3 February 1999


3 February 1999

Press Release


19990203 Government Commitment to Women During Struggle To Rebuild Country among Issues Stressed

While Colombian women played an enormous role in the daily life of the country, stark differences between the lives of men and women existed, according to a videotape produced by Colombia's Office of the National Director of Equity for Women, shown as part of that country's presentation to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.

The 23-member expert body, which monitors compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, heard that although Colombian women were essential to the country's development and had made significant strides over the last few years, they still faced discrimination. The large majority of them lived under fair or extremely poor conditions, and they headed some 36 per cent of internally displaced families. In addition, there had been a 13 per cent increase in domestic violence against women from 1996 to 1997. Yet, change was promised through the achievement of general equality and social reconstruction.

The Director of the National Office of Equity for Women, Elsa Gladys Cifuentes, emphasized the Government's commitment to women, as it struggled to rebuild the country. Through its National Development Plan, it had sought to reverse impediments to women's societal role. The new Constitution of 1991 had enshrined the equality of men and women as a fundamental right, leading to the creation of a culture of human rights. New policies had been formulated and gender-related information had been disseminated as part of the Government's strategy to prioritize human rights, especially women's rights.

The policy of the People's Defender had been based on the premise that sexual discrimination was the basis of the "deplorable conditions" in which most Colombian women still lived, she said. Incorporating a gender perspective into that policy had flowed from the findings of the 1993 United Nations World Conference on Human Rights. A number of government ministries had also devised action plans to implement the Beijing Declaration and

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Platform for Action. A new development plan entitled "Change to Build for Peace" would include gender-equality in efforts to improve the "alarming position of poverty". A credit lending scheme had been approved -- the first in Latin America to support income for women and reduce the barriers which kept them out of certain sectors.

Ms. Cifuentes also drew attention to recent efforts by the Office of Rural Women of the Ministry of Agriculture to assist women and rural family victims of armed conflict. In light of the growing problem of their displacement as a result of intensified armed conflict, that Office had incorporated into its action plans a "Pilot Plan for Integrated Attention to Rural Women Displaced by Violence". Its priorities would be determined according to a national map of violence indicating the zones from which the people were being displaced and the zones to which they were travelling.

The Permanent Representative of Colombia to the United Nations, Alfonso Valdivieso, said that the international community was the Government's natural partner in improving the situation of Colombian women. He attached great importance to the opportunity to discuss the achievements, as well as the obstacles facing Colombia's implementation of policies for gender equality.

The Committee will meet again at 3 p.m. today to conclude its consideration of Colombia's fourth periodic report.

Committee Work Programme

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this morning to consider Colombia's compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. It had before it Colombia's fourth periodic report (document CEDAW/C/COL/4), submitted in accordance with article 18 of the Convention. That article provides for States parties to submit reports on legislative, judicial, administrative and other measures adopted to give effect to the provisions of the Convention. (For further background on the session, see Press Release WOM/1076 of 15 January).

The present report updates the information on the lives of women in Colombia since 1991, the year in which the country's new Constitution came into force. It was prepared jointly by five consultants specializing in the various topics dealt with in the report, working under the leadership of the National Office for Equality for Women.

According to the report, the situation of Colombian women has undergone fundamental changes recently due to the adoption of the new National Constitution and an economic development model based on the globalization of the economy. Recent policies on equality for women and the creation of specialized State agencies to promote and apply those policies has also contributed to those changes. The improvements in the situation of women have been due more to far-reaching policies for the country's democratization and modernization than to specific policies for the achievement of equality.

Although the changes over the past five years have taken place against a backdrop of good economic performance, Colombia has an extremely unequal regional distribution of income, and half of the population has been left untouched by the benefits of modernization, states the report. Equality for women is one of the seven social development strategies within the 1994-1998 National Development Plan, the "Social Leap Forward". However, the translation of the strategy of equality for women into programmes and social services is being affected by the current economic slowdown.

The report states that important social laws have been enacted on education, social security, dissolution of religious marriage and protection of women heads of household, as well as more recent laws designed to prevent and punish violence in the family. All of this legislation implies a direct or potential benefit for Colombia's women. Some of the main advances in legal equality include the incorporation of the legal equality of men and women in the 1991 Constitution, with special measures to help groups suffering discrimination or marginalization, pregnant women and women heads of households. Women also have political rights on an equal footing with men, and enjoy equality with respect to freedom of movement, and the acquisition,

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loss and restoration of nationality and transmission of nationality to children.

Despite the advances made in legislation, the report states, various kinds of obstacles to the effective application of this legislation persists. They include: the enormous gaps in the establishment and functioning of machinery to monitor and control the application of laws; the existence of cultural factors such as patriarchal attitudes; the failure to adequately inform women of their rights; and the poorly developed legal and social culture of affirmative action, which is still viewed suspiciously as a form of discrimination.

Colombia has made considerable progress in creating institutions to deal with women's and gender issues in application of the Convention and fulfilment of other international commitments, the report states. One of those institutions is the National Office for Equality for Women, a top-level Government agency responsible for coordinating activities to promote the equality and participation of women. Another example is the National Advisory Commission on Equality and Participation, a body drawn from high-level civil servants and representatives of women's organizations, which advises the President of the Republic. Some of the difficulties encountered by these bodies in carrying out policies to secure equality for women are the shortage of human and financial resources, and the lack of personnel specializing in women's issues.

According to the report, since 1990, successive Governments have drawn up specific policies for women which have been approved by the National Economic and Social Policy Council, the country's principal policy-making body. The Government, which came to power in 1994, established the policy for equality and participation of women. That policy was not only approved by the National Council, but also incorporated in the National Development Plan and converted into law, thus demonstrating the State's firm political intention to promote the equality of women in the economic, political, social and cultural spheres.

However, the report states that in practice, progress in policy formulation is impeded by many difficulties which stem from the State itself, threaten the effectiveness of its political intention and impair the implementation of the programmes. They include the lack of political will on the part of central and local agencies to accept and support the programmes, and the embryonic nature of the culture of institutional support for equality and equity.

The report states that the 1990s have seen many improvements for women in the field of education. The tendency for more women to enrol in the various levels of education has been maintained. The trend towards employment of more women teachers in the initial levels has continued, but the proportion

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of women declines through the levels up to higher education. Gender stereotypes have a strong influence on vocational options, but this influence is declining, as can be seen from the enrolment figures for the various special subjects of secondary and higher education.

In the area of health, the report states that in 1995, the life expectancy of women was 72.3 years, an increase of 10 years over the last three decades. Major improvements have been made in the regulations governing health and social security, and on decentralization, which provided for the transfer of health and education resources from the State to the municipalities. Colombia was also making efforts to help women, particularly working women, with child care.

Women have made some significant progress with respect to urban employment, according to the report. They participate in the globalization of the economy, and have overcome many problems of inequality with men. Despite those advances, the proportion of women employed in low-status jobs such as domestic servant is over 50 percent and rising. More women than men are taking new jobs, but there has been no improvement in the quality of jobs obtained. The proportion of women in the economically inactive population remains constant at about 70 percent. While employed women are showing significant improvements in their standard of education, those improvements have not been matched by gains in terms of employment. In addition, the wide gap between legislation and social practice is illustrated by the difficulties encountered by pregnant workers, in the limited access of women to better-paid jobs and in the salary differentials which persist between men and women. Cultural factors rooted in the division of labour by sex continues to impose a double day's work on women workers.

Rural women are at a disadvantage vis-à-vis rural men and urban women, according to the report. They are among the country's poorest people; bear heavy work burdens and receive low pay; work long days; have poor qualifications; suffer more problems of unemployment; and are one of the most vulnerable social groups in the situation of agrarian crisis, violence and armed conflict in Colombia. In recent years, there is a broader political consensus that rural women are a group requiring special attention, which has led to the approval of specific policies and laws which mention women as direct beneficiaries. However, the cover is still very limited in terms of services and access to resources.

There has been little change in the situation of women in the area of politics and public life during the 1990s, the report states. Against the backdrop of Colombia's high abstention rate, many women do actually vote, but only a very small number of women are elected. In the last two presidential elections, 30 of the candidates were women but only one of them obtained more than one per cent of the vote.

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According to the report, Colombia lives in an atmosphere of widespread conflict which makes it one of the most violent countries in the world. As a result, women are victims of various forms of violence and violation of their rights. Respect for human rights of women is becoming part of a broader human rights policy in Colombia, a country in which all possible fronts are open for human rights violations by guerrilla fighters, paramilitaries, the army, drug traffickers, and common criminals. As if that was not enough, the family constitutes another theatre of violence against women, one in which violence against women is not recognized as a violation of women's human rights.

Statement by Government

ALFONSO VALDIVIESO, Permanent Representative of Colombia to the United Nations, said that he attached great importance to the opportunity to discuss the achievements, as well as the obstacles, facing Colombia's implementation of policies for gender equality. The international community was the Government's natural partner in improving the situation of Colombian women. He said that first, the delegation would present a video showing pictures of the situation of Colombian women. Following that, they would highlight some of the progress made since July 1997, when they had submitted the report, and introduce the Government's responses to the questions posed by the experts in their pre-sessional working group.

The delegation then presented the video on the situation of Colombian women. The highlights of the video presentation were as follows:

-- Colombian women, representing 52.4 per cent of the population, constituted an essential group in the development of the country;

-- Reality showed a stark difference between men and women, differences which dramatically affected their quality of life;

-- While there had been significant accomplishments over the last few years, women were still discriminated against;

-- Cases of violence against women within families, in work places and in the streets had increased;

-- Women made up 81 per cent of all victims of domestic violence, an increase of 13 per cent from 1996 to 1997;

-- Data indicated that 36 per cent of internally displaced families were headed by women;

-- In 90 per cent of homes, it was women who did the house work regardless of whether or not they had jobs in the regular labour market;

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-- It was estimated that 94 per cent of all Colombian women in 33 regions lived under fair or poor health conditions;

-- The task of guiding and conducting a national gender equality policy had been assigned to the National Office of Equity for Women, an institution under the direct authority of the President; the mission of that Office was to represent the nation in domestic and international organizations, express the high concerns of the Government, and promote its policies concerning the participation of women and other sectors of civil society;

-- With equity for women, equality of opportunities and the reconstruction of the social context, women would bring about change.

Introduction of Report

ELSA GLADYS CIFUENTES, Director of the National Office of Equity for Women, introduced her country's report. She reiterated the current Government's commitment to achieving equity for Colombian women, as it sought to rebuild the country. In devising a national development plan, the Government sought to follow through with its commitment to women's equality, and see to it that women's role in all areas of society was not impeded by discrimination or inequity.

Regarding articles 1 to 3, she said that the Colombian Constitution enshrined the equality of men and women as a fundamental right. In the last eight years, a culture of human rights had been created and normative strides taken, including the adoption of a law, which stiffened the punishment for sexual crimes. The tutela had become the major judicial tool for women to defend their rights in Colombia, and its use had been advocated and publicized through the media, as well as governmental and non-governmental organizations. The National Office had organized events and campaigns to disseminate information to women on their rights. The Government had given high priority to human rights -- especially women's rights -- in its policies.

A number of government ministries had devised action plans to follow through with the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, she said. The credit lending scheme of the International Development Bank was the first in Latin America to support income for women and reduce the barriers which kept them out of certain sectors. In creating its current national development plan, "Change to Build Peace", the Government had invited various women's groups to contribute to the process to ensure that equity for women was incorporated into the Plan. There was also the Office of Rural Women under the Ministry of Agriculture, which designed policies to help rural women. Also, the national planning department continued to have a gender-related office, which played an important role in informing women of their rights.

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Turning to article 4, use of temporary measures to accelerate de facto equality, she said steps had been taken to protect pregnant women in the work place. For example, the firing of pregnant women was prohibited. The Constitutional Court had also sought to ensure that the rights of spouses would not be undermined in any way.

With regard to article 5, sex roles and stereotypes, she said there had been a focus on moving forward with the process of sensitizing the public and eliminating stereotypes in school textbooks. Most of the illiterate women were in the countryside, and there was an attempt to promote educational programmes, especially in those areas.

She said that violence against women had gained increased visibility, particularly with the adoption of Law 360, which criminalized sexual violence. The Government had also devised a national plan to combat family violence. Since the family was the building block of society, it had to be protected to the utmost. Armed conflict posed a grave threat to the population, especially to women. The country was experiencing political violence and a human rights crisis that could not be compared to that in any other democratic State. The problems included torture, massacres and forced disappearances, all of which had forced thousands to flee from their homes. They usually ended up in urban areas and in slums in the major cities, areas where it was difficult for them to meet their most basic needs.

The process of registering displaced persons was a slow one, she continued. The country currently had over 367,000 displaced persons, only 17 per cent of whom had identification. That also attested to the fact that rural women were less able to exercise their rights to citizenship. Given the seriousness of the political violence and the displacement problem, the Government had realized that it had a responsibility to prevent displacement and assist the affected population. A number of decrees had been adopted, including a law which offered a legal and political framework for action, and a criteria on how to deal with displaced women. The Office of Rural Women in the Ministry of Agriculture had been active in helping rural women and their families in situations of armed conflict. In 1999, the Office had implemented programmes to help women and families return to their homes and establish some form of socio-economic stability.

Turning to article 6, prostitution and trafficking in women, she said that the penalties for procurement under the Criminal Code had increased in severity. There were specialized units in the special prosecutor's office and an institutional body designed to deal with trafficking in women and girls. The national police had been working on a programme for the gradual elimination of child prostitution.

Regarding article 7, women in political and public life, she said that

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women's participation had increased at the national level, while it had dropped at the local level. Only 5.4 per cent of municipal board members were women, and women had not exceeded 15 per cent of the positions in public office. However, there had been an increase in the number of women in the Senate. In the Trade Union Federation of Colombia, out of the 150,000 members, 57,000 were women. In many sectors, the presence of women in leadership levels was minimal. There was no discrimination with respect to nationality as men and women had the same rights.

In education, though progress had been made in implementing the Convention, women overall were still at a low educational level. Boys performed better in schools, and that might be attributed to certain cultural factors. The Government had tried to emphasize education for rural women. In addition, it devised teacher training programmes to examine sexist stereotypes in schools. In the area of employment, in the metropolitan areas, women's participation in employment had been 51 per cent in December 1997, one of the highest in Latin America. There had been some positive trends in the labour market. Women had quickly increased their share in the job market since 1990. Out of every 100 new jobs in the urban areas, 55 went to women.

Turning to article 12, women and health, she said that the life expectancy of Colombian women was 73.2 years, which was a significant increase from the 1985 level of 71 years. Also, significant progress had been made in the attempt to reduce the maternal mortality rate by 50 per cent. Sexual reproductive health was promoted and had been placed on the national agenda. There was also expanded coverage for pre-natal care. The media had been used to educate and inform people on maternal health and disease prevention.

With regard to article 13, she said that women had made strides in access to job training, and special job promotion programmes had been established. Through the national social security network, subsidies had been established for students and dependent children of women who were heads of households. The point of many programmes had been to meet women's needs in regard to access to resources.

She said that, regarding articles 15 and 16, there had been no major modifications since submission of the last report.

Replies by Government

Members of the Colombian delegation then replied to questions posed by Committee experts following the meeting of their pre-sessional working group from 11 to 15 January. Highlights of those replies follow, in the order in which the questions were asked:

[The delegation included the Permanent Representative of Colombia to the United Nations, Alfonso Valdivieso; Director of the National Office of Equity

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for Women, Elsa Gladys Cifuentes; Adviser, Foreign Affairs Ministry, Ruby Montano; Adviser to the President, Guido Bonilla; and government expert, Beatriz Linares].

-- The National Action Plan had incorporated into its policy guidelines the Fourth World Conference in Beijing;

-- The New Development Plan entitled "Change to Build for Peace" had been designed to improve the "alarming position of poverty", with a basic objective of equity;

-- As yet, the Government had not fully assessed the impact of the earthquake in the "coffee belt" on the allocation of resources and the Government's action plans;

-- Under an employment programme to stimulate the economy through macro- economic policy, there was a technological training programme for women;

-- The Social Solidarity Network was a presidential programme which channelled aid to the poorest sectors of the population; presently, its action plans were being reviewed;

-- The National Office of Equity for Women, created under the Development Plan of the previous Government, was the guiding body for the policy of equity;

-- Publication of the law relating to family violence had been widely distributed;

-- To celebrate 40 years of women's suffrage in Colombia, a book on the human rights of women had been published and disseminated, and another had been produced on laws and jurisprudence defending women's rights;

-- Priority had been given to the elimination of institutions and cultural barriers which had impeded the defence and protection of women's rights;

-- The Office of Equity for Women had concentrated its action on the mass media, in order to sensitize the media to public policy on equity for women in Colombia;

-- The Office of the People's Defender had a National Complaints Office for women whose rights had been threatened;

-- The policy of the People's Defender had been based on a gender perspective and had recognized that women's and girl's rights were an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of the universal basic rights and

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freedoms incorporated into the 1993 United Nations World Conference on Human Rights; that policy was based on the premise that sexual discrimination was the basis of the "deplorable conditions" in which most Colombian women still lived;

-- The Government had approached the problem of women from a political standpoint, which reflected the relationships of power and subordination between men and women in Colombia;

-- Women were not a vulnerable group in themselves; their vulnerability derived from the position and condition of their gender, as well as the allocation and the social value which the culture had assigned them;

-- The Office of the People's Defender had taken priority action for the most vulnerable women's groups, including prisoners, victims of armed conflict, family and sexual violence, sexual exploitation, and women heads of households; that Office was working on specific actions based on the assumption that the problem of women could not be treated in an isolated marginal manner;

-- In that context, an analysis must be made of the general problems of human rights from a gender perspective in the areas of violence in the home, sexual aggression, employment discrimination; the feminization of poverty; discrimination in public life; sexual and reproductive rights, and so forth;

-- Work had begun in 1997 on a pilot programme for equitable territorial planning, aimed at influencing development and investment plans in both rural and urban areas;

-- The National Planning Department, the National Planning Council and the Ministry of Agriculture were working on a training process to provide rural women with a greater technical capacity;

-- Although the 1991 Constitution had contemplated the possibility of special legislation as positive actions, none of the bills which established quotas for women had been approved;

-- The only special and temporary measures for Colombia women were those which protected pregnant women at work, deeming that a three-month maternity leave was obligatory for all public and private sector employees (one week of that license might be used by the father, and a pregnant women might not be dismissed);

-- In the last two years, the principal government action aimed at eliminating stereotypes had been concentrated on education;

-- In 1996, the Committee for Non-Sexist Education had been created; among its objectives was the elimination of sexist content from school books

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and the provision of technical advice to the Education Ministry to eliminate sexism in schools;

-- With the growing percentage of illiterate women in the rural sector, national educational policies clearly needed to contain a gender perspective;

-- In the face of serious levels of forced displacement due to violence, the Colombian Government had recognized the complexity of the problem, as well as its responsibility for preventing displacement and attending to the affected population;

-- That humanitarian commitment had materialized through the formulation of a public policy;

-- The 1998 National Plan for Attention to the Displaced Population had proposed a provision of special and preferential attention to women, widows, and women heads of household, and the stimulation of women's participation in decision-taking;

-- The norms regulating access to the Agrarian Reform and Rural Development System would be broadened by deeming that a displaced peasant woman head of household could qualify for benefit and receive the maximum rating as an applicant for land-allocation programmes;

-- Government offices were working together on a special programme for humanitarian attention to pregnant and nursing women, which included housing;

-- Displaced women seeking employment in the cities would have priority access to the student training programme and technical courses;

-- The Social Solidarity Network had coordinated notarial offices for the registration of births in the civil registry and had coordinated identity documents for displaced persons;

-- The set of measures to develop legislation to aid the displaced population, in particular displaced women, was evidently deficient and had had little impact on the situation of displacement in which thousands of families were living;

-- Since 1996, the Office of Rural Women of the Ministry of Agriculture had been focusing in different parts of the country on assisting women and rural families involved in armed conflict, aimed at strengthening their identity and encouraging their participation in social, economic and cultural reconstruction;

-- In light of the growing problem of displacement of rural families as a consequence of the intensification of armed conflict, that Office had

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incorporated into its action plans a "Pilot Plan for Integrated Attention to Rural Women Displaced by Violence", which defined its focus according to a national map of violence both in zones from which the population was being displaced and zones which received them;

-- Thus, the policy relating to the displaced population in the short term had intended to provide appropriate humanitarian care for those who had been forced by conflict to abandon their homes, thereby facilitating their return to their places of origin or their settlement in the community with ways and means of living "a dignified life";

-- With regard to the voluntary return home of displaced persons, that policy sought to generate such incentives as identifying property rights, including the return of land to their former possessors or the inclusion of those former possessors as beneficiaries of the agrarian reform;

-- A National Plan for Prevention of and Attention to Violence in the Family sought to address family issues, including the incidence of family violence;

-- That Plan had six lines of action, including training and formation, strengthening of networks; family guidance, and integrated attention for families suffering from violence in the home, as well as counselling and follow-up;

-- There were 272 family commissions located throughout the country which specialized in family matters;

-- A law concerning sexual violence between spouses had defined that behaviour as an offence, and had considered that the sexual liberty of a spouse might not be diminished by the fact of a marriage;

-- There were nearly 60,000 children on the streets country-wide in situations of risk; a plan of action had been drawn up for the preventive care of boys, girls and adolescents who lived on the street in order to obtain the greater participation of institutions and society in general; using a model promoted by the World Health Organization (WHO), an analysis project was being developed in order to improve life conditions of street children;

-- Despite the lack of statistics, the incidence of homicides committed under so-called "social cleansing" during 1994 and 1995 had been sporadic and had not reflected generalized or systematic violent behaviour;

-- While there were no specific programmes in Colombia to make women aware of the consequences of drug trafficking, considering the violence which had recently "swept across Colombia" due to drug trafficking, the risks were public knowledge;

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-- There were no centres in Colombia which took into account gender differences in providing care for drug addiction;

-- In the area of trafficking of women and girls, the principal activity had been the start-up of the Inter-institutional Committee to combat such activity in women, girls and boys;

-- That Committee had so far consolidated international support networks in police forces through the services of the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) and had proposed a method to create a data base on cases under investigation; it had also taken up the task of sensitizing the public and the authorities with regard to those offenses, thereby speeding up legislative processes;

-- Under the National Police Code, prostitution was not illegal; however, exploitation of and inducement to enter prostitution was criminal, as was trafficking in women;

-- The police had received training on legislation protecting women and, thus, indirectly, on the Women's Convention;

-- An integrated programme to address minors engaged in prostitution had included the voluntary admission of boys, girls and young people into a temporary home, and then to therapeutic protection homes for attention to other needs such as drug addiction and alcoholism, or to permanent homes for those who had decided to change their way of life;

-- The programme, which was achieving excellent results, was aimed at, among other goals, controlling public establishments, identifying minors and placing them in protection organizations, and launching campaigns and community education;

-- Since 1995, the Bogota Police had engaged in a programme entitled "For life and hope" which had sought to provide alternative lifestyles to prostitutes;

-- Turning to public life, the large proportion of voters were women, yet no signs of self-confidence stemmed from that fact, nor had it been possible to rally women's support and solidarity behind other women;

-- One exception had been the remarkable voting percentage obtained by a female presidential candidate and another congressional candidate.

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For information media. Not an official record.