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Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women hears from civil society organizations from Colombia, Antigua and Barbuda, Ethiopia and Myanmar

GENEVA (18 February 2019) - The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women this afternoon met with civil society organizations from Colombia, Antigua and Barbuda, Ethiopia and Myanmar whose reports will be reviewed by the Committee during the first week of the session.  The Committee also heard, via a video link, from Michel Forst, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, who briefed the Committee on the situation of women human rights defenders in Colombia.

Mr. Forst said he was shocked by the diversity and depth of reprisals and violence against women human rights defenders in Colombia and denounced the sharp rise in those killed, from six in 2016 to 12 in 2017.  Their bodies told the horrible story of the extreme violence that they had suffered, he said.  Colombia should immediately formulate an integrated, sex-specific strategy for the protection of human rights defenders, with the full participation of women human rights defenders in its conception and implementation.

Non-governmental organizations from Colombia raised concerns about the refusal of the Government to address the proliferation of light weapons which was the cause of almost half of all the femicides, impunity for violence against and murders of community leaders and activists, and the rollback in rights enjoyment for black and Afro-Colombian women, as well as indigenous and lesbian, trans and bisexual women.

On Antigua and Barbuda, a speaker highlighted domestic violence, including sexual violence, especially given the lack of a State mechanism to offer shelter to the victims and the failure of the police to offer assistance to victims as mandated under the Domestic Violence Act 2015.  Access to health was underpinned by attitudes of frontline health workers, which often led to the institutionalization of harmful traditional practices.

Ethiopia was at a unique juncture and undergoing massive changes, with the political landscape changing on a monthly basis, a speaker said.  While lauding the new gender parity in the ministerial cabinet, speakers were concerned about the rising violence against women and girls and the very high rates of child marriages, women detained without due process and formal legal charges for expressing their political opinions, multiple discrimination against women and girls affected by leprosy, as well as the lack of transparency in an assessment of the environmental and health impacts of the Lega Debi gold mine.

In Myanmar, despite well-documented, widespread rape and sexual violence by security forces in 2016 and 2017 in northern Rakhine State, the Government continued to assert that there was “no evidence to support these wild claims”, while civil and military authorities continued to shield soldiers and their commanders from prosecution.  The 1982 Citizenship Law must be amended to omit any criteria based on race, ethnicity or religion, and ensure that the rights to citizenship and self-identity of Rohingya women and girls were fully restored.  The Committee should back the new investigative and evidence-gathering body created by the Human Rights Council, and ask the United Nations Security Council to refer this situation to the International Criminal Court.

Speaking in the discussion on Colombia were Colombia Diversa, Coalición de Mujeres Rurales y Campesinas, Asociación Nacional de Afrocolombianos Desplazados, Caribe Afirmativo, and Fuerza de Mujeres Wayuu.  Women against Rape spoke on Antigua and Barbuda.  The participants in the discussion on Ethiopia included Setaweet Movement and the Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN), Plan International, Advocates for Human Rights, and Ethiopia National Association of Persons Affected by Leprosy.  Speaking in a joint statement on Ethiopia were Development by Unity and Brotherly Action for the Future (DUBAF), Girja Integrated Rural Development Association (GIRDA), and Centre for International Human Rights of Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law (CIHR).  Women Peace Network and Human Rights Watch spoke on Myanmar.
 
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 reconvene in public at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 19 February, to review the ninth periodic report of Colombia (CEDAW/C/COL/9).

Dialogue with Non-Governmental Organizations

Statements

From Colombia, a representative of Colombia Diversa raised concern that gender and ethnic approaches had been left out of the peace agreement, that abortion remained a criminal offence, and that parity in political and public life was still not realized.  The proliferation of light weapons was the cause of almost half of femicides, however the Government continued to refuse to adopt legislation on this matter.

Coalición de Mujeres Rurales y Campesinas spoke of inequality of economic structures which made rural women poorer, noting that 75 per cent of foreign direct investment went to the oil and mining industries.  The State restricted the participation of rural women in decision-making, while impunity reigned for violence against, and murders of community leaders and activists.

Asociación Nacional de Afrocolombianos Desplazados said that prior consultation with indigenous peoples had become only an administrative procedure, and that it infringed on the right of communities.  Indigenous activists continued to receive death threats.  There was a need for the Committee to urgently adopt a General Recommendation on the rights of indigenous women.

Caribe Afirmativo expressed concern about the setback to the rights of lesbian, trans and bisexual women in Colombia, who continued to be discriminated against, including in access to education, employment and health.  There were still barriers to access to justice for this group, the authorities turned a blind eye to reports of violence, and stereotypical discourses were still not being punished.

Fuerza de Mujeres Wayuu discussed the violation of the human rights of indigenous women, Afro-Colombians, peasants and fisherwomen, who were still fighting for the implementation of legislation guaranteeing their individual and collective rights.  The family-based approach on which the peace agreement was based was at the root of the violent backsliding in the enjoyment of the rights of black women.  The Committee should urge Colombia to systematically address the racist discourse and discrimination.

From Antigua and Barbuda, a speaker from Women against Rape said that its shadow report focused on access to justice, health and education and their impact on the lives of vulnerable populations, in particular women, girls and minority groups.  Domestic violence, including sexual violence, was an issue of concern, the speaker said, noting that the research in 2015 had shown that 80 per cent of the victims were women and 90 per cent of perpetrators were men.  There was no State mechanism to offer shelter to the victims and the police failed to offer assistance to victims as mandated under the Domestic Violence Act 2015.  Access to health was underpinned by attitudes of frontline health workers who institutionalized harmful traditional practices rooted in culture and traditions.  Perceptions of sexual orientation, gender identity and sex workers hindered access to health services in public and private structures.

From Ethiopia, a speaker representing the Setaweet Movement and the Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN) said that Ethiopia was at a unique juncture and undergoing massive changes, with the political landscape changing on a monthly basis.  While lauding the strides in improving the lives of Ethiopian women and girls and the new gender parity in the ministerial cabinet, the speaker highlighted gaps in attainment in gender equality in the major development areas of education, especially secondary education, as well as healthcare, and raised concern about the rising violence against women and girls.

Plan International lauded the efforts of the Government to amend national legislation in line with its international obligations, however, the rates of child marriage remained high, 58 per cent according to the United Nations Children’s Fund.  While the age of marriage was set at 18, an exception in the legislation allowed girls to marry at the age of 16 under special circumstances.  In addition, the Afar and Somali Regional States of Ethiopia had not accepted the Revised Family Code enacted at the federal level. 

Advocates for Human Rights raised concern about women detained without due process and formal legal charges for expressing their political opinions, for participating in protests, or for perceived political association based on ethnicity.  Many had reported experiences of sexual violence in detention, as well as torture and gendered forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

Ethiopia National Association of Persons Affected by Leprosy stressed that women and girls affected by leprosy were triply discriminated against because of gender, disabilities caused by leprosy, and stigmatising attitudes in their communities.  For women in rural areas, who had even less information, the issues were multiplied.

Development by Unity and Brotherly Action for the Future (DUBAF), Girja Integrated Rural Development Association (GIRDA), and Centre for International Human Rights of Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law (CIHR), in a joint statement, said that for 20 years, Ethiopia had permitted a private company to poison water, air, and soil through its operation of the Lega Debi gold mine.  Following widespread protests against the renewal of the mine’s license in April 2018, the new Prime Minister had suspended the license, pending an assessment of the environmental and health impacts, but concern remained about the lack of transparency therein.

A representative of Women Peace Network from Myanmar said that sexual and gender-based violence had played a key role in the commission of grave international crimes committed by the Myanmar military, but despite well-documented, widespread rape and sexual violence by security forces in 2016 and 2017, the Government continued to deny that any sexual violence had occurred in northern Rakhine State.  The Myanmar-led “independent commission of inquiry” continued to lack credibility, and none of the previous eight national investigations had led to any effective prosecution of security forces.  Giving any recognition to such a commission that lacked independence and impartiality, and that was yet to make any effective contribution to justice and accountability, would undermine and delay the meaningful international measures for justice and accountability.  The speaker stressed that the 1982 Citizenship Law must be amended to omit any criteria based on race, ethnicity or religion, and ensure that the rights to citizenship and self-identity of Rohingya women and girls were fully restored.  There was strong evidence that Myanmar intended to relocate the Rohingya and any returning population into internment camps or segregated Muslim “villages” under highly militarized conditions.

Human Rights Watch said that after the Myanmar military had launched its campaign of ethnic cleansing in August 2017, its researchers had spoken to Rohingya women and girls who had been raped by security forces and witnessed deep pain, shame and distress born not only from the recent violence but also from chronic fear, persecution and neglect.  Despite the overwhelming evidence of grave crimes, the Myanmar Government continued to assert that there was “no evidence to support these wild claims”.  Civil and military authorities continued to shield soldiers and their commanders from prosecution.  The Committee should back the new investigative and evidence-gathering body created by the Human Rights Council, and ask the United Nations Security Council to refer this situation to the International Criminal Court. 

Discussion

Committee Experts asked non-governmental organizations from Ethiopia about trafficking in women and girls and the involvement of civil society organizations in protecting women and girls from this form of exploitation.  Although Ethiopia had in place a strategy to eliminate child marriages since 2013, over 50 per cent of girls were married off before the age of 18 – was this because of the lack of implementation, or lack of political will?

There was a severe backlog in criminal complaints in Antigua and Barbuda, with complainants sometimes waiting for five years; how did this play out in relation to sexual violence offences?

As for the situation in Myanmar, Committee Experts asked which three priority areas the Committee should raise in the dialogue with the Government, and requested more information about the prevailing attitudes in the country in connection with the situation of Rohingya, and whether the current criminal legislation allowed women who were victims of sexual and gender-based violence to seek justice and remedy.  It seemed that Myanmar was preparing an integrated law on all forms of gender-based violence, and the Expert asked whether it would also address past human rights violations.

On Colombia, the Experts asked about steps taken to disseminate the decisions of the Constitutional Court in order to address the challenge of building peace.

An Expert asked civil society organizations to explain how States took disability into account while devising their policies to ensure access to justice for women and protect women with disabilities from violence.

Responding, civil society organizations from Colombia said that the judiciary gender committee could sometimes apply discriminatory interpretations of the Constitutional Court rulings, and this affected their dissemination.  A speaker stressed that although laws were in place, those were not always implemented, especially when it came to underprivileged groups, including people of African descent, who also disproportionately suffered the impact of armed conflict.  Therefore, the ruling on racism and racial discrimination was also one of the Constitutional Court rulings that had not been implemented.  Another speaker said that civil society organizations had lobbied for a national disability policy, which was robust and had funding, and urged the Committee to support the implementation of the policy with its recommendations.

The sexual offences model court in Antigua and Barbuda had been launched in January 2019 and had not yet heard any case.  Before reaching this court, a case had to pass a magistrate court, which had a direct bearing on whether it would reach the sexual offences model court.  A longstanding challenge in this respect was the manner and matter of investigation following a report of sexual violence.

A representative of civil society organizations from Ethiopia explained that every year, an estimated 170,000 women left the country to work as domestic workers and that 60 to 70 per cent were irregular migrants.  Women domestic workers abroad sustained the economy of the country, but were often in a vulnerable and disadvantaged position, with high levels of violence and exploitation, particularly in the Gulf countries.  While Ethiopia had comprehensive laws in place, the extent of their implementation needed more exploration.

Although Ethiopia was a signatory to a number of international human rights instruments and had put in place a strategy, the problem of child marriage still prevailed, which was largely due to the lack of political commitment as the Government was not allocating sufficient resources to address the issue.  In addition, the 2009 Civil Society Law did not allow civil society to work on human rights, including child marriage.  Fortunately, the new Prime Minister had revised this law, raising hope of a greater involvement of civil society organizations on this and other human rights issues.

Civil society representatives from Myanmar said that the majority of people were prejudiced against the Rohingya due to the longstanding propaganda by the Government, but there were civil society leaders in different sectors who were aware of the situation and were taking action.  It was important to highlight that everyone who got involved in the search for truth suffered threats, violence and intimidation, the case of the two Reuter journalists being a case in point.  On justice and remedy, there was very little in the law to actually allow victims of sexual violence to access courts.  Impunity for such crimes committed by military or security forces was helped by the fact that those were the jurisdiction of military courts.  A speaker stressed that the judiciary was the most unreliable, incompetent, and corrupt pillar in the country.  That was why justice and accountability for grave human rights violations committed against the Rohingya should be pursued internationally.

Briefing by the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders     

MICHEL FORST, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, briefed the Committee, in a video-conference, on the situation of women human rights defenders in Colombia and said that he was shocked by the diversity and depth of reprisals and violence against them, both in urban and rural areas.  Mobility remained a huge challenge, as many could not circulate the country freely due to invisible barriers imposed by non-State actors.  Women were those most affected by the armed conflict and they suffered additional violence and discrimination based on their sexual orientation, race and ethnicity.  Most vulnerable were Afro-Colombian and indigenous women, he said, raising concern about the sharp rise in the number of women human rights defenders killed in Colombia, from six in 2016 to 12 in 2017.  Their bodies told the horrible story of the extreme violence that they had suffered. 

Mr. Forst urged the immediate formulation of the integrated strategy for the protection of human rights defenders, and also urged the application of sex-specific protection measures and a sex-specific approach to risk analysis and identification as well as the full participation of women human rights defenders in its conception and implementation.

In the discussion that ensued, a Committee Expert asked whether the Government was really serious about the implementation of this policy and whether they had the means to do so.  Responding, Mr. Forst explained that the President was fully committed to implementing the strategy for the protection of human rights defenders, even if not everyone in the Government agreed with this approach.  The Government should have time to absorb the recommendations issued by the Special Rapporteur following his visit to the country.  It was important to understand that vast areas of the country were outside of the Government’s control, therefore the implementation of the strategy there would take time, patience and resources.  The Special Rapporteur reminded the Committee that his report to the Human Rights Council next week would address the situation of women human rights defenders, adding that the work by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women was very helpful in his work.

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For use of the information media; not an official record