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

GENEVA (24 February 2016) - The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women today considered the combined fourth and fifth periodic reports of Vanuatu on its implementation of the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. 
 
Presenting the reports, Dorosday Kenneth, Director of the Department of Women’s Affairs of Vanuatu, said that new policies and legislation to address the provisions of the Convention had been adopted.  A strategic plan 2014-2017 addressed issues such as juvenile justice, victim support, infrastructure needs, human rights and crime.  The Government had established a Working Group on gender statistics data collection and dissemination, created a Gender Cluster within the national Disaster Office, and developed a National Children Policy focused on strengthening community-based child protection.  She underlined the need for more awareness on sexual and reproductive health, including in school curricula.  With the amendment of the Municipality Act in 2013, a 30 per cent quota for women within the Port Vila Municipal Council had been introduced. 
 
In the ensuing dialogue, Members of the Committee welcomed reforms in the field of gender equality, progress achieved in the field of health, and the Government’s commitment to address the issue of climate change.  They regretted that the prevalence of customary law might lead to discrimination against women in several areas.  More generally, they expressed concerns about the situation of women in remote areas and isolated islands, who faced, as a result of Vanuatu’s geography, restrictions on their access to health, education, employment and land ownership.  The lack of representation of women in the public sphere was also a matter of concern.  Experts noted that no woman was elected in the Parliament, and encouraged the adoption of temporary special measures aimed at accelerating gender equality.  Other questions pertained to violence against women, including the practice of witchcraft.  
 
In concluding remarks, Ms. Kenneth said that the dialogue had been a cooperative process, and that the Government looked forward to working with the Committee in meeting its international obligations under the Convention. 
 
In her closing remarks, Yoko Hayashi, Chairperson of the Committee, commended the State party’s efforts and encouraged the implementation of the recommendations which would be formulated by the Committee.
 
The delegation of Vanuatu included representatives of the Department of Women’s Affairs, the Treaties and Conventions Division, the State Law Office, the Department of Public Health, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Justice and Community Services. 
 
The consideration of the combined eighth and ninth periodic reports of Haiti (CEDAW/C/HTI/8-9), which was due to take place on Thursday, 25 February, has been postponed until next week.  Instead, the Committee will meet in private to consider individual communications and to start adopting concluding observations.  The Committee will next meet in public on Friday, 25 February at 10 a.m., to consider the combined seventh and eighth periodic reports of Tanzania (CEDAW/C/TZA/7‑8). 
 
Reports
 
The combined fourth and fifth periodic reports of Vanuatu can be read here: CEDAW/C/VUT/4-5.
 
Presentation of the Reports
 
DOROSDAY KENNETH, Director of the Department of Women’s Affairs of Vanuatu, presenting the reports, said that the Vanuatu Government considered gender equality as a fundamental factor of human rights, democracy, social justice and sustainable development.  Since Vanuatu’s last review by the Committee, new policies and legislation to address the provisions of the Convention had been adopted.  The Ministry of Justice and Community Services was established in 2006 to independently address the issues of justice, which had assisted greatly in the monitoring and evaluation of compliance with the Convention.  The Justice Sector Agencies were currently implementing a strategic plan 2014-2017, addressing issues such as juvenile justice, victim support, infrastructure needs, human rights and crime.  In addition, the Government had undertaken some important policy and legislative changes in the past three years, including the establishment of a Working Group on gender statistics data collection and dissemination, the creation of a Gender Cluster within the national Disaster Office, and the development of a National Children Policy focusing on strengthening community-based child protection. 
 
The Government had also carried out a review of its National Disability Policy in 2015, which recommended that greater support be provided for women and girls with disabilities.  Further, the Government was working on amendments to the Penal Code according to the Vanuatu Law Reform Commission review of 2013.  The Reproductive Health Policy 2015 and Implementation Strategy 2016-2018 would focus on family planning, HIV and sexual violence.  The Head of Delegation presented a series of statistics pertaining to health and access to contraception, and underlined the need for more awareness on behavioural styles, especially on unsafe sex, including in school curricula.  The Family Life Education syllabus and the Teachers Guide had been developed and were currently awaiting verification from the Vanuatu Qualification Authority.  The Government had achieved progress on mainstreaming human rights through the school curriculum in order to combat gender stereotypes.  The Inclusive Education Policy 2010 advocated for accessibility in terms of physical access, curriculum development and teacher training.  With the amendment of the Municipality Act in 2013, a 30 per cent quota for women within the Port Vila Municipal Council had been introduced. 
 
Questions by the Experts
 
The Committee welcomed Vanuatu’s commitment to address its international obligations, illustrated by the set of reforms undertaken by the Government.  On the status of the Convention, an Expert regretted that Vanuatu had not incorporated the definitions and provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women into its domestic legislation.  The Committee had expressed concerns in the past about the equal status between customary law, which was elaborated by local Council Chiefs, and the State’s legislation, which could have a negative impact on women.  Customary law in fact was given predominance on certain issues, including with regard to access to land, leading to discrimination against rural women.  The incorporation of the Convention into domestic law was especially important in light of that dualist system.  The Committee Member underlined the importance for Vanuatu to review its legislation from a gender perspective. 
 
Another Expert asked whether the Government had undertaken studies to look at the relationship between the courts and other State institutions with the customary law system.  Furthermore, an Expert noted that English was the language used by the courts, and asked what was being done to ensure that women who did not speak the language had access to justice and knowledge of their rights.  The question of access to justice and legal aid in remote areas and isolated islands was also raised. 
 
One Expert then asked whether Vanuatu had made progress regarding the establishment of a national human rights institution that was compliant with the Paris Principles. 
 
A Committee Member asked what percentage of the budget and how many staff were allocated to gender-related issues.  Would the Government increase that budget instead of relying mainly on international aid?  It was commendable that the Council of Minister had approved a gender equality policy.  What was the Government’s plan to implement that policy?  Would it assess its progress through indicators, and allocate a sufficient budget?  Did the policy address the specific needs of women from minorities, rural women and women with disabilities?  Was civil society included in the implementation of those policies? 
 
An Expert asked whether temporary special measures would be implemented to ensure the de facto equality of women and men.  Experts were concerned about the low level of representation of women in politics.  It was regrettable that no woman had been elected within the Parliament, hence the importance of imposing temporary special measures at the national level.  Was the Government considering legislated quotas to implement its commitment to achieve 30 per cent of women representation? 
 
Replies by the Delegation
 
On the status of the Convention, the delegate said that the Government had no plan to amend the Constitution to align it with the provisions of the Convention.  If customary law was contrary to the Convention, then the Convention would prevail.  The Constitution provided that ownership of land was governed by the rule of custom, but had also to comply with the provisions of the Convention, including the provisions guaranteeing the equal rights of women and men.  Customary law was valid so far as it did not discriminate between men and women, and the provisions of the Convention had the force of law and could be invoked directly before the courts.  Judges had received training on the application of the Convention. 
 
On access to justice, a delegate said courts provided translation services free of charge to ensure access to justice.  The Government was also investing in legal services in remote islands.
 
There had been no progress in terms of determining the modalities of the establishment of a national human rights institution
 
The Department of Gender Affairs received 0.2 per cent of the budget of the Ministry of Justice.  The Government had commenced the implementation of its strategies, and had developed monitoring mechanisms. 
 
Temporary special measures to ensure the participation of women would be implemented at the municipal level over a sixteen-year period.  There had been progress regarding the participation of women at the local level and regarding the nomination of women to senior positions, including in diplomatic services.  The Government was working with political parties to ensure that they took leadership in promoting the participation of women.  There had been awareness-raising campaigns prior to elections, although no woman had made it to Parliament.  The People’s Representation Act would need to be amended in order to adopt quotas for Parliament, which was not easily done. 
 
Questions by the Experts
 
An Expert asked a series of questions on Governmental programmes to fight against gender stereotypes.  Were awareness-raising activities undertaken to combat the patriarchal attitudes that prevented women from enjoying their rights?  The Expert asked what had been done to eliminate some extremely costly practices such as the dowry.  What mechanisms allowed the authorities to measure any progress achieved in this field?  What measures were taken to combat stereotypes in the media? 
 
Another Expert referred to the law against domestic violence, whose implementation seemed very limited, especially in the islands where the majority of the population lived.  She noted the persistence of the practice of witchcraft, which although officially banned was on the rise.  While some cases of related violence reached the courts, most of the penalties imposed were light.  Alternatively, an Expert asked whether violence occurred against women accused of practicing witchcraft.  Furthermore, according to a study, one in three women had experienced sexual violence before the age of 15, usually from a relative, making it one of the highest rates in the world.  The first sexual experience of most women was under duress, she said.
 
Another member of the Committee raised the problem of trafficking, and asked whether Vanuatu was considering acceding to the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and the Palermo Protocols thereto.
 
Replies by the Delegation
 
Drawing on the example of Fiji, improvements had been made to school curricula so as to include gender issues and the fight against stereotypes.  Training sessions would be provided to teachers on the teaching of sex education and family life.  In response to questions on the dowry, the delegation stated that although the Council of Chiefs had forbidden this practice, its imposition depended on where the promised wife lived. 
 
On gender-based violence, the delegation stated that Vanuatu had not adopted any legislation on witchcraft.  The murder of a person for witchcraft was not considered distinctly from regular murder.  The reason was that witchcraft murder was difficult to prove before a court beyond reasonable doubt.  To date, only one case had been successful.  Additional efforts would be made to raise the population’s awareness on this practice.  There had been a series of training sessions organized by the Government targeting police forces on gender-based violence.  Amending section 95 of the Penal Code was one of the first responses by the Government to the rise of domestic violence.  The Government had decided to increase sentencing when victims were below the age of 15.  
 
The legislation did not provide for a specific crime of sexual exploitation, a delegate said. 
 
Questions by the Experts
 
An Expert asked some questions on efforts by the Government to increase the participation of women in the political and public life, including in diplomacy and in policies related to disaster-risk reduction. 
 
Experts raised questions regarding citizenship, particularly about women’s ability to transmit their nationality. 
 
Replies by the Delegation
 
The Government had created a database on women’s participation in the public sector.  It was also looking at improving their participation in politics at the provincial level.  Women had a voting right within local administrations.  The National Board on climate change and disaster risk reduction included women.  One of the significant developments was the adoption of legislation making it compulsory for women’s views to be heard on local land ownership issues.   
 
Amendments to the citizenship legislation had made provisions more gender-neutral.  Regulations now applied to both women and men equally. 
 
Questions by the Experts
 
On education, an Expert commended efforts taken to ensure access to early education despite the country’s geography.  Concerns remained however as regards access to secondary level education, with high dropout rates among girls.  Concerns were also voiced with regards to the prevalence of teen pregnancies and the lack of access to contraceptives.  There was no legislative provision guaranteeing that mothers could return to school after the birth.  Continuing, the Expert said that there were problems of sexual violence in schools, and asked what measures had been taken to support the victims and encourage them to report such violence.  
 
With regard to employment, an Expert asked what measures had been taken to prevent discrimination in access to the labour market on all grounds, and to combat harassment at the work place.  Domestic workers represented a large part of the population, an Expert noted.  They faced violence and exploitation.  What measures had been taken to ensure their protection?  Had Vanuatu sought the support of the International Labour Organization on those issues? 
 
Turning to health issues, the Committee welcomed reforms undertaken by the Government, and its achievements in reducing neonatal death and expanding vaccination coverage.  Difficulties continued to face women from rural areas in accessing basic health services.  Was the Government collecting family planning data disaggregated by gender, especially in remote areas?  Were contraceptives free and easily accessible?  An Expert noted with concern the lack of health services provided to victims of rape.  Furthermore, women with disabilities lacked access to inclusive services.  
 
Replies by the Delegation
 
On education, a delegate informed that cultural practices led to girls not being encouraged to enrol in secondary education in certain parts of the country.  The Ministry of Education was currently looking into the possibility of adopting a policy to prevent violence at school.  There were protocols in school for reporting cases of sexual violence.  Scholarships were granted to boys more often than to girls, a delegate said.  The Government was committed to address such disparities, including through awareness-raising programmes.  There had been discussions on a timeframe for the implementation of a family life curriculum.  Open-distance learning had been implemented for pregnant girls who had dropped out of school.  At the moment, it was not mandatory for girls to return to school after giving birth. 
 
On matters of employment, the Labour Department had not completed the review of the Employment Bill, one delegate said. 
 
Turning to health-related issues, a delegate recognized that the lack of infrastructure and personnel had led to low access to medical services in remote areas.  The Government was trying to address this with the support of its partners.  It had recruited additional medical personnel.  Services for the victims of gender-based violence were mainly located in urban areas.  Vanuatu had collaborated with the United Nations Development Programme in order to increase access to sexual and reproductive health and contraceptives, and to reduce teenage pregnancies.  Contraceptives were free thanks to the support of United Nations agencies.  Awareness-raising and training efforts sought to improve services to persons with mental health problems and persons with disabilities. 
 
Questions by the Experts
 
An Expert pointed at Vanuatu’s high vulnerability to natural disasters and climate change.  She welcomed the Government’s commitment to those issues, and asked what initiatives had been taken to ensure the inclusion of women in such efforts.  Women were indeed the primary victims of climate change and natural disasters. 
 
On family relations, an Expert noted with concern that previous recommendations by the Committee to raise the minimum age to marry had not been implemented.  Though it was decreasing, the practice of early and forced marriage continued.  Had awareness-raising campaigns been conducted to prevent these early marriages?  Was the Government envisaging a legal provision making registration mandatory for all weddings, including customary ones?  The practice of polygamy also continued, an Expert noted, along with other customary provisions that discriminated against women in family relations.  Customs should not be used to justify discrimination against women. 
 
Replies by the Delegation
 
The legal commission had not recommended reforms pertaining to family issues.  The delegation said that Vanuatu had not criminalized early marriage yet.  It was an issue relating to customs, making it difficult to address.  There was currently no legal requirement for the registration of customary marriages.  The Government would look into this possibility.  Polygamy would be a sensitive issue to legislate on.  

Concluding Remarks
 
DOROSDAY KENNETH, Director of the Department of Women’s Affairs, said that it had been an honour for her delegation to participate in this constructive dialogue.  This had been a cooperative process, and the Government looked forward to working with the Committee in meeting its international obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.  
 
YOKO HAYASHI, Chairperson of the Committee, commended the State party’s efforts and encouraged the implementation of the recommendations which would be formulated by the Committee.

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