruth Halperin-Kaddari ( Israel), Violeta Neubauer ( Slovenia), Silvia Pimentel ( Brazil), Fumiko Saiga ( Japan), Hanna Beate Schöpp-Schilling ( Germany), Heisoo Shin ( Republic of Korea) and Glenda Simms ( Jamaica).

The experts in Chamber A will take up Peru’s report at 10 a.m. tomorrow, 19 January.

Background

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met in Chamber A this morning to take up the combined second and third periodic reports of India.  India ratified the women’s Convention in 1993 with two reservations on articles 5(a), 16(1) and 16(2) of the Convention.  [Article 5 of the Convention concerns sex role stereotyping and prejudice, while article 16 deals with issues of marriage and family life.]

The report before the Committee (document CEDAW/C/IND/2-3) highlights developments during the period 1997 to 2005.  The National Commission for Women, a statutory body established in 1992, the Department of Women and Child Development and the Parliamentary Committee on Empowerment of Women have reviewed various laws and recommended amendments to many of the laws with the objective of promoting equality and to amend discriminatory provisions.  An Inter-Ministerial Committee including the National Commission and non-governmental organizations has been constituted in May 2005 to review existing laws to address discrimination and ensure equality to women.

The report notes that, while the central Government is of the view that the country is not ready to adopt a uniform civil code on the heterogeneous groups, the Government is currently attempting to consider each of the personal laws independently to make them “gender just” by repealing the discriminatory provisions.  The Government, in its National Empowerment Policy for Women, 2001, has committed to encourage changes in personal laws, such as those related to marriage, divorce, maintenance and guardianship, so as to eliminate discrimination against women.

Pursuant to that policy, many of the personal laws have been amended, the report states.  The recent judgements of the Supreme Court on maintenance for Muslim women will hopefully bring about changes in the community’s mindset with regard to the payment of maintenance to divorced Muslim women and the manner in which “triple talaq” is to be pronounced that is legally acceptable to the Courts.  Among the Mohammedans, the man has the right to divorce his wife by merely pronouncing “talaq” three times.  A nationwide debate was held on that issue in 2004, to consider the manner in which triple talaq is to be pronounced and to adopt a format for the nikhanama, or marriage contract deed.

According to the report, certain groups of women suffer multiple forms of discrimination based on caste, religion and disability.  The socially disadvantaged groups consist of the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other backward classes.  According to the 2001 census, the scheduled caste population represents some 16.2 per cent of the total population, while the scheduled tribe population is 8.2 per cent.  About 81 per cent of the scheduled caste population lives in rural India.  The minorities consist of the Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and the Parsees.  Among the minorities, Muslim women are found lagging behind in all parameters.

On sex roles and stereotyping, the report notes that customary practices, including dowry, sati, devadasi, child marriage, selective sex abortion, are sought to be tackled through legislation.  Violence against women at home also reflects the disparity and subordinate role ascribed to women.  The Domestic Violence Bill, introduced in 2002, lapsed due to the Parliament’s dissolution.  The new bill is being finalized.

A report before the Committee (document CEDAW/C/IND/Q/3) listing issues and questions with regard to India’s report, notes that the Special Rapporteur on violence against women reported that extensive violence against women took place in Gujarat in 2002 and that, following the Gujarat riots, a culture of impunity was created where sexual violence was allowed to continue and that women victims of violence were denied access to justice.

Introduction of report

India’s delegation was headed by Deepa Jain Singh, Secretary, Ministry of Women and Child Development.  Also participating in the dialogue with the experts were:  India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Nirupam Sen; Solicitor General, G.E. Vahnavati; Additional Secretary of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Sandeep Khanna; Joint Secretary of the Department of Elementary Education and Literacy, Vrinda Swarup; Joint Secretary of the Ministry of Labour and Employment, S.K. Srivastava; Joint Secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs, A.K. Srivastava; B.A. Reddy of India’s Mission to the United Nations; Sumitha Mekherjee of the Ministry of Home Affairs; R. Savithri of the Ministry of Women and Child Development; Geeta Devi of the National Law School; as well as other members of the delegation -- Rema Nanavaty; Jyto Gade and Shanta Mohan.

Introducing her country’s report, Ms. SINGH noted that India -- over a billion strong -- was the largest democracy in the world, with huge diversity in terms of culture, tradition, practices, languages and communities.  The Government endeavoured to address those diversities through the laws, polices and programmes it initiated.  India’s parliamentary system of governance was time-tested and time-honoured.  India had a fiercely independent judiciary; a media that not only informed, but also carried development messages around the country; and civil society groups which identified issues and concerns that affected women and gender relations.  Recently, the Government had enacted the 2005 Right to Information Act to promote transparency and accountability in the working of public authorities.  Increased decentralization and devolution to local bodies had widened the base to ensure local accountability and transparency in the implementation of the country’s laws and interventionist programmes for women’s development.

Women constituted some 50 per cent of India’s population, she said.  Women were guaranteed the right to equality, right to life, and the right to equal protection before the law.  Proactive measures were taken for women.  Amendments in recent years, along with new laws, had further strengthened practical realization of women’s rights in India.  Government initiatives had been buttressed by the proactive role of the higher judiciary, particularly India’s Supreme Court.  By a series of proactive judgements in rape cases, the Court had done away with the earlier approach, which had been characterized by a reluctance to act on the testimony of a victim of sexual assault without corroboration.  The concept of lack of consent had been extended to include consent obtained by deceitful means or false promises to marry.

She noted that, in relation to the Gujarat riot cases, the Supreme Court had acted at the instance of the National Human Rights Commission and a series of orders had been passed between 2003 and 2004, acquittals had been set aside, cases had been ordered to be reinvestigated, cases had been transferred out of the State of Gujarat and over 2,000 closed cases had been ordered to be reviewed.  A larger concern was the aspect of witness protection, particularly for women, which was pending before the Court.  Other areas of judicial activism were directed at compulsory registration of marriage, tackling issues of sexual harassment, protection in the case of inter-caste marriages and securing the rights of maintenance for divorced Muslim women.  Matters pertaining to trafficking of women were being monitored in a petition that was pending in the Supreme Court.

She said the Supreme Court, under article 142 of the Constitution, had vast powers to give direction to obtain substantial justice and, in several cases, for instance in the Vishakha sexual harassment case, relied on the Government’s international obligations under the women’s Convention and the Beijing Platform of Action to establish guidelines and norms on sexual harassment at work.  Those norms were being observed, pending the enactment of appropriate national legislation.  The Supreme Court in the Madhu Kishwar’s case, relying on the commitment to the Convention, had struck down the discriminatory practices of denial of property rights for tribal women.

Through the Public Interest Litigation, she added, the Court had transformed several aspirational and non-justiciable rights -- like the right to food, health and education -- into fundamental, justiciable rights under the rubric of the right to life.  Above all, India had a system of parliamentary democracy, wherein the executive was accountable to a Parliament that actively monitored compliance with laws and practices.  Parliament’s concerns were reflected in legislation and various aspects of protection of women had been a constant feature of central legislation from 1948 until, for example, the recently enacted Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (2005).

She said the National Common Minimum Programme of the present Government emphasized its commitment towards women’s empowerment.  A number of laws had been reviewed and new ones, such as the one on sexual harassment, were on the anvil.  The newly enacted Domestic Violence Act provided civil remedies to prevent domestic violence, as well as protections against such violence by providing immediate and emergency relief to women caught in such situations.  Also, the Hindu Succession Act had been amended to give daughters and widows equal rights in ancestral property, including agricultural land.  The Convention was extremely relevant in all matters relating to women’s rights.  Any discrimination against women was abhorrent.  Quoting India’s Prime Minister, she said the worst manifestation of gender discrimination was female feticide.  That problem was being addressed through legislation and other measures, as it was inextricably linked to women’s rights and status.

Constitutional safeguards and legal provisions were significant, but they had to be translated into reality, she said.  While India faced its share of difficulty, it could be proud of the seventy-third and seventy-fourth Constitutional amendments, which had led to the political empowerment of women through participation in “Panchayati Raj” institutions and municipal bodies.  The Panchayati Raj system was one of local self-governance, with a view to promoting grass-roots democracy.  Women’s representation in local self-government had exceeded the mandatory 33 per cent, leading to mobilization of women in rural areas across India and brought well over 1 million women at the grass-roots level into political decision-making.  As a result, there was now significantly greater self-knowledge and self-confidence amongst women in rural India.

More importantly, the reservation of seats for scheduled caste and scheduled tribe women, and also in the posts of chairpersons of those bodies, augured well for their empowerment, she added.  Also, a focus was being given to more effective participation and linkages with other women’s organizations at the local level, such as self-help groups, training and capacity-building.

Trafficking undermined all democratic norms and violated human rights, she said.  Amendments to strengthen existing legislation was under consideration to prevent the victimization of the trafficked and to further enhance punishment of traffickers.  The existing plan of action aimed at reintegrating victims into society.  Rehabilitation of victims of trafficking was also an area of special focus.  There was also a proposal to introduce a comprehensive rehabilitation scheme in the eleventh five-year plan.  That would have a multi-pronged approach that would create awareness, rescue, and provide shelter, medical care and legal aid.  Efforts were also being made to address cross-border trafficking of women in a humane manner and to provide for the quick repatriation of victims.

She said the strategy for combating HIV/AIDS was to target high-risk groups for prevention and provide them access to care, support and treatment.  One of the interventions targeted pregnant women who were HIV-positive.  A recent initiative in the health sector was the launching of the National Rural Health Mission to restructure the health delivery system in rural areas by integrating the different disease control programmes and creating a single district health community, which would work on a pooled budget of central funds and coordinate activities with the active involvement of Panchayati Raj institutions.  Accredited social health activists were being appointed at the grass-roots level to carry out the programme and had some 250,000 workers.

India clearly recognized education as an important agent of social change and empowerment, she said.  Elementary education was a fundamental right.  A major success story in that sector was the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, along with the midday meal scheme.  To promote girls’ enrolment and retention at that level, more schools had been opened near habitations, girls’ toilets were being provided and other incentives were available such as free textbooks, scholarships and uniforms, particularly for scheduled caste, scheduled tribe, minority girls and girls with special needs.  To ensure attendance and retention of children in school, a midday meal programme to feed up to 120 million children in the 6 to 11 age group was showing success.

Employment generation was seen as a key to poverty alleviation in India, she said.  A flagship programme under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005, sought to provide livelihood security to households in the rural areas by providing at least 100 days of guaranteed wage employment in a year.  Every household whose adult members volunteered to do unskilled manual work were eligible.  At least one third of the jobs were reserved for women who sought work.  Improving the status of women workers in unorganized employment was paramount to the Government.  Welfare funds had been constituted for the unorganized sector.  Developmental measures, including health and medical care, insurance, housing, education, recreation, water supply and maternity benefits had been provided in the organized sector.  The Government was in the process of drafting a bill on social security to provide similar measures for the unorganized sector.  To empower women in the high-end vocations, the Government strongly emphasized building skills through exclusive institutes of vocational training.

The Indian Government was actively encouraging group initiatives in livelihood security, especially for women, she said.  The major tool in that respect was the formation of women’s self-help groups.  Today, there were more than 2.2 million self-help groups.  The number of women entrepreneurs in India had grown from 2 per cent in 1971 to 11 per cent at present.  Another crucial step towards gender mainstreaming was the budgetary process.  So far, 50 ministries had set up gender cells in order to mainstream gender concerns in their policies and programmes.  The Government also published Women and Men in India, with an improved database on gender issues.  Statistics were now available on a number of new indicators of concern.  The Convention had been translated into the official language, Hindi.  Moreover, some Indian States like Gujarat, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh had already translated it into their respective regional languages.

Responding to specific issues raised by the Committee, including the 1958 Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, she said the Prime Minister had only last month acknowledged the need for a review of the existing provisions, or inserting new provisions to make the Act more humane with emphasis on the protection of human rights.  In that regard, a Committee headed by a retired Supreme Court judge had submitted a report, which the Government was examining.  Incidents in Gujarat were an aberration that should never happen again and the nation had learned some important lessons from those unfortunate events.  Referring to incidents in Baranasi, she said those and other ill-disguised attempts at flaming passion in Mumbai and Malegaon had been transformed by the people from different communities of the cities into an affirmation of peace and love between different religions and reflected the alertness of the Administration’s response.  “It was India’s spirit at its highest and best and as a nation we could take pride in those events, just as much as the happenings in Gujarat distressed us,” she said.

Continuing, she said there had been important government and civil society efforts in Gujarat, which had been effectively contributed to the rehabilitation process.  The situation of women and children was being specifically addressed and a number of confidence-building measures had been put in place.  The state government had also set up a Commission of Inquiry headed by a retired Supreme Court judge.

The last few years had witnessed devastating national disasters that had affected India, she said.  The 2004 tsunami had struck five coastal States in south India.  The Government, while declining international aid, approved a relief package and a Tsunami Rehabilitation Programme for the reconstruction of damaged physical and social infrastructure and the revival of impaired livelihoods.  The Government had developed a detailed set of guidelines under the programme.  A National Disaster Management Authority, under the Prime Minister’s chairpersonship, had been set up after the tsunami.

In the next five-year plan, special attention would be paid to gender equity and the creation of an even more enabling environment for the social, economic and political empowerment of women.  There would be special focus on mainstreaming gender concerns.  India’s efforts would continue for the realization of women’s rights in the eleventh plan, knowing what it had to achieve in the face of complex cultural, social and economic conditions.  “We know we are on the right track,” she said.

Interactive Dialogue

Committee experts started the discussion with questions and comments on a range of issues under the Convention, including discrimination, policy measures, guarantees of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms, the national machinery and special measures for the advancement of women, sex-role stereotyping and prejudice in India.

Several experts asked about the country’s reservation to the Convention with respect to family laws.  RUTH HALPERIN-KADDARI, expert from Israel, urged the Government to repeal the reservation, saying that such excuses as non-interference in matters of communities and community autonomy undermined the women’s rights treaty.  Harsh patriarchal frameworks, unless removed, could not be consistent with the aim of the Convention.  The Government -- in its report and responses -- had repeatedly said that, while it was embarking on a thorough examination of personal laws and was committed to changing the laws related to marriage and divorce, it intended to embark on consultations with community and religious leaders first.  Instead of waiting for male-led communities to initiate change, the Government should endeavour to do so itself.

CEES FLINTERMAN, expert from the Netherlands, said that the Committee looked forward to India’s ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention and wondered if a time frame for such action had been set.  With India being a federation, he also asked about the mechanisms to monitor compliance of the country’s states with the Convention.

He added that the provisions of the Convention could not be directly invoked before India’s domestic courts.  Was it correct that the Constitution only related to equal treatment and non-discrimination by State authorities?  Was the scope of the Constitution’s non-discrimination clause as wide as related provisions of the Convention?

SHANTI DAIRIAM, expert from Malaysia, spoke about the legal reform in India, noting that significant progress had been achieved in recent years.  However, de jure achievements had not yet been translated into de facto changes in many spheres.  Illiteracy, persistent stereotypes and low representation of women in decision-making positions were cited among the reasons.  In that connection, she wanted to know how the Government was endeavouring to bridge the gaps.  What else needed to be done?  She also expressed concern about several amendments being undertaken in the country, which did not seem to sufficiently address the rights of women.

On the national machinery, VIOLETA NEUBAUER, expert from Slovenia, commented on the fact that the heavy mandate of the National Commission for Women did not include provisions to ensure women’s enjoyment of human rights as enshrined in international human rights treaties.  She wanted to know what interventions the Commission was authorized to use when violations of women’s rights were recorded.  What changes were envisioned to establish systematic cooperation between the national and State bodies for the advancement of women?

SILVIA PIMENTEL, expert from Brazil, highlighted the need for adequate mechanisms to address violence against women, noting that the Government acknowledged increasing violence as a manifestation of women’s low status in society.  She also stressed the need to establish a coordinated and comprehensive plan to combat that phenomenon and asked what was being done to improve the criminal justice system to ensure prevention of crimes and atrocities against vulnerable women.  What measures were being taken to improve attitudes towards women and overcome negative stereotypes?

Responding to comments about the country’s reservation to the Convention, Ms. SINGH said that India had no central legislation on compulsory registration of marriage, but a number of states had their own laws in that respect.  There were also separate laws in different communities that provided for registration of marriages.  The Supreme Court had directed the Government to issue guidelines to the states regarding compulsory registration, and the Government, in its national policy on empowerment of women, had committed itself to compulsory registration, basically with a view to eliminating child marriage.  The issue was still being considered, however.  Granted the complexity of the issue, the process was likely to take more time.  At this stage, the Government’s stand remained that it welcomed community initiatives and, depending on those initiatives, would go for central legislation.

On the Optional Protocol, she said that, in the democratic functioning of the country, India had a series of systems of checks and balances. Legal aid and recourse were available to all citizens. The Protocol was, indeed, optional and the Government’s position on that matter had not changed. Thus, it was not possible at this stage to indicate the time frame for adopting the Optional Protocol.

Turning to the de jure and de facto situation of women in India, she acknowledged that there was a gap between the two.  All the Government’s attempts so far had been aimed at bridging that gap.  The entire legal framework, as well as initiatives and projects for the advancement of women, were aimed precisely at eliminating the differences that women of different regions, castes and religions were facing.  A large number of issues had been raised, particularly about rural women, who were negatively affected by globalization and liberalization.  Several amendments of the Constitution gave marginalized and rural women a voice to raise their own concerns and to be heard.  Another important step was the announcement of a programme that guaranteed 100 days of work per year.  It was believed that some 40 per cent of its beneficiaries would be women.

Last, but not least, she mentioned the success of the microfinance movement in the country.  There were some 2.2 million self-help groups in India, about 90 per cent of them women’s.  That was clearly a route towards women’s empowerment.  Through small thrift and learning initiatives, women were learning to put money aside and put it into small enterprises, taking decisions on their own.

On the National Commission for Women, she said that it was a statutory body set by the Parliament, which investigated individual violations and atrocities, engaged in dispute resolution, created legal awareness, and contributed to the promulgation of women-related legislation.  It also had a complaint and investigative cell and dealt with such issues as domestic violence, dowry and rape.  In 2005, the Commission had received over 10,000 complaints.  Responses depended on the nature of the case.  Family disputes, for example, could often be resolved through counselling, but where there was palpable police apathy, the Commission stepped in and pushed the police to action.  For serious crimes, the Commission had enquiries set up to examine evidence, speak to witnesses, and submit a report, which “led to action of the right kind”.  The Commission did not distinguish between women of various groups, religion or caste.

Responding to the issue of reservations on articles 5 and 16, Mr. VAHNAVATI, the Solicitor General, said India was a secular country.  One of the Constitution’s basic aspects was secularism.  Religious freedom was also an aspect of fundamental rights.  India’s unity and diversity were non-negotiable.  With increased education, Muslim women were increasingly aware of their rights.  The Supreme Court had considered the right of divorced women for maintenance and held that Muslim women had the right to maintenance after the period of iddat, which refers to three months after divorce.  He hoped to see an increased awareness of women’s rights with the increase in education.  At the current time, it was not possible to set a time frame, as mindsets had existed for a long time.  With an active press, he hoped things would happen soon.

On the issue of women’s access to legal remedies, he noted the establishment by the Parliament of the National Legal Services Authority, which was headed by a sitting Supreme Court judge.  The purpose of the legal literacy mission was to make deprived segments aware of their rights.  Women were increasingly using the services of lawyers provided by those organizations.

On whether the Convention could be enforced in the Courts, he said the earlier view was that, unless an international convention was translated into domestic law, it was not enforceable.  From 1993 on, a series of Supreme Court judgements had been based specifically on the Convention.  The case on witch-hunting was based on the Convention, as was the case of compulsory registration of marriages.

Regarding whether the Constitution provided a mechanism to avoid discrimination in the private sector, he noted several articles of the Constitution which had interpreted that the right to life was fundamental in all its manifestations.  On asylum-seekers, he said India had a huge problem of people moving in from neighbouring countries, not on the ground of asylum-seeking, but seeking a better life.  The Government was tackling that serious problem.

On the issue of witness protection, he said that had come up in the Gujarat riot cases.  Victims were changing their testimonies, leading to acquittals.  The matter had been given to the Supreme Court and a central body had been asked to provide witness protection, as there was no longer confidence in the Gujarat State police.  The Supreme Court had given notices on the need to frame a witness protection scheme for the entire country.

Concerning illiteracy and a lack of resources, he said the only way to improve the level of women was to empower them with knowledge.  The National Human Rights Commission was playing an active part in protecting the rights of women.

On the tenth plan and its impact, Ms. SINGH noted that the tenth plan would end in March 2007.  While an impact evaluation of the entire period covered by that plan did not yet exist, a midterm appraisal had resulted in corrections.  Those corrections and initiatives would be included in the eleventh plan, which would start on 1 April 2007.  Women’s empowerment and the development of children would be a major theme of the eleventh plan.  A series of discussion and widespread consultations had been held with civil society representatives on issues of concern, and the outcomes of those discussions would be incorporated in the plan.

The Convention was being disseminated and had already been translated into the national language, she said.  There was a very strong case for a change of mindset.  There was no dispute on what the Convention stood for on social and humanitarian issues.  For India, the problem was one of implementation in a country of such size and diversity.  Problems had to be approached at different levels.  Widespread approaches were not possible.  More region-specific approaches were needed.  The issues of mindset change, training and capacity-building were being emphasized, especially for members of Parliament, political representatives, the police and the judiciary.  Another important aspect was data, which, in a country as complex and large as India, was not easy to compile.  Generating data would, therefore, be a priority.

Given its federal structure, she added, the relation between the centre and the states on the implementation of programmes was a matter of concern, as national priorities were set by the central Government, but needed to be implemented on the ground by the states.

Another member of the delegation addressed the new 2005 Communal Violence Bill.  The primary intention of the Bill was to provide for a procedure to prevent and control communal violence and the provision of relief and rehabilitation for victims.  The aim was not to create new offences.  The Bill also gave certain powers to competent authorities to take certain measures, and made certain offences punishable under the law.  Since most of the offences committed in a situation of communal violence were covered under the Indian Penal code -- the law of the land -- it provided enhanced punishment in a situation that was declared communal.  Such provisions were provided by means of declaring those offences as a scheduled offence, the maximum punishment then being doubled.  The schedule to the proposed law contained a number of provisions on offences, such as sexual assault.  The law was not gender neutral, but took into account gender sensitivity.

Regarding witness protection, there were two significant features of the law:  it criminalized the intimidation of witnesses; and it allowed the Court to keep the identity of witnesses secret.  Criminal intimidation was also an offence under the Indian Penal Code.  Improvement to the criminal justice system was a continuous process.  The Government was in constant dialogue with state governments.  Annual conferences were held, including with police and judicial authorities, as well as workshops on the need to increase gender awareness.  Women’s participation in police forces was also being emphasized.

On the National Commission for Women, Ms. SINGH said the Commission consisted of a chair, a senior level officer, a joint secretary, senior officers and support-level officers and staff.  On steps to address stereotyping women, she said a great deal of gender sensitization training was taking place at different levels, including among the police, the administration and political representatives.  Educational curricula and materials were also being screened for gender-insensitive material.  The media, especially electronic and print media, were extremely active and supportive of Government measures and had brought many issues to the Government’s attention.  Civil society organizations had done the same.  Changing societal attitudes was an uphill task that was likely to take time, but the country was on the right track, she said.

As the Committee continued its work, several experts raised serious questions about the Government’s response to the events in Gujarat, where extensive violence against women took place following riots in 2002.  HEISOO SHIN, expert from the Republic of Korea, and HANNA BEATE SCHÖPP-SHILLING, expert from Germany, commented on the fact that, despite the Committee’s repeated requests for information, it had received India’s responses only yesterday.  They asked for exact information regarding the number of victims, saying that the data received from non-governmental and other sources indicated a much higher number of women killed, abused or assaulted than what the Government had provided.  According to those figures, some 2,000 people had been killed in Gujarat, and at least 380 sexual assaults had been committed against women.   India’s response did not specifically address the issue of brutalization of women, as data were not disaggregated by sex.

Ms. SCHÖPP-SHILLING said that article 355 of the Constitution would have given the central Government the power to play a more active role after the crimes took place in the State of Gujarat in terms of investigation, prosecution and rehabilitation.  She asked for more up-to-date information on the status of the cases and barriers to the execution of justice in Gujarat, as well as measures to remove such barriers.

On other aspects of women’s situation in India, she asked for gender-related details of a recent report on the Muslim community in India and said that, as a State party to the women’s Convention, India had an opportunity to appear before the Committee every four years.  However, India had been very slow in reporting.

Regarding violence against women, Ms. SHIN said that she understood the difficulties encountered by the Government and appreciated the efforts undertaken to advance gender equality in India.  However, further steps were needed in several areas.  In particular, the country needed to widen the definition of rape in its legislation.  Among other issues that needed to be addressed were statutory rape and child abuse, as well as dowry and bride burning.  It was important to fight impunity and penalize the perpetrators.  Women should be consulted in determining whether the existing legislation worked.  Also, welcoming the fact that India had an active Human Rights Commission, she said that investigation of crimes and prosecution of perpetrators should ultimately be the responsibility of the Government.  Violence against women should also be emphasized in the Communal Violence Bill.

Ms. SINGH said that existing legislation on violence was being strengthened.  However, the implementation on the ground lay with the states, and the central Government’s job was to sensitize the states to the issues involved, making the officials aware of how they should respond to the cases.  She also agreed with Ms. Shin’s suggestion that violence against women should be addressed as a life-cycle issue.  Indeed, the girl-child suffered even before she was born with gender-selection practices.  Later, she suffered if she was married early, gave birth at an early age, became a mother of three or four at the age of 22, became widowed, destitute or lived alone.  Such issues needed to be addressed.

Mr. VAHNAVATI agreed that a restricted definition of rape in India’s Penal Code should be widened.  While agreeing that the quality of lawyers dealing with women’s issues was often low, he said that, in the Supreme Court and High Courts, there were dedicated lawyers committed to women’s issues and offering services free of charge.

Regarding Gujarat, he said that “it should not have happened”.  The events there were a shameful aberration.  Following the 2002 events, however, he commended the selfless work of non-governmental organizations and the media, who had made sacrifices to bring the injustice out in the open.  Regarding the most highly publicized case in connection with the events in Gujarat, he said that there had been an acquittal, and an appeal to the high court had been dismissed.  Then the national Human Rights Commission intervened, and the Supreme Court allowed an appeal, which was heard expeditiously.  Recognizing the existence of barriers to justice, the Supreme Court made a decision to transfer the case out of Gujarat, against the opposition of the accused.  A special judge was appointed to conduct the trial, which resulted in a conviction.

The Supreme Court had also reopened over 2,000 cases that had been closed because the indicted persons could not be found.  One of the most notorious cases was referred to the Central Bureau of Investigation, despite the fact that, under the Constitution, law and order were a state subject.  The case was filed not only against perpetrators, but also doctors and police officers involved in destruction of evidence.  Six other cases had been identified that had to be transferred out of the state to be properly tried.  Several cases were coming before the Supreme Court in February.

Following that response, an expert raised questions on women’s participation in public life, quotas, affirmative action and the outcome of the tenth plan for the advancement of women.

Ms. SINGH said the Government was committed to introducing reservations in the Parliament and the Legislature.  No consensus had emerged and efforts were ongoing.  While a time frame could not be indicated at her level, media reports indicated that the Government would like to bring it in as quickly as possible.  Her understanding was that the Government would like to see it through and that it was only a matter of time.  On women in the public sector, she said the number of women in the central Government had increased, overall.

Another member of the delegation added that most people in India were employed in the unorganized sector, which accounted for 93 per cent of the workforce.  Some 28 million people were in the organized sector and about 369 million in the unorganized sector.  While the work participation rate of women in the workforce was not very satisfactory, the trend was improving.

In a round of follow-up questions, Ms. SCHÖPP-SCHILLING said she regretted that she had not received an answer as to why India had only reported twice since 1993.  She was asking that not to aggravate the Government, but to find out whether assistance could be given.  The Committee had to treat States parties in the same way.  A small State received the same amount of time as a large one.  Complex States must utilize the opportunity to write a report every four years.

On the Optional Protocol, she said she had the feeling that there was some misunderstanding.  The Optional Protocol was not an attack on the independence of the judiciary of any country, but an additional monitoring mechanism with two procedures, namely the communication and inquiry procedures.  Both were there to assist a country in better implementing the Convention.  She was also sad that she had not heard any recognition of the specific discriminatory thrust against women within the Gujarat disaster.  Did the Government recognize that women there, as in 1947, had been singled out and brutalized in order to shame and destroy the community at large?  That was a form of discrimination and she wanted to see recognition of that.

Also addressing the issue of the Optional Protocol, Mr. FLINTERMAN said he recognized the sovereign right of each State to ratify international instruments.  Many States with a track record on democracy had ratified the Optional Protocol, underlining the significance of the complementary protection which the international system could give.  He looked forward to the day that India joined the ranks of having ratified the Protocol.

Regarding the issue of no legal aid, he asked if those services were easily accessed by Dalit, tribal and other vulnerable groups of women.  He had been informed that many cases of violence against Dalit women were unresolved and that a culture of impunity surrounded those cases.  While he understood that many more measures needed to be adopted to improve the criminal justice system, the victims of such rights could have easy access to legal aid.  On asylum-seekers, he appreciated that India hosted a large number of asylum-seekers from different shores, but his question was on the vulnerable position of women seekers, as long as India had not ratified the relevant conventions in the field of refugees.

Ms. DAIRIAM said she had heard the explanation on the lifting of reservations and the Government’s stand that it would not interfere with the affairs of the community.  She was not convinced that that was the right way to go.  She did not know when women would become sufficiently empowered in minority communities.  How did the Government reconcile the provision of equal rights by the Constitution and the stance that it would not interfere at the state level?

On the communal violence prevention act, she said her concern was not so much with the state versus the central Government, but that in strengthening the state, the bill did not seem to penalize state officials for offences.  She had heard of the destruction of evidence by the police in the case of Gujarat.  The bill did not take note of that.  On the definition of crimes against women, she had heard that there was no need for a new definition, as the Penal Code, which dated back to the 1800s, would suffice.  The Penal Code contained a flawed definition of crime and did not cover all forms of crime.

Ms. SHIN emphasized that it was important for the victims of violence that the rapists be punished.  Did the eleventh plan include prosecution of the rapists and other attackers against women?  Prosecution of the perpetrator was an important part of victim rehabilitation.  Without punishing criminals, it was hard for women victims to get out of their nightmare.  On Gujarat, the delegation had not given the number of victims that were women.  Was the Government concentrating on the gender aspect of the crimes committed?

GLENDA SIMMS, expert from Jamaica, on temporary special measures, said the Government was a big employer of workers in the country and it was in the central Government’s work profile where a greater percentage of women should be seen.  Women outperformed their male counterparts in universities.  That was known.  The best minds needed to run countries.  Meritocracy should be based on intellectual capacity and not on caste.  The Government should insist on the need for special temporary measures at all levels of society.  In order to deal with domestic violence, it was necessary to have men and women on the bench who understood the issues.  Judges needed to be trained.  It was very difficult to train judges, especially in former British colonies, where judges often thought they were next to God.  More female judges were needed.  Women would bring sensitivity, as some male judges had the same mentality as the rapists.

Responding to those comments and issues, Ms. SINGH said she did not know why the report had been delayed, but assured the Committee that a lesson had been learned in that regard.  On the Optional Protocol, the door was not closed.  As of now, however, she was not in a position to make a commitment.

Also responding, Mr. VAHNAVATI said he accepted that women were in a vulnerable position as far as communal violence was concerned.  On access to legal aid by the Dalits, the only way that could be achieved was to make legal aid centres all over the country.  That had been proposed.  Dalits must have the right to access the different courts.  Much money was being spent in an effort to publicize the existence of such aid.  Regarding the lifting of reservations, he said there was a delicate balance in Indian society.  He was very hopeful, however, especially given the levels of education being reached by Muslim women.

Regarding the definition of violent crime, he said it was true that various things could be fit into the Penal Code.  The time had come to redefine concepts.  He also agreed that more women were needed on the bench.  Many women were in the lower judiciary and in the state high courts.  It was not correct to say, however, that Indian judges were not trained.  A national judicial academy was doing a great job in that respect and there was a continuous process of sensitizing judges.

Responding to questions on the number of women affected by the Gujarat riots, another member of the delegation noted that 67 out of some 4,000 cases registered had involved violence against women.  Two of those cases had been initially closed, but the Supreme Court had ordered that they be reopened.

The communal violence bill was a draft, Ms. SINGH added, noting that any suggestions would be considered.  A piece of legislation was not static, but evolved.

As the Committee turned to education, its members stressed the importance of raising the educational level of women in order to promote their equality.  Questions were asked about the results of the Government’s programmes to improve the educational status of disadvantaged communities, mechanisms to improve access to education beyond elementary schooling, and legal steps to improve education.  Experts also wanted to know about the powers of the central Government, as opposed to local authorities, in promoting education goals and funding educational programmes.

Ms. SCHÖPP-SHILLING, expert from Germany, expressed concern that the Government had not yet met the Beijing goals in allocating funds for education.  She also pointed out that in the next report, the Government should attempt to provide better statistics in that regard.

NAELA GABR, expert from Egypt, addressed the issue of social integration through education and education of Muslim women and other minorities.  Noting rapid privatization of the educational system, Mr. FLINTERMAN, expert from the Netherlands, asked about its impact on minority women.  He noted that, according to a recent report, religious conservatism was not the main factor explaining low participation of Muslim girls in education, with such factors as poverty being more prominent.  He asked what measures were being taken to address that problem.  Also, recalling big improvements in literacy rates in the 1990s, he wanted to know about the current situation.

A member of the delegation said that, while education on the ground was the responsibility of states, the Government had centrally sponsored programmes for implementing key sector programmes.  An “education for all” programme was being implemented vigorously by the central Government, with full partnership of all states, leading to a dramatic increase in access to education.  Some 75 per cent of the programme’s funding came from the central Government.  A recent independent survey showed that 687,000 additional classroom spaces for children had been added throughout the country.  The number of children outside schools was down from 44 million in 2002 to 7 million in 2006.  Among 22.5 million Muslim children in the 6 to 14 age group, only 2.2 million were out of school, 1 million of them girls.

The pockets of disadvantaged population were targeted by the Government, she continued.  The districts with high numbers of Muslim and tribal populations got a substantial percentage of funding for education.  Overall, girls’ enrolment had increased by 18.6 per cent within the last two years at the primary level, and the gender gap was closing.

On dropout rates, she said that they had been significantly reduced at all levels.  The base of education was broadening, with increased community participation.  Looking at the success of broadening elementary education, the eleventh plan sought to strengthen the secondary education.  The Government was gradually increasing the percentage of the gross domestic product (GDP) devoted to education.

To a question on privatization, she said that elementary education was a major priority for the Government, and 85 per cent of enrolment at the elementary level was in State schools.  Currently, a review of textbooks was under way, and there was a strong framework for social integration at the national level.

As the Committee moved to women’s employment, questions were asked about the status of several bills, including a draft law on sexual harassment in the workplace, as well as economic support to poor communities, women’s working conditions and child labour.

Ms. DAIRIAM, expert from Malaysia, noted with interest the elaboration of microcredit schemes, asking how they contributed to the alleviation of poverty in India.  In that connection, she pointed out that, if such programmes were not supported by changes in the economic environment, they would not lead to significant changes in the situation of women.  Access to land, energy and water was also of great importance.  She wanted to know what was being done to monitor the influence of macroeconomic projects on the lives of the rural poor, who also needed to benefit from those trends.

Ms. SINGH said that the sexual harassment bill had been considered by a relevant Ministry, and various suggestions were now being incorporated in the text.  Comments would also be invited from the population.  Women’s groups had made recommendations on the bill.  One of the issues under consideration was the relation between the right to information and the proposed sexual harassment legislation.

In connection with microcredit programmes, she said that members of self-help groups initially took out very small loans, but once they got sufficient experience and learned about such things as accounting and bookkeeping, they could seriously consider further steps.

Regarding the situation in India’s north-east, a member of the delegation said that the Government accorded high priority to the development of the region.  Most of the centrally sponsored schemes were implemented on the basis of 100 per cent funding.  For other states, the funding pattern could be 75/25 or 50/50.  Women seriously benefited from the development of the north-east, the thrust was on agro-based industries and the horticultural sector, and women of the region were very much involved.  Among the Government’s measures, he mentioned establishment of a new institute of technology and projected opening of a management institute.  The focus was to build the region’s capacity.

Turning to child labour, he said that, in 2001, the country had about 12 million child labourers, including 1.2 million working in hazardous occupations.  The Government’s strategy to eliminate child labour was directed at those children, first of all.  Specialized schools for those children had been operationalized in 250 districts.  The strategy now was to expand the definition of hazardous industries to:  cover as many children as possible; cover as many districts as possible; open residential schools for child labourers; and provide vocational training to improve their employability.

With the emergence of large industries, the basic emphasis was on capacity-building for rural women, he continued.  The Government focused on skill development and vocational training, with about 50,000 women trained annually nationally.  A national rural guarantee scheme sought to protect women from displacement.  Active discussions were under way on the new bill on social security for the unorganized sector.  Among the issues under consideration were the financial implications of new social security arrangements, the mode of implementation, and the extent of coverage.

The Government was the single largest employer, accounting for 3 per cent of the country’s workforce, although it was aiming for a large-scale downsizing.

In another round of questions, Ms. DAIRIAM, expert from Malaysia, asked for information on maternal mortality rates.  It was a matter of grief that the leading cause of death in India was maternal mortality and that it had the highest number of maternal deaths in the world.  There was a need for a holistic approach to women’s health, in general, and maternal mortality, in particular.  On the issue of abortion, she asked if the delegation had data on the contribution of illegal abortion to maternal mortality.  She also asked if fertility control was linked with women’s ability to receive certain benefits.  She also asked how the phenomenon of scavenging was addressed in the eleventh plan.

Ms. SIMMS, expert from Jamaica, said HIV/AIDS was perhaps the greatest threat to development of the modern world.  In the case of India, it was like sitting on the tip of an iceberg:  the real picture had not yet been seen.  The children sold into prostitution, including many Dalit children, would be the conduits of HIV/AIDS.  The worst form of child labour was when children were placed in people’s households and sexually exploited.  Displaced minority and Dalit women were merely eking out a living wherever they could, despite the fact that India’s Constitution ensured equality and non-discrimination, policies were just the beginning.  One could not speak about children without speaking about their mothers.  Dalits and tribal groups were part of structural discrimination that was deeply rooted in history.  Women in power needed to recognize that they, too, benefited from discrimination against other women.  It was not just about sensitization to their situation.  They did not need to be sensitized; rather, the Government needed to remove the facilities that dehumanized them.  The Convention was for every woman in the country, not just the upper class or upper caste.

Several experts addressed the issue of rural women, the multiple forms of discrimination suffered by them, and their ability to benefit from microcredit schemes.

Ms. SHIN, expert from the Republic of Korea, noted that India was called the engine of the world.  In the coming years, that engine might be turned into a turbo engine.  Since 70 per cent of women lived in rural areas, it was important to address the issue of the rights of rural women.  Microeconomic projects, such as building dams and industries, were driving scheduled tribes out of their communities, which had been the base of their livelihoods.  The surplus land being given to tribal women was, in fact, barren land, which was why it was left as surplus land.  What measures were given to tribal women who were uprooted and displaced?  How could rural and tribal women voice their demands and participate in the elaboration of the development planning now going on in India?

On microcredit schemes, she noted that the women’s self-help groups were different from the Grameen Bank concept of microfinance, in that women deposited their savings in a rotating loan.  While they were learning skills and building confidence, the banks were gaining interest and profit.  The poorest of the poor could not participate, as they did not have the money to put into savings.  More ways were needed to help them.

DORCAS COKER-APPIAH, expert from Ghana, said rural women accounted for 70 per cent of the population.  Tribal districts accounted for over 400,000 square kilometres in the country, as well as being rich in minerals.  In the world of big business, such natural resources would attract the attention of those with big money.  In such instances, women would end up as the losers.

Ms. GABR, expert from Egypt, added that women, particularly rural women, as compared to men, had demonstrated their ability to use microcredit and pay back loans.  More men, however, were receiving those loans.  Greater focus was needed, therefore, on the number of women who took those small loans.

Responding to that round of questions, Ms. SINGH agreed that conditions in the health sector were not what they should be.  Maternal mortality had declined, but not enough.  The eleventh plan contained a host of recommendations, including:  the establishment of an independent commission to regulate the private sector and suggest reforms of existing bodies in the sector; the recognition of violence as a public health issue; women-friendly, free comprehensive health care; access for women with disabilities; protecting women from discrimination on the basis of HIV/AIDS; and adequate health insurance for chronic illnesses.  A national policy on the resettlement of internally displaced women might also be included in the plan.

India was also grappling with the issue of globalization and increasing liberalization, she said.  The need for liberalization to sustain the economic boom was understood, but the also realized that the negative impact must also be addressed.  It was true that the majority of the women’s self-help groups were not comprised of the country’s poorest women.  The major players in the microfinance sector were the Governments, non-governmental organizations and financial institutions.  Each had its own agenda.  The Government’s agenda was the empowerment of women.

Regarding the situation of women belonging to the Dalit population -- the lowest caste in the Hindu system -- and employment of manual scavengers, members of the delegation explained that rehabilitation and liberation of manual scavengers had been attempted through various schemes, including one on providing additional incentives from the central Government.  However, there was a group of people who totally lacked entrepreneurial spirit and were not interested in any but their traditional occupations.

As for the question of displacement of Dalit and tribal women due to industrialization projects, it was said that, while many minorities were situated in their tribal areas, Dalits were everywhere.  As a result, they were more affected by major projects and displacement.  The Government sought to address their situation, especially where megaprojects were taking place.  Among the projects benefiting that group of women was the initiative that provided subsidized credit for Dalit women for the purchase of land for cultivation of crops.  Tribal rights and lands were also overseen by the authorities in a transparent manner.

Regarding the Government’s policy for women with disabilities and special needs, a delegate said that relevant national legislation had been enacted in 1995, and India was far ahead in that respect.  With the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities recently adopted by the United Nations, India would be among the first countries to sign it.  The national policy for older persons also placed emphasis on women.

Ms. SINGH added that, while data was not available regarding illegal abortions, efforts were under way to monitor sex-selection practices.

As the Committee turned to marriage and family issues, Ms. COKER-APPIAH, expert from Ghana, said that, traditionally, women’s rights were easily sacrificed for the benefit of the institution of marriage.  However, the world was now moving towards recognition of women’s rights in marriage.  Governments, in fulfilling their international obligations, were seeking to promote the rights of women.  How could the Government of India, claiming democratic rights for all, see women killed because they could not pay dowry and young girls given away in marriage?  The legal age of marriage in India was 18 and 21 for female and male, respectively, but marriage of minors continued to take place in many parts of the country, as seen in infant marriages in Rajastan.  The law penalized the offender, but did not void the marriage.  If the Government did not intervene in some of those areas, it would not be able to achieve full empowerment of women.

One could not expect those with power -- the men of the family who were the beneficiaries of the system -- to come forward and demand change, she added.  There must be intervention from the Government.  She urged the Government to reconsider its reservations to the Convention as far as articles 5 and 16 were concerned.  She also called on the Government to consider amendments to not only penalize the offenders in child marriages, but also render such marriages void.

Ms. HALPERIN-KADDARI, expert from Israel, had a number of questions regarding the existing Civil Code, marriage law and internal reforms taking place within personal laws.  In particular, there was no concept of shared marital property within the Family Code, and divorced women did not get their rightful share of communal property.  That was a grave instance of inequality.  She also wondered why marital rape was still exempt, saying that it was certainly within the prerogative of the State to enact the law in that regard.  Her other questions related to the registration of marriages, the role of the All-Indian Muslim Personal law, in particular the pronouncement of the Talaq divorce.  The Government -- while respecting religious beliefs -- could still advance equality.

Mr. VAHNAVATI replied that voiding child marriages was a complex matter.  The other side of the coin was that, if a child was already born within such a marriage, it would become illegitimate once the marriage was voided.  “You penalize the offender, but not the child,” he said.

Regarding the concept of shared property under the special marriage act, he said that the country’s courts were taking a more proactive approach in dealing with matrimonial settlements, favourably considering the concept of matrimonial home and taking into account the need for a wife to have a proper residence.  Regarding the status of the Personal Muslim Law Board, he said that it had no official stature and performed an advisory role in the community.

A popular misconception about Talaq was that once one pronounced that word three times, that was the end of the marriage.  That was not accepted in most of India.  There were various forms of conciliation, and communities made an effort to see if the spouses could come back together.  If it was recognized that people could not live together, the community could also participate in property disputes.  Under a 1996 law, a divorced Muslim woman could apply for maintenance.  The amount of such maintenance was reasonable and fair, taking into account the standards of life she was accustomed to.

In a follow-up round, questions were asked about the rights of rural, Dalit, Muslim and tribal women.

Mr. FLINTERMAN, expert from the Netherlands, returned to the issue about the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which gave immunity to the military for violations of the human rights of women.  A special committee that had been set up to consider that matter had provided recommendations to the Government, and he wanted to know about the thrust of those recommendations, and what was done to implement them.

Ms. SCHÖPP-SHILLING, expert from Germany, said that she was still concerned regarding the discrepancy between the right to practice one’s religion and the right of women to enjoy their human rights on an equal level with men.   India’s Government should encourage discussion of cross-cultural issues, as well as internal dialogue.

Ms. SHIN, expert from the Republic of Korea, noted a discrepancy in the data regarding people with disabilities, saying that, according to estimates, their number stood at 22 million.  She also suggested that non-governmental organizations should participate in the drafting of the country’s next report and that a public forum should be held to disseminate the Committee’s concluding remarks.

Ms. DAIRIAM, expert from Malaysia, said that the prospects of universal marriage registration seemed more promising in the report than in today’s responses from the delegation.  According to the report, the Government endeavoured to make registration compulsory by 2010, and the National Commission was in the process of drafting the act on compulsory registration.

On the Armed Forces Act, Ms. SINGH said that there was no situation of armed conflict in the country, but steps had been taken to sensitize and inform the military and police forces of the dos and don’ts they needed to maintain when on duty.  The Armed Forces had an excellent track record, overall.  The committee that worked on the issue had provided recommendations, but they were not in the public domain.

On the issue of registration of marriages, Mr. VAHNAVATI, said it was an ongoing process.  The Supreme Court’s intervention would ensure that it was done much faster.  On the question of the judiciary, very few understood the peculiar role of the Supreme Court under the Constitution, particularly the powers granted to it under article 142 of the Constitution to pass general orders to ensure justice.  The Court resorted to that power.  It was to the credit of the Government that it had accepted those directives.  It was not a competitive exercise, but an example of three organs of Government working in close cooperation.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.