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

Committee on Elimination of Discrimination
  against Women

29 October 2015

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women today considered the combined seventh and eighth periodic report of Liberia on its implementation of the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Introducing the report, Julia Duncan-Cassell, Minister of Gender, Children and Social Protection of Liberia, noted that Liberia had achieved significant progress since its last report.  In 2011, the Government had passed the Children’s Law, which prohibited female genital mutilation and all forms of violence and harmful practices against children.  In June 2015, it had also adopted a draft bill on domestic violence, which was currently under review by the National Assembly.  The Government was also working in the following areas: female involvement in the Constitution review process, politics, peace and security, female emancipation, and the protection of human rights. 

Committee Experts highlighted the following issues: the implementation of the Convention, harmonization of customary and statutory laws and practices with respect to domestic violence and female genital mutilation, gender sensitive budgeting, the impact of the Ebola epidemic on women, the role of secret schools (the so-called Sande schools) in promoting the practice of female genital mutilation, access to justice, women’s participation in political and public life, and the economic empowerment of women. 

In concluding remarks, Ms. Duncan-Cassell thanked the Committee Experts, noting that the delegation would take into consideration all the proposals made and it looked forward to any other recommendations.  The development of women and their empowerment was a key priority for the Government of Liberia.

In her concluding remarks, Yoko Hayashi, Chairperson of the Committee, commended the State party for its efforts and encouraged it to consider all the recommendations provided by the Committee for the benefit of all girls and women in the country. 

The delegation of Liberia included representatives from the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection, and the Permanent Mission of Liberia to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The Committee will reconvene in public on Friday, 30 October, at 10 a.m., to consider the combined fifth and sixth periodic report of Slovenia (CEDAW/C/SVN/5-6).
 
Report
 
The combined seventh and eighth periodic report of Liberia (CEDAW/C/LBR/7-8) is available here.


Presentation of the Report
 
JULIA DUNCAN-CASSELL, Minister of Gender, Children and Social Protection of Liberia, said that the country report had been drawn up in cooperation with various ministries, agencies and civil society.  Liberia had achieved significant progress since its last report.  In 2011, it had passed the Children’s Law, which prohibited female genital mutilation and all forms of violence and harmful practices against children.  The law also addressed the issue of children’s enrollment and re-enrollment in school, or into alternative forms of education for those who had dropped out of school.  Measures had been taken to ensure equal access to education for female and disadvantaged children, and that the teacher training curricula included instructions regarding children’s rights.  The President of Liberia had made a commitment at the seventieth United Nations General Assembly to ban female genital mutilation and to eliminate all forms of violence against women.  In addition, the Liberian Human Rights Action Plan Steering Committee had been mandated to include the abolition of female genital mutilation in its Action Plan.  The Government had also adopted a draft bill on domestic violence in June 2015, which was currently under review by the National Assembly.  The draft bill defined domestic violence as an act of violence that resulted, or was likely to result, in physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to a woman, man or child, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life between parties in an existing or former domestic relationship.

Through the Ministry of Health, Gender, Children and Social Protection, the Government was providing medical and social assistance to all survivors of Ebola, including women and children.  The Government was also working in the following areas: female involvement in the Constitution review process, politics, peace and security, female emancipation, and the protection of human rights.  Liberia had made a firm commitment to ensure women’s peace and security and access to justice.  The Government had also committed to initiate the decentralization of the judiciary throughout the country so that rural survivors of sexual and gender-based violence could have recourse to justice.  That would be done through the implementation of a new phase of the joint programme on sexual and gender-based violence between the Government of Liberia and the United Nations.  Through the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection, the Government was also conducting a review of the National Action Plan to develop a bridging strategy to address gaps in implementation.   

The Aliens and Nationality Law of 1973, which prohibited children of Liberian mothers born abroad to acquire Liberian citizenship, was under review.  The restrictive provisions of that law were inconsistent with Article 28 of the Liberian Constitution of 1986, which stipulated that any child who had a Liberian parent would acquire Liberian citizenship at birth, provided renouncement of any other nationality at the age of 18.  During the review process, the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection had worked with relevant ministries, agencies and civil society to educate Liberian women on their rights to transfer their citizenship to their children under Article 28 of the 1986 Constitution. 

Questions by the Experts
 
An Expert commended the Government of Liberia for having taken a number of positive steps in the implementation of the Convention, but she regretted that it had not submitted its follow-up report, which had been due in August 2015.  Was the Government considering the adoption of a full programme for the implementation of the Convention?  There were some important laws that were still pending, such as those on fairness and decent employment.  It would be important for the Committee to receive information on the timeframe for their adoption. 

Traditional leaders often obstructed the police in the investigation of the cases of domestic violence in their communities.  What measures were being taken by the authorities to prevent that?  The Expert also raised concern over discrepancy between the statutory and customary laws.

Another Expert expressed sympathy for the challenging situation posed by the Ebola epidemic, which had severely affected the whole population and women in particular.  What specific measures was the Government taking to address the disparate effect of Ebola on women, especially with respect to maternity and child birth?  The mortality rate was even higher in the country and young girls were more exposed to violence.  Had there been any gender sensitive budgeting in the response to the Ebola epidemic?

Answers by the Delegation
 
Due to the elections, there had been changes in the composition and set up of ministries, which had affected the speed of legal reforms.  However, the Government was working on its plan to implement the Convention.  As for the law reform timeline, certain laws had already been adopted, while the draft bill on domestic violence was under consideration. 

The delegation explained that all traditional leaders were part of the Constitution review process, including women.  The Government made sure that laws were gender sensitive.  All laws were being harmonized in line with the Convention, and women’s organizations were working closely with law makers in time for the referendum in 2016 and the general elections in 2017.

The effect of the Ebola epidemic had been devastating and its impact on women had been enormous.  The Government was working closely with the Ministry of Health to repair the health system which had broken down, as well as with the Ministry of Education to stress the importance of hygiene.  The Government had to look differently at female survivors of Ebola, as opposed to male survivors.  A joint programme with Guinea and Sierra Leone, and sponsored with the African Development Bank, had been initiated to build the resilience of women and improve their living standards in the wake of the epidemic.  Liberia also worked closely with the World Bank on cash programmes for rural women.  The Government made sure to include gender issues across different sectors.
 
Follow-up Questions by the Experts
 
An Expert inquired about the stigmatization and discrimination of Ebola survivors, noting that reports had shown that women were those who were mainly affected.  They were denied housing and health services, as well as participation in social activities.  How was the Government addressing this problem and had it introduced awareness raising programmes?  Was there a legal aid system in place?  Corrupt practices of judicial authorities in Liberia were the major obstacle to victims seeking redress.  What was being done to prosecute corrupt judges and had the Government considered an independent judiciary commission to investigate cases of corruption?

Another Expert noted that there was a dual legal system in Liberia, adding that the Government ignored the huge gap between the de iure and de facto situation.  Most women in Liberia lived under customary law where chiefs and elders were simultaneously law makers, judges and executioners.  Was that situation being considered as part of the Constitutional review process?

Answers by the Delegation
 
The stigmatization and discrimination of Ebola survivors was a serious issue that influenced both men and women.  The Government had sought to address that problem through education at the community level.  Ebola survivors were trying to educate members of their communities.  The process was ongoing and the Government would continue working on those efforts, including at schools. 

As for access to justice, Liberia had invited a visit from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to assess the situation.  Many non-governmental organizations worked in that area, as well as the Female Lawyers’ Association.  The Association was in need of aid in order to disseminate information about women’s rights, especially in rural areas. 

Working with traditional leaders was an important part of the Constitutional review process.  Changing traditions was a process and not something that could happen overnight.  Women needed to be continually educated about their rights, and they had to be kept engaged.  The Government could change laws, but the implementation had to be done at the community level.  The Ministry of Internal Affairs had conducted several consultations with traditional leaders in order to harmonize traditional laws with statutory laws. 
 
Follow-up Questions by the Experts
 
Was there comprehensive State-funded legal aid?  The high cost of legal services often posed a barrier to access to legal assistance.  In harmonizing customary and statutory laws, what measures were in place to prevent potential discrimination against women?
How many women were involved in the process of harmonization of customary and statutory laws?  It was noted that traditional leaders were usually men.
 
Answers by the Delegation
 
In Liberia, there were various organizations of women at different levels and regions, such as traditional women’s councils and female civil society organizations.  All of them had participated in the Constitutional review process and they came from 15 political sub-divisions.  A new five-year judicial programme was being drafted and it envisaged legal aid.
 
Questions of the Experts
 
An Expert observed that Liberia had a limited staff and limited budget for mainstreaming gender into its policies.  In the fiscal year 2013-2014 that budget amounted to $ 1.2 million, which represented only 0.23 per cent of the national budget.  There was a wide consensus that such a situation could not continue and that more resources had to be made available for women’s issues.  In addition, the Ministry of Gender had been expanded to deal with children and social protection issues.  What changes were being introduced at the local and central levels to achieve the expanded mandate of the Ministry?

What was the role of the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection in the announced judicial decentralization process?   That process provided an opportunity to address gender gaps through the deeper participation of women in local governance.

Another Expert raised the issue of temporary special measures, which were undertaken to improve the situation of women and girls.  However, they did not correspond to the aim of substantial gender equality.  It seemed that the State party had difficulty in distinguishing between regular and temporary measures.  More concrete and measurable output of those measures should be provided by the State party.  Those temporary special measures should contribute to de facto equality between men and women, rather than be used exceptionally.

Answers by the Delegation
 
The delegation explained that the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection had set up gender focal points in ministries, and was currently looking to set up gender desks to ensure the implementation of the National Gender Policy.  Since 2009, the Government had worked to increase the number of women in the police and security forces.  The previous five-year National Gender Policy was under review, which should be completed by December 2015.  The Ministry of Gender was also working with the Ministry of Finance to increase the budget for gender issues.   
 
Follow-up Questions by the Experts
 
An Expert noted that it was not clear how the role of women was taken on board as the agents of recovery after the Ebola epidemic.  The role of the Ministry of Gender was not highlighted in the country report.  Another Expert suggested that choosing the right ministry for gender mainstreaming was key.  There was a need to rebuild horizontal and vertical links differently in order to shape gender policies according to the local needs of women.

Answers by the Delegation

The delegation stated that the decentralization process indeed began at the local level, adding that the Government would look at how to define the roles of different ministries in the promotion of gender sensitive policies.  

Questions by the Experts

Another Expert reminded of the obligation of States parties to eliminate harmful customary practices that affected the full enjoyment of human rights by women and girls.  She commended Liberia’s efforts to provide equal access to education.  However, she reminded of the phenomenon of women’s secret societies, the so-called Sande, and their role in the building of sexist stereotypes.  Were they still in existence?    

During the 14-year civil war in Liberia sexual violence had been widely used.  Low levels of accountability for sexual violence crimes were worrying.  What was the Government’s plan to decentralize courts and to provide adequate training for the prosecution of sexual violence?  What measures were being taken to implement a strong prevention strategy?  Were there programmes to educate men and boys about sexual violence?

As for female genital mutilation and domestic violence, an Expert noted that female genital mutilation was not an African phenomenon, but rather the consequence of patriarchy and of wrongful social learning.   Although rape was illegal in Liberia, marital rape was not criminalized, whereas female genital mutilation performed on girls under 18 without consent was illegal.  What was being done to immediately stop female genital mutilation, especially in rural areas?  Were there campaigns for awareness raising in the media?  How were witnesses treated by the justice administration?

Liberia was a source and destination country for human trafficking.  The establishment of a trust fund and shelters for victims was pending.  Less prosecution was taking place.  What did the Government plan to do to identify and protect victims of trafficking, and conduct training for police?  What had happened with the National Human Trafficking Action Plan? 

Another Expert inquired about the extent of sexual exploitation of women in Liberia.  What policies had been placed to address the vulnerability of women and girls to sexual exploitation due to poverty?  Were there any domestic laws and measures to prevent women and girls from entering prostitution?  Was prostitution prohibited and on whose expense?

Answers by the Delegation

The delegation stated that the Government had established an adolescent girls unit in order to deal with the problem of girls entering secret societies.  The law prohibited female genital mutilation, but there were still many cases and the Government was trying to educate people to report such cases to the authorities.  It had also introduced the practice of naming and shaming of perpetrators.  Men and boys were also engaged in prevention programmes that addressed violence against women.  Since violence was directly influenced by poverty, the Government worked with the poorest to give them some sense of belonging. 

Human trafficking was a serious issue, the delegation agreed.  Providing security to victims was a priority for the Government, as well as awareness raising and education.  Prostitution was illegal.  The Government was working to establish regional judicial hubs in all 15 sub-divisions in order to bring redress closer to survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.  The programme was envisaged to start in February 2016.

Questions by the Experts
 
An Expert inquired about the timetable for the adoption of the draft bill on domestic violence.  According to that draft bill law, female genital mutilation would be punished if perpetrated by a family member without consent.  However, she noted that consent was something that a minor could not give in the case of such grave violation of her integrity and autonomy.  Why was that issue included in the draft bill on domestic violence?  She also noted that there had been very few cases of sanctions against perpetrators of female genital mutilation, which spoke about the climate of impunity.     

What were the results of the National Action Plan on Human Trafficking launched in 2014?

There had to be a medium-term plan for girls to attend regular schools, rather than secret society schools.  What was the number of girls attending secret society schools?

There was no rape reporting system.  Were there any plans to adopt a mandatory rape reporting system?

There was information that the current Government was not able to tackle female genital mutilation because of the lack of political will and fear of losing public support.  During the peak of the Ebola epidemic, female genital mutilation remained undisturbed.  What was being done to investigate and prosecute ritual killings?

Answers by the Delegation
 
The draft domestic violence bill should be passed as soon as Parliament was back from recess.  The Children’s Law was limited only to children, whereas the draft bill on domestic violence would cover a wider area of the female genital mutilation offence.  Female genital mutilation was a form of violence and as such it was illegal.  There were compromises made within the family before cases of female genital mutilation were brought to court.  The new law would hold accountable families, schools and police in case they did not report violence.

During the Ebola epidemic, the response to human trafficking was limited.  As for ritual killings, the delegation stated it had not been informed about any new cases.  If there was no reporting, courts could not prosecute such cases.

Follow-up Questions by the Experts

An Expert revisited the issue of consent to female genital mutilation.  The inclusion of consent to such a grave violation of bodily integrity and autonomy in the draft bill on domestic violence remained concerning.  Were there any sanctions for female genital mutilation in the Children’s Law?  Was there a criminal sanction?

As for ritual killings, the problem was not so much in reporting as much as in prosecution.  What reform for the judiciary was envisaged to increase trust in prosecution?

Answers by the Delegation
 
The delegation clarified that female genital mutilation constituted an offence under law with or without the presence of consent.  As for the prosecution of ritual killings and other harmful practices, the delegation noted that the issue of human rights had never been stronger in Liberia.  Due to awareness campaigns and information dissemination, the situation had significantly improved.  There were persons sentenced to a life in prison because they had committed ritual killings.

Questions by the Experts
 
An Expert commended Liberia’s adoption of a quota system for female participation in political life.  However, there were no sanctions in the Electoral Law for political parties when they did not comply with the quota system.  Were there any plans to engage in advocacy with political parties?  Despite the fact that Liberia had a female president, the overall female participation was still low and it stood only at 11 per cent.  In the security, police and military, the participation of women was below 20 per cent.  Were there any plans to introduce a trust fund to assist women in their electoral campaigns?

There was a need to eliminate the discriminatory provisions in the Aliens and Nationality Law, which did not allow women to transmit their nationality when they had children born outside the State party.  When would amendments come into force? 

Answers by the Delegation
 
As part of the Constitutional review process, all forms of customary and statutory marriage would be protected.  New legal provisions would stipulate the rate of 50 per cent of the same gender in all public functions, and equal access in the public and private sector should be embedded in the Constitution.  Guidelines for a women’s trust fund were being developed. 

The delegation explained that non-compliance of political parties with the quota system for the participation of women in political life could be dealt with through a Constitutional provision, and that the Electoral Commission could be held responsible.         
 
Questions by the Experts
 
An Expert noted that the Education Reform Act of 2011 was very progressive.  What was the impact of the new policies?  Free and compulsory education for all could resolve the issue of the enrollment of girls in the Sande secret schools.  Were there innovative educational options available to offset the negative effects of the Ebola epidemic?  How many female teachers had been recruited and what were retention policies for them?  What was the content of sexual education in schools?  What was the statistical data on the enrollment of girls in schools?

The Ebola epidemic had a direct negative effect on women’s employment and economic independence.  There was a lack of clarity on labour laws and policies and their implementation in the country report.  The status of the draft bill on decent employment was unclear.  What were its provisions on the minimum wage, labour inspectorate, protection of women in the informal sector, and social benefits?  Which mechanism would be charged with job evaluation?  Were there provisions for child care facilities?

Child mortality in Liberia was among the highest in the world.  There had been an increase in the number of pregnant women dying from preventable diseases.  What were the plans to improve the health of women and girls?  What was the status of the Government plan to rebuild the health care system?

The Expert reminded that more than 60 per cent of facilities for women and girls living HIV had been closed down due to the Ebola epidemic.  It was also important to address the issue of abortion.  Would the Government consider aligning its abortion law with international standards?

Answers by the Delegation

The delegation explained that in Liberia girls were given access to sexual and reproductive health services.  Even though there was no legal provision, abortion was allowed in certain instances. 

As for the entry point for girls in education, education policies were being revised and provisions were being made for pregnant girls to go to evening schools.  There were also economic empowerment programmes for girls.  The Government had also made efforts to place girls from the areas with heavy female genital mutilation practice in boarding schools, and thus prevent them from entering into Sande secret schools.  There were scholarship programmes, but boys learned about scholarship opportunities faster than girls.  In order to increase the number of female teachers, the Government needed to become more innovative to get them into the teaching field. 

The delegation noted that during the Ebola crisis it had been difficult to collect aggregated data on women and girls.  The Government was working closely with UN Women to produce a report on the effect of Ebola and women, and to rebuild the health system. 

The delegation confirmed that the draft bill on decent work bill had been adopted and published.  As for child care facilities, they were not widespread in the country.  Most of them were privately owned.   

Follow-up Questions by the Experts

An Expert inquired whether medical abortions were allowed after rape.  Would there be an appropriate amendment to the abortion law?  What measures would the State take to supply modern contraceptives? 

Another Expert suggested that evening schools should not be the only option for girls who had dropped out of schools, because it could lead to the stigmatization of those girls.  As for scholarships, she suggested that the Government reach out to girls. 

How many persons had been prosecuted for sexual harassment of girls?
 
Answers by the Delegation
 
The Government worked closely with the Family Planning Unit to educate girls about unwanted pregnancies and in that way prevent abortion.  There was a draft bill on reproductive health under review. 

The delegation explained that evening schools worked best for girls and young women who worked during the day. 

There were cases of sexual harassment of girls in schools, which was why teachers were required to sign the code of conduct and undergo adequate training. 
 
Questions by the Experts
 
An Expert said that specific policies on the economic empowerment of women had to be implemented in Liberia.  Such policies needed to develop the entrepreneurial capacities of women.  The country report mentioned only a number of programmes that had been implemented to that end.  Poverty reduction policies after the Ebola epidemic needed to include the gender perspective.  Did the Government envisage to launch a specific policy on the role of women in economic recovery?  Could it put a strategic investment in women’s economic empowerment, such as a policy on cash transfer, or launch community-based funds for small grants?   

As for rural women, they were responsible for 60 per cent of agricultural output, but they lacked access to strategic resources, such as water.  What interventions were in place to expand access to water supply?  What was the reach of the Social Cash Transfer Programme and were there plans for its expansion?  What was the budget assigned to that programme?  How many women had been reached so far?

What was the gender responsiveness of the Decentralization Act?  The Traditional Women’s Council did not seem to have a place in formal governance.  It would be good to have a definite place for that Council in the formal government structure, perhaps through a Constitutional provision.

An Expert observed that Liberia’s domestic violence law contained the concept of consent, which could be used as defense.  Consent could be acquired in insidious ways, particularly within the family, which was why the Government should review that concept.

Answers by the Delegation
 
Under the Poverty Reduction Strategy, social protection and cash transfer programmes were mostly directed towards the most vulnerable women in two counties.  Girls’ education levels had increased as the result of the programmes, which was why they were extended to other parts of the country. 

Since 2009 different structures had been put in place to advance the economic empowerment of women.  Small and medium-size businesses were involved in loan programmes.  Some 70 per cent of all Government procurement was given to Liberian businesses.  There was also a programme designed to offset the losses that women had sustained because of the Ebola epidemic.

All of the Government programmes, including the decentralization process, were implemented in cooperation and consultation with traditional councils and local female representatives.   Gender budgeting and planning was ongoing.  Rural women, who made up a large percentage of the population, were involved in various programmes on water, sanitation, agriculture and livelihood.      

Follow-up Questions by the Experts
 
There was no mention of the specific strategy for gender budgeting.  Was there a programme of social protection specifically targeting women’s needs?
 
Due to the wealth of natural resources in Liberia, concession agreements were often signed in local communities.  How did women benefit from those concessions?
 
Answers by the Delegation

As for social recovery programmes, all donors and partners insisted that gender issues were part and parcel of those projects.  In the eight targeted counties, the majority of the beneficiary households were headed by women. 

Under the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, local representatives, including women, took part in the negotiations of concession agreements.

Questions by the Experts   

An Expert raised the issue of customary law and customary marriages.  Customary marriages were polygamous marriages and the marrying age among girls was 16 or even lower.  Was there a possibility for a woman in customary marriage to receive redress in a statutory court?  Which law had precedence in settling marriage issues, such as inheritance, grounds for divorce and alimony?  As for the custody of children, the father was given priority.  What was the legal age of marriage? 
 
Answers by the Delegation
 
The Government was harmonizing all laws through the Constitutional review process.  Access to information on legal provisions was key for the education of women on their rights.  There was a proposal to recognize all three types of marriages in Liberia: statutory, customary and common law marriage.   The marrying age was set to 18.  All marriages in Liberia should be voluntary and the couple should share the property acquired during marriage.   There were no barriers for women in customary marriage to pursue redress in a civil court.  Custody and support for children was decided by the court of law based on parents’ earnings and the best interests of the child. 
 
Concluding Remarks

JULIA DUNCAN-CASSELL, Minister of Gender, Children and Social Protection of Liberia, thanked the Committee Experts, noting that the delegation would take into consideration all the proposals made, and it looked forward to any other recommendations.  The development of women and their empowerment was a key priority for the Government of Liberia.

YOKO HAYASHI, Chairperson of the Committee, commended the State party for its efforts and encouraged it to consider all the recommendations provided by the Committee for the benefit of all girls and women in the country. 
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