16 January 2004


Press Release

Committee on Elimination of

Discrimination against Women

636th Meeting (AM)*


Country’s Representative Says ‘Consistent

Steps’ Taken to Comply with Letter, Spirit of Convention

In the two decades since Bhutan ratified the Women’s Convention without reservation, the Government had taken consistent steps to progressively comply with the letter and spirit of that Treaty, despite constraints in resources and institutional capacity, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women was told today.

That small, land-locked country in the eastern Himalayas, which spanned one of the most rugged terrains on earth, had significantly improved the welfare of its population and undergone a major social, economic, and political transformation, its Minister for Labour and Human Resources, Lyonpo Ugyen Tshering, said in presenting Bhutan’s initial through its sixth periodic report to the Treaty’s monitoring body.  Bhutan was now preparing its first-ever constitution, he said.

As a result of the country’s quest to modernize, average life expectancy had increased from 48 to more than 66 years, infant mortality had declined, and 90 per cent of the population now had free access to health care, he noted.  Literacy, at 17 per cent in 1977, was now at 54 per cent, and enrolment in primary school was up to 72 per cent, with Bhutan well on its way to achieving universal primary education by 2007.  The greatest challenge in achieving the goals of the Convention was to eradicate the more subdued and indirect forms of gender bias.

One of the Committee’s 23 experts, who serve in their personal capacities, said Bhutan had always been a country of great interest and mystery to her.  The expert from the Republic of Korea said that Bhutan had had the advantage of learning from other more developed countries.  She hoped it would not repeat their mistakes in its development.  She stressed the importance of data collection and sex-disaggregated data for mapping the country’s future development.

Several experts acknowledged the many efforts under way, but felt that the report had revealed a “certain hesitation” about its plans to address discrimination.  The expert from Portugal, for example, pointed out the report’s statement that, while there was recognition of discrimination, not much support existed for promoting women’s advancement.  National policies, although “gender neutral”, had often failed to protect women from discrimination, she noted, citing the report.

Similarly, the expert from Bangladesh said that throughout the whole system there was a “kind of acceptance” of the negative realities and a sense that traditional perceptions and Bhutan’s history somehow condoned those.  Women were responsible for all home work and were considered almost entirely in their roles as wives and mothers and the keepers of the very extended families, especially in the rural areas.  She wanted to know whether any effort had been made to change those attitudes or address the stereotypes in the school curricula.

Approaching the situation of Bhutanese women from another angle, the expert from the Netherlands was among the experts who had questions about the marriage age of 15 years for common-law marriage and the fact that no marriage certificate was issued for common-law marriages.  He worried that the existence of common-law marriages was undermining the legal age of 18 for marriage, and he asked if the Government would consider ending the practice of common law marriages.

Further, the expert from Mexico stated that, throughout the report, references had been made to marriage between relatives, specifically that any marriage contracted between individuals within an acceptable degree of relationship were accepted in certain areas, and that such practice was not considered to be incestuous.  Had the Government envisaged changing such practices by means of education or consciousness-raising? she asked.

Other questions were raised about prostitution, “clandestine abortions” and the high birth rate, domestic violence, citizenship rights, access to higher education, equal access to employment and the means to evolve a healthy balance between urban and rural development.  Replies of the Government will be heard on 22 January.

Additional members of Bhutan’s delegation were:  Daw Penjo, Permanent Representative of Bhutan to the United Nations; Tshering Penjor, First Secretary, Permanent Mission of Bhutan to the United Nations; Ugyen Wangdi, Office of Legal Affairs; Rinchhen Chophel, Ministry of Health; Kesang Choden, Department of Aid and Debt Management; Yangey Penjor, Youth Development Fund; Tshering Pem, United Nations Development Programme, Thimphu; Sangye Rinchhen, International Convention Division; and Kinga Singye, Head, Policy Planning Division, Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Committee will meet again at 10 a.m. Tuesday, 20 January, to continue its consideration of country reports.


Before the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women was the combined initial, second and third reports of Bhutan (document CEDAW/C/BTN/1-3), which states that Bhutanese women enjoy freedom and equality in many spheres of life with a relatively high status, in contrast to situations found in many other developing countries.  Women comprise 49.5 per cent of the total population of about 698,000 in the Kingdom.  Because there is largely equality between women and men in Bhutan, overt discrimination against women does not exist.

The report concedes, however, that this is a “broad overview” of the complexity of the status of Bhutanese women, and that there is room for further improving social, cultural and economic factors that disadvantage Bhutanese women.  The biggest challenge nationwide is to eradicate the more subdued and indirect forms of gender bias encountered at home and in the workplace.  Despite Bhutan’s unique approach to development -- “Gross National Happiness”, which stresses, instead of material rewards, individual development irrespective of gender -- many ingrained sociocultural perceptions nationwide hold women as less capable and confident than men.  These aim at validating male superiority, while not adequately recognizing female capabilities.

The social status of women in Bhutan also varies between ethnic communities, and between Buddhist- and Hindu-influenced social practices, the report finds.  Thus, despite equal opportunities, regarding entitlements and legal status for women and men, differences persist in equitable access, particularly in education, enterprise development and governance.  This leads to significantly lower levels of achievement for Bhutanese women and girls.  Existing gender gaps appear to be narrowing, although gender-disaggregated data are not yet adequate to provide strong factual information.  Much more comprehensive gender-disaggregated data must be compiled and analysed.

Women, children and gender are an important area of the current ninth five-year plan (2002-2007), and the Government recognizes that discrimination against women is fundamentally unjust and constitutes an offence against human dignity.  Bhutan ratified the Convention on 31 August 1981 and, unlike numerous other States parties, has never raised any reservations.  The National Women’s Association of Bhutan has been designated as the public entity to improve women’s socio-economic conditions and encourage their participation in development activities.

The report notes that, although few specific follow-up actions have been taken in line with the Convention, given that many of the Convention’s principles already are integrated into national laws, an existing forum of gender focal persons is being revitalized with greater sharing, learning and capacity-building to further enhance mainstreaming of gender issues in the Government.  While no parallel projects will be formulated especially for women, the Government is committed to mainstreaming measures related to the promotion of women in development into all sectoral projects and programmes.  At the same time, it must be ensured that the commitment to mainstreaming is not misconstrued simply because women are welcome to participate in all programmes, and attention must be given to formulating clear and measurable results and indicators for gender issues.

Significant progress has occurred, the report contends, particularly in the major areas of education and health.  There have been major reductions in maternal, under-5 and infant mortality rates; initiation of widespread gender-sensitive programmes in nutrition and maternal health; specific prioritization of reproductive health in national policies; establishment of community schools to promote higher enrolment of girls; and vigorous promotion of non-formal education programmes, where the vast majority of beneficiaries are women.

The report states that all persons are equal before the law in Bhutan, but social customs that differentiate between women and men are still prevalent, primarily in the area of inheritance, where in most parts of the country women usually inherit the land.  With regard to marriage, divorce, child custody and other family matters, local practices reflect freedom and flexibility and guarantee women equal rights and protection.  However, certain remaining laws require revisions, including laws on polygamy and polyandry, restricted benefits upon marriage to an expatriate and sexual assault laws in incidents that do not constitute rape.

Formally enshrining in the law the concept of equal pay for equal work, at all levels, with specific penalties for violation, will strengthen it beyond its current inclusion in civil-service regulations, the report states.  Because of the general overall equality of women and men, no legislation explicitly prohibits discrimination against women, including unintentional and/or indirect discrimination, nor is there a national definition of discrimination against women congruent with the Convention.

In the family sphere, the report finds that the predominant religious and social values better protect most Bhutanese women, compared to those in other countries, and principles of tolerance and respect are emphasized.  Overall, parents do not have a preference for sons and give as much care to girls as boys.  Women are favoured in terms of inheritance in many parts of the country and they often head the households, taking major household decisions together with husbands and sharing productive work.  Instances of female infanticide, dowry deaths, bride burning, vicious acid attacks and organized trafficking in women are absent.

Further, the report says that lack of education represents a particular constraint to full gender equality, and areas for substantive attention in the ninth plan will include increasing enrolment of girls at higher levels of education, as well as dramatically improving female literacy.  Although gender disaggregated official statistical data is not available, it is estimated that total female illiteracy is only half that of men.  Overall literacy in the country is 54 per cent.

In health, Bhutan is beginning to view women’s health in a more holistic way, as part of the overall life cycle and expanding beyond the realm of reproductive health.  Even so, continued attention is being given to reproductive health to consolidate recent gains, which have allowed the population growth rate to decline from 3.l per cent yearly to 2.5 per cent.  With a rising number of sex workers inside Bhutan, primarily in border towns, the Government is also increasingly facing a dilemma about how to deal with the sex trade and, in particular, its health implications in terms of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections.

Women’s participation in the labour force, particularly in the modern sector, remains modest, the report notes.  The majority of women are still involved in agriculture.  Lower levels of education and skill enhancement result in women being “less employable”, particularly in urban centres.  Although some urban women are now prominent as the heads of successful businesses, most women remain concentrated in low-skilled and low-paid jobs with often limited promotion prospects.  With the emergence of rapidly increasing rural to urban migration, many girls and women find themselves employed as domestic help, particularly in childcare.

To counter this trend, however, the ninth five-year plan will encourage establishment of childcare centres and nurseries to ease burdens on working urban families, the report says.  Initiatives taken by the Queens and other female members of the Royal Family to serve the Government, particularly in leading social services activities, are providing positive female role models and encouragement to girls and women to participate in public service.  At the same time, there remains scope for improvement in Bhutanese women’s participation as an active force in the political life of the country.

Despite positive indicators, however, a 2001 baseline gender study found that many women feel that men are better equipped to understand and participate in matters of governance, the report states.  Many women also remain reticent to speak in public, particularly if they are illiterate.  Women, thus, are very much underrepresented in block and district development committees, as well as in national government.  Women do participate, however, in the election of village heads and representatives to the National Assembly and attend public village meetings.

Study findings further indicate that extensive travel and/or the demands of household and farm work tend to prevent women from attending higher-level meetings.  Encouragingly, however, 14 of 99 elected people’s representatives to the National Assembly are women, and one of six Royal Advisory Councillors is also female.  A 1998 Royal Decree underscored the importance of women’s representation in public life.  Regarding access to credit, women’s rights are largely unimpeded, but may vary between ethnic groups, and a review of credit patterns still indicates the leading role of men in taking most investment decisions.  Extension of microcredit to rural women for income generation has been a priority.

The report identifies that a new and important area of concern where action is being taken concerns violence against women and sexual abuse/harassment.  Steps are beginning to get under way to sensitize police, judges, doctors, teachers, mass media and political leaders alike to domestic and sexual violence through education and awareness training, in order to make intervention more effective.  A new and strong focus will be given to the eradication of sexual abuse and sexual harassment of women and girls, particularly in the workplace, at school and in rural social life.

The report concludes that, despite various constrains in its implementation of the Convention -– not least of which is the significant lack of human resources -- the Government is sincere in its determination not to be part of the pervasive, structural and systemic denial of rights that affects women and girls worldwide.  Bhutan will build on its established “bedrock of commitment” to gender equality and will ensure that this is raised in the future to the next level and beyond, it states.

Introduction of Report

Presenting his country’s initial through sixth periodic report, LYONPO UGYEN TSHERING, Minister for Labour and Human Resources of Bhutan, explained that Bhutan was a small, landlocked kingdom in the eastern Himalayas, which encompassed one of the most rugged terrains on earth.  Before the inception of planned economic development, Bhutan was predominantly agrarian with a barter economy and no modern infrastructure.  There were only 11 schools, with an enrolment of fewer than 500 students.  Modern health communication facilities were practically non-existent.

He said that, since 1961, Bhutan had made significant progress in improving the welfare of its population.  The country also witnessed a major social, economic, and political transformation.  Today, Bhutan was widely acknowledged by its development partners as a model for sustainable development.  Its development philosophy of “Gross National Happiness” had provided a holistic framework for the country’s social, economic and political development process over the last four decades.  Four major areas had been identified as the main pillars of that process, namely, economic growth and development, preservation and promotion of cultural heritage, preservation and sustainable use of the environment, and good governance.

Guided by that policy, Bhutan had been able to achieve equitable socio-economic progress, establish a democratic framework of governance, and preserve its rich cultural heritage and pristine environment, he said.  Between 1984 and 2000, the average life expectancy increased from 48 to 66.1 years.  Infant mortality declined from 142 to 60 per 1,000 live births, and health coverage rose from 65 per cent to 90 per cent of the population.  Literacy increased from 17 per cent in 1977 to the current rate of 54 per cent.  The primary school enrolment rate had reached 72 per cent and Bhutan was well on its way to achieving universal primary education by 2007.

Continuing, he said that per capita income increased from an estimated $51 in 1961 to $755 today.  While still according highest priority to the social sectors of health and education, Bhutan had recently begun expanding its development strategies to include private sector development and environmentally sustainable industrialization.  Political reforms had also been progressively introduced to bring about an effective democratic system.  Those reforms included separation of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, and the devolution of full executive powers by the King to an elected council of ministers (1998).  A constitution was currently being drafted.

Recalling that Bhutan ratified the Women’s Convention in 1981 without reservation, he said that resource and institutional capacity constraints had prevented it from meeting its reporting obligations on time.  The Government had taken consistent steps to progressively comply with the letter and spirit of the treaty, as well as to systematically address the constraints in meeting its reporting obligations.  Those included strengthening institutional capacity and augmenting the resources of the relevant legal and executive arms of government.  The establishment of the Office of Legal Affairs, the International Convention Division in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the National Commission for Women and Children were some of the more recent steps taken towards that goal.

In preparing the report, the Planning Commission undertook a gender baseline study –- the first of its kind -– with support from United Nations agencies in 2001, he noted.  The findings and recommendations provided valuable input for the preparation of the report.  Consultations and workshops were also convened, involving not only the government focal points and United Nations agencies, but also stakeholders from civil society as full partners in the process.  Further, the Convention and the updated summary of the report had been translated in the local languages and disseminated to the population, in order to raise awareness of the Convention and gender issues.

Following ratification of the Convention, a committee had been formed to monitor the country’s commitments, he went on.  Also, three studies were completed on health, education, and water and sanitation, as those were areas that directly affected women’s well-being.  That was followed up by the establishment of a forum of gender focal points in various ministries, under the leadership of the Planning Commission secretariat.  Given Bhutan’s understanding of the need for a strong legal framework to eliminate discrimination against women, numerous laws had been enacted to protect women’s special interests and rights.

Among them was the Inheritance Act of 1980, he said.  That guaranteed equal rights to women to land and property, but that right was “de facto” safeguarded in most communities, due to the predominant traditional practice of the matriarchal inheritance system, which favoured women.  The Marriage Act of 1980 guaranteed equality in marriage and family life.  Its amendment in 1996 not only raised the legal age for marriage from 16 to 18 for both sexes, but also protected and favoured women facing “unmarried pregnancies” or child custodial rights.  The Rape Act of 1996 sought to protect women against sexual abuse and assault by imposing severe financial penalties and prison sentences on offenders.  Those provisions were being incorporated into the draft Bhutan Penal Code.  The Police Act of 1980 and Prison Act of 1982 protected the special rights of women inmates.

He said that, although the law prohibited trafficking in women, Bhutan had also ratified the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Convention on the Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Women and Children for Prostitution.  The draft constitution clearly states that a woman had the right to be free from all forms of discrimination and exploitation, including trafficking, prostitution, abuse and violence.  It also guaranteed women the right to free and consensual marriage and the right to family.

Overall, the high priority given to women in Bhutan’s national policy was clearly reflected in the country’s socio-economic policies, he said.  In the area of health, prior to 1961 Bhutan’s health infrastructure consisted of four rudimentary hospitals and a handful of dispensaries.  Communicable diseases were widespread, and more than half of all children died at birth or during infancy.  Water supplies were largely confined to springs and streams.  Thus, creating a basic health infrastructure was an urgent priority.  By the end of 2002, Bhutan had 29 hospitals, 160 basic health units and 20 indigenous treatment centres providing free access to more than 90 per cent of the country’s population.

He said that significant improvements had resulted.  Between 1984 and 2000, maternal mortality fell from 7.7 to 2.5 per 1,000 live births.  Both by custom and law, women had rights to reproductive health care.  The comprehensive Reproductive Health Programme launched during the eighth five-year plan continued to address women’s specific needs.  Bhutan had also achieved 77.8 per cent access to safe and piped water, which had a direct bearing on improving the health and reducing the burden of labour for women.  In education, 40 years ago Bhutan had only 11 primary schools catering to fewer than 500 children.  Today, it had about 130,000 students in 412 schools, with girls accounting for 47 per cent of the total enrolment.

In employment, formalized gender bias did not exist, and there was no distinct division of labour between men and women, he said.  For instance, although ploughing the fields was generally regarded as a man’s job and housekeeping as a woman’s, that was not a rigid practice.  In a household “short of women”, men also engaged in routine domestic work.  The task of cultivation, from sowing to harvesting, was shared equally.  Also, the head of a household was not a gender-specific domain.  Usually, the more capable person -– often the wife or eldest daughter -– assumed that sector.  The Royal Civil Service Rules guaranteed women equal pay and employment opportunities in Government, while the labour policies ensured equal wage rates.  Increasingly, many businesses were also being owned and run by women, and more than 40 per cent of participants in vocational training institutes were women, which would enhance their urban sector employment.

He said that women’s empowerment in decision-making through wider representation, both quantitatively and qualitatively, continued to be promoted.  In 1961, the civil service was male-dominated.  Today, women comprised 26 per cent of the civil service.  That was steadily improving, not only in terms of numbers, but also in terms of provisions.  In 2003, Bhutan appointed two women as the Foreign Secretary and Finance Secretary, which were among the most senior positions in government.  Representation of women in the diplomatic and international forums was notable, in that out of 35 foreign services officers, 14 were women.

The laws and development policies of Bhutan had always sought to ensure equal rights, as well as the security and well-being of women in society, he concluded.  Bhutan was fully aware of the challenges to comprehensively achieve the goals of the Convention.  The challenge in Bhutan was to eradicate the more subdued and indirect forms of gender bias existing within society or emerging as a consequence of change.  Despite equal opportunities and entitlements, and equal legal status for women and men, differences were seen in equitable access, particularly in education, enterprise development and governance, leading to lower levels of achievement for Bhutanese women and girls.  Societal perceptions that women were physically weaker and more vulnerable had greatly influenced their access to educational and employment opportunities.  Women’s own perception of themselves seemed to be based on those two factors, as well.

He said that Bhutan recognized that, as the economy and society modernized, diverse needs emerged.  That, in turn, prompted shifts in traditional roles and responsibilities, values, transformation of family patterns and rural-urban migration, among others.  Experience had revealed that, during such transition, women and children were particularly vulnerable.  The Government had acknowledged the emerging economic and social trends and had committed resources and redirected plans and programmes to mainstream gender needs and interests.  It also recognized the need to remind itself about the changing nature of how women’s rights were affected and the need for social, economic and legal remedial measures on a continuous basis, he said.

Experts Questions

Committee Chairperson and expert from Turkey, AYSE FERIDE ACAR, congratulated the delegation on behalf of the Committee for presenting the report.  She also expressed appreciation for the presence of a large delegation from the capital.  While the Committee welcomed the opportunity to direct questions to the delegation during the meeting, the fact that Bhutan had ratified the Convention in 1981 meant that the Committee had not had the chance to monitor the Convention’s implementation in Bhutan for more than two decades.

She also drew attention to the Convention’s Optional Protocol, urging the Government to consider ratifying that instrument.  Efforts to secure the necessary number of ratifications to the amendment to article 20.1, which would enable additional meeting time, was still ongoing.  In that regard, she asked the delegation to convey the Committee’s urging to the Government to consider ratifying the amendment.

NAELA GABR, expert from Egypt, expressed appreciation for the report, albeit late, as it would facilitate the Committee’s dialogue today.  The fact that Bhutan had acceded to the Convention without reservations was also praiseworthy.  How had the Convention been dealt with in Bhutan at the legal level?  More information was needed on the report’s preparation.  Given its cultural traditions, she asked how the Government planned to maintain those traditions and the ideals enshrined in the Convention.

SALMA KHAN, expert from Bangladesh, asked if Government functionaries and the people of Bhutan had adequate knowledge of the Convention.  As Bhutan was on the verge of drafting a new constitution, did that draft contain gender equality and prohibit discrimination against women?  Wider knowledge of the Convention would help to sustain ongoing development processes, she noted.

Monitoring compliance with the provisions of the Convention would require sex-disaggregated data, she said.  What measures had been taken to generate data for all sectors?  She urged the delegation to include women in the Royal Advisory Council and other authoritative bodies and to consider using temporary special measures to enable women to carry out their role in society.

FRANÇOISE GASPARD, expert from France, said she was very interested by the report, although it did not entirely follow guidelines and was late.  What ministries and departments had been involved in preparing the report?  More specifically, how did civil society and non-governmental organizations participate in the report preparation process?  Bhutan must carefully study the conclusions reached by the Committee when drafting its constitution and ensure that it contain the provisions of the Women’s Convention.

GÖRAN MELANDER, expert from Sweden, asked if the Constitution would contain a chapter on the bill of rights.  Regarding the status of the Convention under domestic legislation, if the Convention went against domestic law, which took precedence?

Addressing the issue of refugees, he noted that there were quite a number of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal.  That situation was related in part to citizenship.  Many of those refugees would want to repatriate back to Bhutan.  Women and children were most often affected by refugee issues.  What steps were being taken to facilitate voluntary repatriation, even for those who were stateless? he asked.

FATIMA KWAKU, expert from Nigeria, asked for more information on the Convention monitoring committee, including its budget.

DUBRAVKA ŠIMONOVIC, expert from Croatia, asked if the report had been presented to the Government, or adopted by the Government.  Also, what was the legal status of international treaties ratified by Bhutan?  Did the Government have future plans to ratify other major human rights treaties?

KRISZTINA MORVAI, expert from Hungary, said the growth in different development indicators in Bhutan, including in the areas of health and literacy, was exceptional and must be acknowledged.  However, women benefited significantly less from those impressive developments than men, particularly in the paid employment sector.  A follow-up, including sex disaggregated statistics, would be important for gauging the effect of growth and development on women in the different areas.  According to the Beijing Declaration, a clear institutional framework for monitoring the Convention was needed.  What was the national machinery for the advancement of women?

HEISOO SHIN, expert from the Republic of Korea, said Bhutan had been a country of great interest and mystery to her.  Bhutan had the advantage of learning from other more developed countries in not making the same mistakes.  She hoped Bhutan would not repeat mistakes made by other countries, such as her own, in its development.  She stressed the importance of data collection and sex disaggregated data for mapping the country’s future development.  The inclusion of women’s labour -- paid and unpaid, in rural and urban areas -- should be incorporated into data collection.  What plan did the Government have in shaping data collection to include a gender perspective?  She wanted to know how many women’s organizations there were in Bhutan, as cooperation with civil society was crucial for the country’s development.

HUGUETTE BOKPE GNACADJA, expert from Benin, was pleased that the Government was undertaking to draft a written constitution.  Would it contain a definition of discrimination against women?  The report had indicated that no national law, in fact, provided such a definition.  She insisted on the importance of doing that.  She also asked whether the draft penal code had specific provisions to prevent and punish acts of violence against women.

PRAMILA PATTEN, expert from Mauritius, said she was extremely concerned at the lack of legislation to address domestic violence.  She was also amazed that the Convention monitoring committee had not addressed that issue so far.  Drawing delegates’ attention to the related general recommendation 19, she asked the Government to address that issue on an urgent basis and to bring about the appropriate legislation.  Also, the sections in the report dealing with violence were purely descriptive and did not provide information about any steps the Government was intending to take in that regard.

She asked whether the Rape Act covered marital rape.  The data supplied to the Committee had indicated that there simply were no cases of violence, especially domestic violence, being reported.  What were the obstacles faced by women with regard to reporting such cases, and were efforts envisaged by the Government to sensitize women on their rights and to train police and judiciary to be more gender sensitive?

FUMIKO SAIGA, expert from Japan, asked when the constitution would be adopted.  She also wanted to know the scope of the general law of 1957 and whether that was the same as the supreme law.  She also sought clarification about the procedure of amending discriminatory laws, namely, who would take the initiative and what was the process of publicizing the new law?

Ms. GABR, expert from Egypt, said that certain Bhutanese laws needed to come into line with the country’s treaty commitments.  The legislative movement should consider all laws related to nationality, marriage, inheritance, and so forth.  What was the Government’s vision of that modernization process?  Any progress for women should be linked to a legislative base that was clear and respected women’s rights.

MARÍA YOLANDA FERRER GÓMEZ, Vice-Chairperson and expert from Cuba, sought more information on the existing machinery to ensure women’s advancement.  She asked whether that National Association of Bhutanese Women, mentioned in the report, was a governmental body or a non-governmental organization.  The report emphasized the importance of working in the areas of health, family sanitation, schools and income generation, but the Convention was much broader and contained many objectives that should be addressed.  The Government had not referred to any work done by a national mechanism in that regard.  It also had indicated that there were no plans for women and gender goals were not necessarily included in new projects.  What guidelines were being provided to ensure women’s advancement within the context of the upcoming five-year plan? she asked.

MARIA REGINA TAVARES DA SILVA, expert from Portugal, acknowledged the efforts under way, but said that the report had revealed a “certain hesitation” about the Government’s plans to address the discrimination issue.  It indicated on page 12 that, while there was recognition of discrimination, not much support existed for promoting women’s advancement.  So long as national policies were “gender neutral”, as the report also stated, it also acknowledged that those policies “often failed” to protect women from discrimination.  That should be clarified, and gender concerns should be taken into account in the formulation of all policies and programmes.

VICTORIA POPESCU SANDRU, Vice-Chairperson and expert from Romania, said that, among the programmes carried out by the national women’s association, no mention had been made of any endeavour relating to the elimination of violence against women, or of their political empowerment, or the elimination of all forms of discrimination against them.  The stress had been on development issues, nutrition and health.  Those were major concerns, but those were not the only ones to be tackled under the Convention.

She asked about the mandate and function of the national commission for women and children, specifically whether that was a national machinery tasked with drafting the national strategy and plan for women’s advancement.  Also, was that its own ministry or part of another one, and who led it?  Was there a separate department for women or was that combined with family and children, which risked emphasizing women’s maternal roles only?

Ms. TAVARES DA SILVA, expert from Portugal, said there was no specific chapter on article IV, which concerned special temporary measures to accelerate equality.  But, she had been struck by a reference on page 17, which stated that no provision had been made for preferential treatment in favour of women in education and employment, because women could participate in all activities on an equal basis with men.  Even if there was no formal discrimination, the de facto situation was often discriminatory.

Ms. KHAN, expert from Bangladesh, said the report had indicated that the biggest challenge was to eradicate the most subdued forms of gender bias, both at home and at work.  Somehow, in the whole system, there was “a kind of acceptance” of those realities, in that the traditional perception and history of Bhutan was somehow condoning those attitudes.  Women were basically responsible for all home work and were considered as wives and mothers.  At the same time, they alone cared for extended families, and rural households traditionally were “very extended”.  Regarding the studies that had been done, particularly in the area of education, had any effort been made to change that attitude or address stereotypes in school curricula?

Ms. FERRER, expert from Cuba, said traditions were oftentimes discriminatory and carried considerable weight.  Various ethnic, cultural and religions groups had different practices.  Women were often unable to speak in public, move freely or seek employment outside of the home.  The report did not say what was currently being done to counteract such mindsets.

Addressing the issue of sexual exploitation, Ms. TAVARES DA SILVA, expert from Portugal, noted that there was no form of “moral” trafficking.

Ms. MORVAI, expert from Hungary, agreed that there was no moral element in victims of trafficking.  Prostitution was an immoral activity.  It was not an immoral activity on the part of prostitute, who was often a victim of child abuse and pressured by poverty into that form of violence against women.  It was, however, an immoral activity on the part of the client.  She encouraged the delegation to rely on its healthy spiritual foundations on the issue and make prostitution illegal, not through criminalizing prostitutes, but by following Sweden’s pioneering example by criminalizing the clients.  She encouraged the delegation to study the Swedish model and seek technical assistance to develop its law on prostitution.  There was no way to address trafficking without addressing prostitution, she added.

Regarding the participation of women in political and public life, Ms. ŠIMONOVIC, the expert from Croatia, said she was surprised to note certain sentences that reflected stereotypical attitudes in that field.  What was the Government doing to change stereotypes in women’s participation in political and public life?  More recent information was needed, including on the number of women in the judiciary and the Government.

The expert from Hungary, Ms. MORVAI, went on to note that Bhutan’s draft constitution did contain a provision that women had the right to be free from trafficking and violence.  Making freedom from prostitution and trafficking a constitutional right, and by making it clear that prostitution was a form of discrimination, meant that Bhutan had done pioneering work.  She commended and encouraged the Government to keep in the final constitution the provision of declaring the right of women to be free from prostitution and trafficking.

She noted that women had been sexually assaulted by dissidents in cross-border raids in southern Bhutan.  What had the Government done and what would it do in future to suppress that form of violence?

Ms. POPESCU, the expert from Romania, said she was pleased to hear about steps to strengthen the composition of Bhutan’s foreign office.  She asked for figures on the number of women diplomats abroad, the number working in international forums and the number of female ambassadors.  She wondered if women benefited to the same degree as their male counterparts from training.

DORCAS AMA FREMA COKER-APPIAH, the expert from Ghana, said that on the issue of citizenship, there was a clear case of discrimination regarding the right of Bhutanese women to pass on their citizenship to their children.  In the case of Bhutanese men married to non-Bhutanese women, the child could automatically receive Bhutanese citizenship.  Bhutanese women married to non-Bhutanese men, however, could not pass on their citizenship.  Equal rights must be given to men and women regarding the citizenship of children.

Ms. SAIGA, expert from Japan, asked for more information on the issue of citizenship, as it seemed to be a complicated matter in Bhutan.

Ms. GASPARD, expert from France, also asked for clarification on the question of access to citizenship.  Regarding Bhutanese refugees in Nepal, she noted that negotiations were under way to return nationals of Bhutan.  What was the status of those negotiations?  What was the status of the children of women who originally had Bhutanese nationality but had married non-Bhutanese men?  Were they entitled to Bhutanese nationality and could they enter the country?

CORNELIS FLINTERMANN, expert from the Netherlands, said it was clear that Bhutan had travelled a long way in implementing the right to education.  In 2003, some 47 per cent of the total number of students enrolled at the primary school level were women.  The results achieved at the secondary and tertiary levels, while impressive, were not as spectacular.  What policy measures were being taken to encourage girls and women to enrol in higher levels of secondary and tertiary education?  Was the Government considering special temporary measures?

He also noted an increasing number of female teachers.  The report did not make clear whether they were teaching at all levels of education.  Due to the country’s rapid population growth, the financial implications of providing education to all were enormous.  Was the Government seeking international cooperation?

SJAMSIAH ACHMAD, the expert from Indonesia, said the Government’s emphasis seemed mainly to be on access to education.  She had not seen anything about the content of education.  What measures were being taken to review and improve the content of education?

Ms. SHIN, Vice-Chairperson and expert from Republic of Korea, said there was a big discrepancy in technical education, especially in science and technology, and an extremely high percentage of illiterate women among the rural population.  Could the Government consider temporary special measures for women and girls in that area, such as scholarships or quotas?  And, what measures were available for the education of rural women, whose illiteracy rate was “alarming”?

Ms. GASPARD, expert from France, noted that the report had said that one objective was to develop a university system of higher education within a national university.  She assumed that, meanwhile, students were obliged to study abroad.  Did the Government have statistics on the students for both boys and girls?  And, was there a system of assistance and encouragement to provide girls with equal access to higher education, whether in the country or abroad?

Ms. PATTEN, expert from Mauritius, asked what concrete measures the Ministry intended to take to ensure that women had the same employment opportunities.  The report had mentioned that the number of women holding senior management positions was very small.  What were the obstacles and did the Ministry of Labour and Human Resources envisage the use of temporary special measures?

She said that the report had also noted that 50,000 students would enter the labour market during the ninth plan, which would likely increase to 200,000 by 2010.  Unfortunately, no gender-disaggregated data had been provided to help determine the number of women who would enter the labour force.  Also, what were the concrete policy decisions of the Ministry for those women to ensure that their rights and opportunities were equal in the employment field?

Ms. SHIN said that a “big task” lay head in deriving a healthy balance between the rural and urban communities.  In rural development, the report had stated that women had less access to, and participation in, agriculture and animal husbandry training programmes, particularly when those required travel and overnight stays.  That was an area where the Government should truly incorporate the gender perspective.  Would it be possible for its development personnel, then, to visit the women’s homes, instead of asking them to travel?

She said that, concerning women’s work in the police force, the report had stated that 104 women had joined, following the Police Act of 1980, and that they were allowed to investigate cases involving women or become involved in traffic control. Relegating only certain tasks to women was discriminatory.

Ms. KWAKU, expert from Nigeria, praised Bhutan for attaining over 90 per cent of basic health coverage, despite the rugged terrain and highly dispersed population.  She sought more information about the so-called telemedicine projects, particularly how women would benefit from them.  Also, the report stated that legal abortion was permitted since 1999, only to save the life of a woman or terminate a pregnancy if the foetus or child was deformed.  According to the report, that had led to a number of “clandestine abortions” by women and even schoolgirls.  That situation deserved consideration.

She noted that those abortions often were carried out across the borders.  Probably Bhutan did not have concrete or factual details of how many of those clandestine abortions were taking place.  What did the country envisage to arrest that situation? she asked.

Ms. KAHN, expert from Bangladesh, said that the birth rate was alarming.  Why was that rate so high and was there a population policy?  Was there much demand for contraception?  Also, why had the ninth plan not focused on women’s health in a more holistic way, particularly given their vulnerability to diseases, such as breast and cervical cancers and heart disease.  Was it possible that the numerous marriages among young girls also had an impact on the very high fertility level? she asked.

She also sought more information about alcoholism and tobacco consumption, for which some service should be provided.  On HIV/AIDS, so far only 29 cases had been reported, but there was an increasing number of sick workers, particularly in the refugee camps.  Was there any information on the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the camps, either in Nepal or Bhutan?

Ms. PATTEN congratulated the Government for making access to health services a priority issue.  The reduction in infant and maternal mortality rates was also very commendable.  Was there a policy decision to review family planning services, considering the high birth rate?  Given the increase in the number of hospitals and health units in the past 30 years, to what extent had the health-care system been decentralized and did rural women have access to it?  She also wanted to know if gender sensitization campaigns were under way, especially in rural areas.

HANNA BEATE SCHÖPP-SCHILLING, expert from Germany, noted women’s discrimination on the one hand and women’s progress on other.  With 80 per cent of the population living in rural areas, she said she did not have a clear picture of the situation of women there.  On the one hand, the report had stated that 60 per cent held land titles and had the power of the purse, but on the other hand, it was men who made decisions on buying farm equipment, and that women and girls were not mobile and did not have access to assets.

She encouraged the delegation, in its replies and its next report, to provide very specific data on the situation of rural women, for which the Government might consider requesting international assistance.  Also, what kind of work was mainly being done by women in agriculture?  And, did they work for cash or mostly do subsistence work? If it was the latter case, then what was their economic situation?

She also said that she agreed that there was some misunderstanding about policy-making.  Gender mainstreaming efforts were laudable, but those did not exclude special projects for women.  The Committee felt that, in order to reach substantive equality, special projects for women and temporary special measures should be applied to accelerate the progress.  Otherwise, that would take another 500 years, she said.

Ms. KWAKU joined Ms. Schöpp-Schilling in requesting more details about the situation of rural women and on women with disabilities.

Mr. FLINTERMAN, expert from the Netherlands, said he was confused about the marriage age of 15 years for common-law marriage and the fact that no marriage certificate was issued for common-law marriages.  What exactly was the legal status of such marriages and could they be dissolved?  It seemed that the existence of common-law marriages was undermining the legal age of 18 for marriage.  Would the Government consider ending the practice of common-law marriages?

Also, he continued, regarding marriage to a foreigner, he noted that the Bhutanese man retained his nationality in those cases, but that whenever a Bhutanese woman married a foreign man, she automatically lost her Bhutanese citizenship or was rendered Stateless.  That difference in treatment was an impediment for Bhutanese women to freely choose their spouse.  Was the Government willing to rethink those laws? he asked.

Ms. GONZALEZ, expert from Mexico, asked if polygamy and polyandry existed and were permitted?  Also, could specific steps be taken to raise awareness about that, leading to the abolition of such practices?  Throughout the report, references had been made to marriage between relatives, specifically that any marriage contracted between individuals within an acceptable degree of relationship was accepted in certain areas.  It stated that such practice was not considered to be incestuous, but rather underlay local customs and was permitted under law.  The report found that that practice existed predominantly in eastern Bhutan.  Had the Government envisaged changing such practices by means of education or consciousness-raising campaigns?  And, what were the accepted causes of divorce and was there any difference when women and men requested it?  Could a marriage be annulled?

Ms. GNACADJA, expert from Benin, asked, since the issuance of birth certificates was very rare, what instrument was used to verify the legal minimum age required at the time of marriage and how could the 1996 amendment be applied?  And, how was it possible to implement a ban on marriage between minors, if the birth certificate was a very rare document?

Concerning domestic violence, she noted that, although that was described in the report as a crime and misdemeanour, the issue was not treated under the criminal code, but only by two articles of the law that only provide for fines and only in cases where the woman was sleeping or drugged.  Could the Government consider removing those deterrents to women from pressing charges? she asked.

Ms. KWAKU, expert from Nigeria, asked for the definition of marriage under the 1980 Marriage Act.  What were the grounds for divorce under the same Act and who had custody for children in cases of divorce and in the cases of polygamous and polyandrous marriages?  She encouraged the Government to consider the total elimination of polygamous and polyandrous unions.

Ms. ŠIMONOVIC, expert from Croatia, asked if marriage certificates were possible for common law marriage.  On arranged marriages, what was the Government doing to prevent arranged and immature marriages?

Ms. KHAN, expert from Bangladesh, said the perception of marriage as an economic union among families was wrong and should be changed.  She was also confused on the issue of child marriage.  According to the marriage act, traditional marriages could not take place between minors.  Minors could get married under common law, yet the marriage law did not allow child marriages.  Common-law marriages were accepted and did not receive a certificate from a court of law.  She also asked about the status of inheritance in urban areas.

Responding to the comments, Mr. TSHERING said he was happy for the Committee’s in-depth consideration of the report.  Clarity had been sought on some of the issues addressed.  He was pleased that many experts had chosen to look at the broader issue of the Convention’s implementation.  The late submission of the report would be addressed and the delegation would prepare responses to the many questions posed.  He was aware that there were many shortcomings, but the idea had been to submit the report rather than further delay its issuance.  He looked forward to answering the Committee’s questions.

* *** *


*     Pages 2-15 of this press release should be 636th Meeting (AM) only.

For information media. Not an official record.