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CEDAW discusses situation of women in United Kingdom, Serbia, and Botswana with representatives of civil society

Committee on Elimination of Discrimination
  against Women

25 February 2019

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women this afternoon met with representatives of non-governmental organizations and the national human rights institutions to hear information on the situation of women in the United Kingdom, Serbia, and Botswana, whose reports will be considered during the second week of the session.  The Committee will also review the report of Angola during the week, however, civil society organizations were not in the room to brief the Committee.

Speakers from civil society organizations from the United Kingdom raised concerns about the impact of Brexit on women since most regulations ensuring women’s rights in equal pay, maternity and sexual violence were bound to European Union membership.  Women bore the brunt of austerity measures as 86 per cent of social security cuts have been against women.  The discussion echoed concerns about the loss of European Union support for organizations and programs for ensuring women’s rights as well as questions of national legislation and distribution of responsibilities against devolved governments within the United Kingdom.

In Serbia, the increased instances of domestic violence against women, including murder, which were linked to rising trends of radicalization and traditionalism, was an issue of concern.  Speakers highlighted the apathy of the state in addressing these concerns as well as lack of gender equality mechanisms, along with prevailing patriarchy and negative attitudes towards women’s empowerment and role in society.  Criminalization and subsequently increased marginalization of sex workers was also discussed.

Patriarchy and masculinity, the lack of adequate resources, and the lack of data on the experiences of vulnerability, hampered the ability address the injustices faced by women in Botswana.  Speakers pointed to the rampant nature of rape and sexual violence, including murder, along with the low participation of women in public offices – only seven of the 65 members of Parliament were women.

Speaking in the discussion were from the United Kingdom Women’s Resource Centre, Northern Ireland Women’s European Platform, Engender, and Women’s Equality Network, as well as national human rights institutions Equality and Human Rights Commission Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, and Scottish Human Rights Commission.  Equal Rights, Autonomous Women’s Centre/ASTRA/Women in Black, and SOS Vojvodina Network took the floor in the discussion on Serbia, while Black Queer DocX, Sisonke Botswana, and Botswana Network on Ethics, Law and HIV/AIDS (BONELA) delivered statements on Botswana.

All the documents relating to the Committee’s work, including reports submitted by States parties, can be found on the session’s webpage.

The webcast of the Committee’s public meetings can be accessed at http://webtv.un.org/.

The Committee will next meet in public at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 26 February, to review the eighth periodic report of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (CEDAW/C/GBR/8).

Statements by Non-Governmental Organizations

United Kingdom
Women’s Resource Centre said the Committee should urge the United Kingdom to mitigate the negative impacts of Brexit for all women since most regulations ensuring women’s rights in equal pay, maternity and sexual violence were bound to European Union membership.  Minority women were most disadvantaged, especially black and minority ethnic women whose rights were breached by the government’s ‘hostile environment for illegal migrants’.  Women bore the brunt of austerity measures, reflected in the fact that 86 per cent of social security cuts have been against women. 

Northern Ireland Women’s European Platform said that key issues in Northern Ireland were the lack of functioning gender equality strategy since 2016, absence of a Government since 2017, and the refusal by the United Kingdom to accept the responsibility for the implementation of the Convention across the country.  Other concerns included the gender pay gap, lack of strategies on childcare, violence against women, high levels of marginalization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex women, and lack of progress on the reform of the abortion law.

Engender urged the Committee to focus on three main issues: the incorporation of the Convention into the Scottish law and gender mainstreaming; access to justice and equality before the law for all groups of women, and the impact of the failing care system on women in Scotland.  Finally, it was noted that the Scottish Government was directly responsible for all those areas of policy and law. 

Women’s Equality Network warned of dire consequences of Brexit for Wales which could lose access to substantial European Union funds to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds.  The United Kingdom must reconfigure relations with the European Union to protect women’s rights in Wales, and ensure that the losses of financial and policy legislation networks from the European Union were compensated.

Serbia
Equal Rights said that in 2016 Serbia had criminalized both selling and purchase of sexual services, and raised concern about the harmful impacts of such decision, as the constant fear of being arrested had pushed sex workers to work in hidden or remote locations, where their exposure to risks and violence increased.  Because of criminalization, most of the cases of violence against sex workers were not reported.

Autonomous Women’s Centre/ASTRA/Women in Black said that the ongoing radicalization and traditionalism in Serbia influenced all aspects of women’s lives.  In nine years, more than 280 women had been killed by their partners, former partners, or family members.  Despite these realities, the United Nations Women and other United Nations agencies continued to support the Government in creating more harm than good.

SOS Vojvodina Network observed that the reforms in Serbia were formalistic and ineffective, gender equality mechanisms at all levels were undermined, and patriarchy prevailed.  Health and social rights were far from satisfactory, while violence against women remained pervasive in public discourse as well as in practice.   The State had not shown interest in supporting activities of non-governmental organizations working on women’s right and protection.  

Botswana

Black Queer DocX denounced the lack of resources to secure sustainable livelihoods, especially as the long-ruling elites created an environment where a few could benefit.  There was a lack of comprehensive data reporting on the experiences of vulnerability of women in Botswana, which, together with lack of financial resources, hampered the ability to develop responses to the injustices faced by women.  Patriarchy and masculinity were reflected in the existing data as a form of bias. 

Sisonke Botswana said that women’s representation in Parliament remained low, with only seven out of 65.  Female leadership in the private sector was also low.  That meant that gender sensitive budgeting remained a mystery, and that women’s provisions for comprehensive healthcare and mitigating violence were put aside for the interests of men in power.  Lastly, the organization emphasized that rape was rampant in the country, with 66 per cent of women having experienced some form of sexual violence.

Botswana Network on Ethics, Law and HIV/AIDS (BONELA) noted that the prevalent patriarchy in the country replicated itself even in the work of civil society, with women’s programmes excluding transgender and non-conforming experiences, and with female sex workers not being provided adequate protection under law.  Women were persistently violated in their relationships and at workplace, and were victims of hate crimes.  Such crimes should become systematically and regularly reported, and the structural influences that perpetuated injustices should be addressed. 

Questions by Committee Members

On Serbia, Committee Experts asked for the clarification of the law criminalizing sex work, and if sanctions involved an administrative penalty, as in most of Europe, or sex workers could be put in jail.  What was the situation of sex workers in Kosovo?

In relation to the lack of comprehensive data in Botswana, were there were any mechanisms to study women’s issues in higher education institutions?  The Experts also asked about women’s participation in parliamentary processes; the exclusion of women from the economic development in rural areas and its link to trafficking in persons; access to and availability of ante-natal services in light of the very high mortality rates; and the prevailing attitudes towards abortion.

Experts further asked about the attitudes towards abortion and mental health in the United Kingdom and whether mental health was only a very recent concern in public discourse.  Experts wanted to better understand the challenges of Brexit, and remarked on the lack of momentum on the part of the British Government in the successful implementation of Brexit.

Responses by Non-Governmental Organizations 

Representatives of non-governmental organizations from Serbia explained that the 2016 change in the law only criminalized clients since sex workers had already been criminalized.  There was no information about the situation of sex workers in Kosovo.   Women of Serbian nationality living in northern Kosovo had no access to protection against domestic violence.

With respect to assistance to pregnant women in remote areas, non-governmental organizations from Botswana clarified that on paper everything was in good order.  However, there were not enough workers to attend to pregnant women, resulting in a very high mortality rate.  When it came to abortion, it was allowed only in cases of rape and incest.  As for the representation of women in Parliament, there was a general will to improve it, but the cultural background was preventing progress.

Speakers from the United Kingdom said that one of the main Brexit fears was the backtracking of the protection of human rights from today's situation.  In Northern Ireland, the absence of a government prevented the country from making progress on this issue.  They recognized a legal vacuum the after Brexit and highlighted the potential loss of European Union funding to civil society for a large number of organizations.

Dialogue with National Human Rights Institutions 

Equality and Human Rights Commission referred to the absence of the Northern Ireland executive which affected government’s ability to take actions on women’s rights.  The speaker welcomed strategies from the Government’s final executive programme, further recommendations that aimed to ensure that there were no negative effects of Brexit on women’s rights, recommendations for single equality legislation, and protection from the loss of the European Union funds.  She spoke of underrepresentation of women in public life and government appointments, where women faced obstacles and invited the Government to tackle lower employment rates and lower wages for women as well as discrimination and harassment including on matters of pregnancy and maternity leave or childcare needs.

Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission said that for three years, Norther Ireland experienced stagnation and uncertainty due to the suspension of its devolved institutions.  The status quo exacerbated the salience of the issues that needed to be addressed; they were becoming more and more difficult to remedy.  For example, there were no updated strategies on gender equality, sexual orientation, childcare or carers.  In addition, the current law on termination of pregnancy in Northern Ireland was disproportionate and incompatible with article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and despite the efforts of the Commission and individual politicians, the disparity remained.  Furthermore, when it came to higher-level appointments, the 50/50 gender representation target would probably not be met by 2020-2021.  Finally, the fact that more than 80 incidents of domestic violence were reported per day showed the rise of violence against women in Northern Ireland.

Scottish Human Rights Commission said that the United Kingdom welfare reforms since 2010 had negatively affected women’s rights in Scotland.  An analysis of recent social security and tax changes had put minority ethnic women and poorest third of households on a trajectory of losing 17 per cent of their income by 2020.  The Scottish Government should ensure that the new social security system addressed the specific problems experienced by women and mitigate impacts of welfare reform.  The gender pay gap stand at almost 15 per cent, and the Commission invited the United Kingdom Government and the devolved state authorities were invited to address women’s employment issues where there were clear imbalances, as well as address the issues of provision of mental healthcare for prisoners and re-integration of women prisoners into society. 

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For use of the information media; not an official record
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