9 July

Press Briefing


bcedaw.gif (56090 bytes) UN/DPI Photo by Milton Grant The draft optional protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women was a "path-breaking effort" that would enable individuals to bring their complaints of gender discrimination to the United Nations, the Deputy Director of the United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women told correspondents at a Headquarters briefing today.

Kristen Timothy was joined by the Chairperson of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Salma Khan, of Bangladesh, as well as by the Vice-Chairperson, Miriam Estrada of Ecuador, and a third Committee member, Hanna Beate Schopp-Schilling, of Germany.

The 23-member expert Committee, which monitors implementation of the Convention, was expected to conclude its nineteenth session on Friday with the adoption of a report that included recommendations to eight countries for improving the status of women.

Ms. Timothy said that the Division for the Advancement of Women was actively working on the Convention's optional protocol. Meanwhile, the Committee represented the unique space at the United Nations for examining issues of sex discrimination and the empowerment of women. Indeed, the United Nations had been a leader in bringing women together through the Committee and through world conferences to share their experiences.

She said there was growing interest not only in women's political and civil rights, which had been fought actively in the developed countries for more than 100 years, but also in women's economic and social rights. Despite such attention, the "judiciability" of those rights posed a difficult question. The Convention was being applied in some countries by courts attempting to address both civil and political rights, as well as economic and social rights. In many developed countries, for example, there was a growing concern by women who worked in the home eager to receive the same benefits as women in the workplace. The Committee had discussed those kinds of issues and had offered suggestions to countries for addressing such key concerns.

Ms. Khan, Committee Chairperson, said the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights provided an opportunity to reflect on efforts to root out gender discrimination. It had been 20 years since the Convention entered into force, following 30 years of hard work, and it had come to be considered an international bill of rights for women. Ratifications had so far been made by 161 countries, but the goal of universal ratification by the year 2000 remained elusive.

She said that during the current session, the Committee had considered two initial reports from Slovakia and South Africa, and six periodic reports from Panama, United Republic of Tanzania, Nigeria, Peru, Republic of Korea and

New Zealand. Positive trends included a significant improvement in legislative measures in most of the countries, particularly concerning laws that address violence against women. The national machinery for the advancement of women had been strengthened in many cases, and notable efforts had been made to remove stereotypes from educational curriculums. Greater emphasis was also afforded the use of temporary special measures aimed at accelerating gender equality, and the improved working relationship between governments and non-governmental organizations had produced some valuable information.

Among the Committee's major concerns was the adverse impact of political transition and economic restructuring on the status of women, she went on. Traditional practices and customary laws persisted, as well as a re-emergence of cultural practices that emphasized women's motherhood and family roles to the detriment of their other roles. Other major concerns included increased violence against women, a widening wage gap, even in countries where women were better educated than men such as Panama and the Republic of Korea, as well as such pertinent reservations to the Convention as those concerning legislative and marriage rights.

She drew attention to the conflict in some countries between their new, progressive legislation and the deeply rooted customary and religious laws that impeded women's advancement. In African countries, such as the United Republic of Tanzania and Nigeria, where most of the discriminatory laws had been repealed, a strong emphasis on customary laws and practices like polygamy and female genital mutilation remained. A woman who did not subject herself or her daughter to genital mutilation, for example, might worry that she was not performing her obligation to society. Such views were also held by the policy makers.

Ms. Schopp-Schilling, expert from Germany, agreed that the co-existence of customary and religious laws with the so-called statutory laws, particularly in the African countries under discussion, had created conflict. In those cases, men chose whichever law suited them. The contradictions were particularly evident in questions of marriage, and inheritance rights. In countries comprising many ethnic tribes, customary inheritance laws might strip a widow of her possessions and award them to her brother-in-law. While the statutory law clearly ruled against such practices, the custom in the country permitted it.

The other alarming factor was the increase in trafficking in women, especially prevalent in Asian countries, central and eastern European countries and in the migration from Central and Latin American countries to Europe, she said. The legislation protecting women against violence revealed the extent of the "great hidden violence" against them, often exacerbated in countries in economic and political transition.

Women's Rights Press Conference - 3 - 9 July 1998

Ms. Estrada, expert from Ecuador, said that if the Latin American countries wanted to fight poverty and non-development, they had to incorporate women as equal partners towards building a new, non-violent culture of development and equality. In the current session, the Governments of Peru and Panama had voiced the realization of the need to combat violence against women and incorporate them into the political decision-making process. Indeed, the Governments of Ecuador, Panama, Argentina and Colombia had done so. However, given the prevalence of such problems in Latin America, as well as the lack of awareness of the Convention, its ratification without reservation had not led to its implementation.

Asked for details concerning the forced sterilization of the gypsy women in Slovakia, Ms. Schopp-Schilling confirmed the practice, and added that the Committee had asked the Government to provide specific information in its next report. The experts did not know the extent of the practice, which had been alleged by a non-governmental organization. While information by non- governmental organizations was most welcome, the experts had to be very careful about their assessment of the problem.

Ms. Estrada added that the Committee had unofficial information about the sterilization of indigenous Peruvian women. Those women were taking that step without knowing the consequences, which represented a kind of violence against them. The Committee members had asked the Government to provide the women with the information they needed to make an informed decision.

Another correspondent asked how the Committee planned to address deeply rooted customs, particularly in African countries. Ms. Schopp-Schilling said it was a matter of education and enlightenment and of codifying customary laws. The Committee asked such countries to start addressing the issue and assessing the extent to which those laws violated the Convention. Their ratification of the Convention was an expression of their will to implement it. While implementation was gradual, the Committee sought an awareness of the existing contradictions between traditional and religious laws and the Articles of the Convention.

The issue of genital mutilation, for example, was complex because women themselves were involved in the practice, including older women for whom the practice was a key source of income and represented their only training. Those women had to be educated and retrained, perhaps as birth attendants or healers. It was not simply a matter of putting those women out of business, as they were practising what they thought was a part of their culture.

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