Committee on the Elimination of
Discrimination against Women
492nd Meeting (AM)
MONITORING BODY FOR WOMEN’S ANIT-DISCRIMINATION CONVENTIONS
TAKES UP REPORTS OF EGYPT
The monitoring body for the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women met this morning to begin its consideration of the third and combined fourth and fifth periodic reports of Egypt.
In 1981 Egypt ratified the Convention, although with several reservations, including a reservation on article 2, concerning general legal and legislative protections. The reservation states a willingness to comply with the article “provided that such compliance does not run counter to Islamic sharia.”
The Convention requires that State parties submit a progress report on implementation of the Convention within one year after its entry into force and at least every four years thereafter. Egypt submitted its initial report at the Committee’s third session and its second at the ninth.
Mervat Tallawy, the Secretary-General of the Egyptian National Council for Women, introduced the reports to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women this morning, and responded to questions raised by the Committee’s pre-session working group. She was accompanied by Fawzia Abdel Satar, Professor of Law at Cairo University, Sanaa Khalil, Counsellor of the Ministry of Justice of Egypt, and Mona Sala Zulficar, a lawyer and a human rights activist, each of whom discussed specific aspects of Egypt’s reports.
Ms. Tallawy said that the situation in Egypt was evolving. There were now mechanisms in place that were pulling the women of the country together. There was legal improvement, institutional improvement and practical improvement. The reason for that was, in large part, due to the National Council for Women, which worked with all branches of the Government to improve the situation of women in the country.
That did not mean that there were no problems in Egypt, she added. One of the main problems was the nationality law. Also, women’s representation in the national parliament was very low, and there was a problem with violence in the family. She described, however, progress made towards withdrawal of Egypt’s reservations on article 2 and article 16, which concerns equality in laws of marriage, family and divorce.
In her remarks to the Committee, Ms. Abdel Satar said that women had been fighting for some time to achieve legal equality in Egypt. The laws, at times, did draw distinctions between men and women and, in fact, the nationality law did
discriminate against women. Work was being done to revise and review all Egyptian laws that did not allow for equal rights.
On the issue of violence against women, Mr. Khalil told the Committee that the problem was exacerbated by certain traditional attitudes and widespread illiteracy. The Government was making efforts to educate the people and programmes were being developed to provide information on human rights in school and university curricula.
Ms. Zulficar informed experts on the status of legal reform in the country. She said areas such as family law were very sensitive and, while some changes had been introduced to the national substantive law, the procedural arm was resisting any changes. The procedural rules were based on the sharia regulations.
After the introduction of the reports, Committee experts made remarks and asked questions. Some experts expressed disappointment at the pace of progress within Egypt, while others said that much had been accomplished given the traditional patriarchal mentality prevalent within the country. Experts commended the political will of the National Council for Women in addressing the existing problems.
The Committee will continue its discussion of Egypt’s report at 3 p.m. today.
Committee Work Programme
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this morning to begin its consideration of the third (document CEDAW/C/EGY/3) and combined fourth and fifth (document CEDAW/C/EGY/4-5) periodic reports of Egypt, which were submitted in compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Egypt ratified the Convention in
The third and combined fourth and fifth reports state that ever since Egyptian women began their renaissance movement at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Egyptian Government has taken whatever measures were necessary and appropriate to support, strengthen and develop all enlightened tendencies which supported and assisted that movement. The 1956 Egyptian Constitution reflected the achievements and success of the women's movement, and it also took into account the provisions of the Convention on the Political Rights of Women, adopted by the General Assembly in 1952. In article 31, it laid down the principle of equality and non-discrimination on grounds of gender, origin, language, religion or ideology.
According to the reports, the Egyptian legal system accords high priority to requiring all State authorities to guarantee women's equality with men in respect of all rights and duties and all other areas of life, without restrictions and irrespective of their marital status. That was over and above the State's guarantee that women will be able to reconcile their domestic duties with their work in society, while ensuring compliance with Islamic law. In Egypt, family matters belong to the sphere of personal status and disputes are subject to the internal laws of the religious community to which family members belong.
With regard to education and public awareness activities, the reports say that the State's efforts have achieved notable success. The more recent statistics, included in the combined fourth and fifth report, state that female illiteracy had declined from 62 per cent in 1986 to 51 per cent in 1996. Female enrolment in elementary education rose from 91 per cent in 1992 to 98 per cent in 1998. The figures for females as a percentage of all those enrolled had risen to 47 per cent at the elementary level, 47 per cent at the preparatory level and
50 per cent at the secondary level. The electronic media, in parallel with the educational system, play an important role with their public awareness programmes on harmful practices with regard to women or the family and on health and the environment.
Concerning the role of women in political and public life, the reports state that the Egyptian Constitution stipulates that all citizens have the right to vote and to stand for election. A new law in 1988 offered women the opportunity to compete for all seats on local councils and women succeeded in winning a number of seats in the next general election. According to the statistics of the combined fourth and fifth report, in 1995 women won 9 seats in the People's Assembly. The current Deputy Speaker of the Assembly is a woman, while 15 seats in the Advisory Council and 437 in local councils were held by women in 1998. At the international level, women have occupied progressively higher positions since they began to be recruited by the Egyptian diplomatic service in the 1960s. In 1998, there were 143 women diplomats at all levels, representing 15 per cent of all those employed in the service.
The reports state that work is a right, a duty and an honour guaranteed by the State. It cannot be imposed except by law and for the purpose of performing public service and deserved equitable remuneration. The State must also provide health insurance and social services, and invalidity, unemployment and retirement benefits to all citizens. Egyptian law accords working women the right to three months post-natal maternity leave at full pay on three occasions during her working life. The number of women in top executive positions in the government sector rose from 3 per cent in 1981 to 13 per cent in 1993 and 17 per cent in 1998. Statistics for other professions are included in both reports.
In the field of health care, the reports say that the State shall provide health services and seek to improve their quality and individual access to them. By the most recent statistics (1998), health care coverage stood at almost 100 per cent, with a ratio of two doctors and two nurses for every 1,000 inhabitants. According to Egypt's law on abortions, a person who induces an abortion through the use of drugs or other methods, with or without the woman's consent, shall be punished by a term of imprisonment. The practice of female excision continues on a reduced scale in remote rural areas, where it is carried out in secret. The Minister of Health and Population issued an ordinance in 1996 prohibiting female excision at public and private hospitals and clinics.
Introduction of Report
Introducing the reports before the Committee, MERVAT TALLAWY, the Secretary-General of the Egyptian National Council for Women, said that in response to a list of issues and questions raised by the pre-session working group, her delegation had prepared an annex report (document CEDAW/PSWG/2001/I/CPR.2/Add.3), containing a review of the latest statistics on the situation of women in Egypt and a general overview of social and economic indicators in the country.
She said that the situation in Egypt was evolving. There were now mechanisms in place that were pulling the women of the country together. There was legal improvement, institutional improvement and practical improvement. The reason for that was in large part due to the National Council for Women, which worked with all branches of the Government to improve the situation of women in the country.
The National Council for Women was an institution for all the people of Egypt, she said. It had supported women in becoming candidates in the 2000 election and had encouraged parties to support women, even though some had refused to allow them to become candidates. The result was that in some parts of the country, even in the more conservative south, women candidates won higher majorities than men. Also, a large number of women turned out to vote. The women finally realized that the political authority in Egypt was pushing for women’s rights by setting up the Council.
That did not mean that there were no problems in Egypt, she continued. One of the main problems was the nationality law. Also, women’s representation in the national parliament was very low, and there was a problem with violence in the family.
Responding to the question raised during the pre-session working group on Egypt’s reservation with respect to article 2 of the Convention, she said that the reservation had been made not because Islam was against the equality of women, but as a precautionary measure. Egypt had initiated an internal process to demonstrate that the reservation, “without prejudice to the principles of sharia”, was not intended to protect discriminatory laws. Nevertheless, she was hopeful that the Government would drop the reservation and that the issue would gain support in Parliament.
Those were the negative and positive issues that she wanted to mention, she said. Many non-governmental organizations had been set up and were working to improve the situation of women at the local level. The task of the Council was not to implement projects, but instead it was supposed to make policy for the Government and to monitor implementation.
With regard to the legal rights of women in Egypt, FAWZIA ABDEL SATAR, Professor of Law at Cairo University, said that women had been fighting for some time for their equality. The laws, at times, did draw distinction between men and women. An example of that was the law on mothers, but there were gains in other areas, such as women now being able to be elected mayor. Despite the equal rights between men and women to be elected, the number of women in Parliament represented just 3 per cent of the total. Work was being done to revise and review all Egyptian laws that did not allow for equal rights.
As for criminal law, there were some texts that afforded greater protection to men than women. The National Council was working to amend the texts that did not provide complete equality for men and women. If a man killed his wife after finding her committing adultery, only imprisonment was possible. But, if a wife did the same, the punishment changed. The code said that if the wife killed her husband as a result of adultery, the woman would have to serve a sentence that would be equal to premeditated murder. The Council was trying to do everything that it could to amend those law. Sharia law said that there was total equality for women and men.
As for the labour code, the text provided for total equality, even with regard to remuneration, she said. The National Council for Women was very aware of any new legislation and had the authority to express any view of draft laws in order to avoid any discrimination against women. The new draft labour code had been studied by the Council and proposals had been sent to the competent authorities, so that there would be equality.
She said that the nationality law did discriminate against women. Men with foreign wives could transmit their nationality to their son, even if the child was born outside of Egypt. A women married to a foreign man, however, could not do the same, even if the son had been born on Egyptian soil. That led to a situation where children born in Egypt were treated as foreigners. Seminars had been set up to counter that negative effect of discrimination against women. The Supreme Court had played a role in changing that situation, as well.
On the issue of violence against women, SANAA KHALIL, Counsellor of the Ministry of Justice, said that although laws had been enacted in the country to eliminate discrimination, the problem was exacerbated by certain traditional attitudes and widespread illiteracy. Acts protecting women’s dignity provided for the punishment of crimes against women, including those with regard to torture, illegal detention and murder. Any physical offence was punishable, even if it was committed by a woman’s family member. The same punishment was applied to both male and female offenders.
It was the right and duty of prosecutors to investigate reported violence against women, he continued. All places of detention were periodically inspected to make sure that no offences were perpetrated there. In 1993, a special committee was established to investigate crimes of such nature. Under Egyptian laws, violence against women was not tolerated in any form.
Studies confirmed that crimes against women were perpetuated by traditional attitudes towards women, he continued, and the Government was making efforts to educate the people on the new concepts. Programmes were being developed to provide information on human rights at the level of school and university curricula. Respect for human rights was also being promoted, with the help of seminars for the police force and other legal authorities. Committees for human rights were being established at such institutions as the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of Justice. There were also ongoing efforts to implement recommendations of the National Council for Women.
MONA SALA ZULFICAR, a lawyer and a human rights activist, said that contacts between non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the Government needed to be strengthened. The national women’s movement was cooperating with the authorities through legal reform. For several decades, the movement had been pressing for the elaboration of laws to promote equality. However, such areas as family law were very sensitive, and while some changes had been introduced to the national substantive law in 1985, the procedural arm was resisting any changes. The procedural rules were based on the sharia regulations, which were not compatible with the development of the judicial system in the country.
In 1991, a committee to reform family procedural law began cooperating with the women’s movement, she continued. Women’s organizations held seminars and consultations, lobbying for change. The National Committee for Women was formed in 1992 to focus on women’s issues. The demand for new procedural law for family disputes and for the new marriage contract were among the main issues. For example, taking a second wife with an agreement from the first wife was still legal under the sharia, and the women’s organizations were requesting changes in that respect. They were not afraid to get involved in the religious disputes, for they knew that changes had to come from within their own culture. Islam provided for the equality of women, and the prevailing interpretations distorted those provisions.
As a result of those efforts, a new procedural law was passed in 2000, she said, according to which one family court would look at all the disputes under its jurisdiction, including divorce and the custody of children. Official procedures were ensured under that law, and women were allowed the basic right of unilaterally repudiating the marriage. Men had to recognize that now women could terminate their marriages and cases could be filed for incompatibility at the women’s discretion.
That issue was linked to Egypt’s reservations to the Convention, she added. The national laws had to be changed for the country to remove its reservations, and the new law of 2000 was a step in that direction. A committee, with the participation of specialists on sharia, had been formed to study the reservations, and had recently recommended withdrawal of the reservation to article 2 of the Convention. Article 16 was still under study. The Committee had decided that if reservations needed to be made, they should be well justified. However, unless the attitudes of people were changed, the legal amendments alone would not alter the situation.
Ms. TALLAWY added that the first Arab summit conference on women, which had been organized in November 2000 with participation of the United Nations, had been a success. It showed that the women of the area wanted to be in control of their fate. A strategy was now being put in place in compliance with the national five-year plan. The upcoming annual women’s national meeting would submit its recommendations to the national planning institutions. The Council of Women had achieved significant progress, but it would have been unable to do that without the support of the country’s First Lady and governmental support for the women’s movement.
Comments by Experts
An expert said that the delegation of Egypt had demonstrated its profound commitment to the cause of women’s equality. She commented that the question of reservations was a sensitive one. The meaning of the reservations had been well explained to the Committee today. There had been important efforts to convince the Government to withdraw its reservations on article 9, concerning the relationship between an individual woman and the State. Reservations to article 2 amounted to just one phrase -- “without prejudice to the principles of sharia”. She understood the difficulties encountered by the Egyptian women and appreciated their courage.
New efforts were needed to promote the political participation of women, she said. Although the delegation had insisted that religion provided for women’s equality, she disagreed with that point of view, for it presented some of the main obstacles to the advancement of women. New machinery needed to be introduced to ensure implementation of the existing laws in the country.
Another expert said that, because a severe punishment was envisioned for inducing abortions, a woman with severe haemorrhage might not seek medical treatment.
Another expert stressed the importance of the new divorce law, adding that 10 years of consultations had been required to achieve it. Clearly, men had resisted the changes. Another issue of fundamental importance was the application of the laws, for it was not enough to enact laws. They needed to be enforced.
The country had accomplished a lot, an expert said, but much remained to be done. She was concerned that the traditional patriarchal mentality, which was being presented under the guise of Islam, would hinder the application of the Convention. What happened in Egypt was also important for women in the whole Muslim world. Were there any programmes for the training of officials in that respect? Were there any programmes directed at increasing the awareness of women themselves? Also, was there legal protection for women seeking divorce?
Another expert said that full implementation of the universal rights of women could only be ensured by full application of relevant international instruments, and the Optional Protocol to the Convention was important in that regard. It was commendable that the National Council for Women had the political will to address the problem.
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