18 June 1999


18 June 1999

Press Release


19990618 Experts Say Current Law Does Not Comply with 1979 Women's Convention; Particular Concern Expressed over Restrictive Abortion Laws, Women's Poverty

Nepal's laws must be brought in line with the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, said experts from the treaty-monitoring Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women this afternoon, as it completed consideration of Nepal's initial report.

Discriminatory legislation should be removed in order to instil formal equality, one Committee member said. At the same time, extensive public- awareness campaigns and human rights education programmes were needed to change mindsets. The situation of women in Nepal, characterized by extreme poverty and grave health concerns, was depressing, an expert said.

Several of the Committee's 23 women's rights experts expressed concern about Nepal's restrictive abortion law. According to proposed amended abortion bill, a married woman would require her husband's approval for an abortion and an unmarried woman the approval of her parents.

While abortion should not be a means of contraception, women's lives should not be endangered by unsafe or numerous births, an expert said. It was unacceptable that such large numbers of women were dying from abortions. Clearly, women would have abortions, and criminalizing it simply made the situation worse. Education must be a priority, combined with increased access to contraceptives.

Another expert cautioned against the tendency to blame problems on illiteracy and traditions, instead of on a lack of government commitment. With Nepal's vibrant non-governmental organization movement, and greater commitment from the Government, great improvements could be made, she said.

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As he responded to questions posed today and at an earlier meeting on Nepal's compliance with the Convention, the Secretary of Nepal's Ministry for Law and Justice, Terth Man Shakya, told the Committee that budget constraints and government instability had hindered efforts to make legislation neutral and direct funds for social programmes.

In wide-ranging comments directed to the concerns of Committee members, he said that some 200,000 Nepalese women were working in brothels in India. While the country was striving to address the situation, its borders were large and the problem was difficult to counter. To concerns about dowry, he said he had "no knowledge of dowry deaths in Nepal".

However, an expert said that dowry death was common throughout the region. It was a critical problem. Specific laws were required to address dowry. It was not just an issue of social behaviour, but a major cause of violence against women.

The Committee will meet again at 10 a.m. Monday, 21 June, to consider Ireland's compliance with the Convention.

Committee Work Programme

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this afternoon to continue its consideration of the initial report of Nepal (document CEDAW/C/NPL/1) on its implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The Government of Nepal was scheduled to respond to questions posed by the Committee following the presentation of Nepal's report on 15 June. (For further background on that report, see Press Releases WOM/1136 and WOM/1137 of 15 June.)

Responses from Nepal TERTH MAN SHAKYA, Secretary, Nepal's Ministry of Law and Justice, gave a historical overview of his country's political and legislative development. In 1963, Nepal's codified law -- then over 150 years old -- was amended, to remove provisions discriminating against caste and sex. However, discriminatory provisions remained regarding sex. Nepal was isolated, geographically and politically. Laws were amended in 1975 to remove discriminatory provisions, and attempts were made to make the legislative system more gender neutral. In 1990, the people's movement led to a parliamentary form of government, and Nepal ratified almost all human rights conventions.

For the next three years, great effort was expended in identifying discriminatory provisions in existing laws, he continued. Unfortunately, from 1994 to the present, there had been so many changes in the Government that consistency was difficult. While progress had been made in some areas, such as on torture, laws governing other issues, such as property rights, inheritance and succession, were discriminatory. In 1995, a separate ministry was created for women and social welfare.

He said the Supreme Court ordered the amendment of all discriminatory laws. The Government had prepared a bill to do that, with the help of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), but Parliament had dissolved last year and the bill became ineffective. The process would now have to start again. For that purpose, a task force had been formed in the Ministry of Women and Social Welfare. Already, it had identified discriminatory laws and was in the process of drafting a new law, which he expected would be passed, since the Government was now in majority.

He then turned to comments and questions posed by experts regarding trafficking in girls. He said Nepal's initial report indicated that about 100,000 Nepalese women were in Indian brothels, but the figure was now about 200,000. The phenomenon had begun decades ago, when women from hill areas had been brought to Katmandu as housemaids. When the feudal society fell apart in 1951, most of the employers migrated to India, bringing their housemaids with them. With reduced income, they had been unable to maintain such maids, so they turned them over to brothels. The problem had not been seriously addressed until 1975, the International Year for Women. Further, HIV/AIDS had drawn more attention to the problem.

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A new bill to control trafficking had been passed in 1986, he said, making trafficking punishable by up to 15 years imprisonment. But, the number of cases brought to the law was very low, primarily because the women involved were illiterate and unable to manoeuvre in the legal system. Trafficking had not stopped with that bill, but rather had increased. He drew attention to the convention on trafficking in girls and children, which was to be adopted at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit, to be held in Katmandu this month.

The Ministry of Women and Social Welfare had established women's self- reliance and rehabilitation centres, he said. Many NGOs were working in that field, as well. The police academy had implemented a programme to explain human rights. Government and NGO representatives were invited by the academy to lecture on human rights and children's rights.

He added that prostitution was increasing within Nepal, especially in the urban areas. Public awareness programmes had been launched with the help of NGOs to address the problem.

Regarding women's participation in politics and public life, he said that in the last Parliament, there had been seven women representatives in the House of Representatives and six in the National Assembly. In the current Parliament, there were 12 women in the House of Representatives. The Local Self-Governance Act made provisions for 20 per cent women's representation in local governments. For the purposes of administration, the country was divided into five development regions, which were further divided into districts, municipalities and village councils.

In 1998, the Civil Service Act was amended to provide more chances for women to enter that field, he said. About 7,000 of the over 98,000 civil servants in Nepal were women. Amendments to the Act included setting the age limit for entering the civil service for females at 40, while it was 35 for men. Also, women appointed to the service had a probation period of six months, while men had a period of one year. Another amendment provided 60 days of maternity leave for female civil servants.

The educational programme known as the Ninth Plan featured measures to promote education among women. Women represented 28 per cent of students enroled in higher education. The State provided free education up to the higher secondary level. By the end of the Ninth Plan, the Government hoped to introduce compulsory education up to the primary level. Free textbooks were given to both girls and boys up to the fifth grade. Various scholarships and prizes were offered to encourage the enrolment of girls in schools. Education would contribute to eliminating the "son preference" and other forms of discrimination against girls.

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During the past five years, the budget allocation for education had been 13 to 14 per cent of the national budget, of which 8 per cent was for basic and primary education, he continued. Nepal's annual budget was $1 billion, making it difficult for the Government to provide funds for the social sector without increasing revenue.

In the area of health, Nepal had started a safe motherhood project in 1993, which had been progressing with the support of donor assistance. So far, it had been implemented in 11 districts and would be extended to 14 more districts. The mobilization of grass-roots health-care personnel was a distinct feature of Nepal's health delivery system. Abortion was only allowed in cases where the mother's life was in danger. Otherwise, it was an offence and punishable under the law. There had been a bill in Parliament to liberalize abortion, but it did not pass. Currently, there was a new bill that was awaiting action.

Contraceptives were available in various areas, along with awareness- raising campaigns, he added. However, due to illiteracy and traditional social attitudes, the use of contraception was very low.

An expert had inquired about women's participation in the judiciary, he recalled. There were six women judges in district and appellate courts, but none on the Supreme Court. Regarding divorce, a women received alimony for five years, unless she married before then. The practice of dowry continued, with attendant problems. A question had been posed related to an unmarried single mother's entitlement to raise her girl children. The 1992 Children's Act made naming children the mother's right. Under section 10 of the Act, wherever the father's name was required for documentation, but unknown, the mother's name could be used instead.

He said the law did not prohibit unmarried single mothers from registering their children, but in practice administrators asked for the citizenship of the father. Government and NGOs were working to raise public awareness. To questions about the practice of having at least one female teacher per school, he explained that was designed to increase women's employment, rather than increase female enrolment.

Experts had asked about the proposed bill on abortion, he said. It was difficult for single unmarried mothers to have an abortion. The proposed bill was not in line with the women's rights Convention. A married woman required her husband's approval for abortion, and an unmarried woman required her parents' approval.

Regarding violence and sexual harassment in the workplace, he said a labour act contained provisions for health and safety. Ninety per cent of women in income-generating work were concentrated in the agricultural sector. Others were in the lower grade civil service, and very few were in the

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industrial sector. To questions about mental health and substance abuse, including tobacco, he said Nepal had not addressed those issues. It would gather information and include that in its next report.

Marriage registration was not compulsory, he said. Registration was difficult because of Nepal's geographical situation. The country was landlocked. In three directions, it was "India-locked", and in one it was "China-locked". To prevent cross-border trafficking, a provision had been developed so that a man wishing to cross the border with a woman had to show a marriage certificate, but that was difficult to enforce. Thousands of persons crossed the borders every day. Registration at birth was gradually becoming the practice, and the Government was working to encourage the process.

The enactment of amendments to legislation depended not only on the Government, but was also on the prerogative of the legislature, he said. Now that Nepal had a majority Government, it was hoped that it would be easier to get bills passed in the Parliament than it had been in previous years. In the Cabinet of the last Government, the Deputy Prime Minister was a woman.

While polygamy was prevalent, it was now decreasing, he said. He agreed that the current punishment amounted to a mere "slap on the wrist". However, in the proposed bill currently in Parliament, imprisonment for polygamy would be raised to three years. The practice of dedicating girls to gods and goddesses was still prevalent, but decreasing. The Children's Act of 1992 prohibited the practice. In its attempts to eliminate the practice, the Government had different incentive packages, including scholarships for the families of such girls.

With regard to indigenous groups, particularly the Dalit community, he said that the Ministry of Local Development had economic packages for their development. Preparation was under way to table a bill in Parliament on the protection of Dalits. There were also various programmes being undertaken by the Ministry of Women and Social Welfare.

In the area of domestic violence, the Government was working with NGOs on a bill to address the issue, he said. Because Nepal was a traditional society, a lot of domestic violence was accepted by women. Thus, there were very few reported cases of domestic violence. So, in looking at the statistics, there did not seem to be a problem. In reality, it was a big problem. Illiteracy and poverty contributed to the problem, by making it difficult for women to come forward.

Experts' Comments

An expert stated that there were many discriminatory laws in Nepal, which contradicted the provisions of the Convention in such areas as inheritance, tenancy rights, nationality rights and abortion. Nepal had to

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begin to translate its obligations under the Convention into action, by first amending its discriminatory legislation. The Government had to take urgent action to pass amendment bills. Pretexts for non-action must not be allowed. The Supreme Court had to use its extrajudicial power to bring about the necessary changes. So far, the Supreme Court had only issued directive orders to amend discriminatory laws. That contradicted Nepal's obligations and further endorsed the patriarchal nature of Nepalese society. The Court had to take bolder steps to influence the thinking of its citizens.

The most serious problem in Nepal was poverty, she said. The country had limited arable land and natural resources. However, in the medieval period, Nepal had enjoyed a prosperous civilization through the transaction of commodities between India and Tibet. Therefore, Nepal's current poverty was man-made and due to factors such as overpopulation. Poverty was the root of other problems, including trafficking in women and girls.

She said that it was commendable that the Government had launched a basic and primary education programme to increase education among girls. At the same time, illiterate women were still systematically barred from vocational training. Despite the State's promise to promote education, the gender gap in education was glaringly evident. The State had to: introduce and enforce policies for free and compulsory education for all girls; review curricula for eliminating gender biases; provide vocational training; and increase women's access to non-traditional fields.

An expert said she sympathized with the women of Nepal, especially those of the reproductive age, who had to deal with poverty and serious problems concerning their reproductive health. The situation was quite depressing.

The Convention was basically for women, but it was clear that what happened to children very much affected women, she said. Based on the way abortion laws were implemented, there were a large number of women with children in jail. Did those children who, through no fault of their own, had to spend their lives in jail, have facilities for health and education? she asked. If they had to be in jail, at least their lives should be dignified.

The Committee had been told a task force was looking into establishing family courts, she noted. It should consider establishing children's courts, as well.

Another expert said there seemed to be awareness of the issues and problems relating to women, and efforts were being made to address them. The last 10 years had not been easy politically. She hoped the current Government would stay in power long enough for a number of bills to get passed.

Nepal's abortion laws were a serious concern, she said. The right of women and men to decide freely and independently on the number and spacing of

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their children was a human right. While the abortion bill currently being considered was a bit more liberal than existing law, it was not sufficient. Also, women's literacy rates must be raised, so they could understand contraceptives, and for that, money was needed. Abortion should not be a means of contraception, but neither should there be a situation where the lives of women were endangered by unsafe or too many births.

Women would have abortions, even if the practice was criminalized, she said. Criminalizing abortion simply made the situation worse. Women's lives had to be expanded, in economic and psychological terms. The situation must be addressed from several angles. She recommended that the Government seek international help for a campaign to make available a variety of contraceptive programmes that did not require literacy. For example, taking the birth control pill could be difficult for some women, because it required daily doses. In some cases, anti-fertility shots lasting months could be used. But, education must go hand in hand with those efforts.

Unless women were healthy and not forced to look after a large number of children, they would not be empowered economically, she said. Unless women were empowered economically, trafficking would continue. On abortion, she referred Nepal's Government to the human rights treaties and the world conferences, and encouraged it to take the matter very seriously.

An expert from the region said there was a tendency to blame problems on illiteracy, rather than on lack of government commitment. Poverty and problems with traditions were formidable, but they must be addressed pragmatically, rather than by blaming everything on illiteracy and tradition.

Dowry was a critical problem, she said. Nepal had a "loose and vague" social behaviour act, but a specific law was needed to address dowry, which was not just social behaviour, but a major cause of violence against women. "Dowry death" was a common term in that region.

Nepal's wide borders were concerns regarding trafficking and prostitution, she said, but the attitude towards low caste women and ethnic groups, and the practice of dedicating young girls to goddesses, were discriminatory and very cruel. Appropriate legislative measures were needed.

She suggested a two-pronged approach. Existing legislation should be reviewed, in order to remove discriminatory provisions and instil formal equality. Meanwhile, extensive public-awareness campaigns and human rights education programmes were needed to change the mindset, as well as change stereotyped male and female roles. Those were difficult tasks, but not impossible.

The Hindu religion had been presented as the cause of the traditions and social maladies, she noted. India was the seat of Hinduism, however, and it

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had many ethnic minority groups, languages and caste systems. Yet, by enacting and enforcing appropriate laws, that country had been able to remove many discriminatory practices. Nepal's vibrant NGO movement and its women activists were a source of strength for the country. With more commitment from the Government, the Committee should see great improvement when the next report was presented.

An expert said women suffered cruelly and in different ways from deeply rooted discrimination in Nepal. Decisions must be taken at the government level to transform legislation and practices. Political will must be reflected in concrete actions. Programmes must be applied to confront cultural traditions existing in the country. Awareness must be raised among all who exercised influence in the communities, including health and media professionals and teachers, both men and women.

An expert noted the goodwill on the part of the Government, but said it lacked the political will to change the situation. In the twentieth century, it was unacceptable to have high numbers of women dying due to abortion. The Government had a great deal of work to do in the future. She was shocked to hear that women did not complain when they were raped. No human being could accept violence happily, she said. While Nepal's economic constraints were understandable, she emphasized that if Nepal considered women fundamental for progress, then a great deal would change.

Anther expert said she understood the difficulties the Government had encountered. Deep-seated traditions could not be reformed immediately. She asked if there were any long-term projects to improve the situation of rural women. Women were the majority of workers in rural areas. A great deal needed to be done to relieve their poverty and improve their situation. She suggested that a long-term project be devised to improve their situation. Also, when the budget allotted funds to members of Parliament, a certain portion of those funds should be used for rural women's projects.

Mr. SHAKYA, Secretary, Ministry of Law and Justice, said that NGOs had actively participated in the preparation of both the initial report and the subsequent addendum. He agreed that legislation was not in line with the Convention. Changing discriminatory laws should take priority and needed a time frame. Education and the elimination of poverty were crucial for the development of women and society as a whole. While there were programmes for vocational training for women, they were not spread throughout the country.

Nepal had been isolated both geographically and politically for many years, he said. Road linkages with India and China had only been established in the 1960s. In 1960, there was only one university in Nepal, and many males used to go to India for higher education. In 1990, Nepal had a new Constitution and opened its doors to the world. Nepal was the only country in South Asia that had ratified all the major human rights instruments without any reservations. The

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numerous changes in Government had been one of the reasons why it could not keep its commitments under the Convention. Admittedly, Nepal was on a slow track -- not an express -- to progress, but it had, nevertheless, not yet been derailed.

In regard to health, he said that there had only been one hospital in Nepal until 1960. Being such a traditional society, it was difficult to reach out to its people. For example, television and radio were being used to raise awareness about contraception, but it was not possible to reach all segments of the population in that way. There was a hesitation to use contraception on the part of women, because it was not something they were used to. Even with a liberal abortion law, implementation would be difficult, and women would continue to be victims.

The family court was in its drafting stage, he continued. A provision had been made for juvenile courts under the Children's Act. There were 75 districts in Nepal, and in each district, there was one court with one judge to look after all matters -- criminal and civil. It was difficult to run those 75 district courts with the existing resources.

He added that he had no knowledge of dowry deaths in Nepal, but said that dowry was prevalent in the southern part of the country. In conclusion, he said that NGOs were doing much more to raise awareness of various issues than the Government. The new Government definitely had the political will to change and improve the situation of Nepalese women.

An expert put forward several suggestions to the delegation. First, it was necessary to include the proper definition of discrimination in the relevant laws. Second, discriminatory laws inconsistent with the Convention should be urgently amended, and strong political will was needed for that to take place. Third, gender-sensitization programmes needed to be provided for all law enforcement officials. Fourth, bilateral dialogue between sending and receiving countries had to be initiated to address the problem of trafficking in women and girls.

To combat poverty, more income-generation projects and employment programmes had to be established, she continued. The Government should also consider punitive measures for parents who did not send their daughters to schools, in an effort to increase education for females. Lastly, abortion had to be legalized and services for safe abortion provided.

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For information media. Not an official record.