21 June 1999


21 June 1999

Press Release



Experts Welcome Ireland's Review of Reservations to Convention; Also Ask for Data on Wide Range of Issues, Including Women and Poverty

Ireland had elected its second successive female president, yet its women were still constricted by cultural and social values, a representative of that country told the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women this morning, as it took up Ireland's combined second and third report.

In 1997, four of five presidential candidates had been women, Bernard McDonagh, Second Secretary, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, went on. Yet even in political life, there were compelling structural and attitudinal obstacles to women's participation and equality.

The number of women in parliament remained less than what was needed to ensure balanced participation, he told the 23-expert Committee, which monitors compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The reasons for that lack ranged from difficulties with reconciling family life and paid work to the ongoing reluctance of political parties to select women candidates.

Ireland was experiencing an economic boom that was in itself positively addressing the obstacles to women's participation in the labour force, he said. Women's participation in the labour force was approximately 40 per cent and rising. The Government was exploring family friendly policies involving childcare, term-time work -- by which employees could take unpaid leave during school holidays -- and work sharing arrangements. A European Union Directive to prevent discrimination against part-time workers -- most of whom were women -- would be implemented by January 2000.

Women's Anti-Discrimination Committee - 1a - Press Release WOM/1142 440th Meeting (AM) 21 June 1999

Noting Ireland's high employment rate and economic growth, a Committee member asked whether the Government intended to "genderproof" its budget. The Committee had heard about initiatives, but they would require funding, another expert said. Did the Government allocate resources according to need, and if so, how did it make such determinations, and how were the needs of women viewed in that regard? she asked.

Several Committee members noted Ireland's efforts to comply with the Convention. They welcomed recent legislative reform and the State's ongoing review of its reservations. Many said not enough concrete information had been provided on the practical impact of policies and programmes, and on the real status of women in Ireland. They asked for data on a wide range of issues, including women and poverty, efforts to eliminate stereotypes and the situation of rural women.

The Committee was also addressed this morning by Vera Kelly, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Maureen Bohan, Department of Education and Science; Chris Fitzgerald, Department of Health and Children; and Tim Quirke, Department of Social Family and Community Affairs. Ireland's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Richard Ryan, introduced his country's delegation.

The Committee will meet again at 3 p.m. today to continue its consideration of Ireland's compliance with the Convention.

Women's Anti-Discrimination Committee - 2 - Press Release WOM/1142 440th Meeting (AM) 21 June 1999

Committee Work Programme

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this morning to begin its consideration of the second and third periodic reports of Ireland (document CEDAW/C/IRL/2-3), submitted under article 18 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. 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.

The report documents what it calls "enormous improvement" over the past 25 years in the de jure and de facto equality of women in Irish society. That is attributable to three major factors: the growing worldwide consciousness of the rights of women; membership of the European Union and obligations deriving therein; and a young and well-educated population, ready and able to articulate its rights. Ireland's initial report had documented the legal, social and economic circumstances resulting from those factors. Specifically, the growing awareness of women of their own rights has produced some highly significant changes to the law as a result of constitutional test cases brought by women.

The report recalls that in 1993, a Cabinet Minister was appointed as the first-ever Minister for Equality and Law Reform, responsible for ensuring that equality becomes reality through institutional, administrative and legal reform. The Minister also coordinates Government policies relating to women. There is a current proposal to extend legislation prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of gender, marital and family status, sexual orientation, and so forth. Equal status legislation is also being prepared to prohibit discrimination in education, as well as to access to goods and services.

Moreover, the report notes that the Second (National) Commission on the Status of Women, established in 1990, proposed a major programme of reform which was presented to the Government in January 1993. That report points out that in order for women to achieve equality there must be power sharing and partnership at the domestic level as well as at the level of the wider community. The report drew a favourable response across the political spectrum and its recommendations will give impetus to many legal and administrative reforms.

In terms of enforcing the Convention, the report explains that Ireland's common law system, as it applies to compliance with international agreements, means that those agreements to which Ireland becomes a party are incorporated into domestic law through national legislation. In some cases, the entire contents of an international agreement have been transposed into domestic law. In others, it has been necessary to transpose only certain provisions or no provisions of an agreement if they are already incorporated. The provisions of the Women's Anti-Discrimination Convention are, for the most part, covered by the Irish Constitution, the report continues. Thus, the direct incorporation of the Convention into Irish law has not been adopted. Since its initial statement to the Committee, Ireland has acceded to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Ireland has also ratified both optional protocols to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The report recalls that upon examination of Ireland's initial report to the Committee in 1989, a question was raised concerning the effect of religion on family life. The predominant religion in Ireland is Roman Catholic. Ireland has a high (but declining) level of religious observance and a denominational system of education, and the influence of the Churches on attitudes "can be significant". The role of women in the Roman Catholic Church is a matter of interest and concern to an increasing number within that Church.

According to the report, submissions made to the Second (National) Commission on the Status of Women indicated that many women feel that the Churches have not realized their responsibilities towards them. The decline in the Irish birth rate and the fall in the size of completed families indicates the extent to which couples are controlling their own fertility, despite Roman Catholic teaching which prohibits all forms of artificial contraception. The separation between Church and State is reflected in areas where social legislation is brought forward independently of the stated position of Churches.

Reviewing the country's implementation of the articles of the Convention, the report details activities undertaken to comply with article 16, concerning discrimination against women in matters relating to marriage and family relations. A 1989 law made it possible to obtain the judicial separation of a marriage. This can be obtained on wider grounds with substantially improved provision for dependent spouses and children. A spouse may now apply for a judicial separation on any number of grounds, including that the other spouse has behaved in such a way that the applicant cannot reasonably be expected to live with the other spouse, or the marriage has broken down to the extent that a normal marital relationship has not existed between the spouses for a period of at least one year immediately preceding the date of the application.

Prior to 1989, the powers of the court in divorce in support of a spouse or dependent children were very limited, the report states. Under the new Act, the court was given wide powers to order financial relief, including the transfer of property, such as the family home, between the spouses and to dependent children. While a judicial separation decree makes it no longer obligatory for the spouses to cohabit, it does not legally end the marriage and, accordingly, does not permit remarriage. A 1995 family law, however, empowers the court to deal with the financial consequences of a judicial separation and extends those powers to cases where a foreign decree of divorce or separation is entitled to recognition in the State.

The report states that, among other things, the act empowers the courts, for the first time, to make appropriate financial provision for the protection and support of persons in Ireland whose marriage has been dissolved abroad. Moreover, the divorce decree is entitled to recognition in Ireland under some specific circumstances relating to the place of domicile of either spouse. For example, Irish law recognizes a divorce granted in a foreign jurisdiction if either of the parties was domiciled in that jurisdiction at the time the divorce proceedings were instituted.

A 1992 Government paper entitled "Marital Breakdown -- A Review and Proposed Changes" specified the need for further changes, and contained options for amending the Constitution to remove the constitutional ban on divorce and a commitment by the Government to the holding of a referendum on the question of its removal. A referendum on divorce was held on 24 November 1995 and passed by a small majority. It was upheld in June 1996 in an appeal before the Supreme Court. The Family Law (Divorce) Action of 1996 governing separation proceedings to deal with the financial consequences of divorce was enacted on 27 November 1996 and came into force on 27 February 1997.

Introduction of Country Report

RICHARD RYAN, Permanent Representative of Ireland to the United Nations, introduced the country's delegation.

BERNARD McDONAGH, Second Secretary of the Department of Justice, Equality, and Law Reform, introduced Ireland's combined second and third reports. Ireland had elected its second successive female president, he said, adding that during the 1997 elections, four of the five presidential candidates were women. However, the number of women in Parliament remained below the level needed to ensure balanced participation. Addressing the issue, the country's Second Commission on the Status of Women had formulated recommendations for Government and political parties. According to the Commission, there were compelling structural and attitudinal reasons why women were not more involved in political life. Those reasons included difficulties in reconciling family life with paid employment and political tasks, and the ongoing reluctance of political parties to select women candidates. Political parties had an essential role to play, as they constituted the primary link in the political process and often the first major obstacle for a woman.

While the proportion of women in civil service had increased since 1986, when the equal opportunities policy and guidelines had been introduced, women were concentrated at the lower levels and under-represented in the senior management levels, he continued. A special committee for reforming the Irish civil service had commissioned independent research to investigate the reasons for gender imbalance in the higher levels of Irish civil service. The results would shortly be introduced to Government.

Women's participation in the labour force was approximately 40 per cent and rising, he said. The country's economic boom was in itself positively addressing the obstacles to women's participation in the labour force. The Irish Government was consulting with the employers and trade unions to explore ways to progress family-friendly policies. School curricula would be examined with a view to educating young people about the new labour force. There was need to reeducate senior managers and human resource personnel, he added.

Childcare was an important way to reconcile work and family life and the Government was aware of the problems in relation to provision of childcare, particularly for employed parents, he said. The problem had become more acute as the female labour force had increased demand. The Government had taken a number of initiatives to improve the situation. The 1998 Parental Leave Act provided a statutory entitlement for both parents to take up to 14 weeks unpaid leave to take care of young children, and that leave could be taken with various combinations.

Other new developments included term-time work, enabling employees to take unpaid leave during their children's school holidays, and work sharing, which could involve a multiplicity of work patterns, he continued. The Department of Finance was discussing with unions a work sharing scheme for civil service. A growing number of persons were working part time, particularly women. A European Union Directive to prevent part-time workers being treated less favourably than their full-time counterparts, and to facilitate working on a part-time basis for those who wished to, was to be implemented before the end of January 2000.

MAUREEN BOHAN, Senior Inspector/Psychologist, Department of Education and Science, said that the Education Act of 1998 provided for equal access to all forms of education and courses of study and equal opportunities between female and male students and staff. The Equality Committee, a working group in the Department, monitored and coordinated activities relating to equality opportunity for girls and boys in education. It was currently involved in developing strategies for mainstreaming gender equality. A number of current measures were being undertaken by the Department to ensure that mainstreaming gender equality would become effective in the short term. Those included a new initiative to develop the teaching of science subjects in second-level education.

One initiative organized in 1999 by the Equality Committee was the provision of child-care facilities for persons eligible to participate in the

Vocational Training Opportunities Scheme, she added. It aimed at attracting people who could not join such schemes due to child-care responsibilities.

The Equality Committee had addressed the issue of under-representation of women in decision-making positions in the education sector, particularly in the light of the increasing feminization of the teaching profession, she said. It had commissioned research on the current position of women in the management structure of schools and followed that with a series of pilot courses designed specifically for women who were interested in seeking promotion to decision-making positions. The number of women in decision- making positions in the Department had increased significantly in recent years. Gender equality would continue to be expected in the appointment of primary school principals, teachers and Board of Management members.

TIM QUIRKE, Principal Officer, Department of Social, Family and Community Affairs, said that the National Anti-poverty Strategy, which set out to reduce poverty and social exclusion both in general terms and in a number of key policy areas, was launched in April 1997. Those areas were unemployment, income adequacy, educational disadvantage, disadvantaged urban areas and rural poverty. The global target of the Strategy aimed at considerably reducing the numbers of those who were "consistently poor" from 9 per cent to 15 per cent of the population to less than 5 per cent to 10 per cent over the 10-year period from 1997 to 2007. Recent data showed that that target had been virtually achieved. One of the key principles underlying the Strategy was the reduction of inequalities and, particularly, addressing the gender dimensions of poverty.

VERA KELLY, Principal Officer, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, said that Ireland had five reservations to the Convention, none of which were incompatible with the object and purpose of the treaty. Those reservations were kept under regular review. The reservation to article 11 was entered because the Employment Equality Act of 1977, which outlawed discrimination in relation to employment on grounds of sex and marital status, contained a limited number of exclusions from the general prohibition of discrimination in relation to employment in the police force, the defence force, prison services and employment that consisted of services of a personal nature.

She said those exclusions had been examined in recent years in the context of a general review of employment equality legislation. As a result of that review, modified exclusions had been incorporated into the Employment Equality Act 1998, which would, when implemented later this year, replace existing equality legislation. Despite improvements in Ireland's equality legislation, it maintained its reservation to that article. The reservation to article 16.1 (d) and (f) could not be withdrawn because the rights of fathers of children born outside marriage were not equal to those of mothers. Mothers were automatically the guardians of their children while non-marital fathers had to acquire the status of guardian. It would be possible to lift the reservation on article 13 (b) and (c) when the equal status bill was enacted and arrangements were in hand to lift the reservation to article 15.3. Turning to the subject of vulnerable women, she said that Traveller women in Ireland played significant leadership roles in their own community while retaining primary responsibility for rearing large families in poor conditions. Their crucial role in maintaining Traveller culture and identity was often not acknowledged. In 1993, the Government sponsored a Task Force to examine the needs of Travellers in Ireland. Two years later, that Task Force published a report containing more than 300 recommendations, many specifically related to women.

The overall health of the Traveller community was significantly inferior to that of the general community, she continued. That was largely due to their low uptake of health services. Policy therefore focused on increasing use, through measures such as outreach services and on-site clinics. The most promising initiative, implemented through a voluntary service, involved training Traveller women to be involved in bridging the gap between health services and the Traveller community. The Department of Education and Science had a policy of total integration of Traveller children in schools by a range of means, including the use of visiting teachers.

Since 1996, when the report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities had been published, substantial progress had been made in promoting equal opportunity for people with disabilities, she said. A Minister of State with special responsibility for disability and equality had been appointed and the Government had facilitated the creation of a Council of People with Disabilities, which received substantial State funding. Ireland had been awarded the 1998 Franklin Delano Roosevelt International Disability Award, presented annually to a nation that made noteworthy national progress towards the goal of full participation of citizens with disabilities.

Turning then to refugees and asylum seekers, she said all applications for refugee status were determined in accordance with the Geneva Convention and the Refugee Act of 1996. Various initiatives had been introduced over the past year. Those included: ensuring that all staff interviewing asylum seekers received comprehensive training for which the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had provided training staff; and establishing a "one-stop shop" for asylum seekers, where one centre housed health, legal and translation services, as well as a documentation and research facility.

Regarding women in prison, she said female offenders made up roughly 3 per cent of the prison population. There were most often in their mid- twenties, with a history of drug and alcohol abuse, without a stable relationship, and with some history of prior psychiatric treatment. A new women's prison would replace existing accommodations, which were inadequate. A full range of education, work training and physical education facilities were provided, as were a medically supervised detoxification programme, and psychiatric and psychological counselling.

CHRIS FITZGERALD, Principal Officer, Department of Health and Children, said that a Plan for Women's Health 1997-1999, the national policy on women's health, had been developed in response to concerns that women's health needs were not always being met by the health services in the past. The Plan responded to the issues raised during the consultative process, which involved conferences, workshops, exhibitions and seminars on the full range of women's health issues. The four main objectives of the Plan were to: maximize the health and social gain of Irish women; create a woman-friendly health service; increase consultation with and representation of women in health services; and enhance the contribution of the health services to promoting women's health in the developing world.

The Women's Health Council was established in June 1997 to ensure that women maintained a level of participation in the policy-making process and to be assured of a permanent voice in the future, he said. The main functions of the Council were to: develop a centre of expertise on women's health; foster research into women's health; evaluate the success of the Plan for Women's Health 1997-1999 in meeting its objectives; and advise the Minister on women's health issues.

The Government was committed to improving the health of Irish women, he continued. It would continue the process of transformation to a health service that was sensitive to women's needs and that promoted the health of all women. Examples of how that was happening were the National Breast Screening Programme and the Cervical Screening Services.

The area of reproductive health in Ireland had changed rapidly in recent years, he said. The main changes related to the sharp decline in the birth rate, which indicated the extent to which women were controlling their fertility. The country had enjoyed low maternal mortality rates that were among the best worldwide and which reflected the excellent ante-natal and obstetric services available.

He said that since the International Conference on Population and Development (Cairo, 1994), a formal policy on family planning had been developed and implemented. It was based on the principle that all individuals should have the freedom to decide the number and spacing of their children. The principles underpinning the services were that services should be within easy reach and that a choice of service provider should be available. Family planning services were available free of charge from their general practitioner to holders of a medical card. The sale of condoms was deregulated a number of years ago and condoms were available through a wide range of outlets. Male and female sterilization were among the options available for those who wished not to have any more children.

Although the availability and accessibility of family planning services had been significantly improved in recent years, it was accepted that services needed to continue to be developed further, he went on. Outside the major urban areas, the principal service providers were general medical practitioners, and the Department hoped that volunteer organizations would become more involved in the provision of services around the country, so as to provide a greater choice of service providers.

Ireland also had a National Breastfeeding Policy and a Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative, he said. The Policy sought to increase the percentage of mothers in all socio-economic groups who breastfed and to increase the number of mothers who practised exclusive breastfeeding for at least four months and thereafter with appropriate weaning foods. The Initiative, a global campaign led by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), encouraged hospitals and health workers to support mothers to breastfeed.

Also, he added that strategies employed would need to be long-term in their approach, so that young people were equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to enable them to take a responsible approach to relationships and so minimize the likelihood of unwanted pregnancy, now and in the future. That would be a complex task, particularly in relation to those who were no longer in full-time education, as that was a diverse and not easily targeted group. In keeping with the National Health Promotion Strategy (1995), the Department of Health and Children had a number of initiatives targeting young people as a priority population group.

Mr. McDONAGH then said the Employment Equality Act of 1998 represented a major step towards the creation of a more equal society. The Act outlawed discrimination on grounds of gender, marital status, family status, sexual orientation, religion, age, disability, race and membership of the Traveller community. As well as outlawing discrimination in employment, the Act made provision for a new infrastructure to underpin the new anti-discrimination code, which was being provided under both employment and equality, and equal status legislation. The Government had made provision for the establishment of the equality infrastructure in 1999. A revised Equal Status Bill, published in April, complemented the Employment Act.

Deeply concerned about violence against women, the Government had established a National Steering Committee to formulate a national response, he said. Its objectives included developing public awareness campaigns and advising on policy development concerning perpetrators, services and support, among other issues. Funding was provided by the Department of Health and

Children to the country's eight health boards, through which refuges and rape crisis centres were funded.

An Assistant Commissioner of the Gardai (police) had been assigned responsibility for monitoring action in relation to violence against women, he continued. All police force members received training on investigating cases of domestic violence, rape and sexual assault. The training involved psychologists, doctors, social workers and representatives of non-governmental organizations.

Turning then to the optional protocol to the Convention, he said Ireland had supported a strong optional protocol during the negotiations. He hoped Ireland would be in a position to ratify the protocol as soon as it opened for signature.

Experts' General Comments

An expert welcomed Ireland's many legislative initiatives relating to women. She noted Ireland's reservations to the Convention; the country had more than most. She congratulated the country on its comprehensive plan on women's health, but asked for more information on the real situation and the difficulties encountered by the Government and by the women of Ireland in that regard.

Ireland was experiencing an economic boom, and could therefore afford to translate its measures into action, she said. All the measures described to the Committee had budgetary implications. How would those funds be secured? she asked. Did the Government allocate funds according to need, and if so, did women's needs take priority?

She asked for information on the impact of efforts to serve disadvantaged groups, especially Traveller women and asylum seekers. No statistics had been provided indicating what percentage of the population those disadvantaged groups comprised, whether their numbers were increasing or decreasing or how were they being integrated into society.

She then asked for information about abortion, noting that it had not been mentioned in the presentation.

An expert said that the information presented pointed to the fact that much analysis and study was going on in the country, as could be witnessed in the many amendments to legislation. Apart from the wealth of statistics and the report, she wanted to know what the impact of all the governmental programmes were on women. She was pleased to see that Ireland had an anti- poverty campaign, but wanted to know to what extent were women affected by poverty and what were the causes.

Also, were there any figures on current child-care provisions? she asked. How many child-care facilities were there in Ireland and who were they run by? She was a bit disturbed by a line in the report which stated that childcare was primarily the responsibility of parents. It was clear that Government also had to contribute and play its part.

With regard to the Human Rights Commission to be established under the Good Friday Agreements, she was concerned that the current definition to be used by that Commission excluded the Women's Convention, since the Convention was not part of Irish law. The Irish Constitution did not include all the provisions of the Convention. It was important that Irish law include all the international human rights instruments. In addition, that article 41 of the Constitution recognized women's role in the home was a bit outdated and promoted stereotypes. Were there any plans to amend that? she asked.

Whether the Equal Status Bill would exclude the use of temporary special measures was also of concern, she said. How did Ireland plan to overcome centuries of discrimination without the use of temporary special measures for women? she asked. Without them, it would take another several hundred years to eliminate discrimination against women.

Also, she asked what further plans Ireland planned to introduce to recognize the work done by women and men in the home. In that context, parental leave had to be reviewed. Unless it was a paid leave, fathers would never take it. Regarding women working from home, she warned that appropriate working conditions at home would be required, as well as child-care facilities.

Noting Ireland's high employment rate and economic growth, she asked if the Government intended to "genderproof" its budget. Was it planning to rely less on European Union funds for its programmes and initiatives and finance them from funds generated by the Irish economy?

Another expert was concerned about stereotypes and requested more precise information on that. She congratulated Ireland for taking relevant measures to modify the cultural situation, especially in the areas of publicity and education within schools, aimed at changing the stereotypes and eliminating gender violence. She added that very little information had been provided on the question of sexual harassment in schools and work places. Sexual harassment was the expression of a kind of violence against women, which stemmed from a view of women as sexual objects.

The Government's frankness in acknowledging unequal responsibilities for the family in Ireland was welcomed. An expert asked what measures, besides parental leave, had been undertaken to address that. Unequal sharing within families overloaded women and left very little leisure time for them. The situation was not favourable for the professional development of women. An expert noted that Ireland had specific actions and programmes for rural women, but regarding property rights, there were very few women participating in agricultural production. What had been the impact of legislation reform? The right to ownership of agricultural land also implied stereotyping of women. In the next report, she wanted to know what the real situation of rural women was, particularly with more disaggregated data.

Another expert was shocked that the Constitutional guarantee did not extend to the private sphere of women's lives. That was an indication of strong gender stereotypes against women and was unacceptable from an advanced society such as Ireland. She said there was a notable disadvantage of women in employment, as well as a number of initiatives to improve their situation, including new legislation. How had they really impacted women's lives regarding employment? she asked.

Concerning women's participation in politics, she asked who had executive power in Ireland, the Prime Minister or the President. Also, had Ireland ever had a women Prime Minister? The number of women in the in civil service was low, between 38 and 40 per cent. In the labour force, women's participation rate was still generally low, compared to other countries. She noted that women were concentrated in typical areas and in lower positions. In addition, the high level of women part-time workers was of concern. That led to two other issues. Did marital status influence job security? Also, were child-care facilities available?

She was pleased that Ireland had a specific programme to address poverty, and wanted to know whether it applied to Traveller women, refugees and migrant workers, since they were among the poorest groups. Also, did those women have access to health and employment programmes in the country?

Political parties were to become more family-friendly to attract more women candidates, but that might reinforce the stereotype of women as responsible for caring for the family, an expert said. Fostering awareness among men and women of the importance of women's political participation could increase acceptance of men's responsibilities for caring for children. She then asked for data regarding the prevalence of sexual violence and abuse against girl children.

Another Committee member said Ireland's efforts to comply with the Convention were evident in its recently introduced legislative reform and its ongoing review of its reservations. However, not enough information had been provided regarding women and poverty, particularly on the origin and magnitude of poverty in vulnerable groups.

Regarding efforts to eliminate stereotypes, she said that Ireland's report indicated that for the most part mass media did not promulgate negative and stereotyped images. Was media part of the effort to transform deeply rooted social patterns? she asked. The Committee had been told of a review of textbooks, but she was not clear whether that had been concluded, and whether modifications had already been introduced. Only 9 per cent of school principals were women -- how was this going to change?

According to the report, she continued, abortion was forbidden, but it would be necessary to introduce legislative measures regulating positions on abortion, taking into account the sensitivity of the issue. What did that mean actually, and what possibility was there for change? she asked.

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For information media. Not an official record.