24 January 2011
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women this afternoon met with non-governmental organizations to discuss the situation of the rights of women in Bangladesh, Belarus and Sri Lanka. As part of its work, the Committee invites non-governmental organizations and national human rights institutions to provide information and documentation relevant to the Committee’s activities.
This was the second of two meetings the Committee has held with civil society groups this session; the first meeting took place on January 17 when the Committee heard relevant information pertaining to the rights of women in Israel, Kenya, Liechtenstein and South Africa.
Representatives of non-governmental organizations in Bangladesh noted that the Government had used its reservation to articles 2 and 16 to avoid its obligation to ensure equality and non-discrimination against women. This was especially critical considering the multiple forms of discrimination suffered by women including financial status, identity and access to resources. It was important to note that poorer women were especially vulnerable. Speakers requested that the Committee urge the State party to review all economic development policies and programmes from a gender perspective to ensure women’s empowerment and economic growth at the national and rural levels.
Speakers from non-governmental organizations in Sri Lanka said that the country had one of the world’s largest populations of internally displaced persons and within this context women faced routine discrimination vis-à-vis housing, land and property. Speakers also said that for many years the international community had repeatedly expressed its concern with regard to sexual violence perpetrated against women in the country.
The existence and legal denial of sexual violence as a crime was an expression of gender-based discrimination and patriarchal systems that needed to be overcome. Speakers also drew the Committee’s attention to violence and discrimination faced by lesbians and other sexual minorities in Sri Lanka as a result of an archaic British law that criminalized homosexuality.
Representatives of non-governmental organizations from Belarus said that during the reporting period there was no improvement in the status of women in Belarus and there was little progress towards the elimination of gender discrimination. Women continued to experience acute problems in Belarus such as poverty and discrimination in the labour market and serious challenges to participation in public life. The number of members in the women’s movement had decreased and the movement itself had encountered significant institutional development problems. Violence against women was still widespread and the real scale of domestic violence was unknown because the problem remained largely hidden; there was a lack of action on the part of the police and impunity given to perpetrators.
Speaking during the discussion were representatives from the Bangladesh Citizen’s Initiative on CEDAW, Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, the Women and Media Collective, the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights and the Women’s Independent Democratic Movement.
When the Committee reconvenes on Tuesday, 25 January at 10 a.m., it is scheduled to begin its consideration of the combined sixth and seventh periodic report of Bangladesh (CEDAW/C/BGD/6-7).
Statements by Non-Governmental Organizations
SALMA KHAN, of Bangladesh Citizen’s Initiative on CEDAW, focused her intervention on five areas: withdrawal of reservations; gender mainstreaming; women’s political participation; violence against women; and livelihood issues. With respect to reservations, Ms. Khan said the Government had used its reservation to articles 2 and 16 to avoid its obligation to ensure equality and non-discrimination against women. This was especially critical considering the multiple forms of discrimination suffered by women including financial status, identity and access to resources. It was important to note that poorer women were especially vulnerable. With respect to gender mainstreaming, Ms. Khan said the CEDAW Convention had not yet been domesticated in the legal framework and had not been translated into a cohesive national plan of action for the full implementation of its obligations under the Convention.
AYESHA KHANAM, of Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, said that in relation to women’s political participation, the State had not adequately addressed the issue of development of political leadership at the local level. The elected women representatives at the different tiers of local government were not provided with the needed institutional support, allocation of resources and clear roles and responsibilities. Due to these and other factors, women’s share in political representation at the national level remained a low 19 per cent. In addressing violence against women, it was noted that directives to the state administration mandated by High Court judgements were often not circulated to or implemented by the stakeholders, leading to a recurrence of violence against women. In relation to women’s access to economic growth, Ms. Khanam requested the Committee to urge the State party to review all economic development policies and programmes from a gender perspective to ensure women’s empowerment and economic growth at the national and rural levels. Finally, with regard to women migrant workers, despite an increase in demand for women migrant workers, the Government had not taken measures to ensure safe migration. The absence of a State policy combined with a complete lack of information on the part of the worker had put this entire population at risk, especially women.
CHULANI KODIKARA, of Women and Media Collective, said that the representation of women in elected political bodies was extremely low in Sri Lanka. One major reason was the low number of nominations given to women by the major political parties. Sri Lanka was the only country in South Asia without a quota for women at the local government level. A new law which was tabled in parliament, but had not been passed, provided for a combined quota for women and youth with no specific guarantee of a minimum quota for women. Furthermore, this quota was discretionary and non-compliance would not result in any penalties. Ms. Kodikara requested the Committee to urge the State party to mandate a quota for women in local government.
JAYANTI KURU UTUMPALA, of the Women and Media Collective, said that with regard to conflict affected women, rehabilitation activities had been sporadic with mainly stereotypical vocational training such as sewing and beauty culture provided to former women combatants. Continued militarization and military dominance of civil administration had exacerbated the vulnerability of women to violence and harassment. Ms. Utumpala drew the Committee’s attention to the violence and discrimination faced by lesbians and other sexual minorities in Sri Lanka, as a result of an archaic British law that criminalized homosexuality. This violence came in the form of homophobic articles in the media, familial violence and State sanctioned violence under Section 365A of the Penal Code and the Vagrancy Ordinances Act. Many joint suicides of young girls had been reported in the media.
SHYAMALA GOMEZ, of the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, said that Sri Lanka had one of the world’s largest populations of internally displaced persons and within this context women faced routine discrimination vis-à-vis housing, land and property. Ms. Gomez said that the application of the “head of the household” concept had resulted in discrimination against women. This was seen in the aftermath of the tsunami when women were disentitled to property as a consequence of the “head of the household” rule, seen as synonymous with being male, and thus not being authorized to sign official documentation.
Secondly, while the State had been giving land to landless peasants for many years, this process systematically excluded women. Most often it was the man who applied for land and he was given the land as single ownership as head of the household which meant the land was not held jointly by a married couple, but solely by the husband.
ANNA VON GALL, of the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights, said that for many years the international community had been monitoring the human rights situation in Sri Lanka and had repeatedly expressed its concern with regard to the sexual violence perpetrated against women. On the basis of the 2002 observations, the Committee was also alarmed by the high and severe incidents of rape and sexual violence against Tamil women by police and security forces in the conflict areas. Ms. Von Gall argued that gender-based violence was a foreseeable consequence of conflict in certain circumstances. The existence and legal denial of sexual violence as a crime was an expression of gender-based discrimination and patriarchal systems that needed to be overcome. Ms. Von Gall called on the Committee to increase its recognition of rape as a tactic in conflict and to strengthen its approach for a broad response to the impact of conflict on women.
LYUDMILA PETINA, of the Women’s Independent Democratic Movement, said that during the reporting period there was no improvement in the status of women in Belarus and there was little progress towards the elimination of gender discrimination. Women continued to experience acute problems in Belarus such as poverty and discrimination in the labour market and violence against women as well as serious challenges to women’s participation in public life. The number of members in the women’s movement in Belarus had decreased and the movement itself had encountered significant institutional development problems. Poverty and labour market difficulties were the main problems experienced by Belarusian women. Low income levels and problems in job placement were the most critical issues facing women and a nationwide survey conducted in 2009 showed that 54.3 per cent of adult women did not have enough means for purchasing clothing and even food. Violence against women was still widespread and the real scale of domestic violence was still unknown because the problem remained largely hidden. There was a lack of action on the part of the police and impunity given to perpetrators.
ELENA TONKACHEVA, of the Women’s Independent Democratic Movement, drew the Committee’s attention to issues related to democracy, rule of law and human rights in Belarus. The peaceful protest of Belarusian citizens on the day of the presidential election resulted in immediate and violent repressions against the opposition and a war against dissenters. Of the 700 people beaten and arrested in Minsk the night after the election, one third was women. The State then organized so-called court proceedings without advocates and behind closed doors. The arrested people were denied access to lawyers and were subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment and torture by the State. Ms. Tonkacheva called on the Committee to demand an explanation from the Government for this violence against women, whose sole aim was to ensure their voices were heard in national politics.
Questions by Committee Members
A Committee member asked a question regarding women and agricultural production in Bangladesh and what were the principal problems faced by these agricultural workers? Did the Government have special policies to help them?
Another Committee Expert asked whether there were any attempts by the Government or civil society in Sri Lanka to have the ban on judicial review removed? How did the Sri Lankan Government disseminate information on the Optional Protocol and how did non-governmental organizations use this tool to mobilize their activities? Apart from land allocation, were there any other areas in which women were adversely affected by the “head of household” terminology?
With respect to Bangladesh, an Expert asked for more information from non-governmental organizations about the reasons the Government gave them about not lifting reservations to articles 2 and 16? Were any outcomes to the commission that was tasked to domesticating the Convention into national law? Had non-governmental organizations used the individual communications provisions under the Optional Protocol to further their work?
An Expert asked whether there was cooperation with the Governments of Sri Lanka and Belarus with non-governmental organizations or was it a restrictive situation?
A Committee member asked about micro-credit institutions in Belarus and if there were any negative impacts seen for women in that country.
An Expert asked whether non-governmental organizations had been able to check on the status of women who were imprisoned in Belarus after the presidential elections. Could they use the declaration from the European parliament to advance their aims? Was there coherent cooperation among the women’s non-governmental organizations in the country? Also, what was the situation concerning the dissemination of the Optional Protocol in Belarus? This was a particularly strong instrument to help women suffering from domestic violence.
The next speaker asked if anyone had taken up the work of the women’s political party that was dissolved in 2007
Responses by the Non-governmental Organizations
A representative from a Bangladeshi non-governmental organization said that in terms of female agricultural workers they demanded that the Government recognize the contribution of women agricultural workers and that half of the resources devoted to agriculture should go to women. Landless farmers worked in bonded sharecropping and the Government should institutionalize the support system for these workers.
Another non-governmental organization representative from Bangladesh said that recently there had been a lot of concern regarding micro-credits and at this point in time the Government was taking the issue seriously and had appointed two committees to review micro-credit programmes. The problem was that non-governmental organizations started offering micro-credits without the proper oversight and some of them offered credit at very high interest rates.
A representative from a Sri Lankan non-governmental organization said that the constitution did not recognize judicial review of legislation, but it was possible to challenge a bill before it became a law if it discriminated against women. The constitution also allowed discriminatory laws that were in place when it was promulgated in 1979 to continue.
Another non-governmental organization representative from Sri Lanka said that cooperation with the Government was difficult and they had trouble getting meetings with government officials.
On the questions of the “head of household” rules, another NGO representative from Sri Lanka said this terminology was used in every area of public administration on all their forms and it was generally understood that men were heads of household, although the language in and of itself was not discriminatory. It pervaded all areas of public administration. The Government also gave land in single ownership, not joint ownership, which meant that when a couple applied for a land grant, it was granted to the husband, but not the wife. In terms of cooperation with Government, the representative said there had been tremendous difficulties in dealing with various government ministries.
In responding to the questions surrounding Belarus, a non-governmental organization representative said that there had been a fruitful period of cooperation with the Government after the Peking Conference. But beginning in 2005 when the harsh attitude toward non-governmental organizations began, that cooperation decreased. Women made up 30 per cent of parliament in Belarus, but this was not an independent body so when members were told not to cooperate with non-governmental organizations they stopped offering their assistance. The draft bill to prevent domestic violence was prepared in 2001 by a non-profit organization, but to date that law had still not been adopted. The women’s party was closed down due to formal reasons, but the women who had been in that party were still active in politics.
Another Belarusian non-governmental organization representative said that concerning conditions in prisons and detention centres, some women were arrested for 15 days and they had a good sense of what the conditions were for those women. There was no information whatsoever on the KGB prisons because the women held there could not communicate with the outside world and their lawyers were not allowed to say anything about their clients or the conditions in which they were held.
Follow-up Questions by Committee Members
An Expert asked if there was any follow-up on the suicides of lesbian women in Bangladesh. The Expert also asked more about women who were former combatants in Sri Lanka? Did the domestic violence bill in Belarus also include the concept of physical violence as well as mental anguish, or did it refer the same definition that was currently contained in the criminal code?
The next speaker asked how many people were imprisoned by authorities in Belarus.
Responses by the Non-governmental Organizations
One speaker said that although Bangladesh had not incorporated the Optional Protocol in domestic law, there was a class action suit and judges were very active in this regard and both the Government and civil society had taken initiatives in this area.
In terms of micro-credits, another speaker said that sometimes these credits led to increased gender-based violence and they did not always empower women.
In terms of the questions posed to Belarus, a speaker said that the proposed law on domestic violence did contain a different definition of domestic violence than that contained in the criminal code. Had this bill been adopted it would have represented a major step forward in combating domestic violence. Without the adoption of this law, Belarus women were not protected.
Regarding ex-combatants in Sri Lanka, a speaker said that about 10,000 of them were sent to rehabilitation centres but since 2009 no non-governmental organizations had had access to these centres so there was no way of verifying whether they had all been released.