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In dialogue with Eritrea, Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women expresses hope that the newfound peace would create a path forward for women’s rights

Committee on Elimination of Discrimination
against Women

14 February 2020

Experts Raise Concerns about the Human Rights Violations in the Context of the Mandatory Conscription, Urge Eritrea to Defend the Rights of Women

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women today considered the sixth periodic report of Eritrea on its implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

The Experts expressed concern about the current prevailing situation in the country and the serious violations of women’s rights such as sexual abuse and harassment, slavery, torture and rape, including in the context of the mandatory military service. The 2018 peace agreement should become an instrument of unity and reconciliation, they said and called on Eritrea to establish the rule of law and defend the rights of women, including by setting up a human rights mechanism to look into the past violations.

Eritrea had made noticeable improvements in education, which was now compulsory and free of charge, and was formulating a strategy to address patriarchal stereotypes. Still, concerns remained about the tolerance to violence against women, the Experts said, especially sexual violence by members of armed forces in the context of the military service. Harmful traditional practices, including female genital mutilation and child marriages, continued, despite the prohibitions and sanctions.

For Eritrea, said the delegation, the Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security was an important instrument in promoting women’s equitable participation in peace, security and development. Noting that the text called for women’s participation in armed forces, the delegate said that women could join the armed forces without any discrimination and they made up 33 per cent of the personnel. The national service enabled young women to contribute to nation-building and follow in the steps of those who fought for liberation. Eritrean women participated in the armed forces with pride.

Tekea Tesfamichael, President of the National Union of Eritrean Women, said in her introductory remarks, that the signing of the peace, friendship and cooperation agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia had marshalled new dynamics in the region. This new reality would have a great influence on the advancement of women’s equality and empowerment in Eritrea.

She stressed that the elimination of all forms of violence against women, stereotyping and harmful practices was a priority. Community groups to combat female genital mutilation and underage marriages community groups enabled the progress at the community-level.

In her concluding remarks, Ms. Tesfamichael thanked the Committee Experts for the frank and constructive discussion and said that Eritrea would benefit from their advice.

Hilary Gbedemah, Committee Chairperson, thanked the delegation for the open manner in which the dialogue was conducted.

The delegation of Eritrea was comprised of representatives of the National Union of Eritrean Women, Department of Socio-Economic Services, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Justice and the Permanent Mission of Eritrea to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The Committee will issue the concluding observations on the report of Eritrea at the end of its seventy-fifth session on 28 February. Those, and other 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 on Monday to hold an informal meeting with civil society organizations from Afghanistan, Bulgaria, Republic of Moldova and Kiribati, whose reports will be reviewed next week.

Report

The Committee is considering the sixth periodic report of Eritrea (CEDAW/C/ERI/6).

Presentation of the Report

TEKEA TESFAMICHAEL, President of the National Union of Eritrean Women, said that her country’s report was being considered at a historic moment of emerging peace in the Horn of Africa, after almost two decades of turmoil that had affected regional peace, security and development. The signing of the peace, friendship and cooperation agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia had marshalled new dynamics in the region, she said and welcomed the lifting of United Nations sanctions in 2018. This new reality would have a great influence on the advancement of women’s equality and empowerment in Eritrea.

The National Union of Eritrean Women had over 350,000 members, including in the diaspora, who spearheaded the struggle for women’s equality and empowerment. This broad-based organization drove national efforts for the advancement of women’s equality. It was mandated by the Government to promote gender equality and worked in coordination with ministries, commissions, government agencies and other national associations. To implement a systemic approach, the latest National Gender Action Plan 2015-2019 had identified priority areas namely education, health, economic empowerment, environment, political decision-making and institutional mechanisms for the advanced of women. The annual activities of the National Union of Eritrean Women were based on the Action Plan, whose five-year impact analysis was expected to be conducted in 2020.

The preparation of the report had called for a broad participation of all stakeholders, including line ministries, local governments, members of regional assemblies, youth and workers’ national associations, national associations of persons with disabilities, academia, the private sector and civil society organizations, as well as United Nations agencies based in Eritrea.

The Government of Eritrea recognized Security Council resolution 1325 as an important instrument in promoting women’s equitable participation in the promotion of peace, security and development. A national consultation workshop and an inter-sectoral training programme organized in 2018 had shown that more efforts were needed to implement this resolution, and accordingly, more inter-sectoral consultations were planned throughout 2020.

The Government’s National Development Policy gave priority to disadvantaged rural areas and vulnerable social groups. It ensured the equitable distribution of wealth, resources and opportunities. New health facilities, schools, roads, transportation services, dams for irrigation and toilet facilities, amongst others, had been developed for the benefit of girls and women in rural areas. On the other hand, as part of the integrated rural development programmes, voluntary resettlement of scattered or remote villages had yielded tangible socio-economic gains and increased the provision of public services.

In general, the Government’s social sector strategy that promoted the right to a dignified life and human betterment had shown promising progress and had led to positive improvements, in rural areas in particular. Life expectancy had increased from 48 years in 1990 to 67 in 2018; the number of schools had gone up from 132 in 1991 to 1,987 in 2017; the availability of health care within 10 kilometres radius had increased from 46 per cent in 1991 to 80 per cent in 2019. Furthermore, the provision of drinking water was at 85 per cent in rural areas and 92 per cent in urban settings, accessibility to electricity had reached 43.5 per cent and road transport services covered 85 per cent of rural villages.

The Government’s education policy was to ensure girls’ full and equal access to education and achievement in basic and secondary education of higher quality, and Eritrea had seen a marked leap in the gender parity index at all levels of education. Affirmative action was used as a temporary special measure to establish a level playing field. The Government sought to build the professional and technical capacity of women through education and training on the one hand and through putting in place electoral quotas, on the other hand. Following local elections in 2019, women held 56.2 per cent of positions at the village level, 37.3 per cent at the locality level and 49.4 per cent of elected Community Court Judges positions.

The elimination of all forms of violence against women, stereotyping and harmful practices was also a priority. The creation of anti-female genital mutilation and anti-underage marriages community groups had enabled progress at the community-level in that regard, concluded Ms. Tesfamichael.

Questions from the Experts

At the beginning of the dialogue, Committee Experts congratulated Eritrea for all its efforts to combat discrimination against women and achieve gender equality.

The current prevailing situation in the State party was a matter of concern: the Constitution had been ratified in 1997 but was never implemented; democratic decision-making was absent as the National Assembly had not been renewed; free and transparent elections had not been held, and the power was mainly held by the executive.

The Office of the Public Service, they continued, could be seen as a source of serious violations of human rights in general, and for women in particular, including sexual abuse, sexual harassment, slavery, torture and rape. The Experts also noted violations such as arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial procedures and torture.

The delegation was asked to explain the steps taken since the end of war in 2018 to establish the rule of law and defend the rights of women, in line with the obligations under the Convention; to adopt the Constitution through a transparent and consultative process; and to hold transparent, free and fair elections, with the participation of women.

On women’s access to justice, the Experts inquired about steps taken to reform the legal system and make it independent, and to have an efficient complaint system. What were the courts, including military courts, doing to prosecute perpetrators of human rights violations against women, including slavery, rape and torture?

The Experts congratulated Eritrea for signing the peace agreement in 2018 and for re-engaging with human rights mechanisms. Women had been heroes in the peace process; unfortunately, they had gravely suffered in the past few years. Taking positive note of Eritrea’s commitment to the Security Council resolution 1325, they asked if the Government would adopt a policy on women, peace and security and how it would ensure that the peace agreement was turned into an instrument for unity, sustainable development and reconciliation.

They asked if the Government was considering the establishment of a human rights mechanism to look into the violations that had taken place in the past few years and expressed hope that the newfound peace in the country would create a path forward for women’s rights. The large consensus was very important for the advancement of women’s rights, they said and asked if the Committee could count on the Government to revitalize the dialogue with civil society? Would it be willing to accept further assistance from the United Nations and the international community?

The promotion and protection of women’s rights rested in part on legislation and that was why it was important for Eritrea to adopt the necessary laws. A specific law on women’s rights was lacking, as were the provisions dealing specifically with the implementation of women’s rights in the Civil Code and other relevant laws.

Responses by the Delegation

Responding, the delegation said that policy measures had been taken to enhance the status of women. They assured the Committee that women in Eritrea were not discriminated against nor excluded from any activities or walk of life. It was important to understand the historical role played by women during the national struggle for liberation. Women had taken arms and stood side by side with their male counterparts, leading to a paradigm shift concerning the role of women. Since then, women had become part and parcel of all walks of life and the notion of discrimination was uprooted from communities and practices.

After the independence in 1991, Eritrea had taken immediate action to repeal all the laws that discriminated against women. While there might be remnants of discrimination, article 1 of the Convention and the principle of non-discrimination had been fully integrated into the legal framework and implemented in practice. The Government was also working on raising awareness to ensure the effective implementation of laws, notably as pertain to the rights of women.

While all agreed that discrimination against girls and women should not exist, delegates stressed that every nation had its own modus operandi to tackle discrimination.

Achieving the full independence of the judiciary was a challenge in all countries, let alone in developing ones, said a delegate. The Government was working very hard to ensure judges abode by laws and the evidence presented to them. In partnership with law schools, extensive capacity-building programmes had been put in place and the level of judicial professionalism was increasing. The majority of law school graduates were women, which was a positive step.

The Security Council resolution 1325 was a tool to promote peace and conflict resolution. It was important to note that it emanated from the 1994 Dakar Platform of Action, in which Eritrean representatives had participated. This showed that Eritrean women and the Government of Eritrea wanted and worked towards peace in the country, the region and globally.

The delegation noted that the resolution called for the participation of women in armed forces. In Eritrea, 33 per cent of individuals enrolled in the army were women. The national service enabled young women to follow in the steps of the women who had participated in the liberation and to contribute to nation-building. Eritrean women were very proud to participate in the armed forces, without discrimination.

Questions by Committee Experts

HILARY GBEDEMAH, Committee Chairperson, stressed that the Committee was very respectful of Eritrea’s history and culture. As an African woman herself, she could assure the delegation that the Committee did not shy away from addressing issues such as colonization, slavery and struggle. Everyone agreed that there should be no discrimination, but even in the best-performing countries, its remnants could be found, and as long as there were still remnants, there was still work for the forum such as the Committee.

The Committee was in favour of women participating in all walks of life without any discrimination and with full equality, but thirty years after the independence, how many female generals did Eritrea have, she asked.

Another Expert congratulated Eritrea on the development of its National Gender Action Plan 2015-2019, which consisted of several priority areas to achieve progress for Eritrea women. Its impact analysis would take place in 2020, she said and asked for preliminary information on targets reached.

She recalled the Committee’s previous concluding observations that had called upon Eritrea to engage more substantively with the civil society and asked about the civil society organizations that the National Union of Eritrean Women – a key actor on the national gender machinery – was engaging with and which were their priorities.

The National Union of Eritrean Women had established regional committees in 2017 to develop regional human rights action plans 2018-2022; the Committees wanted to hear more about their assessment of the status of women in the regions and the gaps in gender inequality they had identified. Had measures been taken to establish a national human rights institution in accordance with the Paris Principles?

The Experts also asked about the Government’s plan regarding the use of temporary special measures to foster the participation and representation of women in sectors where they were underrepresented. They stressed the need to ensure the participation of women from vulnerable groups in that context.

Responses by the Delegation

The delegation said the Government had made efforts to involve everyone in the drafting of the report, including young professionals, women business leaders, students and other stakeholders interested in women’s rights.

Eritrea had put in place a body to monitor the implementation of the recommendations stemming from the United Nations human rights bodies and the Universal Periodic Review.

The analysis by the National Union of Eritrean Women showed that young women workers struggled to keep their jobs when pregnant, especially in rural areas. Regarding underage marriages, gaps had been addressed by tasking village authorities with reviewing requests and birth registrations. Another problem detected concerned the lack of women in local government, which was why the Government had imposed a 30 per cent quota for female representatives on municipal councils.

The opening of shelters for women victims of violence was not on the agenda because Eritrea deemed they could foster social exclusion. The preferable approach was community-based support services, mediation for the couple and the imposition of penalties on perpetrators.

The National Union of Eritrean Women, which predated the Convention, held quasi-ministerial powers and coordinated activities of the ministries. For years, it had been at the centre of the struggle for women’s rights, even before Eritrea’s ratification of the Convention.

Temporary special measures would be used to ensure both sexes had equal opportunities and until the historical gender gaps were closed. At the policy level, the national charter and legislation allowed for it. For instance, the passing mark to be admitted to higher education was lower for girls than boys.

Questions from the Experts

An Expert acknowledged the efforts to formulate a strategy to address patriarchal stereotypes, however, the Committee continued to be concern about two very serious situations, which revealed that negative stereotypes against women continued to exist. In Eritrea, as in other countries, there was a clear link between stereotypes and gender-based violence, which had to be addressed.

The Expert expressed concern about the tolerance to some forms of violence against women, noting specifically sexual violence against women perpetrated by members of armed forces in the context of the national service. The delegation was asked whether the prosecution of such cases was the jurisdiction of military or civil courts, and how military or public officials were sanctioned for women’s rights violations.

Despite convictions and sanctions, harmful traditional practices, such as female genital mutilation and child marriages, continued to negatively impact girls' lives. Those and other forms of gender-based violence were supported by the broadly-spread patriarchal stereotypes - what would Eritrea do in 2020 to eliminate them?

The Experts expressed concerns regarding women's difficulties in accessing justice in situations of violence and then asked about the services offered to victims of human trafficking.

Some asylum seekers fleeing Eritrea were subjected to cruel treatments, such as torture and rape, and trafficking in persons or organs, an Expert said and asked the delegation to comment.

Responses by the Delegation

The delegation explained that, historically, there was no trafficking in persons in Eritrea; smuggling was the problem. People fled the country, especially since 2001, due to the political situation, while the economic situation in Europe was a pull factor. This had led to smuggling happening across borders. However, the scale of the phenomenon was overblown and some people pretended to be Eritrean to abuse the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the delegation said and reaffirmed that the number of people leaving the country was not significant.

Trafficking in persons was criminalized, but there were gaps in the implementation of the legal provisions. Eritrea hoped that dialogues such as this one would be of assistance in that regard.

Customary laws did not accept violence against women. In the case of rape, for instance, the victim’s testimony was deemed final. To maintain the progressive elements of customary laws, the Government had put in place extensive awareness-raising programmes. Female genital mutilation was outlawed and so was underage marriage. And yet, those practices persisted. That was why public awareness was the focus of the Government’s action.

Military courts dealt with matters related to acts committed by the members of the military and the matters related to their functions. Rape cases and other sexual offences fell outside the purview of military courts and were handled by the regular courts.

The National Union of Eritrean Women had developed an integrated approach to harmful traditional practices, which centred on prevention through awareness-raising. To tackle stereotypes, time was required. Some harmful practices, such as scarification, had disappeared from Eritrean customs and in time, current harmful practices would also fizzle out. The Government acknowledged that rural women’s access to healthcare service should be improved, especially for victims of female genital mutilations.

Prostitution was legal and was not restricted. The Government did, however, encourage prostitutes to change her lifestyle.

Questions from the Experts

Turning to the participation of women in public life, the Experts asked about the plan, if any, to hold a free and fair national election and how it would ensure that all women could exercise a right to vote. What measures would the Government take to ensure the representation of women in political positions?

Experts expressed concerns about birth registrations and asked the delegation to provide information on steps taken to ensure awareness of the existence of the birth registration centres, notably in rural areas.
Recruiting women into armed forces had less to do with equality than with the need for soldiers, and demobilization was a condition for improving the situation of women in Eritrea, noted a Committee Expert.

Responses by the Delegation

The delegation said the number of women in decision-making positions did not reflect the importance of women’s role in Eritrean society. It was gradually increasing, in line with current political will and a discernible trend at the regional level.

Birth registrations were mandatory. While some remote areas were not covered due to logistical constraints, every region and sub-region had civil status officials empowered to register birth, marriages and deaths. The registration process for the child under three months of age was swift and it could be done until the time of the first vaccination. This meant that 98 per cent of the children were registered at birth.

There were no ethnic minorities in Eritrea, but rather nine recognized ethnic groups who were treated on an equal footing.

The National Union of Eritrean Women had 300,000 members and a network comprised of 1,859 villages, which allowed it to t reach almost the entire population. There were other women’s organizations that were not part of this network, for example, groups representing women in agribusiness.

Demobilization must be done in a way that would not destabilize the country, which presupposed that the released men and women were provided with skills enabling their reintegration into civilian life. On the other hand, the peace process was not over and the authorities did not exercise control over the entire national territory, noted the delegation.

Questions from the Experts

Eritrea had made noticeable improvements in the area of education, which was now compulsory and free of charge, while decentralization had increased access to education for many. The Experts commended the sectoral plan for 2018-2020, which, inter alia, aimed to develop inclusive education and the global partnership for education.

Among the remaining challenges, the Expert noted the disparities in access to education between rural and urban areas and the need to improve the quality of education. In light of the level of poverty, they stressed the importance of supporting vulnerable families and ensuring the reinsertion of girls after pregnancy. Experts underlined the importance of investing in youth so that both boys and girls had better opportunities. Compulsory conscription led to women and girls abandoning their studies or plans to do pursue higher education and opt for marriage, to avoid having to join the armed forces.

An Expert noted that there were no legal obstacles to women’s employment, however, many women held low-qualified jobs that paid modestly, such as domestic or farm work. How was the remuneration of women detainees decided?

The most important labour-related aspect, the Expert said, was to move towards demobilization; having left behind the conflict, it would be essential, absolutely necessary to remove national service and the conscription. This would contribute to doing away with any discussion on forced labour that currently surrounded the national services. This affected the people under the age of 18 who were enrolled, against their will, in the military centre in Sawa.

The Committee stressed the importance of setting down clear rules for conscientious objection and reintegration into civilian life of people forced into the army. Certainly, the international community would welcome and support such an important transition towards diversified and inclusive labour market in Eritrea, said the Expert.

The Committee lauded the approval of the International Labour Organization Convention 182 on the elimination of the worst forms of child labour and asked whether Eritrea would ratify other International Labour Organizations conventions, including on forced labour and domestic work.

Turning to health care, the Experts requested information on efforts made to combat malaria, improve reproductive health counselling services and increase the health budget. What plans did the State party have to reduce teenage pregnancies and address malnutrition, specifically in rural areas?

The Experts questioned the existence of a land register in Eritrea, noting that it was a useful tool for determining the extent to which women had access to land ownership and asked about rural women’s access to social benefits. They inquired about women’s access to the world of business and the opportunities they had to upgrade their micro and small enterprises and better contribute to the nation’s gross domestic product.

Responses by the Delegation

Responding, the delegation said that education was a fundamental right of every citizen and Eritrea was working to give access to education to all children. In 1991, there had been only 132 schools in the country and none in rural areas. Today, there were 1,987 schools, which represented a significant increase. Girls’ enrolment in schools was also progressively improving and the Government had developed teacher training programmes to improve the quality of education.

Secondary education was not troubled by the national service, said the delegation. When the students finished the eleventh grade, all the girls came together for the last secondary level, which they pursued together. This last year of secondary education sought to foster cultural exchanges, across ethnic groups, as well as a sense of unity. This experience had both academic and cultural value and young people generally appreciated this experience, assured the delegation.

Responding to questions on health, the delegation outlined the Government’s priorities in matters of - inter alia - maternal health, post-natal care and access to services. The focus of preconception care was to encourage male participation in maternal care. The Government understood that father’s health also affected the health of children and therefore sought to address the need of the family as a unit. Efforts were made to work on the quality of maternal health care services; indicators had been developed to that end. All nurses and midwives had to go through a safe delivery certification program. The delegation also announced that 200 health practitioners were trained each year in post-abortion care.

Treatment was offered to children suffering from malnutrition. On the prevention side, efforts were made to foster complementary feeding in addition to exclusive breastfeeding. Awareness campaigns targeted community-based health workers to that end.

The exploitation of prostitution for monetary gain was illegal. It should be noted that communities did not accept prostitution, which they often considered to be immoral.

The Ministry of Trade and Industry had gathered data on women’s participation in economic activities in various sectors – such as services. Additional information could be found in the report’s annexe.

Questions from the Experts

Experts said rural women faced several problems in accessing services, including social services. What steps had the Government taken to assess the impact of extractive industries and how did it involve women while conducting such assessment?

Attainment of de facto equality remained complicated when it came to marriage and family relations, Experts said. Could the delegation clarify the status of the new civil code that had been drafted in 2015?

Experts requested data on the prosecution of child marriages. Did the prohibition of child marriage extend to customary unions, they asked? Responses by the Delegation

The delegation said family laws could be enforced by civil courts when the marriage was not celebrated under Sharia law. Forced marriage was not acceptable under Eritrean law, delegates stressed.

When a mining company had a project, consultations were held on the impact of their extractive activities on the livelihood of the surrounding villages. Women were part of these consultations and of the decision-making processes. They made their voices heard. The Government had not witnessed any problems in that regard.

When seeking to settle a dispute, spouses were allowed to select two arbitrators each, who in turn chose the fifth one. Under certain circumstances, these arbitrators could pronounce the divorce. While they were not trained by the Government, family arbitrators could receive instructions from courts before rendering their decisions.

Concluding Remarks

TEKEA TESFAMICHAEL, President of the National Union of Eritrean Women, thanked the Committee Experts for the frank and constructive discussion and said that Eritrea would benefit from their advice.

HILARY GBEDEMAH, Committee Chairperson, thanked the delegation for the open manner in which the dialogue was conducted. The Committee noted that the State party sought to foster advancement and development within the framework of the Convention.

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