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UNITED NATIONS
Department of Public Information · News Coverage Service · New York


WOM/1034
3 March 1998


Commission on the Status of Women
Forty-second Session

4th Meeting (PM)

NEED TO ADDRESS FULL RANGE OF WOMEN'S HUMAN RIGHTS -- CIVIL, POLITICAL,
SOCIAL, ECONOMIC, CULTURAL -- STRESSED IN WOMEN'S COMMISSION



Panel Discussion on Human Rights of Women Also Discusses
Land Rights, Customary Practices Such as Genital Mutilation, Illiteracy


Governments should not compartmentalize the human rights of women and should treat their economic inequality as a priority issue, the Commission on the Status of Women was told this afternoon as it began the first of four panel discussions of issues related to the rights of women and girls.

This afternoon's panel, which focused on the human rights of women, was part of four discussions that the Commission will hold on four of the critical areas of concern included in the Platform for Action of the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing. The others are the girl child, women and armed conflict, and violence against women. The outcome of the discussions will form part of recommendations to be adopted by the Commission.

Speaking in the panel discussion, Shelagh Day, of the National Association of Women and the Law in Canada and a human rights consultant, said the equality of women should be treated not as a limited right, but as an encompassing right that could be realized by addressing the full range of civil, political, economic, social and cultural disadvantages that they experienced. Women could not be equal until their poverty and economic inequality was addressed as an indivisible central part of the human rights agenda.

Another panellist, Rose Mtengeti Migiro, a Senior Law Lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam, United Republic of Tanzania, said it was a challenge for governments to ensure the establishment of national machineries to achieve the targets set at the Beijing Conference. The issue of human rights should be treated holistically. Action taken to address social and economic issues should be a springboard for national and sectoral plans.

Shanti Dairiam, Director of the International Women's Rights Action Watch in Asia and the Pacific based in Malaysia, said serious consideration should be given to sanctioning or protecting women's rights in the socio-economic arena to provide the legitimacy and the framework for women to claim their rights. There was need also for transparent government and good governance that placed a high premium on principles of democracy, free flow of information, an independent judiciary and a people-centred approach.

The fourth panellist, Cecilia Medina Quiroga, an expert from Chile member of the Human Rights Committee, said States must establish measures to remove the social obstacles to women achieving human rights. To effectively do so, research was needed. International organizations should supervise States compliance and implementation of human rights treaties regarding women's rights.

Among issues raised during a question-and-answer session, participants raised issues relating to land rights, customary practices such as female genital mutilation and the need for legal instruments, education of women of their basic rights and sensitization of the population about the rights of women. Addressing literacy as a hindrance to women understanding their rights was also raised during the discussion.

Also this afternoon, Vice-Chairperson Zuzana Vranova (Slovakia) was also elected Commission Rapporteur.

The Commission will meet again at 10 a.m. tomorrow, 4 March, to hold a panel discussion on the girl child.


Commission Work Programme

The Commission on the Status of Women met this afternoon to hear a panel discussion on the implementation of strategic objectives and action on the critical areas of concern of the Beijing Platform for Action that the Commission is focusing on during its current session. The theme of today's panel is "human rights of women". The other three areas of concern being considered are: the girl child; women and armed conflict; and violence against women.


Panel Discussion

CECILIA MEDINA QUIROGA of Chile, expert member of the Human Rights Committee, said subordination and discrimination of women were cultural problems and, therefore, it was culture which must be dealt with to address those problems in any society. International human rights treaties established obligations for States to address those problems. But what did the accession to those treaties entail for States? she asked. It entailed a careful inspection of domestic legislation. Not just any inspection, but an inspection that would mean an in-depth reading of the core of the human rights treaties. As an example, she cited article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which addressed the issue of deprivation of liberty. That right had never been interpreted to refer to the restriction of all types of liberty. However, laws which did not allow women to leave their homes violated such rights. Another important issue was the way the right to equality before the law was interpreted.

In response to such concerns, States must establish mechanisms for complaints, she said. States also had to establish measures to remove the social obstacles to women achieving human rights. To effectively do so, research was needed. Furthermore, the society must be educated to convince the population that women were human beings and were to be treated as such. All those obligations of States had to be taken on simultaneously, so that there would be an interchange of results that would impact on other results. Evaluations of progress must also be carried out. States must also educate women in their human rights. The full enjoyment of human rights would allow women to have a voice and a vote in the shaping of their societies, which would make a big difference in women having to accommodate themselves in a society already shaped for them.

International organizations should supervise States compliance and implementation of human rights treaties regarding women's rights, she continued. Those organizations should develop and clarify the scope and content of human rights to allow women to use the jurisprudence in their international struggle for empowerment. Those approaches would influence States' reporting procedures on their implementation of international law. They would also influence the need for disaggregated data to support States' reports on gender issues, for example. The effect would be a major change in the way the international community looked at women's human rights. All States had the obligation to be vigilant for violations in human rights, since they were indivisible. But those violations could also be pervasive, and States where human rights were not being violated, therefore, had an obligation to be vigilant of the violations of other States. It was in the interest of all States to promote human rights, she added.

ROSE MTENGETI MIGIRO, Senior Law Lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam, United Republic of Tanzania, said human rights of women should not be compartmentalized. In Tanzania, the issue of human rights was linked to development. Only in a condition of economic prosperity could women's rights be enjoyed. In a country like Tanzania, that was economically weak, there were limits on the enjoyment of human rights. What came first, she asked, economic development or human rights? Human rights tended to be given low priority in the face of other needs in society. Human rights might sometimes even be seen as a luxury. An example was the issue of provision of legal aid for women. The issue of ensuring education of women as a right might also not be given the priority it deserved, as a means of improving women's status. Therefore, how could we talk of women's human rights without linking them to overall economic and social development? she asked.

The issue of human rights should be treated holistically, she continued. Action taken to address social and economic issues should be a spring board for national and sectoral plans. At the same time, gender issues should cut across national plans. Law reform bodies should be used as a catalyst to ensure that real equality would be promoted. There was need to ensure that a legal machinery existed in support of women's full enjoyment of their rights. That was an essential first step. It was a challenge for governments to ensure the establishment of national machineries as part of the entire strategy to achieve the targets set in Beijing. There was also need for a sharing of experiences between developed and developing countries.

SHELAGH DAY, a human rights consultant and reporter in Canada, said that accelerating women's enjoyment of human rights required governments, courts, international treaty bodies and all other relevant actors to deal with women's economic inequality as a priority. Economic inequality was a central fact of women's lives in every country and a central manifestation of discrimination against them. As long as women as a group did not have an equal share of the world's economic resources, they would not have an equal say in shaping the world's future. It was time to deal with their economic inequality as a priority on the human rights agenda. The equality of women should be treated not as a limited right, but rather as an encompassing right that could only be realized by addressing the full range of civil, political, economic, social and cultural disadvantages that they experienced.

She said women could not be equal until their poverty and economic inequality was addressed as an indivisible central part of the human rights agenda. Despite the obvious fact of women's economic inequality, governments were pursuing an increasingly standardized economic agenda that was detrimental to women. Governments were fostering the globalization of the world economy, liberalizing markets, deregulating, cutting social programmes, downsizing government and privatizing public services, measures which were harming women. Women bore the brunt of cuts to collective State provision of services and social security. When governments implemented policies that perpetuated, or exacerbated, women's economic inequality, they violated their human rights commitments. Fiscal policy could not be treated as though it was unrelated to the rights of women, nor could governments contract out their international human rights obligations.

Governments should implement economic policies that had the rights of women at the core, and they should also give priority to women's economic equality, she said, calling for human rights accountability mechanisms. She recommended that as part of their national plans for implementing the Platform for Action, governments establish independent commissions on women's economic empowerment with a mandate to review national economic and trade policies in the light of human rights treaties. The reviews should lead to the development of concrete criteria for assessing the impact of economic and trade policies on women and to the development of new policies designed to advance women's economic equality.

United Nations treaty bodies should give priority attention to women's economic inequality as a human rights issue, she stressed. They should complete the drafting of the optional protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

SHANTI DAIRIAM, Director of the International Women's Rights Action Watch in Asia and the Pacific of Malaysia, said the politics of exclusion exacerbated the situation of poor women. Serious consideration should be given to sanctioning or protecting women's rights in the socio-economic arena to provide the legitimacy and the framework for women to claim their rights. She cited the Constitution of Colombia, which not only guaranteed equality and non-discrimination in the public and private spheres, but also spelled out the duties of the State to provide the conditions necessary for equality to be real and effective.

She called for strategies that cut across all sectors. There should be authority for sectoral ministries to redefine their mandate with regard to the status of women. The central planning agency had to work out a methodology for assessing performance and include it as a criteria in the review of performance with specified consequences. There was need for awareness raising on women's human rights. Relevant government agencies, the private sector and other institutions should be made aware of their mandate to fulfil women's rights. The Beijing Platform for Action should be translated into local languages and widely distributed. Public awareness had to be created among women about the benefits they were entitled to under the Platform for Action.

She said appropriate and adequate budgetary allocations had to be made to ensure the effective implementation of the Platform. She also stressed the importance of capacity- building. Programme for the fulfilment of women's rights should engage the women to be active participants in the process of needs assessment and in monitoring effect. There was need also for transparent government and good governance that placed a high premium on principles of democracy, free flow of information, an independent judiciary and a people-centred approach.

Question-and-Answer Session

In a question-and-answer session that followed the panel discussion, a representative asked to what extent the concept of mainstreaming was understood by lay people. He asked for concrete examples of effective mainstreaming of gender in specific programmes and projects. Several delegates raised the issue of the importance of economic and social rights as they relate to poverty among women. They also highlighted women's ownership of land and their rights to the inheritance of property as issues that were directly linked to the enjoyment of other rights.

Other issues raised by delegates included concern for the problems faced by elderly women and single female-headed families living below the poverty line; the need for a strong defence of women's human rights; a higher-level commitment to implement the Platform for Action and for more resources to support its implementation. The importance of the international human rights machinery and the need for the integration of gender in it were stressed. Concern was expressed for women activists who promoted women's rights and who were under attack.

One representative drew attention to violence against women in conflicts, domestic violence and the massacre of women and children in Algeria in the name of religion. That representative called for support for the international criminal court and expressed the hope that the recent diplomatic efforts to prevent the use of force in Iraq would ensure the rights of women and children there.

Responses by Panellists

Ms. MIGIRO, from the University of Dar es Salaam, responding to comments and questions, said customary law had not made it possible for women to inherit land. Legal process to reverse the situation was cumbersome. Test cases had to be brought before the courts to challenge the constitutionality of some of those customary laws. African governments did not work fast enough on proposals to modernize customary law for fear of cultural backlash. International laws would have to be invoked to combat some customary practices.

Ms. MEDINA QUIROGA, a member of the Human Rights Committee, suggested that international law could be used internally to combat retrogressive customary laws.

Ms. DAY, from Canada's National Association of Women and the Law, said Canada had example to offer in the area of mainstreaming. There was a programme which enabled women to challenge certain specific laws relating to their rights. It had helped women understand their rights. There was need for international machinery to strengthen victims of human rights abuses, she said.

Further Questions by Participants

Making observations on the responses, a representative asked what the role of churches were in promoting women's rights, and how far the Tanzanian Government had gone in educating the people about human rights. Women should set out their priorities about what governments should do to enhance their rights, he said.

Another representative said human rights were an indivisible whole, but there were parameters which should be established. Women were the first victims of poverty, and the effects of globalization should be placed on the world agenda. She also referred to the violations of the rights of refugee women, who lived in precarious situations in occupied lands, and urged assistance for women in south Lebanon and Algeria.

Attention was drawn by another representative to a General Assembly resolution reaffirming that traditional practices affecting women such as female genital mutilation constituted violence against women. She said 2 million girls a year were at risk of becoming victims of the practice, urging international action to eliminate the practice, and help the victims to overcome their trauma. It was also stated that efforts should continue to be made to achieve legal equality, and a call was made for the establishment of women's human rights defenders.


A non-governmental organization (NGO) representative stressed the importance of national machineries with resources to carry out their advocacy work. She called for the draft optional protocol to be broadened to allow NGOs to utilize its provisions, as it should be viewed as a lifeline to women.

Lack of ownership of land by women was contributing to feminization of poverty in Africa, an African representative stated. There was a call for a mechanism to ensure women's economic empowerment by allowing them to have access to credit, and also a call for efforts to improve job opportunities for women. The problems of women with disability should be highlighted, it was also stressed.

Responses by Panellists

Responding to further questions and comments, Ms. DAIRIAM, of the International Women's Rights Action Watch in Asia and the Pacific, said it had been some time since many developing countries had gained independence. She wondered what was preventing them from rescinding laws that were adopted by colonialists.

Ms. DAY drew attention to the impact of indigenous laws on indigenous populations in Canada. She said although the laws had changed, they still had limited impact on women and children. She pleaded for support for the optional protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women because it would offer women, even the most vulnerable, an avenue for complaints about violations of their rights.

Ms. MEDINA QUIROGA said international treaties had been ratified by many States, and they should fulfil their obligations under those instruments. Victims were not concerned about who drafted the laws. In addition to States' obligations, it was important to educate the population and to take action to address human rights issues. To another comment, she said the drafters of the optional protocol to the Women's Anti-Discrimination Convention should take advantage of the experience already gained in preparing other mechanisms for complaints. Much progress had been made on such mechanisms. She agreed with the importance of addressing illiteracy as an obstacle to understanding human rights. States should seek assistance from the relevant United Nations bodies to tackle that problem.

Ms. MIGIRO, responding to developments in marriage law, said the United Republic of Tanzania's experience was different from many African countries. Its 1971 Marriage Act was very progressive. In many areas, the law broke with traditional practices such as easier access to divorce and free consent of parties to marriage. It allowed for the distribution of matrimonial property among the spouses and took account of "presumed marriages" (long-standing unions). The Act, however, had a number of shortcomings, such as allowing marriage from age fifteen. The division of matrimonial property remained a problem, not giving recognition to women's contribution to the marriage. In addition, the procedure for divorce was cumbersome.

It was, therefore, important to examine the advantages and disadvantages of laws on women, she said. There had already been one setback for the Marriage Act -- a number of religious groups had called for the repeal of the section on long-standing "presumed marriages", which would have a negative impact on the women and children of such unions.

In the United Republic of Tanzania, efforts were being made to sensitize the population to the laws for the protection of their human rights, she said. The challenge was how to help women to pursue their rights when the legal process was expensive and legal aid was not provided. On the issue of illiteracy as an obstacle, she said a lot had to be done by the Government and by NGOs towards simplifying the laws. She stressed however that illiteracy remained a big hindrance to the pursuit of human rights.

Additional Comments and Questions

A representative stressed the need for NGOs to take up where governments left off on the issue of legal rights to land, since governments' attempts had not made much progress. Many speakers stressed the importance of education at all levels of the society to sensitize the populations about their human rights. That was the major means of making women's human rights a reality.

One delegate raised the issue of the deprivation of the rights of Palestinian women by Israel and the deterioration of their situation as a result of the stalemate of the Middle East peace process, as well as the need to urge or force Israel to comply with United Nations resolutions on Palestine.

The question of representation of French-speaking experts on the panels to debate specific issues was also highlighted, as well as the need for the recognition of equality under the law and women's access to inheritance, to training and education, equal salaries for equal work and to employment. Was it not important for men also to be educated in the basic rights of women? she asked. Men should be associated with the work of bodies such as the Commission.

Another speaker said the problem of trafficking and child sex tourism was a major issue in her country and in others in Europe. Attention had to be paid to the victims, and counselling should be provided for them. Attention was drawn to the importance of the proposed international criminal court and the need for the integration of gender issues at the preparatory stage of the process; and the need to ensure a balance of gender expertise when the institution was established. The gender issue should be placed high on the agenda of the international criminal court. A speaker called on Commission members to mainstream themselves into the negotiations on the court to ensure that a gender-inclusive mechanism was formed from the moment it was initiated.

Other issues raised by delegates included the need for ordinary women to understand their rights; and the need for research to provided disaggregated data as a basis to show diversity among women, and as a basis for improved policy making and planning, as well as the importance of gender-based analysis. The need to integrate women's rights into the Commission on Human Rights and to ensure that linkages were made across the United Nations and across countries were also raised. Other speakers took up issues such as the action taken at the national level to promote women's human rights, including publicizing the laws, and cooperation with other countries and international organizations to promote those rights.

One speaker stressed the need to take the environment into account when addressing the issue of women's rights. Traditional practices, such as genital mutilation, that presented obstacles to women's enjoyment of their rights had to be abolished, and attempts should be made to ensure that such practices did not resurface in clandestine ways. Moreover, women must be taught that they should accept change and must be prepared to accept change. Entire populations must be taught the need for change.

Closing Remarks by Panellists

In a closing statement, Ms. MIGIRO said whole societies needed to be sensitized about the human rights of women.

Ms. MEDINA QUIROGA said the main problem women faced was the invisibility of the violations of their rights. Research was required to ascertain which violations were not visible and how the problem could be dealt with. The major task for States was their sensitivity to the human rights of women. Society needed to be educated about cultural issues and to be convinced about the necessity for change in the situation of women.

Ms. DAY said tools that could be used to create awareness and advancement of the status of women included legislation. Research carried out by governments should involve women.

Ms. DAIRIAM said many of the problems women faced had cultural base and that should be addressed. Making land available to women, as suggested from the floor, would not necessarily resolve their problems. Women suffered poverty because of their group, as well as for being women. The solution to the problem was more than just making assets available to them. There was need for constant monitoring of the sources of the problem. Strengthening women's capabilities to claim their rights was very important, and that included creating the legislative framework for them to do so.



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