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CEDAW discusses situation of Women in Nepal, Republic of the Congo, Bahamas, and Samoa with civil society organizations

GENEVA (22 October 2018) - The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women this afternoon met with representatives of the civil society from Nepal, the Republic of the Congo, the Bahamas, and Samoa, whose reports will be reviewed this week.

Speakers from Nepal said that due to the absence of a definition of discrimination against women from the Constitution, Nepalese women – especially Dalit, Madhesi, indigenous, and women from religious minorities, as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex women – suffered intersectional and multiple forms of discrimination.  Women human rights defenders experienced threats, harassment and intimidation online and offline, they said, calling attention to the persisting gap in the status of women and men, including in the right to transfer the citizenship to children born to foreign spouses.

The general situation of human rights and of women’s rights in the Republic of the Congo was an issue of concern, said the speakers, noting in particular the barriers to the realization of the right to freedom of expression for women human rights defenders, including threats.  Those working in the area of extraction of natural resources and the fight against corruption were particularly exposed.  The Government should address the situation of widows and ensure their right to inheritance.

The failure of the 2016 gender equality referendum in the Bahamas to entrench the principle of non-discrimination on the basis of sex in the Constitution could be attributed to the corrosive, opportunistic and partisan politics, noted the speakers, stressing that in the Bahamas, the political process itself had become a barrier to the advancement of women.  The non-governmental organizations also raised concerns about the discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity by the State, and the non-implementation of the gender-based violence strategic plan.

The Committee should urge Samoa to incorporate into its domestic laws the substantive equality, non-discrimination and gender equality as defined by the Convention, a speaker said, calling on the Government to increase the current parliamentary quota for women from 10 to 30 per cent.  Samoa should develop a comprehensive strategy on gender-based violence in line with the Committee’s General Recommendation No. 35 and garner the participation of churches and religious leaders in training for the promotion of prevention of gender-based violence and family violence.

Speaking on Nepal were the non-governmental organizations: National Alliance of Women Human Rights Defenders, Forum for Women, Law and Development, CAC Nepal, National Indigenous Women’s Federation, Blind Women Association of Nepal, Blue Diamond Society, Mitini Nepal and Federation of Sexual and Gender Minorities of Nepal, Society for Women Awareness Nepal and Jagriti Mahila Maha Sang, Feminist Dalit Organization, and StopIGM.  The Nepalese national human rights institution, the National Human Rights Commission of Nepal, also took the floor.

The National Committee for Women’s Rights and Rencontre pour la Paix et les Droits de l’Homme spoke about the situation of women in the Republic of the Congo; the Rights Bahamas, Equality Bahamas, and Bahamas Crisis Centre took the floor in the discussion on the situation of women in the Bahamas; and the Samoa Umbrella for Non-Governmental Organizations spoke about Samoa.

The Committee will next meet in public on Tuesday, 23 October, at 10 a.m. to review the sixth periodic report of Nepal (CEDAW/C/NPL/6).

Statements by Non-Governmental Organizations

Nepal

National Alliance of Women Human Rights Defenders noted that women human rights defenders were targeted, criticized, threatened, intimidated, surveilled and harassed, offline and online, because of their gender and the work they did.  At least 95 per cent of women human rights defenders had been subjected to domestic violence, faced reprisals, death threats, verbal abuse and harassment.  Those who identified as gay, sex workers, health workers, indigenous rights activists, and women with disabilities were often further marginalized by social stigma.  

Forum for Women, Law and Development said that the discrimination on the basis of sex was prohibited by the Constitution, and stressed that because of the absence of a definition of the discrimination against women, Nepalese women, especially Dalit, indigenous, those with disabilities, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex women, women from religious minorities, and Madhesi women, suffered intersectional and multiple forms of discrimination.  Women in Nepal could not transfer citizenship to their children.  

CAC Nepal reminded that there was a persisting gap in the status of women and men in Nepal, including in matters of citizenship as a Nepalese woman could not transfer nationality to her children born to foreign fathers.  A Nepalese man married to a foreigner could.  There were millions of single women, sex workers, and lesbian who could not transfer citizenship to their children.  

National Indigenous Women’s Federation stressed that indigenous women and indigenous women with disabilities were not recognized in the Constitution.  They suffered multiple forms of discrimination based on their racial, ethnic and gender identity, and disability, and continued to be one of the most marginalized groups in society.  Those women had been rendered vulnerable by the lack of political voice and the lack of attention to their specific needs and rights.  

Blind Women Association of Nepal said that the lack of sign language interpreters in courts severely restricted access to justice, and that according to the laws related to family and marriage, including the Civil Code, severe disabilities could be a reason for divorce.  Women with disabilities needed to ask for guardianship in order to access property ownership, and many were found in the street, begging to survive.  

Blue Diamond Society, Mitini Nepal and Federation of Sexual and Gender Minorities of Nepal pointed out to the lack of sexual orientation and gender orientation as a ground for discrimination, and the fact that many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex women faced violence within their own families.  Despite the recent Supreme Court order to amend the Citizenship Act, it was not easy to receive citizenship card by transgender persons as the authorities asked for medical reports or gender confirming certificates.  

Society for Women Awareness Nepal and Jagriti Mahila Maha Sang underlined that despite decriminalization of sex work in Nepal, sex workers, including transgender sex workers, were marginalized and faced multiple forms of discrimination, including in education and employment, while their children were being humiliated by society.  The law failed to distinguish between voluntary sex and trafficking in persons, and as a result, the State misdirected resources into policing and punishing consensual sex work, rather than into identifying and supporting trafficking victims.

Feminist Dalit Organization informed that the political representation of Dalit women had overall increased.  However, only 16 Dalit women held higher level posts and they continued to suffer discrimination and humiliation from the so-called upper caste.  Their plight was ignored by the local-level meetings, which were dominated by so-called upper caste men.  Many Dalit women lacked skills and leadership to assert their rights and entitlements.

StopIGM spoke on behalf of the peers from Nepal who could not afford to travel to Geneva, calling attention to intersex genital mutilation, which remained a growing practice in Nepal.  Infanticide and child abandonment were frequent.  There were reports of expulsion of adolescents from their families, of forced marriage to avoid conspicuousness, of bullying and abuse, and preventing intersex children from attending school.    

Republic of the Congo

National Committee for Women’s Rights stated that women held 11.5 percent of seats in the National Assembly, 22.9 per cent in the Senate, 12 per cent in the Government, and 18.82 percent in the ministries.  However, the Government should pay attention to the underrepresentation of Congolese women in the United Nations, as well as to the situation of widows, especially in ensuring their right to inheritance.

Rencontre pour la Paix et les Droits de l’Homme was concerned by the general situation of human rights and of women’s rights, noting that despite the ratification of international treaties and conventions by the Government, women human rights defenders still struggled to express themselves freely and were exposed to all kinds of threats.  The Constitution, which was supposed to guarantee the freedom of expression and the right to information, was weak.  Fundamental freedoms were not really guaranteed, which represented a barrier to the activities of women human rights defenders.  Those defenders who worked on the themes of extraction of natural resources and fight against corruption were most exposed to different kinds of threats.  

Bahamas

Rights Bahamas called the Committee’s attention to the discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity by the State of the Bahamas, noting in particular a bill introduced after the 2016 gender equality referendum, which would erase, legally and politically lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, intersex people, and gender non-conforming people.  The inclusion of a provision defining sex as male or female only, reinforced harmful patriarchal stereotypes about gender roles and norms, and it represented a barrier to the recognition and advancement of the rights of sexual minorities.

Equality Bahamas said that numerous conventions and declarations had been signed by the Government without a national dialogue, and lamented that many citizens had never heard of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women.  When they did, it was framed as an international agenda and an attack on sovereignty.  The Committee should urge the Bahamas to provide public education on this and other Conventions it had signed, in order to increase public awareness.

Bahamas Crisis Centre noted that the two gender equality referenda in the past 16 years had resulted in massive defeats due to the corrosive, opportunistic and partisan politics, and stressed that in the Bahamas, the political process itself had become a barrier to the advancement of women.  Without an honest assessment by the State of its weaknesses, including the need for institutional strengthening, research and data collection, and gender mainstreaming within the national machinery itself, women would continue to be disadvantaged in areas of critical importance.  Finally, with respect to gender-based violence, there was no justification for the State’s delay in implementing the strategic plan.  

Samoa

Samoa Umbrella for Non-Governmental Organizations asked the Committee to urge Samoa to incorporate into its domestic laws, including in the Land and Titles Act of 1981, the substantive equality, non-discrimination and gender equality as defined by the Convention.  Samoa should increase the current parliamentary quota for women from 10 to 30 per cent; develop a comprehensive strategy on gender-based violence in line with the Committee’s General Recommendation No. 35; and garner the participation of churches and religious leaders in training for the promotion of prevention of gender-based violence and family violence through the application of Christian principles, which recognized the equality of men and women before God, and the honouring of the marriage and the equal and dual role of spouses in maintaining peace and harmony within the family.  

Discussion

The Experts inquired about widows’ access to land and the possibility for women married to foreigners to transfer their citizenship to their children in the Republic of the Congo.  How many couples lived in registered unions and what kind of guarantees were in place for women living in unofficial unions?  What was the opinion of civil society about the legal review process and what was their input in that process?  What type of threats did women human rights defenders face?  The Experts further called attention to harmful traditional practices and asked about the adoption of laws to counter them.  They also inquired about the violence committed against women during the conflict in Pool, as well as about the number of clandestine abortions.

The Experts asked about the reasons behind the failure of the 2016 referendum on gender equality in the Bahamas, and the practical measures that needed to be taken to prevent the failure of another referendum.  Turning to the economic empowerment of women, the Experts wondered whether there was a segregation of women in employment, and raised the role of women in tackling climate change.  Would the Bahamas ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention?  

On Nepal, the Committee Experts asked about the difference in constitutional articles on non-discrimination based on gender, and whether there were discussions on a possible decriminalization of consensual sex work.

As for Samoa, the Experts inquired about equality in inheritance, social protection for women in poverty, and access to commercial banking funds.  What accounted for the late entry of the Church in the discourse of female empowerment and against gender-based violence?  Were there discussions in Samoa about the recent scandals of child abuse in the Catholic Church?

Responding to the questions, speakers from Nepal noted that the new Constitution had spelled out new grounds for discrimination, namely marital status and pregnancy, and that it contained an article on non-discrimination.  However, the Civil Code of 2017 clearly discriminated against women in the area of child custody and the transfer of citizenship.  There was a minimal participation of women in public life and the situation necessitated the introduction of special measures for marginalized women.  There were currently no discussions on the decriminalization of consensual sex work.

In reply to questions raised on the Republic of the Congo, civil society representatives explained that after the passing away of the husband, the widow was forced to leave the marital home with her children unless she re-married another man chosen by the family.  Women needed to have the means to seek justice at court and to ensure that they could stay at the marital home.  There was no information about the number of clandestine abortions in the country.  Many women were victims of rape in the conflict zones, which remained largely inaccessible.  Women working on promote the rights of women farmers were threatened, including by death, therefore they seldom filed complaints.  All the obstacles to the transfer of citizenship from mother to her children would be removed in the draft Family Code.

In the Bahamas, the 2016 constitutional referendum on gender equality had failed because the State had not been prepared for the scope of legal repercussions, speakers said.  Some voters thought that the referendum had been an attempt to sneak in the issue of same-sex marriage, which was problematic in a predominantly Christian nation.  A bipartisan solution, as well as a cultural and attitude shift, were needed for the success of the referendum on gender equality and women’s empowerment.  The civil society was not pressuring the State to ratify the Optional Protocol, which would indeed provide more scrutiny and accountability on the part of the State.  The Labour Law covered the rights of domestic workers, but they were intimidated with threats of dismissal if they complained.  Domestic work was not valued as work and it was thus diminished.

It was very easy to divide women on the issue of citizenship as women living in poverty did not think that such a question would concern them.  It was key to mainstream the issue of gender into such themes in order to have a future referendum on gender equality pass.  It was equally important to encourage the Government and civil society to be honest about the themes that needed to be discussed.  Although the Bahamas had skilled and educated women, it was also a tourism dependent country in which women could not access the highest paying positions.  Women were at the front of responding to climate change and they headed many relevant initiatives.

A speaker explained that in Samoa, the laws were there in letter but were not practically applied.  Women had already internalized their roles, which prevented them from social and economic advancement.  Emotional rather than economic poverty was a greater problem in the country because it was linked with violence against women.  The Government and people of Samoa needed to engage in a comprehensive social dialogue to improve the situation of women.  Samoa was a male dominated society and there was a fear of change and of the unknown.  As the Church was also male dominated, it had taken a long time for it to speak out against gender-based violence.

Discussion with the national human rights institution

MOHNA ANSARI, Commissioner, National Human Rights Commission of Nepal noted that Nepal had taken progressive steps to implement the Committee’s concluding observations and recommendations, noting in particular that the new Constitution embedded the right to equality and non-discrimination and political representation of women.  Furthermore, any act of discrimination based on sex, pregnancy, or marital status had been criminalized, and traditional harmful practices had been made punishable crimes.  The status of the National Women’s Commission had been elevated to the status of a constitutional body.  The Commission had set up a 24-hour helpline for women victims.  In 2014, the act on sexual harassment at a workplace had been passed, whereas a new act on reproductive health rights recognized women’s access to reproductive health services as a human right.  

Polygamy, the Commissioner continued, had been criminalized and child marriage would be null and void, while the minimum age of marriage would be raised to 18 in the new Civil Code.  In the federalization process, the Ministry of Social Development had been tasked to be the focal ministry for women’s issues at the provincial level, while the Ministry of Women, Children and Senior Citizens remained the lead ministry at the federal level.  Despite the positive steps taken by the Government, continued Ms. Ansari, there remained room for improvement in several areas, such as the dominance of patriarchal values, sexual harassment, domestic violence, child marriage, trafficking in migrants, political representation of women, discrimination against Dalit and Madhesi women, and against women with disabilities, and transfer of nationality through the mother.

In the ensuing discussion, the Committee Experts wondered whether the National Human Rights Commission of Nepal could follow up on complaints, and about the political representation of women.  Why was there a problem for women candidates to compete for the first-past-the-post positions rather than just the quota posts?  They also inquired about the initiatives taken so far to reform the remaining discriminatory laws, and remarked on a lack of follow-up on legal modifications, particularly concerning harmful traditional practices.  There were new discrepancies between the new Civil Code and the Penal Code in terms of polygamy and child marriage, they said and asked what the bill adopted in August 2018 achieved in that regard.  What was the status of the Women’s Commission?

Responding, the Commissioner said that there was a complaint and an inquiry mechanism within the National Human Rights Commission of Nepal, but its recommendations were not fully implemented by the Government.  The political representation of women was held back by the patriarchal values held by political parties, she continued, and explained the contradiction in the law regarding the criminalization of polygamy and child marriage by the ongoing federalization and human resources constraints.

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