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Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women considers the report of Gabon

Committee on Elimination of Discrimination
  against Women

17 February 2015

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women today considered the sixth periodic report of Gabon on its implementation of the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Introducing the report, Marie Francoise Dikoumba, Deputy Minister of Social Affairs of Gabon, said that the revision of the Civil Code would recognise surviving spouses and children as legal heirs and so suppress discrimination against widows concerning social security benefits.  A proposed bill amending the Criminal Code would enlarge the definition of crimes of violence against women and criminalize incest and marital rape, said Ms. Dikoumba, quoting the 2012 national health and demographic survey which found that 21 per cent of women in Gabon had been victims of sexual violence.  This year, Gabon would undertake a study to elaborate the law on family and social action and so lay the ground for the revision of certain discriminatory provisions in the law.  Also, a commission had been established to reflect on legislation on customary marriage which would reduce discrimination against women.

In the ensuing discussion, Committee Experts commended Gabon for the impressive achievements in education and in reducing female illiteracy.  Expressing concern about persistent discrimination in the law, they stressed the need for a legal framework that would be effective in protecting women and eliminating discrimination.  Experts were concerned about pervasive violence against women, including sexual violence, and inquired about the adoption of the amendments to the Criminal Code and whether a comprehensive law on domestic violence was envisaged.  The delegation was asked how harmful traditional practices, such as female genital mutilation, early marriages and polygamy, were addressed and if the Government had sent a clear signal that it would not tolerate or condone any cultural or customary practice that represented violence against women.  Committee Experts also asked about the quota system and measures to increase political representation of women, causes of very high maternal mortality rates, restrictive abortion law, sexual abuse of girls in schools and measures to reduce high rates of school drop-outs.

The delegation of Gabon included representatives of the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs and the Permanent Mission of Gabon to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

Ms. Dikoumba in closing remarks said that the country was involved in a lengthy process of creating and implementing legislation and changing attitudes and mentality, and reiterated the commitment of Gabon to the implementation of the Convention.   

Yoko Hayashi, Committee Chairperson, encouraged Gabon to address the Committee’s concluding observations which would be communicated through the Permanent Mission.

The Committee will reconvene in public on Wednesday, 18 February at 10 a.m. to consider the fifth periodic report of Azerbaijan (CEDAW/C/AZE/5).

Report

The sixth periodic report of Gabon can be read here: (CEDAW/C/GAB/6).
 
Presentation of the Report

MARIE FRANCOISE DIKOUMBA, Deputy Minister of Social Affairs of Gabon, said that a series of reforms were ongoing in the country, which aimed to improve the living conditions of the people, particularly of women, children, persons with disabilities and people living in poverty.  The revision of legislation related to the second part of the Civil Code would address the issues of succession and the situation of surviving spouses and children, who would be recognized as legal heirs.  The draft law would also modify some provisions of the social security system and suppress discrimination against widows, allowing them to enjoy the pension of the deceased.  Gabon was active in the combat against violence against women and the bill to amend the Criminal Code had been proposed, which would enlarge the definition of crimes of violence against women and would criminalize incest.  The 2009 restructuring of the Ministry for the Advancement of Women had ensured the cross-cutting and mainstreaming of gender issues throughout the administration.  Measures were being taken to improve the rates of birth registration and to provide birth certificates to persons under the age of 21 who had been registered in civil registries.  The 2012 national health and demographic survey had demonstrated that 21 per cent of women had been victims of sexual violence, of which less then half sought help and assistance.  The national programme for building crèches had started in 2003 to assist young and school-aged mothers in childcare so that they could continue schooling.

New policies for the care of economically vulnerable households had focused on building networks to provide economic protection and particular benefits to allow the poorest people to meet their basic needs, empowerment for income-generation activities, reducing unequal access to basic social and public services such as health, education, water and electricity in rural and urban areas, and public infrastructure works and socio-economic integration in rural pockets of poverty.  The Government had decided to finance between 8,500 and 11,000 income-generation projects over five years in agriculture, fishery, livestock, tourism, services and small-scale manufacturing.  The Civil Code recognized the right of women to keep their name in marriage and to freely choose their profession, however the discrimination continued at home.  In order to ensure compliance with the provisions of the Convention, the Government had developed terms of reference for a study to elaborate the law on family and social action, which would take place in 2015; this study would lay the ground for the revision of certain discriminatory provisions in the law, including the age of marriage, customary and religious marriage.  A Commission had been established to reflect on legislation on customary marriage which would reduce discrimination against women. 

Questions from the Experts

A Committee Expert stressed the importance of political will to ensure progress in the advancement of the situation of women, and asked whether Gabon had ratified the Maputo Protocol.  The basis for combating discrimination was the law, stressed the Expert and asked whether the definition of discrimination would be included in the Constitution.  Discrimination had not been removed from the laws and the delegation was asked about the legislative agenda to eliminate discrimination within the legislation.  Was there a mechanism in place to set the legislative priorities and adopt a holistic approach to violence against women?  The National Human Rights Commission had been strengthened, but did not yet meet the Paris Principles.

Another Expert asked the delegation to explain the institutional structure that dealt with women’s rights, the coordination between different units and the follow up to the concluding observations of the Committee. 

Responses by the Delegation

A delegate explained the process of ratification of the Maputo Protocol and said that there was nothing standing in the way of its ratification, it was only a question of administrative procedures.  The Human Rights Commission was in place and had its structure, the next task was to draw in the civil society and non-governmental organizations; some problems still existed, but the delegation was confident that those would be overcome. 

The First Lady was very active in advocating for the improvement of the situation of women, and widows in particular.  The Government was working to ensure that all legal texts were reviewed and that discriminatory provisions were removed from laws; the same would need to be done in the Constitution.  Women played a very active and leading role in the Ministry for Social Affairs.  The Ministry also had a person tasked with the coordination of policies on women, and the head of the delegation stressed the importance of resources for those policies and to ensure that they were mainstreamed in all ministries.  

Questions from the Experts

A Committee Expert commended the political will of Gabon to eliminate violence against women and noted that it was unclear how the special measures to eliminate inequality between women and men were being implemented; what measures were being provided to accelerate de facto equality between women and men?

Another Expert took up the issue of violence against women and asked about the process of the adoption of the Criminal Code amendment which would criminalize incest and marital rape, whether the definition of rape, which was limited to victims under the age of 15, would also be amended, and if a comprehensive law on domestic violence was envisaged.  Harmful traditional practices were grounded in gender discrimination and justified by invoking cultural and socio-economic customs and values, noted the Expert and asked how the Government addressed those practices.  Did the signals it was sending out confirm that it would not tolerate violence against women or condone any cultural or customary practice that represented violence against women.

Sexual violence was widespread in Gabon, to the extent that one in four women had suffered some sort of violence, said another Committee Expert, who noted that the specific law and a comprehensive approach to violence against women were absent.  What were the obstacles in passing a comprehensive law on gender-based violence?  The delegation mentioned that violence against women would be included in the Civil Code; would it also be included in the Criminal Code?  Most of the time, difficulties on legislating on this issue were based on entrenched and deep rooted traditional practices and stereotypes; what was the prevalence in the country of some harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation, early marriages and polygamy, and which actions had been taken to address them?

Concerning human trafficking and trafficking in women and children, Experts asked about the implementation of the Palermo Protocol and the need to extend the activities to combat human trafficking beyond trafficking in children, the National Plan to combat trafficking in persons, and the use of marriage as a pretext for human trafficking.

Responses by the Delegation

In response to the questions raised about trafficking in women and children, the delegation agreed that Gabon was both a country of origin and of destination and said that the Government had put in place a number of provisions to curb this phenomenon.  Measures were in place to protect child victims and the legislative framework had been strengthened through tougher sentencing guidelines.  As far as women were concerned, it was hard to determine whether women crossing the border were trafficked or arrived voluntarily.     

Polygamy was recognized in the Civil Code in Gabon and there was no forced aspect to it; the Government was, however, conducting education and awareness campaigns to highlight the advantage of monogamous marriages.  A bill to legalize customary marriage was being drafted, which would improve the situation of many women married in a customary ceremony; a recent study had found that 90 per cent of widows were married in customary law, thus excluding them from the social benefits which were grounded in the common law and required civil marriage. 

Following the visit to the country by the Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, a bill had been prepared on combating human trafficking as per the provisions of the Palermo Protocol, which encompassed all persons and not only children.  Programmes for advancing the rights of women and combatting violence against them were being prepared in consultation with all stakeholders, including civil society and external partners.   

Follow-up Questions and Responses

A Committee Expert stressed the need to strengthen the legal framework in Gabon and the need for a new legislative framework which was effective in protecting women and eliminating discrimination.  Were judges trained in the Convention and were there ways to ensure that positive law prevailed over customary law?

In response, the head of delegation said that there was a clear political will to advance the rights of women, as reflected in the ongoing revision of the legal and normative framework in the country.  Customary law was very strong and very rooted in Gabon; the Government was aware that it was necessary for women to enjoy their rights, which was essential to ensure equality between women and men in the law.  This could only be achieved through a revision of discriminatory provisions in the laws and by including equality values in the education; awareness among the population must go hand in hand with the legal amendments.

Other Experts asked about the timeframe for the legal amendments and the revision of the laws, and whether marital rape was already a crime.

The delegation said marital rape had been criminalized in 2013 and carried five to ten-year imprisonment sentences and a very heavy fine.  A committee had been established after 2005, to identify provisions of discriminatory nature in the national legislation; over 30 articles of laws had been revisited, while some amendments had been completed and already adopted by the Parliament, and were now only waiting for the Presidential stamp.  Customary marriage, which had no legal recognition, was very much rooted in the society and the challenge for the legislators was to ensure that women also enjoyed the rights which were not covered by the customary law, notably concerning inheritance.

In a further series of questions, Committee Experts asked why maternal mortality rates were so high, despite the fact that 87 per cent of births received medical attention.

As in many countries in the world, the Parliament in Gabon was essentially male; many countries had decided to implement the system of quotas to ensure greater representation of women.  The Committee Expert asked the delegation to explain how the Government ensured that women were not only beneficiaries of development plans, but actively participated in decision making, the system of promotion of women and the measures to ensure the representation of women in business decision-making bodies.

Another Expert took positive note of the efforts of the Government to increase rates of birth registration and expressed concern about the 11 per cent of children who still did not have their birth certificates, which put them at risk of statelessness, or exclusion from access to services.  The birth registration process was quite complex and the Expert wondered if it could be simplified.

Responses by the Delegation

The draft bill on quotas proposed 30 per cent seats for women and 30 per cent for youth for elected office; the draft was currently undergoing readings in the Parliament.  The Human Investment Strategy focused on the role of women, and looked in particular at the distribution of benefits and services, including health, education and child care.  The Strategy had introduced a conditionality to ensure that women were not only beneficiaries but were truly involved, and this was done through different levels of assistance. 

It was unclear why there were so many children without birth certificates, said the delegation, adding that a national survey had been conducted to understand the problem, which had highlighted several weak spots.  A plan had been developed which involved all responsible for the birth registration, namely hospitals, birth attendants, local authorities, and parents themselves.
 
In another block of follow up questions, Committee Experts asked for additional information on the draft bill on quotas, including on the split in seats between women and young people, whether the quota system applied to electoral lists or to actual seats, and how the political parties were encouraged or sanctioned in relation to the implementation of the quota system.

On the subject of the quota system, the delegation said that it was important to start with the activities in Libreville where more than half of the country’s population lived, and then to roll it out to other areas.  The quota system ensured 30 per cent seats for women and 30 per cent for youth.  Over the coming days, the bill would be further refined with the female members of Parliament and with civil society, to ensure it was consistent with the guidelines.
 
Questions from the Experts

On the issue of education, a Committee Expert commended Gabon for the impressive progress made in education, particularly in achieving almost 100 per cent primary school enrolment and the measures to support girls to resume education after giving birth.  The delegation was asked about the measures to reduce the high school drop-out rate, especially among girls, sexual abuse of girls in schools and measures in place to eradicate and punish all forms of violence against children in schools, how girls were encouraged to choose non-traditional fields of study and the disproportionately high rates of female illiteracy.

Another Committee Expert asked the delegation to comment on the situation of women in employment, including on the high rates of female unemployment, factors restricting employment of women and job creation initiatives in place.  The Expert also asked how the Government was addressing the expansion of the informal sector, protecting self-employed women, ensuring their access to credit and supporting the creation of small and medium sized enterprises.

The maternal mortality rates were still very high in Gabon despite the expert ante-natal care, noted another Expert and asked about sex and reproductive health education, particularly in the prevention of transmission of HIV/AIDS and those which targeted men.  There was a very restrictive abortion law which applied only when a mother’s life was in danger; would the law be expanded to also include pregnancies resulting from rape or incest?

Replies by the Delegation

Responding to the questions and comments made by the Committee Experts, the delegation said that education programmes on sexuality had been introduced in order to combat the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.  Youth clubs had been established in schools in partnership with civil society, while peer-to-peer education had been the focus of action.  Early pregnancies were one of the reasons for drop out; to tackle the problem, the Government had established crèches to ensure childcare for young mothers so that they could continue schooling or look for jobs.  Therapeutic abortion was authorised for foetal malformations or pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, should the women wish so.

Considerable steps had been taken to address school drop outs, particularly in secondary schools, including through the increase of the number of available classes and the training of additional numbers of teachers. 

A recent study had revealed that 30 per cent of the population lived in poverty and in order to combat this, the Government was encouraging people to start their own income generating activities.  It had also set up a fund to provide credit to women, who traditionally did not have access to bank loans. 

In their follow-up questions, Committee Experts asked the delegation to explain the reasons behind high maternal mortality rates, and whether there existed a specific budget to increase the number of schools and teachers in order to improve the quality of education.

In response, the head of the delegation said that not all causes of maternal mortality were connected to abortion; women generally gave birth in hospitals, but the health care was ineffective and suffered from shortage of health personnel and lack of medicine.  Women in rural areas or far away from health centres usually gave birth outside health facilities.  The education budget had steadily increased from 70 billion CFA francs in 2005, to 191 billion CFA francs in 2012; currently 100 hundred billion CFA francs were dedicated to building 100 classrooms and training of teachers.

Questions from the Experts

Regarding economic empowerment of women and policies in place to support the employment of women and girls and their social protection, a Committee Expert asked about how women could overcome socio-economic and societal barriers and access institutional mechanisms and methods that ensured that women in need could really access funds available to them.  There were provisions preventing women from becoming entrepreneurs and this was a real problem in terms of equality of opportunity.

Although rural women faced problems like other women in Gabon, they also faced specific issues for which specific actions were needed, said another Expert and asked how land ownership was managed, whether women in customary marriages were excluded and what happened when a husband died.  Also, could the delegation explain the situation with access to drinking water and whether transport infrastructure plans also included the provision of public transport, which was essential for rural women? 

Further Responses by the Delegation

With regard to public policies for women’s empowerment and entrepreneurship, the head of the delegation said that the Government had a high degree of awareness about the economic importance of women and that was why it had redoubled its efforts to put in place a public policy focusing on the real needs of women, including health, education and access to rights.  The exclusion of rural women from inheritance was a real problem.  In order to provide services to villages, the Government had put in place a grouping policy, which, however, had not been very successful; the work on the grouping continued so that development could be brought to villages.  

Access to drinking water was a fundamental right that Gabon recognized for each of its citizens.  The investment strategy run by the Ministry of Energy was looking into extending access to drinking water, sanitation and electricity in urban and rural areas, reducing the cost of access and facilitating monthly payments so that users would not have to bear the brunt of paying in a single instalment.  In rural areas, most villages had their own hydraulic pump, and there was a public policy of installing solar panels for the provision of electricity to the rural population; those were essential elements of supporting entrepreneurship as well.

Changing attitudes underpinned all progress and in April 2014, social consultations were held, including on unemployment.

In the additional round of follow-up questions and comments, Committee Experts noted that without a dedicated ministry and a coherent national policy and strategy, it would be hard to see progress in women entrepreneurship.  The first thing to do was to understand how funds were dispersed to women and to ensure adherence to the principle of equal opportunity.  The delegation was also asked about the mechanism of protecting the ownership of land so it was not sold to foreign companies, which might not be the best way of ensuring improvement of the situation of rural women.

The delegation agreed that land distribution was a critical issue that must be taken seriously and the solution was to redistribute the land to those who were willing to work it, which did not mean that anyone would be forced out of their land.

Questions from the Experts

A Committee Expert spoke about provisions in the law that contained massive violations of women’s rights, such as the age of marriage, choice of domicile, choice of profession and others.  Those discriminatory articles had been identified in 1997, but it seemed that the situation was entrenched.  It was urgent to put in place a very clear legislative timetable, said the Expert and asked when the customary marriages would be recognized and put on the same footing as civil marriages, particularly in issues of inheritance, divorce, alimony, and choice of domicile.  A high percentage of women lived in polygamy with husbands significantly older than them, which significantly changed the balance of power in the marriage. 

Nothing had been done to address polygamy in legislation, said the delegation, but measures were being taken to educate girls on difficulties that such unions posed.  As per 2012 study, 82 per cent of the women who were widows were in customary marriages; 50 per cent of people lived in this kind of union, which was recognized by their families.  The Ministry of the Family had started the work on legalising customary marriages and the draft bill was being considered at the moment; until this bill was a law, there was no certainty for women in customary marriages and all would depend on the good will of the survivors of their husbands.  In addition, the amendments to Civil Code and Criminal Code had been drafted and proceedings were ongoing for the revision of the first part of the Civil Code.  Revision of the legislation did turn some additional discriminatory articles in the texts, but this was not the reason to repeal the legislation; what was and would be done was to revise it and offer drafts for consideration.  The law on customary marriages would ensure the same rights in matters of divorce, alimony and inheritance; the only difference would be the ceremony under which the marriage was concluded.  Each marriage would receive a marriage certificate issued by the local official, thus giving the same legal effect as in civil marriage. 

Concluding Remarks

MARIE FRANCOISE DIKOUMBA, Deputy Minister of Social Affairs of Gabon, in closing remarks said that Gabon would pay close attention to the comments by the Experts and stressed that the country was involved in a lengthy process of creating and implementing legislation and changing attitudes and mentality. 

YOKO HAYASHI, Committee Chairperson, in concluding remarks thanked the delegation for their participation in the dialogue, which had provided insight into the situation of women in the country.  The Chairperson encouraged Gabon to address the concluding observations of the Committee which would be communicated through the Permanent Mission.

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