WOMEN’S ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE TAKES UP REPORT OF BELIZE; DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, HIV/AIDS AMONG ISSUES ADDRESSED
WOMEN’S ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE TAKES UP REPORT OF BELIZE; DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, HIV/AIDS AMONG ISSUES ADDRESSED
|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
Committee on Elimination of
Discrimination against Women
Chamber A, 793rd & 794th Meetings (AM & PM)
WOMEN’S ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE TAKES UP REPORT OF BELIZE;
DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, HIV/AIDS AMONG ISSUES ADDRESSED
Minister for Human Development Introduces Report,
Describes Wide Range of Policies, Programmes to Advance Women’s Equality
The Government of Belize, committed to the advancement of women and the pursuit of gender equality, had taken steps that were small at times, giant at others, in a journey that had only just begun, its delegation reported today to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.
Presenting the country’s combined third and fourth periodic report to the treaty body that monitors implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Minister for Human Development and head of the delegation, Sylvia Flores, highlighted policies, legislative changes and programmes that had been developed to address some of the challenges associated with enhancing the quality of life for Belizean women and their families.
Belize, a multi-ethnic and multilingual society with a largely rural population of 301,000 on the eastern coastline of Central America, had a small, open economy, with agriculture, agro-processing and tourism as the principal sectors and the major foreign exchange earners, she said. Pressures of globalization and trade liberalization were fast diminishing the security of preferential economic markets, leading Belize to invest heavily in the service sector, mainly tourism and offshore banking. Within those economic and social realities, the Government strove to dismantle the barriers facing Belizean women.
Guiding the Government’s actions to improve women’s status were, among other things, Belize’s national gender policy of 2003, the women’s agenda, the national plan of action for children and adolescents, the sexual and reproductive health policy, the Women’s Convention and the Millennium Development Goals, she said. The national gender policy had identified, as critical areas, health, wealth and employment generation; “violence-producing conditions”; education and skills training; and power and decision-making. In 1999, domestic violence units had been launched at major police stations countrywide. They were equipped with trained officers who responded to reports and carried out investigations and follow-up.
She said that the passage of the domestic violence act in 1993 had paved the way for new legislation and amendments. Those included amendment of the Criminal Code to provide for the offence of marital rape, rationalization of the penalties for the offence of carnal knowledge of a female child and the provision of a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment for habitual sex offenders. Despite those and many other achievements, much more needed to be done to attain equality and equity in Belize and to provide women with full access to justice. Among the challenges were traditional stereotypes, attitudes and expectations. Women’s daily reality of survival after domestic abuse also remained a major concern.
Focusing on domestic violence, experts expressed concern that the number of women victims remained high and that the previous Domestic Violence Act had been plagued by non-implementation. Concern was also expressed about victims’ detention and arbitrary prosecution, and questions were raised about the extent to which a new bill would redress such problems. One expert drew attention to a statement in the report that women resorting to social services had said the only advice they received was to return to the spouse that had mistreated them.
Responding, the delegation stressed that the Women’s Department did not encourage abused women to return to their partners or spouses. In the past few years, the Department was working closely with Haven House, a shelter for battered women. One initiative had been the introduction of transition homes, intended to house women victims spurned by family members. The Government was also addressing the need to provide jobs and day care alternatives for those women. The new bill gave “more teeth” to the police and family court.
The dialogue with the experts also centred on the rate of HIV/AIDS –- the highest in Central America -- and the apparent reluctance to discuss condom use and other family planning methods; several schools had reported that they were prevented from addressing the issue. The challenges of operating within a “Church-State” education system were also discussed, as was what one expert termed the “extremely precarious” situation of women’s employment; in particular, discriminatory hiring practices, limited maternal protection, dismissal due to pregnancy, sexual harassment and persistent pay inequality between women and men, despite ratification of the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention.
The other members of the delegation, also from the Ministry of Human Development, were Anita Zetina, Chief Executive Officer, and Carol Fonseca, Director of the Women’s Department. From the Permanent Mission of Belize to the United Nations were Janine Coye-Felson, Dina S. Shoman and Gianni Avila.
Chamber A of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women will meet again at 10 a.m. tomorrow, 25 July, to begin consideration of Guinea’s combined fourth, fifth and sixth periodic report.
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this morning to begin consideration of country reports. In Chamber A, it took up the combined third and fourth periodic reports of Belize (document CEDAW/C/BLZ/3-4). For Background, see Press Release WOM/1635.
Presentation of Report
The members of the delegation included, from the Ministry of Human Development, Sylvia Flores, Minister; Anita Zetina, Chief Executive Officer; and Carol Fonseca, Director, Women’s Department. From the Permanent Mission of Belize to the United Nations were Janine Coye-Felson, Deputy Permanent Representative, Charge d’Affaires; Dina S. Shoman, Minister Counsellor; and Gianni Avila, First Secretary.
Introducing the report, Ms. FLORES described Belize as a multi-ethnic and multilingual society with a population of 301,000. While the Creole were traditionally the largest ethnic group, Belize was now majority Mestizo at 50.7 per cent. The country had a young population, with 44.6 per cent below the age of 18. Women now made up 50.2 per cent of the population, a slight increase over the 49.7 per cent at the time of the submission of the report. However, the percentage of women heads of households had decreased somewhat, from 39.3 per cent in 2003 to 28.8 per cent in 2006. Unemployment rates for women had also decreased from 20.7 per cent in 2003 to 12 per cent in 2007. However, it still remained twice as high as that of men.
She said Belize had a small, open economy, with agriculture, agro-processing and tourism the principal sectors and the major foreign-exchange earners. Marine products and small manufacturing were also important exports. However, the pressures of globalization and trade liberalization were fast diminishing the security of preferential economic markets. Diversification of exports was a priority, therefore, and Belize had invested heavily in the service sector, mainly in tourism and offshore banking.
Within those economic and social realities, initiatives continued to enhance the quality of life of Belizean women and their families, she said. Policies had been developed and legislative changes and programmes had addressed some of the challenges. Guiding the Government’s actions in that regard were Belize’s national gender policy, the women’s agenda, the national plan of action for children and adolescents, the sexual and reproductive health policy, as well as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Beijing Platform for Action, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Regional Plan of Action and the Millennium Development Goals. Non-governmental organizations had also been instrumental in improving the access of women and girls to education at all levels; improved health-care services; and the family court and judicial system.
She noted that the national gender policy approved by the Government in 2003 had identified, as critical areas, health; wealth and employment generation; “violence-producing conditions”; education and skills training; and power and decision-making. The policy served as a guide for national projects and programmes, and assigned responsibility to the National Women’s Commission to ensure implementation of the policy’s commitments. In 1999, domestic violence units had been launched at major police stations countrywide. Those units were equipped with trained officers who responded to reports and carried out investigations and follow-up. More than 300 police officers had received domestic violence training and, in 2004, a domestic violence protocol for the police department had been developed and finalized. Active public awareness campaigns had been launched and a calendar of 16 days of activism highlighting the International Day to Eliminate Violence Against Women, World AIDS Day and Human Rights Day had been developed by the National Gender-Based Violence Committee. Among other initiatives, a handbook for survivors of domestic violence had been published and the Men Against Violence Group had been launched.
Additionally, she said, the Ministry of Health collected data on family violence. The Ministry of Human Development, along with the Health Ministry and other key organizations such as Haven House, the Shelter for Battered Women and Alliance Against AIDS continued to raise public awareness to the link between HIV/AIDS and domestic violence. In Belize, the same age group reporting domestic violence was that most infected with HIV/AIDS, namely ages 20 to 49. To address that epidemic, a national AIDS commission had been established to coordinate relevant activities and an aggressive public awareness campaign was developed and implemented with the support of the private sector. The Government’s concern was the “rapid increase” in the number of women becoming infected with HIV/AIDS. Efforts centred on education and “personal development” for women.
However, she said, the persistence of poverty and women’s dependence on men made women unable to “negotiate safe sex”. It was imperative, therefore, for the Government to continue to address women’s economic empowerment alongside the issues of HIV/AIDS and violence. Furthermore, the sexual and reproductive health policy focused on interventions to protect and promote sexual and reproductive health and rights. It addressed Millennium Development Goal number 5 to improve maternal health and it outlined strategies to provide women with better access to reproductive health services.
Turning to education, she said that the system depended on active cooperation with the churches. That relationship, while it had resulted in many gains, had also presented some major challenges. For example, the termination of unwed pregnant teachers, which had existed for many years, had only just been addressed in the past three years. A manual on gender and self-esteem had been developed for primary school teachers to assist them in changing attitudes, behaviours and expectations as it related to boys and girls. To complement that effort, a public awareness campaign on gender had been implemented. Among the other initiatives, a national three-month project to create awareness of issues relating to family violence, sexual violence and gender inequality had also been launched in collaboration with the Education Ministry.
She said that, since the passage of the Domestic Violence Act in 1993, several pieces of legislation had been amended or adopted. Those included amendment of the Criminal Code to provide for the offence of marital rape, rationalization of the penalties for the offence of carnal knowledge of a female child and the provision of a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment for habitual sex offenders. The law now recognized common law unions for couples living together for five or more years and not married to anyone else, for the purpose of inheritance and property rights. The law also placed economic value on home and child care in instances of divorce or separation, and custody of children no longer depended on a mother’s private life. Other legislation included the revision of the minimum wage for domestic workers and shop assistance, namely the Equal Pay Act. There was also a new law on trafficking in persons.
Despite those and many other achievements, she said, much more needed to be done to attain equality and equity in Belize, and to provide women with full access to justice. Limited human and financial resources were a major challenge, particularly when discussions about women’s issues were now being debated against the perception of men being at risk or marginalized. Limited monitoring and evaluation mechanisms also posed a challenge, as did the limited availability of data disaggregated by sex. Traditional stereotypes, attitudes and expectations were additional challenges. Women’s daily reality of survival after domestic abuse remained a major issue. Once women left the shelter, they were often unable to support themselves and their children. Often, that was why they returned to abusive situations. There was an urgent need, therefore, to put in place a structured system that allowed such women to secure housing, jobs, placement for their children in schools and day care, and counselling.
A major concern was the threatening or pressuring of victims of violence with the aim of forcing a retraction of complaints, as well as the arbitrary prosecution and punishment of victims, she added. Women victims and their family members, instead of receiving redress for the crimes committed against them, were themselves arbitrarily punished or detained. Thus, their adequate protection was urgently needed.
The Government was committed to the advancement of women, the pursuit of gender equality and women’s access to justice, she said. The steps it had taken had, at times, been small, while in some cases, it had made giant leaps. Nevertheless, the journey was “far from over; it has only begun”. The Government continued to advocate men’s involvement in the promotion of gender equality, as sustainable gains for women could not be achieved effectively when addressed in isolation. She also called for the involvement of young people. Cooperation with non-governmental organizations must also be enhanced, and greater collaboration must ensue with church groups and other faith-based groups. Achieving women’s empowerment and equality was possible only through such multisectoral and multidisciplinary approaches. In addition, the process of amending and revising outdated and inappropriate laws must also continue to reflect the changing times and ensure that women had equal legal status as men.
Experts’ Comments and Questions
HEISOO SHIN, expert from the Republic of Korea, said it had been eight years since the Committee had reviewed Belize’s previous reports, and it was regrettable that the Committee could not review reports as often as necessary, as time was a challenge. She urged State parties’ acceptance regarding the Committee’s meeting time and asked the delegation to reconsider accepting the amendment for article 20.1 regarding meeting time.
She commended Belize for ratifying the Optional Protocol in 2002, which was important for gender equality. However, she said, it was interesting to note Belize’s declaration that it would not allow the Committee to investigate systematic violations, primarily because Belize was a sovereign nation that already allowed investigations of violations. Most countries had recognized the Committee’s competence to make such investigations. If Belize was confident of preventing such violations from occurring, there was no reason for limiting the Committee. The country should lift the limitations on the Committee.
Further, she asked what efforts had been made towards publicizing the Convention and the Optional Protocol, as it was essential for men and women to know about the Convention and claim their rights. She asked for more detail. Finally, she asked that the next report be submitted in a timely manner, as that was a sign of commitment.
TIZIANA MAIOLO, expert from Italy, focusing on domestic violence, said the number of women victims remained high. She wondered why. The report stated that women resorting to social services had said the only advice they had received was to return to the spouse that had mistreated them. When would the 2007 law be applied?
VIOLETA NEUBAUER, expert from Slovenia, commended the delegation on achievements made during the reporting period. However, much remained to be accomplished. Gender equality machinery and global action plans were needed, as was information provided by non-governmental organizations.
She said the report indicated that Belize’s gender equality machinery included gender focal points, development officers in various districts and the National Women’s Commission, which had assumed the role of monitoring implementation of the Convention. She would like to have more information on the human resources of the Women’s Department, particularly on the number of staff as compared with that of the entire ministry. What was the mandate of the Women’s Department compared with the National Women’s Commission?
On the implementation of the National Gender Equality Policy and its priority areas, she asked whether an assessment had been made of results achieved thus far. What was their value in promoting gender equality? Was there a body charged with gender equality in the National Parliament?
SAISUREE CHUTIKUL, exert from Thailand, thanked the delegation for its frank presentation. From the Committee’s concluding comments in 1999, it had welcomed the National Women’s Commission, Belize’s main mechanism for monitoring compliance with the Convention. Today, the delegation had stated that Commission members had undergone training on their roles in advocacy and monitoring of the National Gender Policy. She asked how the Commission’s monitoring functions had been undertaken.
On the National Gender Policy of 2003, she asked about the main indicators used for monitoring. Did Commission members participate in that responsibility or did a task force do the actual work? Did the country have sufficient resources for such an important task? She asked for more information on the time frame and targets of that policy. Further, who was responsible for the women’s agenda, and what were the linkages between the Commission and the Women’s Department?
Regarding trafficking, she wondered whether Belize had used the definition of “trafficking” outlined in the Palermo Protocol. If not, did Belize’s definition specifically protect women and children? Did it outline heavier punishment for officials involved in trafficking? On the anti-trafficking plan of 2007-2010, she asked for information.
As tourism had an impact on prostitution, she asked which ministry was responsible for establishing code of conduct for the tourism industry. Was that ministry aware that young girls and women were specifically at risk? Had the country investigated International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 182 on child labour?
FRANÇOISE GASPARD, Vice-Chairperson and expert from France, speaking on articles 3 and 4, endorsed the concerns expressed on improving the status of women. It had been strongly emphasized at the World Conference in Beijing that the status of women could not be improved without a high-level body with the resources to eradicate discrimination. Belize was a small country, and its development was hampered by inequalities between men and women.
There was a need for a mechanism with the power to mainstream gender in public policy, she explained. That presupposed various conditions, especially staff training, the exchange of ideas and knowledge with other countries and engagement with civil society. The mechanism must have focal points in both ministries and local communities. She added her voice to the questions already asked about whether the mechanism could be given more stability.
PRAMILA PATTEN, expert from Mauritius, asked about mandate of the Political Reform Commission, as well as about its composition and nature of appointment. She drew the delegation’s attention to the Committee’s general recommendation 25 on temporary special measures, which sought to facilitate States parties’ understanding of the instrument and ensure that they utilize that provision in implementing the Convention. The Committee, in its general recommendation, stressed that the adoption of such measures should not be discriminatory and not entail the maintenance of unequal or separate standards forever. Rather, they must be discontinued when the objectives of equality between women and men had been achieved. From the Committee’s viewpoint, laws alone were not sufficient to achieve de facto, or substantive, equality, so the Convention required that women be given “an equal start” and be empowered by an enabling environment.
The delegation informed the Committee that efforts continued to be made to raise public awareness about the Optional Protocol. Those efforts had been spearheaded through the Women’s Department, particularly through the National Women’s Commission. Training had been geared to women’s development officers, the Gender-Based Violence Committee, as well as the safe school programme. The latter had played an important role in creating public awareness of the Optional Protocol. Public awareness-raising had involved not only Government departments, but also the private sector, faith-based groups and non-governmental organizations.
On trafficking in persons, another delegate confirmed that the definition in Belize legislation was derived from the Palermo Protocol and that the Act had been adopted to give effect to that United Nations instrument. Belize had a strategy in place to address prevention, protection and prosecution. The composition of the anti-trafficking committee was multidisciplinary and included key Government agency staff and non-governmental organizations, the Ministry of Home Affairs, police, immigration personnel, the Attorney General’s Office, the Labour Ministry, the tourism board, youth services, prosecutors and so forth. The issue of sexual exploitation and tourism was being addressed. Indeed, the Government’s “entire response” to trafficking was being reviewed. Trafficking was not a major issue in Belize, but, because of its vulnerabilities, it might face the issue in the future.
Another member of the delegation stressed that the women’s department did not encourage abused women to return to their partners or spouses. In the past few years, the department had working been closely with Haven House, a shelter for battered women. One initiative had been the introduction of transition homes. It was a pilot project, but there were now two such homes and a third was being built. Women often did not have housing alternatives, as they were often rejected by family members. The transition homes were funded by the private sector and faith-based organizations. The Government was also specifically addressing the need to provide jobs and day care alternatives to those women.
Replying to another question, she said that the Gender Integration Committee was comprised not only of Government officials, but also of representatives of non-governmental organizations, the private sector and community- and faith-based organizations. The gender focal points had recently produced a gender focal point handbook, and gender mainstreaming was taking place at the cabinet level.
Another delegate explained that the National Women’s Commission supported monitoring efforts and the development of indicators, not only of the Women’s Convention, but for all other international commitments for which reports must be prepared, including for the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Commission was an advisory body, while the women’s department was an implementing body. She reviewed the staffing of the department, adding that since the department’s restructuring in the early 1990s when Belize had ratified the Women’s Convention, the amount of resources allocated to the department had gradually increased over the years, not only for administration, but for programmes as well.
The women’s agenda had been developed by the party in power as a commitment to the women of Belize in their efforts to improve their situation, she explained to another question. It was monitored by the Women’s Commission, the women’s department and the United Women’s Group, the arm of the political party that had submitted the agenda.
A member of the delegation responded that two initiatives had been important for moving towards that target, including the Women’s Summit of 2005, a collaborative effort that had included participation by the daughter of Malcolm X, who had brought a delegation from the United States. Various women from the United States had spoken with local women in key political positions.
She also described a political forum for women held in Belize, which had been attended by representatives of all political parties. She also noted that most “Chief Executive Officers” in Government ministries were female, that two women sat in the Supreme Court and that the Minister for Foreign Affairs was a woman, the first to hold that position.
Another delegate addressed questions regarding the Convention. On article 20.1, she recognized that there were restrictions on the Committee’s ability to review reports, and said that issue was under active consideration. The Committee’s concern was duly noted.
On article 4.1 regarding temporary special measures, she noted that other members of the delegation had addressed that issue. She appreciated the attention that had been brought to the matter. She said her delegation did not have information on the ILO Convention, and could not respond at this time on that issue.
Experts’ Comments and Questions
Ms. SHIN, expert from the Republic of Korea, noted that there were six districts in Belize, and that each women’s development officer was responsible for about 30,000 to 70,000 people. She wondered whether it was sufficient to have only one person address matters of such a large population. She urged that the institutional framework be bolstered.
On domestic violence, she noted efforts made in legal reform. As Belize relied heavily on international cooperation for assistance, she wondered whether that cooperation came annually or whether the country made agreements for longer periods of time. There should be sustained efforts in implementing policies.
Second, she said, there must be regular monitoring and evaluation of all efforts. Were there plans for a population-based survey every five years, for example? Evaluation would reveal whether domestic violence was increasing or decreasing. Also, did a systematic structure to deal with all issues of domestic violence exist? Although police training was in place, she had heard that, often, the police did not go to the scene of the violation. Were there incentives for police to act appropriately? If they did not respond accordingly, did any sanctions exist? Was there a way for a woman to complain? If so, who took those types of complaints?
FERDOUS ARA BEGUM, expert from Bangladesh, commended the delegation for the achievements, especially in reducing unemployment from 20 to 12 per cent. That was remarkable. On trafficking in persons, she said the report stated Belize was a destination for trafficking and that commercial sex workers were usually employed as waitresses in bars. This morning, the delegation had stated it had established a trafficking task force. She wondered whether any hotel or bar owners had been prosecuted. Were there statistics on the number of under-aged trafficked girls forced into the sex trade? She wondered about a targeted study on the impact of tourism and the sex trade, and the prevalence of HIV/AIDS among migrant women. Moreover, she asked whether Belize had initiated any bilateral agreements with neighbouring countries to combat human trafficking.
Ms. PATTEN, expert from Mauritius, discussing domestic violence, asked what major improvements had been brought about by the new domestic violence bill. From her reading of the report, the previous Domestic Violence Act had been plagued by non-implementation. What efforts were envisaged to better implement, once the bill was enacted? Further, she was concerned about the arbitrary prosecution of victims. Under what provision were those victims being detained and to what extent would such instances be redressed under the new bill?
Moreover, she wondered what new support services would be provided to victims to ensure their safety and security. How many women could have access to Haven House and were workers trained to provide counselling? What system of legal aid was in place to ensure women’s access to justice? Was the country ensuring gender-sensitivity training for workers in that field? Additionally, she wondered about services available for rural women and rehabilitation programmes for perpetrators. Did the new domestic violence bill contain provisions for protection and restraining orders? She also urged the delegation to review the data-collection methodology, as it was important to properly note the incidence of violence of against women.
In response to the question on women development officers responsible for 30,000 people, a member of the delegation said that the officers was working hand in hand with all representatives of the Ministry. There was also a human services officer and one responsible for community empowerment. The police department and family court were also involved.
Further, all development officers underwent the same type of training, so if one officer was absent, another was equally capable of stepping in and assuming responsibilities. The Ministry was advocating that a rural development officer also be put in place to specifically focus on rural areas of the districts.
Turning to international assistance, she explained that sustainability was a key concern. The Ministry was trying to ensure sustainability, as international funding often lasted only for a short period, she said, noting that the British High Commission had funded projects at a female prison and the Ministry was trying to ensure that such programmes remained in place. She conceded that monitoring and evaluation issues remained an area of weakness and the women’s department continuously advocated for improvement.
In response to questions regarding the police response to domestic violence situations, she said a hotline number had recently been created, and was linked to the Ministry’s domestic violence unit. Under the new Domestic Violence Act, sanctions existed for police officers who did not adequately respond to such situations. As turnover remained high among police officers, the Ministry advocated ongoing training for all officers.
She said the new Domestic Violence Act opened the definition of domestic violence to include emotional, verbal and mental abuse, rather than just physical abuse. Further, the power of women’s development officers had been boosted, and both the family court and police department were bodies responsible for ensuring that counselling took place. In sum, the new Act “gave more teeth” to what the police and family court could do.
On rehabilitation, she explained that the family court was initiating a “battering intervention programme” for perpetrators.
Another member of the delegation added that the number of female police officers was increasing. They accompanied male officers on domestic violence complaints and that was having an impact on how such complaints were being addressed.
Another member added that Haven House, the only shelter for battered women, could hold four to five families. The two transitional homes could hold two to three families. Of those homes, one was located in a rural area. Turning to legal aid, she said the main office for such work was located in Belize City and other regional cities, and the Ministry had begun an initiative with the Bar Association to undertake pro-bono work.
Gender-sensitive training occurred through the police department on a regular basis, she continued, adding that protection orders had been included in the new Domestic Violence Act.
Another delegate said she presently had no statistics on the number of minorities involved in trafficking or sexual exploitation cases. Concerning the study on the impact of tourism and sexual exploitation for commercial purposes, at least 20 per cent of the cases identified in that study were related to the tourism sector, so the anti-trafficking sector was working closely with the tourism sector. She also had no statistics with her on the link between HIV/AIDS and migrant workers. Belize participated actively at the regional level in discussions to combat human trafficking.
Another delegate added that the family court had recently become computerized and, as a result, it now had a database. The national gender-based violence registration form had been updated, she confirmed, and several initiatives had been put in place to ensure proper data collection. The delegation recognized that that was a weakness, and the Government was working to improve that.
Ms. SHIN, expert from the Republic of Korea, asked about the percentage of women in the police and whether there were any plans to increase it.
The delegation said the chief executive police officer was working to ensure that new intakes included a viable representation of women.
Another delegate explained that, of 1,000 police officers, some 200 to 300 were women. She reiterated that, as new intakes were done, lobby efforts were under way to ensure that more women were included in the force.
GLENDA P. SIMMS, Vice-Chairperson and expert from Jamaica, said she had the distinct impression from the report that domestic violence was narrowly defined in Belize as being about the “batterer”. The Committee was fundamentally concerned about violence against women that occurred simply because the victims were born women. Issues of rape must be discussed, as well as incest and carnal abuse, especially given the high level of teenage pregnancies. Specifically, data was needed on who was making those girls pregnant, so they could be charged. She also sought data on marital rape and sexual harassment. How many people were charged, were women accessing the process and were police being trained?
Ms. PATTEN, expert from Mauritius, asked whether the training of the judiciary was ongoing.
Ms. CHUTIKUL, expert from Thailand, asked whether the multidisciplinary committees at the district level could address more than violence, but also trafficking, harassment and so forth. She also asked whether the next report could concentrate on advancing the monitoring system.
Ms. GASPARD, expert from France, asked about the media’s role in stereotyping, specifically whether there was a dialogue between the Government, non-governmental organizations and the press to combat such harmful stereotypes. Returning to the argument underpinning implementation of the Convention’s article 4.1 on temporary special measures, she was struck to see that the National Commission had put forward reasons to counter implementation, one being that it might open the door to demands from other groups. Women suffered discrimination in practically all spheres, across the board, which was why the Convention advocated taking temporary special measures. The Commission had also said that time would tell, that women were constantly advancing in Belize, but advancement in some sectors was “certainly taking a long time”. Article 4 had been written to counter structural delays.
As explained in general recommendation 25, article 4 did not refer only to the political sphere, but to other spheres where discrimination existed, she added. For instance, the Government might consider temporary special measures in the areas of employment or education. The delegation should persuade the Government as a whole about the importance of implementing article 4.
The delegation said that the training of the judiciary was an enormous task because of limited staff and the difficulty to set in place a structured system. However, the director of the family court and the Attorney General’s office was committed to that training. The suggestion that the multidisciplinary committees in each district take on more challenges was worthy of consideration.
With respect to the media’s role, that cooperation had been strengthened as a result of the women’s summit in March.
Another delegate welcomed the suggestion by an expert about the focus on the monitoring system.
On temporary special measures, the Political Reform Commission had completed its mandate, but having heard the experts’ elaboration of article 4.1 and general recommendation 25, the delegation would take on board those observations, another delegate promised.
Experts’ Comments and Questions
Ms. NEUBAUER, expert from Slovenia, acknowledging certain progress with respect to women’s participation in public service, said that women’s representation in elected positions, however, remained very low. In the House of Representatives, it had even decreased after the last elections. The women’s agenda, developed by the political party that had won the elections in 1998 and 2003, had specifically committed to women’s political participation, as had the national agenda.
She sought more substantive information regarding actions and measures developed and implemented to increase women’s participation in elected offices, namely in the House of Representatives and local government bodies. Was the underrepresentation in the National Parliament and local government being tackled by means other than quotas, such as the training of potential women candidates and awareness-raising among members of political parties?
She asked whether the conclusion of the first women’s summit, which had focused on women and decision-making, had been used to develop a response to women’s persistent underrepresentation in decision-making posts. She encouraged the Government to further balance women’s participation in line with general recommendation 23 on public and political life and in conjunction with general recommendation 25.
MS. SIMMS, expert from Jamaica, turning to article 7, called for more participation of women in high-level positions, as women continued to be underrepresented in decision-making positions. She said it was the Committee’s responsibility to deal with that issue. Women were not afraid of politics; rather, they were influenced by cultural barriers. She was sure the head of the delegation was aware of such cultural barriers, and noted that women needed “winnable seats”. Governments had the prerogative to appoint women, and she had not seen any movement on that issue in Belize or the region. The issue of State funding must be considered, she said.
Other issues, including a lack of family support and a perception that women could not ascend to high-level positions because they had children to raise, also inhibited women’s participation, she explained. The culture must change.
Turning to special temporary measures, she said the men of Belize had not been marginalized. That “marginalization theory” was a “con-job” against women.
Discussing the political forum held in Belize, she said women with financial and social access had taken part in that debate. Had the delegation considered moving such a model to rural areas of the country? “Even if it’s under a tree”, she urged that the model be taken to rural areas so that women would know they had a right to take part in Belizean society. No woman should be left out on the basis of money, colour or class.
Ms. FLORES, the head of delegation, expressed appreciation that Ms. Simms had spoken to the issues that concerned her country.
On the participation of women in public offices, she acknowledged that more progress was needed. Many women did not participate in elective politics due to the high costs, she explained, and young women felt there was a “glass ceiling” that hung over them. The country must do more. Within her party, she had advocated for women to participate. About 23 years ago when she had entered politics, many women had been interested in participating. Today, however, very few women were interested. What could her delegation do?
The Prime Minister had made moves towards appointing women, she said, explaining that three of six appointed senators were women. On the opposition side, there was one woman. She would be leaving Government at the end of her term to do grass-roots work and she would personally take on the agenda of talking to more women.
Experts’ Comments and Questions
Ms. NEUBAUER, expert from Slovenia, while commending the head of delegation for encouraging young women to enter the political arena, said encouragement for political parties to integrate gender equality was needed. It would not be enough for women to encourage women. Male alliances and supporters were needed, she said, noting that they would be important for combating the opposition.
Ms. ARA BEGUM, expert from Bangladesh, said that, in 2001, the National Women’s Commission findings had been published in a book, which noted that women had not been participating due to a lack of financing, among other factors. Did the delegation have those findings? Did measures exist to encourage young girls to enter political life?
In that context, she noted the importance of education. Education in Belize was expensive, she said. She wondered whether the Government was addressing that issue. Moreover, had the Government considered creating a quota for women in Parliament? With such a measure, the Government could achieve gender balance in Parliament.
Experts’ Comments and Questions
Ms. SHIN, expert from the Republic of Korea, said the head of the delegation was a role model for young women, and urged her to create an environment for young women to become interested in politics. In her country, two strategies had been introduced that could serve as useful models for Belize. Her Government, supported by the women’s movement, searched for potential female candidates two years prior to elections. Once found, those women were trained in fundraising, networking and creating a political vision, among other things.
Second, she said a Korean law requiring political parties to spend 10 per cent of their funds on women’s leadership development had led to the creation of the Women’s Leadership Centre.
The head of the delegation responded that she had made efforts to increase interest in politics among young women, noting that women outnumbered men in fundraising efforts. However, when deciding to take the next step of running for elective office, women were often reluctant. The delegation had held numerous workshops to encourage women to run for elective office. She did not, however, know what it would take for them to actually commit to such an endeavour. Timing and circumstances also played a critical role in the decisions people made in their lives.
Another member of the delegation added that the political forum had brought together more than 100 women, including representatives from all political parties. She said the Mayan community, in particular, had been represented.
Additionally, the National Women’s Commission and the Women’s Department had advocated that scholarships be given to young women, she explained, noting that, over the last two years, scholarships had been created for women wishing to enter the social field. Further, the Ministry had collaborated with St. John’s Junior College to offer scholarships for single mothers, and the Women’s Department had held women’s development sessions that examined the issue of self esteem.
Experts’ Questions and Comments
SILVIA PIMMENTEL, expert from Brazil, focused on education and health. As Belize had the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence in Central America, there was a need to ensure that information on prevention and access to reproductive health services was available for women and adolescent girls.
She said meetings to promote awareness of HIV/AIDS were a commendable first step in addressing the epidemic. She was concerned, however, at the reluctance to teach about condom use and abstinence.
Noting that a national AIDS policy had been launched in 2005, representing a synthesis of contributions from Government sectors, she said she would like more information on the use of condoms, as it was well known that other methods were not as efficient in controlling HIV/AIDS. Was there a strategy in place for that? She wondered about measures to enhance access to HIV/AIDS information and access to condoms among rural women, particularly Mayan women. The Government, indeed, recognized the challenges ahead. However, she asked for more information on how those challenges were being managed to ensure women’s equality. She also wondered about the constitutional obligation to protect fundamental rights, including health.
Finally, the Government had been urged to revise abortion laws. Had that issue been discussed in the executive and legislative branches? She asked
Ms. PATTEN, expert from Mauritius, said the report outlined the precarious situation of women, which included discrimination in remuneration despite the Equal Pay Act, discrimination in promotion and dismissal from work due to pregnancy. What efforts were being undertaken by the Ministry to promote mainstreaming of a gender perspective? What steps had been taken to eliminate discriminatory practices by private-sector employers? How was the Ministry of Labour guaranteeing implementation of the Labour Act? Was there an equal opportunity law in place?
Turning to the recommendation that female public officers take 14 weeks of maternity leave, she wondered if there was a time frame for that proposed amendment to the Labour Act. Noting the important role of the labour inspectorate, she asked whether the Ministry had data on the number of complaints concerning the labour rights of women. Had there been any prosecutions?
Given the limited opportunities of women in the labour market, what was being done to ensure job training for women? Despite Belize’s law on sexual harassment, which dated back to 1996, she said cases were often not reported. She would like to know what efforts were taken to ensure implementation.
Regarding maternity protection for women, she noted that the social security allowance was much less than regular salary, and that the more established organizations did not cover leave related to pregnancy complications. She reminded the delegation that, to prevent discrimination on grounds of maternity, the country must introduce maternity leave with pay. She also highlighted that pay inequalities persisted.
Turning to the situation of rural women, Ms. SHIN stressed that the Government should reach out to them, especially since 51.1 per cent of the population was rural. She asked if any preliminary assessment had been done of the March 2006 Belize Rural Development Programme. Regarding the mobile health clinics, she had information that those often were not “women-friendly” and were staffed by men. What was being done to guarantee that those clinics really worked for women and girls in the rural areas? She also asked about the prevalence of illiteracy in the rural areas and for a response to reports that several schools were still prevented from discussing issues of sexuality and HIV/AIDS.
Ms. ARA BEGUM asked if the Government had any gender responsive comprehensive rural development programme for all ethnic groups, which covered health, education, credit access, and employment opportunities, especially for the development of rural women. She asked about the budget for the appointment of an officer for each rural district. Also, was there any time-bound poverty reduction strategy for Mayan women? What percentage of girls completed higher education and what percentage dropped out of school? Was there any targeted programme to create employment opportunities for young women in rural areas?
Regarding HIV/AIDS in rural areas, how was the Government ensuring access for rural women and adolescent girls to reproductive health services? she asked. She also sought information about Government efforts to protect the financial and medical needs of elderly and disabled women in rural areas. She also wanted to know what the Government was doing to encourage more women to apply for credit. She had gathered from the report that credit was not collateral-free, which created a problem for poor women at the grass-roots level.
Ms. SIMMS emphasized that the Government was challenged to put in place the necessary infrastructure to keep people in rural areas, because drifting to urban areas was not the answer in the region. The delegation had pointed to some large-scale initiatives, but those had not been evaluated for their impact on women. She stressed the importance of knowing the impact of all programmes on the status of Belizean women in rural areas.
On HIV/AIDS, Belize was presently benefiting from the Global Fund, a delegation member said. The Women’s Department had focused on providing information to women, particularly in the rural areas, about HIV/AIDS and the use of male and female condoms. Through the country’s social investment fund, Belize had been establishing health centres in very remote rural areas as part of its health sector reform, and placing doctors and nurses at those centres. Water systems had been set up in remote villages and roads were being developed.
She said that the Labour Ministry had been underresourced, both financially and in terms of staff, but a decision had been made to strengthen it. Labour officers could now monitor the working conditions of women and men, particularly in the citrus and banana industries. The Government was presently developing its poverty reduction strategy, and the Ministry for Human Development was participating in those consultations, for which it was drawing information countrywide. She was presently unable to provide the data on the percentage of girls in rural areas that had completed secondary-level education.
Another delegate described the monitoring role of the service providers stationed in each district, under the Belize Rural Development Programme. Women development officers had the prerogative to approve mini-grants. Certain criteria had been established for rural areas, which included single mothers and widows. As a result, women development officers and service providers could approve grants of up to $1,000, and as many as 200 to 300 women had access the mini-grants. The Young Women’s Christian Association had played a very active role in that project.
Explaining that the Equal Pay Act was not an equal opportunities act, another member of the delegation acknowledged limitations regarding maternity protection. As for women’s access to non-traditional training, centres for employment training had been changed to vocational and educational institutes, which worked closely with women development officers in the districts to ensure women’s acceptance into programmes in the non-traditional areas. Efforts were also being made to reach out to the Mennonite community, and more of its members were coming forward to report cases of abuse, domestic violence and incest.
Some private sector entities had developed their own policies on sexual harassment, but women often refrained from using those or the national legislation out of fear of losing their jobs, she replied to another question.
Ms. PIMENTEL asked how the Government was managing the challenges of church and state school operations. In previous concluding comments, the Committee had recommended a revision of laws criminalizing abortion. She asked whether a study had been done on that topic in Belize. Also, could the delegation supply information about access to justice for women victims of violence, as well as access to legal assistance. How many such complaints had been brought by women, and how many had resulted in due process? How many men had been prosecuted, sentenced and convicted on crimes of violence, specifically domestic violence? she asked.
Ms. PATTEN, expert from Mauritius, asked for details on any expansion of the informal sector, especially among rural women. She wondered about any information on the informal labour market and the Government’s policy in that area.
Second, she highlighted the discriminatory practice of terminating pregnant teachers, noting that the report stated such practices would be stopped. Did the new labour law qualify such practices as discriminatory? If the Labour Act was not clear on that type of discrimination, would it be amended?
Ms. ARA BEGUM said she had not received a response to her earlier question on services provided to rural women. Was there a time-bound programme to eradicate poverty among Mayan women?
Regarding abortion, a delegation member said that issue had not been taken up in the Cabinet, as a delicate relationship existed between the Government and the Catholic Church. The idea of discussing sex and sexuality was a taboo subject, she explained. All ministries were trying to inform the population about HIV/AIDS and her Ministry had encouraged women to bring their children to discussions on the topic. Extra pains were being taken to educate young people, particularly at the tertiary levels, as information on sex and sexuality within that age group was important. Also, the Ministry was making efforts to start talks with Catholic schools and she hoped those discussions would become more fruitful in the years ahead.
Another delegation member spoke about the termination of pregnant, unwed teachers, noting that the specific case in point had been a “test case” for the Ministry. The judge overseeing the matter had highlighted the Convention as an important document regarding discrimination. She was not aware whether the Labour Act would prevent the occurrence of such practices.
Turning to violence against women, another member said the Gender-based Violence Committee was working to ensure full access to justice for women. Representatives from the Education and Labour Ministries could play a key role in ensuring that women had access to justice. Legal aid offices existed throughout the country.
She said the collection of sex-disaggregated data was a challenge. However, she noted that, when a victim came to the Women’s Department, it was mandatory for officers to fill out a specific form. That form was sent monthly to the Ministry of Health, which compiled data from all relevant agencies into a database. That data was then sent to various ministries on a quarterly basis, to obtain an overall picture of gender-based violence. Although that system contained flaws, the Ministry was beginning to address them. She stressed the importance of having a national Gender-based Violence Action Plan, as the Ministry could not operate in isolation.
Another delegate said a specific poverty strategy for the Mayan population did not exist; however, the national poverty strategy had included a “poverty mapping”. Regarding the expansion of the informal sector, she did not have statistics; however, programmes facilitated by the Women’s Department had led women into self-employment.
Experts’ Comments and Questions
Ms. MAIOLO, expert from Italy, focused on the issue of family, and wondered about a link between domestic violence and women’s access to politics. She wondered if the family had conditioned women to believe they were not free to decide whether to enter politics.
Ms. SIMMS, expert from Jamaica, noted that the Criminal Code had been amended to include marital rape. She asked how many cases of marital rape had been brought before the courts since 1999. What was the outcome of such cases? Second, as Belize had ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Labour Organization Convention, she wondered about the age of consent for marriage. Noting that female genital mutilation was often practiced in the name of culture, she asked how much “culture” the Ministry accommodated in the national strategy. Was the country was concerned about the issue of early marriage?
Ms. GASPARD, expert from France, focused on the issue of undeclared children. If children were not declared in the civil registry, they would not have access to schools or health care. Could the delegation expand on care for those children?
A delegation member responded that the Ministry had implemented a project in the Toledo district to register the population, and she hoped that its work with the Belize Social Security Board would ameliorate that situation. On the issue of marital rape, she was unaware of any cases brought before the courts. Turning to the age of consent for marriage, she said it had been changed to age 16 in 2005, up from an age of 14.
On family issues and education, another delegation member said it was difficult to approach the issue of increasing young girls’ interest in politics from only one perspective. What worked in one district often did not work in another, as populations, cultures and methods for socializing young girls varied in each area.
Ministry programmes had been implemented to improve family involvement in education, she explained, including one that offered advice to parents on their relationships with their children. Efforts could be stepped up in rural areas. The goal of the Gender Awareness Safe School Programme was to empower young girls to attain leadership positions.
The head of the delegation said she was not able to adequately discuss whether there was a correlation between domestic violence and women’s access to politics.
Experts’ Comments and Questions
Ms. PIMMENTEL asked how the Ministry addressed incestual child abuse.
Ms. PATTEN focused on the distribution of property upon divorce and separation. The report noted a lack of implementation of procedural laws in that area, which was a serious concern. What was being done to enforce proper implementation of laws? It must be difficult for women to access justice upon a separation, she said.
Turning to the Families and Children Act and the issue of maintenance and alimony, she said Belize did not have the usual criteria of “needs versus means”. Had there been a review of the act? Even the national gender policy said that 30 per cent of child maintenance orders had not been complied with. What was envisaged by the Government to ensure that women and children benefited from the provisions of the law?
Ms. SHIN wondered about asylum seekers and refugees. Were there many women seeking asylum in Belize? Belize had singed the Refugee Convention and had established an eligibility committee for refugee status, but then, that had ceased operation. Could that committee be reopened?
Ms. NEUBAUER asked about discrimination against girls in education. Much had been learned through the report on the regulations surrounding the expulsion of pregnant students. However, there was no unique national standard in that regard. She requested information on how such situations would be addressed in a standardized manner.
Ms. SIMMS understood that it was a challenging situation when there was a close link between the Church and schools. However, Belize was a secular State, and she wondered whether the Government would consider establishing alternative programmes for pregnant girls. The secular State must make a determination that young pregnant girls must not be punished in the name of religion or value systems.
Second, on the issue of domestic violence, she said the Ministry’s research had contained curious findings, particularly that employed women were more at risk of violence than unemployed women. She wondered whether the Ministry was planning to clarify that situation.
To a question about what opportunities were being created by the Government for girls who became pregnant, a delegate cited a case of a Catholic nun who, 20 years ago, had opened a secondary school and decided to allow pregnant girls to stay and to enrol. However, there was a great need to evaluate the situation, acknowledging that there had been an absence of dialogue. “It is just simply a case of neglect and negligence on the part of both the Catholic school system and the Government”, but the expert’s suggestion was worth exploring.
The Department of Human Services investigated all charges of incest and child abuse, another delegate said. A referral system worked alongside the police department and the family or magistrates court. There was also a hotline for reporting such cases and there were preventive educational efforts under way. A final result could be the removal of the child from the home and placement in institutions and foster care. When the abuser was removed from the home, the child could remain there. There had been many reported cases, as well as convictions, but she suspected that many more went unreported.
On refugees and asylum seekers, she said that the Government had established a committee during the 1980s when there had been an influx of refugees from the Central American countries, but that committee had since been disbanded. The Department of Immigration worked closely with a non-governmental organization, which were in-country representatives from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The Department was also working closely with the representatives on trafficking.
Another delegate explained that there was a fully functioning legal aid office that women victims were free to access for legal advice and support in relation to representation. If a woman was unable to pay the small fee, her services would be free of charge. In terms of husbands failing to pay maintenance to their wives, efforts were ongoing to track them down. There was a long way to go to enforce the laws, but the national Gender-Based Violence Committee “has a lot of teeth” when it came to enforcement.
The head of the delegation, Ms. FLORES, said that the delegation had brought before the Committee its honest observations about the country’s accomplishments and shortcomings with regard to the Convention’s implementation. She was grateful for the informative and constructive dialogue, and pledged Belize’s continued commitment to effectively implementing the Convention, as well as the Government’s other international commitments. Belize would also continue to prepare its reports on time. The delegation would revisit some of the issues, with a view to positive action, as it had done with the Committee’s previous concluding comments and recommendations. She had taken particular note of a number of suggestions, including the need to strengthen efforts in the area of monitoring and evaluation, and to focus on the needs of the rural population.
Before adjourning the meeting, Acting Chairperson for Chamber A, Ms. GASPARD, said she had noted with great satisfaction the delegation’s final statement, stressing the need for the broad dissemination of the Committee’s concluding comments, especially among non-governmental organizations, Government agencies and elected officials.
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