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Civil Society Representatives brief CEDAW on Situation of Women in Gabon, Azerbaijan, Ecuador and Tuvalu

Committee on Elimination of Discrimination
  against Women 

16 February 2015  

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women this afternoon met with representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights (Ombudsman) of Azerbaijan to hear information on the situation of women in Gabon, Azerbaijan, Ecuador and Tuvalu, whose reports will be considered by the Committee this week.

Representatives of civil society organizations from Gabon expressed concerns about persistent gender-based discrimination in laws and practice, gender-based violence and access to justice for women.  Women in Gabon undertook 95 per cent of farm work and yet there were persistent legal barriers for women in realizing their equal rights to land and property.  Within the family, the Civil Code provided that the husband was considered the head of the household, while discriminatory provisions in domestic law, specifically dealing with inheritance, existed. 
 
Violence against women in Azerbaijan was still persistent and perpetrators enjoyed impunity.  Prison conditions for females needed to be improved in line with international and European standards.  Early marriages under the pretext of religious practices were widely practiced, and the rate of use of reproductive health and family planning services was very low; 47 per cent of pregnancies in Azerbaijan were terminated by abortion, largely due to sex-selection and the preference for boys.  
 
Speakers from NGOs in Ecuador called the attention of the Committee to the setback in the national machinery for the protection of the rights of women and the protection of victims of violence, caused by the elimination of Commissariats in 2003 which were replaced with a transitional mechanism with a much lower budget, resulting in the lack of guidance and systematic policy to prevent violence against women.  Another issue of concern was the lack of access to safe abortions and the prohibition of abortions even in the case of rape: unsafe abortions were the second cause of maternal deaths and the leading cause of maternal morbidity.
 
A significant majority of women in Tuvalu were farmers and depended on the land and natural resources for their livelihoods and well-being.  However, most did not have formal rights to the land they cultivated because of the highly discriminatory laws, customs and practices relating to women’s land and property rights. 
 
Aydin Safikhanli, Head of the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights (Ombudsman) of Azerbaijan, said that the Ombudsman was a key actor in the development of human rights education programme, who actively participated in the preparation of reports to the human rights treaty bodies and in the harmonization of laws with the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.  Special attention was being paid to the rights of rural women, and in particular refugee and displaced women accommodated in rural areas.

Speaking during the discussion were representatives from Observatoire des droits de la femme et de la parité (ODEFPA), Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan, Women’s Association for Rational Development, National Coalition of Women in Ecuador (CONAIE), National Coalition of Women in Ecuador/Frente Ecuatoriano de Derechos Sexuales y Reproductivos, and the Centre for Reproductive Rights.  A representative of the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights (Ombudsman) of Azerbaijan also took the floor.

When the Committee reconvenes in public on Tuesday, 17 February at 10 a.m., it will begin its consideration of the sixth periodic report of Gabon (CEDAW/C/GAB/6).
 
Statements by Non-Governmental Organizations

Gabon


Observatoire des droits de la femme et de la parité (ODEFPA)
said that despite the ratification by Gabon of the Convention, gender-based discrimination continued in the laws, particularly concerning family obligations, and represented serious violations of women’s rights.  Polygamy persisted and the only option open to women in such cases was a divorce; there was no political will to address this issue.  Another challenge in Gabon was access to justice for women, and women were under-represented in decision-making bodies.  Another representative of ODEFPA spoke about gender-based violence and said that a 2009 study had revealed that 29 per cent of women had experienced such violence.  There were real problems in providing care to victims and many victims were returned home because officers considered gender-based violence to be a family problem.  There was a lack of standardised guidance for medical care for survivors of sexual violence, while access to health for rural women was limited.  

Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
said that women in Gabon undertook 95 per cent of farm work and yet there were persistent legal barriers for women in realizing their equal rights to land and property.  Within the family, the Civil Code provided that the husband was considered the head of the household, while discriminatory provisions in domestic law, specifically dealing with inheritance, existed.  The Committee should urge Gabon to take immediate steps to address and remedy negative customs and traditional practices, especially in rural areas, repeal all discriminatory provisions of the Civil Code and recognize the equal rights of women in customary marriages to land, property and inheritance.

Azerbaijan


Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan said that the situation of women in the country was changing and laws of gender equality and domestic violence had been adopted.  Violence against women was still blatant and perpetrators enjoyed impunity, while victims did not enjoy protection in the proceedings.  Prison conditions for females needed to be improved in line with international and European standards.  Early marriages under the pretext of religious practices were widely practiced, while children born in such marriages were considered born out of wedlock.
 
Women’s Association for Rational Development called the attention of the Committee to serious gender-biased texts and illustrations in many school texts, thus reinforcing the existing stereotypes and traditional portrayal of women.  School attendance rates for girls were low, leading to a high rate of early marriages and early pregnancies.  Another issue of concern was the very low rate of use of reproductive health and family planning services: 47 per cent of pregnancies in Azerbaijan were terminated by abortion, largely due to sex-selection and the preference for boys.  

Ecuador


National Coalition of Women in Ecuador (CONAIE) called the Committee’s attention to the setback in the national machinery for the protection of human rights and the rights of women.  The Women’s National Council had been created in 1997; it was eliminated in 2003 and replaced with a transitional mechanism with a much lower budget.  There was a weak national plan and a lack of guidance to address violence against women, and shelters were not uniformly distributed throughout the country.  There were many court chambers which did not have staff trained in gender issues and there was no systematic policy to prevent violence against women.  Another representative of CONAIE spoke about education for the indigenous population which had been weakened by the introduction of the so-called Millennium Schools and the layoff of indigenous teachers.  The national public health system had ceased to include intercultural health and ignored ancestral knowledge, thus denying women childbirth experience as per their culture.
 
National Coalition of Women in Ecuador/Frente Ecuatoriano de Derechos Sexuales y Reproductivos spoke about the lack of access to safe abortion as defined by the law and the prohibition of abortion in cases of rape.  There was a lack of data which linked unsafe abortion with maternal mortality, but it was known that it was the second cause of maternal deaths and the leading cause of maternal morbidity in Ecuador. 
 
Centre for Reproductive Rights called the Committee’s attention to the issue of sexual violence in Ecuador and said that around 30 per cent of adolescent girls were sexually assaulted or abused in schools.  The Committee should ask Ecuador to change its policies.
 
Tuvalu

Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
speaking also on behalf of the Tuvalu Association of Non-Governmental Organization (TANGO), said that a significant majority of women were farmers and depended on the land and natural resources for their livelihoods and well-being.  However, most did not have formal rights to the land they cultivated because of the highly discriminatory laws, customs and practices relating to women’s land and property rights.  The laws of the country continued to directly discriminate against women and the Government had shown little commitment to implementing the recommendations of this Committee and eliminating this discrimination.

Questions by Committee Members


An Expert took up the issue of awareness about harmful traditional practices among the authorities in Gabon, and asked about the efforts to systematically combat violence against women, the practice of repudiation and the status of repudiated women, also in the case of HIV positive women who most likely had acquired the virus via their husbands.  Experts reiterated the absolute need for a law against violence and noting that slavery particularly for young girls was on the increase, asked about human trafficking in the country.  Civil society organizations were asked to comment further on the reasons behind the very slow implementation of the provisions of the Conference in Gabon, access to contraceptives, and dropout rates for girls.

On the situation of women in Azerbaijan, an Expert asked about the involvement of civil society in the ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention) and about awareness raising and discouragement policy for unofficial marriages, particularly for girls leaving schools early.  Other issues raised included the situation of women in Nagorny Karabakh and their role in peace and reconciliation, the registration of early and religious marriages, and the situation of women in detention.  

Concerning the situation of victims of violence in Ecuador, Experts noted that it had worsened with the new comprehensive organic criminal code and asked about the institutional changes introduced by this new criminal law and how indigenous rights had been so reduced in school and health sectors.  Concerning sexual violence in public schools, Experts wondered whether the new criminal law had improved the legal framework to address sexual violence against women and girls. 

Response by Non-governmental Organizations


Representatives of organizations from Gabon explained that repudiation, or the decision of a husband to kick his wife out, was legally prohibited.  This was not a divorce and repudiated women were not legally divorced but were considered free to look for another partner; if a woman would fall pregnant by other man during repudiation period, the child officially belonged to the husband as she was legally married.  Some 23 per cent of women living with HIV/AIDS had been victims of violence by their husbands; women were more likely to seek health services and would usually be the first to get diagnosed.  In the eyes of the husband, who often did not know his status, it was the wife who brought HIV into the family.  There were no statistics on slavery of girls, but there was highly organized cross-border traffic.  Concerning the slow rate of implementation of the Convention, it was both a cultural and political problem; on the one side, the country wanted to achieve international standards, but it found it hard to separate from traditions and culture at home.
 
In Azerbaijan, the 2009 law on marriage had brought the minimum age of marriage to 18 years for both girls and boys, but it was unclear from the statistics how many early marriages there were in the country.  This was an issue in rural areas with more religious populations, where such marriages or “kebin” were registered by a mosque.  As per the law, marriages should be first registered by the State and then by a religious instance, but this was not respected in the country.  Azerbaijan had never ratified the Istanbul Convention and awareness about it was low.    
 
In Ecuador, before 1995, there were Commissariats for Women Affairs, where women could seek access to services and also the writ of amparo which guaranteed immediate protection.  Following the adoption of the comprehensive criminal code, protection services needed the support of the police and a prosecutor for the victims of violence.  The positive changes brought by the new criminal law were the inclusion of the crime of femicide and the creation of the response unit for violence, and areas to be further strengthened included immediate protective measures and better accessibility for women victims of violence.  Also, violence against women was dealt with in the new law as a common crime, which removed the need for specialised services and staff.  Access to safe abortion was utopia in Ecuador and would not happen soon; the drafting of the new criminal law was an opportunity that civil society organizations hoped would lead to at least decriminalization of abortion in case of rape, but unfortunately this had not happened.  The influence of conservative groups was still too strong.

Dialogue with National Human Rights Institution


AYDIN SAFIKHANLI, Head of the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights (Ombudsman) of Azerbaijan, said that the Ombudsperson had numerous initiatives to strengthen the promotion and protection of human rights for all groups of the population and was a key actor in the development of the human rights education programme.  The Ombudsman actively participated in the preparation of reports to the human rights treaty bodies and in the harmonization of national laws with the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.  Special attention was being paid to the rights of rural women, and in particular refugee and displaced women accommodated in rural areas.

An Expert noted the gap between the legal framework and practice and wondered what could be done to bridge it and ensure that laws did not contain contradictory provisions; the larger issue was temporary special measures and using the concluding observations as a tool.  The rate of divorce was on the increase and an Expert wondered about the role of the Ombudsperson in ensuring that divorce did not have negative consequences on women and children and asked about the Alimony Fund. 

Responding to the questions by the Committee Experts, Mr. Safikhanli described the process to deal with the Committee’s concluding observations, which included round tables with civil society organizations and lobbying for the implementation of certain recommendations.
 
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