28 January 2000


28 January 2000

Press Release



Due to the political and economic transition of Belarus, its women bore the brunt of accompanying social and economic problems, particularly the heavy burdens of poverty and family life, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women was told this morning.

As the Committee began considering the third periodic report of Belarus, Olga Sergeeva, Deputy Minister for Justice, said that highly educated women were increasingly working in the lowest paid jobs. Falling incomes and competition were making it difficult for them to maintain their families. Retraining and entrepreneurial training were intended to ease the burden on women with minor children.

In spite of Government measures, a lack of resources, insufficient control of implementation machinery and poor monitoring of decisions already taken had delayed improvement in the situation, she said. However, one of the most important areas to be improved had been the legislative base.

Also this morning, experts commented on the report and put questions to the delegation. Expressing concern about freedom of expression and opinion in Belarus, one expert said that only in an open and responsible democratic system could women express their views and demand their rights. The Government contributed to the perpetuation of stereotypes by approaching gender policy as a welfare issue, while the Committee considered it to be a human rights issue.

The Committee will continue its consideration of the report at 3 p.m. today.

Women’s Anti-Discrimination Committee - 2 - Press Release WOM/1169 460th Meeting (AM) 28 January 2000

Committee Work Programme

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this morning to begin its consideration of the third periodic report of Belarus (document CEDAW/C/BLR/3). The report, covering 1987 to 1992, focuses mainly on information that was not contained in the previous reports.

According to the report, despite the constitutional proclamation of equality between men and women, there is a very significant and ever-increasing gap between declared principles and their de facto implementation. This is confirmed by the problems faced by women in every aspect of their lives: inequality in daily life; employment; remuneration and fulfilment of maternal and child-rearing functions.

The report says that the situation of Belarusian women had deteriorated markedly during the country’s transition to a market economy. They are among the most vulnerable social groups and face a serious unemployment problem. The economic crisis, disruption of economic and political ties, the transition to a market economy, shortages of consumer goods, inflation, the decline in real income and rising social tensions are having a very negative impact on the situation of women.

Women have borne the brunt of lay-offs that resulted from the closing and downsizing of enterprises, the report states. They account for 69 to 77 per cent of the all redundant workers in various cities throughout Belarus. They are mostly women with higher or secondary specialized education; engineers with various specialties; economists; cultural workers; and others. Women comprise 82.3 per cent of the registered unemployed and 87.6 per cent of qualified specialists.

With regard to the political situation of women, the report says that, although they account for more than half the population, they have practically no opportunity to further their interests through elected bodies. The Supreme Council has 13 women deputies ,or 3 per cent, only one of whom works on a permanent basis. With the abolition of quotas, the proportion of women in local councils of people’s deputies has declined sharply. There is only one woman Cabinet Minister and one woman among the country’s international representatives.

Concerning measures taken to implement provisions of the Convention, the report says that in order to overcome stereotypical ideas -- article 5 of the Convention -- amendments have been made to the legislative instruments regulating the system of granting leave to care for infants and young children. The family has the right to decide which parent or other relative should take the leave, which is granted until the child reaches the age of three years. Changes are being introduced in teaching practices in educational institutions and are being publicized in the media.

Regarding nationality -- article 9 -- the report says article 3 of the Act on Citizenship of 18 October 1991 grants equal citizenship for all nationals, regardless of the grounds on which it was acquired. A citizen of Belarus may not be deprived of citizenship and no citizen may be arbitrarily deprived of the right to change their citizenship, under article 4 of the Act on Citizenship. The conclusion or dissolution of a marriage between a Belarus citizen and a citizen of another State, or a stateless person, does not change the citizenship of the husband or wife, under article 14 of the Act on Citizenship.

According to the report, equal access by women to medical care -- article 12 -- is ensured under the Constitution and under the Health Care Act. The protection of mothers is ensured through a system of maternity hospitals, women’s consultation clinics and other special institutions which provide free medical assistance. Medical care for women and children is provided by 4,963 paediatricians and 2,305 obstetricians/gynaecologists, representing 4.9 and 2.3 respectively for every 10,000 persons. Screening for congenital diseases has shown that congenital defects have increased since the Chernobyl nuclear accident of 1986.

On marriage and family relations -- article 16 -- the report states that on 14 November 1991, Belarus amended article 33 of the Marriage and Family Code, making it illegal for a husband to demand the dissolution of marriage without his wife’s consent, not only during pregnancy, but also for three years after the birth of a child.

Introduction of Report

OLGA SERGEEVA, Deputy Minister for Justice of Belarus, introducing the report, said since its submission in 1993, life in the Republic had undergone a number of changes and that affected its attitudes towards policies governing equality for women. In addition to ratification of the Convention, the Republic was also prepared to sign the Optional Protocol. Belarus was gradually undertaking a national plan of action –- 1996 to 2000 -- to assure women’s rights.

Some of the strategies included in the plan had been the development of the women’s movement and expansion of women’s partnership with the Government, she noted. The report contained a comprehensive description of women’s status and of what was being done in Belarus to ensure their equality. The plan reaffirmed the support of the Government to the issue of gender equality and its commitment to implementation of the Convention.

She said that Belarus was now experiencing many problems, due to its national transitional status. Women were 54 per cent of the population and bore the brunt of the accompanying social and economic problems in the country, in particular the extremely heavy burdens of poverty and family life. Some of those problems affected men as well, particularly that of life expectancy.

A number of areas in the national plan of action were linked to the Beijing Conference held in 1995, she continued, and a series of measures applied to amendments to appropriate legislation. Programmes had been designed to alleviate women’s problems in the transition period. For example, among the many projects being implemented were those aimed at: increasing women’s access to the labour market; protecting women and children; strengthening family structures; and establishing mechanisms to help solve the psycho-social problems of women. Those programmes were financed through resources from the health sector and other local and international bodies.

She noted that, in spite of steps the Government had taken, improvement had been delayed due to a lack of resources, insufficient control of implementation machinery and poor monitoring of decisions already taken. However, one of the most important areas to be improved had been the legislative base.

She said that a new penal code that would enter into force on 1 July would go a long way towards eliminating discrimination against women. It concerned trafficking in persons, including women. A new article had been introduced relating to sexual exploitation. Existing gender expertise in legislation was aimed at creating a basis for genuine equal opportunity.

Women with a high level of education were increasingly working in the least paid jobs, she said. Falling incomes and competition were making it difficult for them to maintain their families. Retraining and entrepreneurial training were intended to ease the burden on women with minor children.

She added that women were not sufficiently represented in legislative and executive authority. Only 14.5 per cent of members of Parliament were women. The Cabinet had only one woman minister and only two women ambassadors represented Belarus at the international level.

Regarding the employment of women in senior specialist and management posts, she said that 17 of 25 ministries had women in an average of 50 per cent of their positions. More than 200 women, or 22 per cent, were deputy chairpersons of local executive bodies. Thirty per cent of managers of local bodies were women in the government sector.

She said that the reform of the political and economic systems had had an effect on the living standards of families. Increasing social support for families was a main priority of State policy. The crux of changes brought about by reform was that government benefits and the income levels permitting them were increasing two to four-fold, on average.

Seventy-five per cent of families had children up to 18 years of age, she continued. Specific economic reforms had exacerbated a large number of problems, in particular the breakdown of the family structure. Consequently, the Government was placing emphasis on projects and social services in support of the family and children.

Addressing the issue of violence against women, she said that, among other measures, in 1998 a crisis centre for such victims had been opened in Minsk, and that the phenomenon was being actively discussed in the press. Also, in 1999, anti-drug legislation had been adopted, which was expected to affect the trafficking of women and prostitution. Turning to the issue of health, she stated that the reduction of the standard of living and failures in the medical field were among the factors that affected women’s health, particularly their reproductive health. As a result, the State had developed a multi-layered system for pre-natal assistance.

She said that the State programme for dealing with the Chernobyl disaster involved a series of steps, including the de-population of the affected areas and improving the health of those persons through psychological rehabilitation and other services. A related law, adopted in 1995, had stipulated that citizens from that locality would receive financial reimbursement, which now accounted for about 10 per cent of the Government’s budget. Consequently, that had affected other State programmes, including those for guaranteeing women’s equality.

She added that the Government found it necessary to enhance public sensitivity to gender issues and to broaden the scope of gender education. It was also necessary to step up efforts to prevent prostitution, by finding ways to eliminate the trade in women. Despite the progress that had been made in the transition period, much still remained to be done, she concluded. Efforts to ensure equality and equal opportunity should be part and parcel of the changes taking place in Belarus.

Comments and Questions by Experts

An expert said that the future reports should reflect the impact of measures taken by the Government of Belarus. The Committee realized that since the country’s independence in the early 1990s, it had been beset by the difficulties of a country in transition to democracy and the restructuring of the economy.

She expressed concern over the situation regarding freedom of expression and opinion. Only an open and responsible democratic system could give substance to the development of a truly pluralistic society with a division of powers. Only in such a society could women express their views and ask for their rights.

Some of the factors impeding progress in Belarus were not necessarily connected to the lack of finances, she said. Regarding the registration of women’s organizations, the Committee required information on the process by which they sought permission for registration and on the registration process itself.

She said that the Government continued to contribute to the perpetuation of stereotypes. The Deputy Minister had described the Belarusian approach to gender policy as a welfare issue, while the Committee considered it to be a human rights issue. To what extent was gender education being implemented? Was there gender training for officials in public administration? Had the Government set targets for the implementation of national programmes? Without such targets, it would be difficult for the Committee to evaluate the extent of progress made by Belarus.

Another expert noted it had been pointed out that finding solutions to the work burden for women in Belarus faced obstacles, due to the sluggishness of the national machinery. It would be interesting, therefore, if the delegation could explain any plans to strengthen that machinery. Also, the report had highlighted discrimination against women in the area of employment. Did the plan of action include an objective to eliminate the current trends that were enabling that occurrence? she asked. If that trend continued, it was a matter of concern, particularly as the report had referred to “feminine professions”. That did not help alleviate the problem.

An expert expressed concern over the national machinery for implementing the Convention –- a unit established in the Ministry for Social Welfare, under which there was only one programme being implemented in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). She observed that the report did not describe implementation of any of the 12 aspects of the Beijing Platform for Action. What was the unit’s budget for its programme on compliance with the Convention? she asked.

She noted that the State should widen its policy and strategies governing women’s rights. The ideology of the present plan was unclear and in the next national plan, the philosophy guiding the Convention -– women’s empowerment -– should be introduced. Currently, Belarus focused those policies on a protective approach. Furthermore, the report did not provide information on a system of

quotas to target women for the selection to senior posts, and provided no description of how the national demographic and population planning programme affected women.

Response by Government

Ms. SERGEEVA expressed satisfaction with the questions, saying that reflected an understanding of the difficult situation facing Belarus. After attaining independence, the country’s socialist-oriented economy could not be established quickly. Belarus was not developed enough and did not have enough production.

IRINA CHUTKOVA, another member of the delegation, said that various administrative subdivisions had been created to deal with women’s issues. Regional bodies had been set up to help improve the situation of women. Regarding the trafficking of women and prostitution, she said that the transition period had seen the creation of more conditions leading to the end of those two phenomena. There was no provision for a penalty for persons engaging in prostitution, only administrative penalties.

Belarus was also concerned with the situation regarding rape and seduction of minors, she added. Belarus had worked with Turkey to eliminate those negative practices and would conduct a similar operation with Latvia.

Also, she said, the question of trafficking in women and prostitution had been bypassed for a long time. No statistical data was available regarding the problem, but a request had been made for western organizations working on the issue to provide reports on women brought before their justice systems charged with related offences. The border service had gathered only generic information on those who crossed the border. In March, Belarus, together with Holland, Russia and Moldova, would undertake studies and planning exercises to deal with the problem.

ALYAKSANDR SYCHOV, Permanent Representative of Belarus, responding to questions on cooperation between the Government and international organizations, said, as a country in transition, Belarus did not always respond to the required indicators. Also, the UNDP programme that provided aid to small and medium-sized enterprises had not been implemented as yet, due to a lack of required funding from donor countries. On the issue of the Chernobyl disaster, he noted that 70 per cent of the radioactive fallout had been on the territory of Belarus. Consequently, cooperative efforts had centred on that as a priority task, particularly in protecting women and children.

* *** *

For information media. Not an official record.