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Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women examines the reports of Micronesia

GENEVA (24 February 2017) - The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women today considered the combined initial to third periodic reports of Micronesia on its implementation of the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
 
Introducing the reports, Magdalena Walter, Secretary (Minister) of the Department of Health and Social Services of Micronesia, said that the geographical configuration of Micronesia was an important backdrop against which the implementation of obligations under the Convention should be viewed: Micronesia was a small, young, developing nation of around 100,000 persons spread on 607 dispersed islands.  Reaching out to the population to carry out consultations and public education was fraught with tremendous challenges and obstacles.  The Constitution guaranteed statutory protection to the traditions of the people and individual and civil rights.  Discrimination was prohibited, and women enjoyed equal protection under the law.  Gender violence was an important challenge, with one in three women experiencing physical or sexual violence.  Climate change was a major existential issue for Micronesia, reiterated Ms. Walters, and would remain so until nations around the world took bold steps by changing norms and practices that would save the planet.
 
In the ensuing discussion, Committee Experts asked a series of questions about the
division of the power to legislate between the national Parliament and the four states, safeguards to ensure that decentralization did not lead to discrimination against women depending on where in the country they lived, and technical assistance and financial resources available to the states for the implementation of the Convention.  The Constitution did not contain a comprehensive definition of discrimination in line with article 1 of the Convention, Experts said and asked about efforts to harmonize the laws throughout the country in the ongoing effort to domesticate the Convention.  Experts raised concerns about the lack of a national policy to promote the equal representation of women in civil service, while Micronesia was the only country in the world which had never elected a woman to the national Parliament.
 
The delegation was asked to explain the relationship between customary and civil law, with Experts noting that blanket protection of customs could be at the root of some of the challenges that the country was facing, particularly the patriarchal traditions and attitudes which fed into violence against women.  Sexual abuse of children under the age of 15 was another issue of concern.  Experts also asked about measures taken to break the silence surrounding gender-based violence, the adoption by all states in Micronesia of laws prohibiting sexual and gender-based violence, and if a comprehensive state-wide law prohibiting violence against women was envisaged.
 
In her concluding remarks, Jane Chigiyal, Permanent Representative of Micronesia to the United Nations, said that all efforts were being taken to advance the interests of women and assured the Committee that it would address the areas flagged by the Experts, including temporary special measures, women’s political participation and data collection.
 
The delegation of Micronesia included representatives of the Department of Health and Social Services on Micronesia, Department of Justice, and the Permanent Mission of Micronesia to the United Nations.
 
The Committee will meet in private next week, before publicly closing the session at 4 p.m. on Friday, 3 March.
 
Reports

The combined initial to third reports of Micronesia can be read here: CEDAW/C/FSM/1-3.
 
Presentation of the Reports
 
MAGDALENA WALTER, Secretary (Minister) of the Department of Health and Social Services of Micronesia, started by saying that Micronesia was a small nation of around 100,000 persons spread on 607 islands which were so dispersed that reaching out to the population to carry out consultation and public education was fraught with tremendous challenges and obstacles, not least the very high cost of travel and transportation.  The geographical configuration of the country was an important backdrop towards gaining understanding of how Micronesia as an island nation performed its obligations under the Convention.  Micronesia was only 30 years old, having gained independence in 1986.  The Constitution reflected the culture and tradition of Micronesians, and guaranteed statutory protection to the traditions of the people.  The Constitution also guaranteed individual and civil rights, including due process, equal protection under the law, and free speech.  Discrimination was prohibited, and women enjoyed equal protection under the law.
 
Turning to the challenges the country faced that were of interest to the Committee, Ms. Walter highlighted gender violence as one very important challenge facing the country.  The 2014 Family Health and Safety Study had found that one in three women in the country had experienced physical or sexual violence; and one in four had experienced intimate partner violence in the 12 months preceding the interview.   In reaction to the findings of the study, Micronesia had started the legislative process of giving more protection to women, starting with the passage of the Family Protection Act in Kosrae.  At the same time, the national government was raising public awareness on women’s rights and was encouraging the remaining three states to pass the needed legislation.  Undergoing the final review was the gender policy which would focus on better representation of women in decision-making, elimination of gender-based violence, better access to education and transition to work for both girls and boys, addressing barriers women faced in the workforce, and gender mainstreaming.
 
Ms. Walter further said that Micronesia continued to narrow down gender disparity in education by ensuring that the educational programmes would create better outcomes for females.  Some dimensions of the cultural practices and traditions also posed challenges, for example some cultural practices encouraged discrimination.  Micronesia was committed to addressing those challenges while bearing in mind their complexity, sensitivity and importance.  Climate change was a major existential issue for Micronesia, reiterated Ms. Walters, and would remain so until nations around the world took bold steps by changing norms and practices that would save the planet.  Micronesia had furthered its Nationwide Integrated Disaster and Climate Change Policy and had integrated climate change into the national strategic planning.  Women in Micronesia bore the impacts of climate change; as such, they were important stakeholders in the strategy to address those impacts.
 
Questions from the Experts
 
A Committee Expert addressed one critical challenge in Micronesia, which was the division of the power to legislate between the national Parliament and the four states, and stressed the core obligations of States parties to the Convention and the full responsibility of the implementation of the provisions throughout the territory under its jurisdiction, including in decentralized and federated countries.
 
Which safeguards were in place to ensure that decentralization did not lead to discrimination against women depending on where in the country they lived?
 
What technical assistance and financial resources were available to the four federal states for the implementation of the Convention?
 
The Expert welcomed the discussions in Micronesia concerning the withdrawal of the reservations to the Convention and asked for further information on the scope of the debate.
 
The Constitution did not contain a comprehensive definition of discrimination in line with article 1 of the Convention.  Were there plans to review the national Constitution and states’ constitutions to align them with the Convention in this regard?  What were the alternatives to this process?  What was being done to harmonize the laws throughout the country in the ongoing effort to domesticate the Convention?
 
What concrete measures were being taken to enhance synergies between different levels of government so that the national government had a good overview over what was happening in the country in terms of the implementation of the Convention?
 
An issue of concern was that the customary law could override the formal law in the case of conflict – what was the approach to cases in which customary law was contrary to the formal protection mechanisms of women’s rights?
 
Responses by the Delegation
 
The delegation stressed the supremacy of the Constitution which guaranteed equality for all.  Discrimination was prohibited at the national and state levels, and there was no specific discrimination against women.
 
The 2016 Congress had introduced a resolution to withdraw all the reservations to the Convention, but no action had been taken to date.  The government would continue the advocacy on this issue in the next session of the Congress.
 
Partners were providing technical assistance to Micronesia on a number of issues, including on developing gender and disability policies. 
 
Culture was very important in Micronesia as it promoted peace and respect among peoples, but it was important to stress that the customary law did not supersede the prohibition of discrimination.
 
In their follow-up questions, Experts asked about the intention of Micronesia to adopt an action plan for the implementation of the Committee’s concluding observations, and also asked about measures taken to ensure access to justice for women in remote islands, and also to ensure access to legal aid.  If discrimination was prohibited at the highest level, how was this prohibition compatible with the lack of laws to protect women from discrimination, in particular violence, which was one of the worst forms of discrimination against women?
 
Responding, the delegation said that the supremacy of the national Constitution was guaranteed and any act passed by the state which was not in compliance with the Constriction would be considered void.  Micronesia was committed to taking steps to ensure compliance with the Convention.  Amending the Constitution was a difficult process which required the consent of three out of four states, followed by at least 75 per cent of the cast vote in favour of the amendment in order to pass it.
 
Micronesia’s Legal Services Corporation provided free legal services to anyone in the country who could not afford legal counsel, including in civil and criminal matters.  Free legal aid could also be offered by private attorneys on a pro bono basis.  The Government’s legal aid programme was confined to criminal matters only, and it was provided through the Public Defender’s Office.  There were discussions to expand the mandate of the office to offer legal aid also in matters of civil law. 
 
Ratified treaties needed to be incorporated into the national law.
 
The Constitution prohibited discrimination, and this was applicable to women and men.  At the national level, a comprehensive law on the protection of civil rights prohibited discrimination and provided for criminal penalties for the violation of civil rights; if violence against women was constituted as discrimination, it would then fall under this law and violence against women would be criminally sanctioned.
 
With regard to the withdrawal of the reservations to the Convention, the delegation was not in a position to offer a time-frame for the adoption of the resolution by the Congress.
 
On the contradiction between customary law and civil law, the delegation said that every statute enacted by the Congress that criminalized certain conduct carried an element of compulsion, and had to be observed.  In that sense, customary traditions did not rise to the level at which they would contradict the provisions of the law.  However, customary practices which reinforced legal positions were given recognition by the court.  A criminal conduct, as defined by a statute, could not be justified by a custom or a tradition, regardless of how popular that tradition was.
 
Questions from the Experts
 
A Committee Expert took positive note of the incremental changes in the legislative and policy arena in Micronesia since the ratification of the Convention.
 
Would Micronesia be receptive to learn from other countries in the region and study their best practices in addressing the intersection of tradition and women’s rights?
 
There was no specific national gender machinery in Micronesia.  The department of the state with the gender equality portfolio had only one person, while the bill proposing the establishment of a cabinet position with the women portfolio had not been passed.  What efforts were in place to raise awareness on this matter?  What was the mandate, staffing and resources of the existing gender machinery?
 
With regard to the use of temporary special measures to accelerate gender equality, an Expert noted that the bill proposing the reservation of a small number of seats in the Congress for women for a period of six years had died in 2015 with the change in the legislature.  The most prevalent barriers to the political participation of women were culture, customs and traditions, with people believing that leadership was a masculine treat.  Further, there was a lack of knowledge and awareness about the nature and use of temporary special measures among law and policy makers in the country.
 
What measures were in place to raise awareness among the public about temporary special measures?  What quotas were being proposed and how would non-compliance be sanctioned? 
 
Responses by the Delegation
 
Responding, the delegation said that there were no plans at the moment to re-introduce the proposal for a new Cabinet portfolio on women.  The existing machinery was indeed under-staffed – it only had one person – but it cooperated actively with other agencies.  No budget had been allocated at the moment, however, budgetary allocations would be made next year for some specific activities, such as awareness raising.
 
In follow-up questions, Experts stressed that national gender machinery was key in achieving substantial gender equality and asked about steps taken to strengthen its capacity, visibility and resources.  Small island developing States faced particular challenges in collecting gender disaggregated data, which was crucial for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, including the separate Goal on gender equality.  Did Micronesia receive support from partners in collecting sex disaggregated statistics?
 
The delegation said that the national machinery had been introduced several years ago and since then, the Department of Health and Social Affairs had been handling the portfolio of gender equality, and had a dedicated Gender Development Officer.  A biannual women’s conference had been taking place since 2008 and there were non-governmental organizations working on women’s issues.  The issue of temporary special measures would be on the agenda of the next biannual women’s conference.
 
Data collection was indeed a challenge.  Micronesia was trying to establish a mechanism to streamline the submission of data from the states, so that they would be easily accessible at the national level and would facilitate the tracking of progress on the country’s international obligations.
 
Questions from the Experts
 
A Committee Expert took up the issue of negative stereotypes and said that blanket protection of customs could be at the root of some of the challenges the country was facing, particularly the patriarchal traditions and attitudes which fed into violence against women.  Sexual abuse of children under the age of 15 was another issue of concern.
 
What was being done to harmonize customs and traditional practices with regard to violence against women with international norms in this regard?  Which targeted policies were in place?  Would the age of consent from 13 to 18 years of age be raised nationally? 
 
What awareness campaigns were in place to break the silence surrounding gender-based violence?  Was there a timeframe by which all states in Micronesia would have laws prohibiting sexual and gender-based violence; was a comprehensive state-wide law prohibiting violence against women envisaged? 
 
The definition of rape was different in different states of Micronesia, with elements of force and resistance, while the Convention required the element of no consent.  Marital rape was not a crime, and was not even an offence in some states.  What data was available on gender-based violence at the level of states?
 
The delegation was asked about shelters: the number, financing, who ran them, and who referred women to those shelters.
 
Responses by the Delegation
 
The delegation said that Micronesia’s culture promoted peace among the people.  The 2014 Family Health and Safety Study had presented some concerning findings about violence against women in the country.  To date, one state – Kosrae - had passed a law on family protection, while a similar law was being prepared in another state.
 
The definition of rape indeed varied from state to state, and marital rape was not criminalized.  Three out of four states had an identical definition of rape.  In 2012, an anti-trafficking law had been passed by the Congress which provided uniform applicability of offences covered by the law.  This could offer a model for the definition of rape on the national level in the future.   
 
Micronesia was working with non-governmental organization partners on an awareness raising campaign to recognize the issue of violence against women.  Before the 2014 study had been conducted, there was no awareness in the country about how pervasive the issue was.  The study was also the only source of information and data on gender-based violence. 
 
On the issue of raising the age of consent from 13 to 18 years, the delegation stressed the need for a debate at each level of government and to support states to take steps to comply with the Convention in this regard.
 
Questions from the Experts
 
In the next round of questions, Experts recognized the ratification of the Palermo Protocol and the adoption of the anti-trafficking law and asked about data and studies on the magnitude of the crime in the country.  Were there training programmes for police officers, prosecutors and judges, as well as awareness raising campaigns on the issue of trafficking in persons?
 
What was being done to address prostitution and to protect women from sexual exploitation?
 
Responses by the Delegation
 
The delegation said that Micronesia had been on the United States State Department watch list because of trafficking in persons, but thanks to steps taken, it had been removed from the watch list three years ago.  The anti-trafficking law had been adopted in 2012 and there had been a successful prosecution of perpetrators, while victims of human trafficking had been saved.  Last week for example, criminal charges had been filed against a person involved in prostitution.
 
The setting up of an operation of shelters for victims of human trafficking was a challenge because of the costs involved in the upkeep. 
 
Questions from the Experts

Taking up the issue of women’s political representation, a Committee Expert noted the lack of a national policy to promote the equal representation of women in civil service, while Micronesia was the only country in the world which had never elected a woman to the national Parliament.
 
What steps were being envisaged to promote the active participation of women in political life at the national level, and at the level of states; was the adoption of quotas being considered?  What was being done to ensure the full inclusion of women with disabilities in public and political life?  How were women being prepared to take up positions in the foreign and diplomatic service?
 
Replies by the Delegation
 
The delegation said that the country needed to start discussions on the political participation of women, and noted that those would be some of the harder discussions to take place.  In this sense, raising public awareness was crucial.  The national government was involved in such activities at the state and village levels, in collaboration with international organizations.
 
It was important to say that the law did not prevent women from taking part in political participation; however, women were often hesitant to take advantage of the possibilities offered by the law.  Micronesia was having elections next month, and there were two women on the electoral lists for the Congress. 
 
Micronesia had ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and legislative changes to bring the laws in conformity with this Convention were expected.  This would bring about a change in the inclusion of persons with disabilities in decision-making mechanisms.
 
The issue of women’s political participation was of crucial importance, said the delegation; two women were running for the Congress and this might be a historical moment for women in the country.  The participation of women at the political level was discussed at the biannual women’s conference.  It was hard for women to decide to run for elected positions, particularly for women with children.
 
Questions from the Experts
 
Experts commended Micronesia for its compulsory education at primary and secondary levels in all states, and the adoption of a fund to support the tertiary education of women in one of the states.  The Committee was however concerned about some policies hampering access to education, for example in one of the states, the entry into school could be deferred for one year.
 
The rate of adolescent pregnancy was high, and although public schools did not expel students for being pregnant, private schools did.  It was of concern that sexual and reproductive health programmes focused on abstinence and did not adequately accompany children growing into adults.
 
Responses by the Delegation
 
In response, the delegation said that for children with disabilities who could not access school facilities, educational authorities would reach out to families and work with the children.  Because secondary education was compulsory, girls had an obligation to continue schooling after the birth.
 
The Government offered subsidies to private schools, and subsidized educational institutions were obliged to abide by the policies of the national government, including in issues of non-discrimination, providing the same opportunities to boys and girls, and not expelling pregnant girls.
 
The delegation explained that indeed, in one of the states the entry of a child into school could be deferred by one year, and this was due to the insufficient infrastructure.  However, the situation today was different: the national government was now responsible for the provision of health and education throughout the territory, and for this purpose there were health and education funds established.  Schools must be certified and teachers must have the necessary requirements to teach.
 
Questions from the Experts
 
A Committee Expert welcomed the measures taken to eliminate discrimination against women and drew attention to putting in place a regulatory framework, and the implementation of various pieces of legislation. 
 
The Expert stressed the need to extend the equal levels of protection to women throughout the territory, noting that one state had legislation on sexual harassment, one state had a law on paid maternity leave, and the law guaranteeing gender equality in the workplace had been adopted by one state only.
 
Responses by the Delegation
 
In response to the issues raised by the Experts, the delegation reiterated that the Constitution guaranteed protection from discrimination, including in the public sector employment.  It was true that unemployment rates were very high and much more needed to be done to ensure the collection of data.
 
Questions from the Experts
 
A Committee Expert noted that very few maternal deaths were being reported, and this lack of official statistics impeded the assessment of the situation of maternal deaths.  What measures were being taken to reduce maternal mortality rates?
 
There was no sexual and reproductive health plan in place that would raise awareness about family planning, and it seemed that 44 per cent of the female population still did not have access to contraception and contraceptive services.  What was being done to ensure the availability of sexual and reproductive health services, and ante-natal services, to women in the country, particularly in outer islands?
 
Abortion was illegal except to save the life of the mother, and there were no safe and appropriate abortion services. 
 
Responses by the Delegation
 
The delegation explained the efforts to increase the availability of ante-natal services in the country, including through the establishment of reliable clinics on isolated islands and in very remote areas, in which there had never been clinics before.
 
There were programmes in place, supported by donors, which raised awareness about the prevention of pregnancy among adolescents.  Young girls rarely aborted pregnancies as the Micronesian culture valued children.
 
Questions from the Experts
 
A Committee Expert asked how, in practice, could women access loans and credits on the same footing as men.  How many women had been able to obtain a loan over the past 12 months, and how much was it?

Twenty per cent of households were headed by women – what social protection was available to them, and how could they access credits and loans?  What support was available for other vulnerable groups of women to support their integration in the economy?
 
What was the situation of women in sports?
 
Responses by the Delegation
 
The delegation said that there were only two commercial banks available in the region; the National Banking Board had an oversight function.  Women who qualified could access loans without problems.  One in five households was headed by a woman, with outmigration for work and education leaving many families behind.  
 
Questions from the Experts
 
A Committee Expert recognized the challenge of geography in delivering services to rural women and protecting them from negative customs, violence and discrimination.  Access to education, particularly for girls, was limited as they were expected to help with household chores.
 
How did the national strategic development plan address the situation of rural women and women in outer islands, and the structural challenges they faced?  What legislative steps had been taken to advance the situation of rural women and advance substantive equality, including through the adoption of a gender-sensitive rural development policy?
 
An Expert commended Micronesia for being the first Pacific island state to adopt a climate change policy and asked how it consulted with and included women.  How did the policy address the specific vulnerabilities of women to climate change and how did it build on coping mechanisms and traditional knowledge of local communities?
 
Responses by the Delegation
 
The delegation explained that local courts at the municipal level could address issues of violence against women. 
 
The national strategic climate change strategy was headed by a woman, and women were encouraged to be a part of the dialogue.  The policy was currently being updated and Micronesia would consider how to include gender and disability therein. 
 
Questions from the Experts
 
A Committee Expert said that the law guaranteeing the right of women to enter into contracts was in place, but de facto equality was the problem.
 
Lifting the blanket reservation to article 16 on marriage, family, divorce, and custody would enable Micronesia to make important steps forward.  The Expert asked about the unification of the age of marriage for all states, compulsory registration of marriage to prevent polygamy and child marriage, and whether the solemnization of customary marriage protected women.
 
The delegation was also asked to explain which rules applied to maintenance following separation or divorce, customary or civil law.  Would a divorce by mutual agreement be introduced?  

Responses by the Delegation
 
The delegation said that family matters fell under the jurisdiction of the states, but Micronesia had to comply with its international obligations.  The age of marriage varied from one state to another, and was very much influenced by customs and traditions.  The national government would continue the dialogue with the states on moving forward on this issue.
 
A marital licence had to be issued prior to contracting a marriage and this ensured that all were registered, but this was not the case with unofficial, customary marriages.  The Attorney General’s Office prosecution policy required the prosecution of all criminal cases, regardless of the possibility of customary settlement or pardon. 
 
Concluding Remarks
 
JANE CHIGIYAL, Permanent Representative of Micronesia to the United Nations, said that Micronesia was making every effort to advance the interest of women in the country.  The Committee’s recommendations would be applied in areas which the Experts had flagged, such as temporary special measures, women’s political participation and data collection.
 
DALIA LEINARTE, Committee Chairperson, commended Micronesia for its efforts and encouraged it to address various recommendations which the Committee would issue with the purpose of the more comprehensive implementation of the Convention throughout the State party.

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