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Gender equality and a definition of discrimination should be enshrined in the Constitution, Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women urges in dialogue with Bosnia and Herzegovina

Committee on Elimination of Discrimination
against Women

30 October 2019

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women today considered the sixth periodic report of Bosnia and Herzegovina on how it implements the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.  Experts asked what measures had the State taken to include in the Constitution a definition of equality between men and women?  They underlined that gender equality must be included in all spheres of Government action and realized everywhere. 

The Committee Experts encouraged the State party to add a definition of discrimination in the Constitution and harmonize gender policies and legislation across the country.  They noted that articles 4 and 5 of the Constitution did not fully incorporate the Convention’s definition of discrimination.  There were significant differences in the implementation of gender policies across the country.  What steps had the Government taken to reduce gaps in implementation at the national, entity, district and cantonal level?

Sasa Leskovac, Expert Advisor at the Agency for Gender Equality at the Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees of Bosnia and Herzegovina, said Bosnia and Herzegovina was still burdened with post-conflict, societal and economic transitions.  Additionally, Bosnia and Herzegovina had a complex constitutional structure which was decentralized to a large extent, so that in most areas relevant to the Convention, such as health, education, social welfare, protection and prevention of gender-based violence, there were more than 14 legal systems in the country.

The Constitution was not gender-sensitive to a sufficient extent, delegates said.  They recalled that the Constitution, which had been drafted in the United States, was short.  The Convention was an annex to the Constitution and as such was considered an integral part of it.  They acknowledged that this was not sufficient, and that was why the Government had worked on a constitutional amendment, which had been in the pipeline for five years now due to parliamentary delays. 

In his concluding remarks, Mr. Leskovac thanked the Experts for the very constructive and precise questions.  The Government was looking forward to receiving the Committee’s recommendations.

Hilary Gbedemah, Committee Chairperson, thanked the delegation for the constructive dialogue. 
The delegation of Bosnia and Herzegovina was comprised of representatives of the Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees, the Government of Republika Srpska, the government of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Permanent Mission of Bosnia and Herzegovina to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The Committee will next meet in public at 10 a.m.  on Thursday, 31 October to consider the sixth periodic report of Lithuania (CEDAW/C/LTU/6).

Report

The Committee is considering the sixth periodic report of Bosnia and Herzegovina (CEDAW/C/BIH/6).

Presentation of the Report

SASA LESKOVAC, Expert Advisor, Agency for Gender Equality at the Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees of Bosnia and Herzegovina, said Bosnia and Herzegovina was still burdened with post-conflict, societal and economic transitions.  Additionally, Bosnia and Herzegovina had a complex constitutional structure which was decentralized to a large extent, so that in most areas relevant to the Convention, such as health, education, social welfare, protection and prevention of gender-based violence, there were more than 14 legal systems in the country.

The main instrument for the implementation of the Convention was the Law on Gender Equality, which structurally and content-wise followed the Convention.  To implement this law in an effective and strategic manner, Bosnia and Herzegovina had adopted and successfully implemented the Second Gender Action Plan (2013-2017).  A new, Third Gender Action Plan had been adopted in 2018. 

Bosnia and Herzegovina had taken a serious and strategic approach in implementing United Nations resolution 1325 on women, peace and security.  A monitoring and evaluation plan associated with action on resolution 1325 had been developed.  Bosnia and Herzegovina’s implementation of the resolution had been highlighted as an example of good practice in the Global Study on the Implementation of United Nations Resolution 1325 that had been drafted at the request of the Secretary-General.

Bosnia and Herzegovina had invested significant resources into developing public policies aiming to ensure the protection of the rights of survivors and witnesses of sexual violence during the war.  In line with the Committee’s recommendations, Witness Support Offices were established at all higher courts in the country.  To suppress the stigmatization of persons who had survived sexual violence during the 1992-1995 war, the Inter-Religious Council of Bosnia and Herzegovina had adopted a declaration which had been signed by the heads of the four main religious communities living in Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

The harmonization of regulations with the Law on Gender Equality was an essential part of gender mainstreaming.  While the deadline for the completion of the harmonization of all State and entity laws and other relevant regulations with the Law on Gender Equality was set at six months, the harmonization process had proven to be a continuous process.  Bosnia and Herzegovina was indeed undergoing a European integration process, and every year laws were reviewed and new laws were adopted in that context.

Of all forms of gender-based discrimination in Bosnia and Herzegovina, violence was still one of the most common and widespread.  According to recent data, four in 10 women in Bosnia and Herzegovina said they had experienced psychological, physical or sexual violence since the age of 15.  The adoption of the Law on Protection against Domestic Violence in Brcko District marked a significant step towards the establishment of a uniform legal framework on this matter.  In 2016, amendments to the anti-discrimination law expanded the prohibited discrimination grounds by explicitly including age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity and sexual characteristics.  A Monitoring and Reporting Committee under the Istanbul Convention and on feminicide had been established. 

Important improvements in the labour legislation had been made to harmonize it with the Gender Equality Law, especially on the protection of motherhood and maternity, and parental leave.  The social sector was still burdened with challenges, due to financial and systemic constraints.  While Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Agency for Gender Equality, the Gender Centre of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Gender Centre of the Republika Srpska had established a continuous and very successful cooperation, budget allocations were still not at the level required for them to fully discharge their mandates.  Lack of human resources was also still a major obstacle.  In conclusion, Mr.  Leskovac re-emphasized the importance of a coordinated approach to gender mainstreaming and the empowerment of women.

Questions from the Experts

Experts recalled that their work was to support Bosnia and Herzegovina in implementing the Convention.  They noted that the State party faced challenges in implementing the Istanbul Convention. 

Articles 4 and 5 of the Constitution did not fully incorporate the Convention’s definition of discrimination.  Gender equality must be included in all spheres of Government action and realized everywhere.  And yet, there were significant differences in the implementation of gender policies across the country.  What steps had the Government taken to reduce gaps in implementation at the national, entity, district and cantonal level?  The Optional Protocol and the Convention were not covered by training provided to civil servants.

What measures had been taken to ensure that vulnerable groups had access to information and available assistance, such as free legal aid?  What measures had the State taken to include in the Constitution a definition of equality between men and women?

Responses by the Delegation

Delegates said the Constitution was not gender-sensitive to a sufficient extent.  They recalled that the Constitution, which had been drafted in the United States, was short.  The Convention was an annex to the Constitution and as such was considered an integral part of it.  They acknowledged that this was not sufficient, and that was why the Government had worked on a constitutional amendment, which had been in the pipeline for five years now due to parliamentary delays.  The constitutional amendment had not yet been added to the parliamentary agenda.

A press conference had been held at the Parliamentary Assembly to promote the Committee’s previous set of concluding recommendations.  The Gender Action Plan itself had been conceived with an eye on the Convention and the recommendations.  In other words, these recommendations and the Convention had been translated into the Gender Action Plan.  The Government was committed to the principle of gender mainstreaming, which it carried out through various action plans devised by all ministries.  There was no irrelevant sector in that regard.

The Government had noted a trend that references to the Convention in courts had been increasing.  This was in part due to specific training on gender issues, including gender-based violence, that was provided to judicial officials.  While judges tended to primarily cite the lex specialis relevant for the case at hand, they increasingly based additional arguments for their decision on references to the Convention.

In the past years, various donors used to proceed alone and do their own thing.  Changes had been made to align their actions with the Government’s strategic documents.  For instance, on gender-based violence, the Government had decided to build prevention capacity and donors had contributed to these efforts.

The European Union integration process had been an incentive for policymakers to move forward in relation to human rights and gender equality.  The Government would use that momentum and fold European standards on gender into Bosnia and Herzegovina’s domestic legislation.  The Council of Ministers had decided to translate the findings of the dialogue with the European Union into actions.  Amendments to the Law on Gender Equality Law were foreseen to align it with the European acquis.  This illustrated the continuous efforts deployed by the Government in the context of the European Union integration process.

Questions from the Experts

Experts requested information on measures to strengthen the Institute of Human Rights so it may effectively and independently discharge its mandate in full compliance with the Paris Principles. 

They asked about the involvement of civil society organizations in the development of the Third Action Plan on Gender Equality and its implementation, as well as on financial and human resources that had been mobilized for its implementation.

What measures were being taken to effectively deal with war crimes?

Experts commended the State party for the broad application of temporary special measures, notably through the 2009-2015 Rural Development Strategy.  And yet, they stated that the use of temporary special measures in the State party was insufficient.  Even though 42 per cent of candidates in 2014 were women, they had only obtained 21.4 per cent of seats.  In 2018, the number of women elected to the House of Representative remained at 21.4 per cent.

Responses by the Delegation

On the lack of resources, delegates explained that through several projects funded by the international community, the Government had been able to compensate for the lack of human resources.  The Government recognized that monitoring and evaluation skills were somewhat lacking, notably as regarded the implementation of action plans, and steps had been taken to address this issue.  While human resources were far from sufficient, delegates expressed hope that, as the European integration process moved forward, available resources would increase over time, and the need for such an expansion would be better understood.

In several areas, the Government collaborated with civil society organizations.  Through grants and contracts, the Government outsourced work to civil society organizations, as in some cases there were best positioned to carry it out.  They were also essential partners in promoting initiatives and were the Government’s “ears and eyes” on the ground.

The Government used the Ombudsman’s special reports to develop new policies.  A new law on the Office of the Ombudsman was before the parliament, which if approved would bolster this Office, notably regarding its funding.

Temporary special measures had proven effective to increase women’s access to credit as well as female entrepreneurship.  There were also temporary special measures in the field of security and peace, to notably foster the participation of women in the police, the army and peace operations.  They notably encouraged applications by women.  The required number of years of experience, for instance, had been brought down. 

On electoral quotas, the 20 odd per cent result achieved showed that quotas were far from being the only solution needed to promote and achieved a greater participation of women in public and political life.

Questions from the Experts

Experts said gender stereotypes and prejudice, if not tackled in a systematic way, hampered the access of women and girls to their rights, and generated sexism and misogyny, and violence against women.

The better educated and better off were distinctly less likely to agree with broad notions of women’s subservience to a male partner. 

Was it not the responsibility of the State to guide society, including political parties, media and education institutions, to create an environment in which half of the country’s population felt safe and encouraged to fulfil their potential in the labour market or politics if they so choose?

Experts also asked when the Government would improve and harmonize its legislation on domestic violence.

They stressed that victims of human trafficking needed special shelters as they had specific needs, and requested information on training provided to government officials on this matter.

Responses by the Delegation

Delegates said the Government had included measures addressing stereotypes in the Gender Action Plan.  This document, they recalled, was the overarching framework for policy on gender.  There was a 2016-2019 plan for the training of journalists on human rights, which included components on reporting on gender equality.

The Government also believed this issue had to be tackled early, and it sought to revise schoolbooks in that spirit.  Civil society organizations had pointed out that some school books reinforced stereotypes and failed to include positive female role models, and the Agency for Gender Equality had made recommendations to relevant ministries to address this issue.  State agencies, however, had a limited ability to impose decisions on lower-lever governments.  There were 10 cantons that were exercising some form of authority in devising schoolbooks used on their territory.  The Federal Government’s role was to issue guidelines and establish the overall framework.

On domestic violence, the delegation acknowledged that there had been discrepancies between the policies implemented, and approaches adopted, by various levels of government, notably regarding the classification of domestic violence – some entities deemed it a misdemeanour, while others considered it fell under the purview of criminal law.  Efforts were being made to make the relevant laws converge; the State was devising solutions to harmonize legislation across the country, aiming to ensure that all victims of domestic violence enjoyed the same level of protection.  It would be difficult to achieve, but it was a goal worth pursuing. 

The Government had not established specific hotlines for victims of domestic violence.  Some hotlines were operated by non-governmental organizations.  A reliable and sustainable solution for hotlines still had to be found.

In line with the Committee’s recommendations, there had been a significant increase in the prosecution of war crimes that had a sexual component.  In 2011, 13 such crimes had been prosecuted.  That number had gone up to 25 in 2016 and then to 46 in 2017.  

Women were not included in the Dayton Peace Agreements, the delegation recalled.  The only woman present was an interpreter.  However, some progress had been made now regarding the involvement of women in peace processes.  Female officials from the Ministry of Security took part in various negotiation and peace related activities as members of delegations.  A set of temporary special measures had been implemented by the Ministry to foster female participation.

A club of women parliamentarians, which was cross-party and multi-ethnic, had been created to address issues that required mediation.  This was another positive step, said delegates.  Women were also very much represented on the various technical bodies that were liaising and negotiating with the European Union in the context of the European integration process.

Questions from the Experts

While the application of the 40 per cent quota had led to some progress, only about 20 per cent of elected officials were women, Experts noted.  Did the Government envisage to ensure the application of article 20 of the Gender Equality Law to promote the participation of rural and Roma women?  They inquired about the existence of programmes to foster the participation of women in diplomacy and international affairs.

Experts also requested information on women’s rights to acquire, change and retain nationality.

Responses by the Delegation

Delegates said the Government had noted improvements in lower tier levels of Government.  In some cantons, 40 per cent – and in some instances even 50 per cent – of elected officials were women.  This was due to the decision to raise the electoral threshold for small parties to be entitled to representation.  The threshold had gone up from 5 per cent to 8 per cent.

Participation in political life was only the tip of the iceberg; perhaps improvements in the electoral mechanisms, along with other changes, would lead to an increase in the broader participation of women. 

While the Government was willing to encourage the participation of rural and Roma women, it could only do so to a certain extent.  It could not interfere in intra-party politics. 

The acquisition of nationality by children born to migrant women was a multi-layered problem.  Parents of Roma infants had to be integrated in the health system to facilitate the registration of their births.  There was increasing evidence that migrant women gave birth in migrant centres and then immediately after vanished from the Government’s radar, as it were.  This was due to the migrant women’s will to register their children in their countries of destination, namely European Union Member States.

The Government issued recommendations to political parties and provided leadership training to female candidates.

Questions from the Experts

Experts noted that of all Roma girls enrolled in schools, 80 per cent did not complete elementary school, and only 4.5 per cent completed secondary school.  In comparison, 9.2 per cent of Roma boys completed secondary school.  They asked if there were any special education programmes for Roma women and girls, notably at the entity-level.  There were discrepancies in access to education in rural areas and the capitals.  The Experts flagged the issue of violence in school contexts.  How was the Government addressing this issue?

What steps had been taken to develop gender-sensitive teaching material?  How was the Government ensuring the access to education of refugee and migrant girls, as well as that of victims of domestic violence?

In 2016, women accounted for 61.1 per cent of the inactive population.  The gender pay gap was as high as 46 per cent in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the largest in Europe.  Would the Government conduct studies to assess wage inequality, identify its root causes, and address them?

Experts also requested information on the situation of domestic workers.

Responses by the Delegation

Women were more educated than men but were less represented in the upper management of educational institutions.  This was due to the glass-ceiling issue, which many countries faced, and which the Gender Action Plan acknowledged. 

Regarding the education of Roma girls, the Government provided free of charge schoolbooks and transportation, as well as stipends.  A national plan on the education of the Roma in the Sarajevo canton sought to address systemic issues that prevented girls’ access to education.

To improve employment rates amongst Roma, training was provided to officials working in employment centres and incentives were offered to employers.  The economic situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina was far from desirable.  Social benefits-related issues generated to strikes, which the Government sought to address in various manners, such as cash payments to enterprises.  Recently, several such governmental interventions had been carried out.  While they were not advisable from an economic point of view, these were emergency measures.  This matter concerned both genders and was related to the post-conflict transition undergone by Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Maternity benefits were regulated by law, but there were differences from one canton to another, depending on the canton’s economical wherewithal.  The Government was seeking to address discrepancies.

The role of governmental bodies was to enforce laws regarding domestic workers.  The grey economy posed a challenge in that regard, as there was a significant number of non-registered workers.

There were various programmes promoting the inclusion of vulnerable women in the labour market, such as a platform for the development of social entrepreneurship from which women with disabilities notably benefitted.

Regarding the pay gap, the law was clear: both at the state and entity level, gender discrimination was prohibited.  Gender equality was a huge problem that the Government was addressing in a strategic matter through the measures envisaged in the Gender Equality Action Plan. 

Gender mechanisms would continue to draw the attention of relevant ministries and encourage the ratification of conventions dealing with gender equality, notably regarding the economy.

Questions from the Experts

Experts requested information about reforms of the healthcare system and their impact on women.

They asked about measures put in place to protect the rights of migrant women and remarked that there did not seem to be a gender-based approach to refugee issues.

Responses by the Delegation

Delegates said there had been entity policies implemented to advance sexual and reproductive healthcare rights.  Access to healthcare in rural areas was difficult despite the legal guarantee to free access.  Austerity measures and cuts had hampered the health sector as had been the case with the social sector in general.  International financial institutions had lured Bosnia and Herzegovina into making those cuts and the most vulnerable segments of the population had suffered the most from them.  Measures had to be put in place to ensure a better systematic funding of the health sector.

Overcoming huge efforts, the authorities were managing to provide healthcare services in migrant camps.  Several childbirths had been recorded in those camps.  Local healthcare providers were involved.  There had been no instances of malpractice regarding these childbirths.  Surveys had proven useful to assess the health situation in those camps, as had been the assistance provided by international partners.  The influx of refugees was overwhelming.  In that context, the Government had put in place programmes, but they were fragmented.

Concluding Remarks

SASA LESKOVAC, Expert Advisor at the Agency for Gender Equality at the Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees of Bosnia and Herzegovina, thanked the Experts for the very constructive and precise questions.  The Government was looking forward to receiving the Committee’s recommendations.

HILARY GBEDEMAH, Committee Chairperson, thanked the delegation for the constructive dialogue.

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