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Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women reviews reports of Kiribati, asks about climate change, patriarchy and gender-based violence

Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination
against Women

21 February 2020

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women today considered Kiribati's combined initial to third periodic reports on the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.  Experts recognized the islands' vulnerability to climate change and asked about efforts to increase women's resilience and adapt to its impacts.

The Experts welcomed Kiribati to its first dialogue with the Committee and commended its wide-ranging efforts to implement the Convention, in spite of the formidable challenges it faced as a small island developing State and an archipelago of islands. 

Most formidable was the challenge of climate change, which at its heart was a question of climate justice: even though Kiribati did not contribute to the global warming, it suffered the brunt of it.

In Kiribati, the strong cultural patriarchal heritage and certain customs and practices were at the root of one of the highest rates of violence against women in the Pacific.  The prevailing beliefs and attitudes, including among women and girls, showed how urgent it was to accelerate the action to change mindsets and eliminate stereotypes.

Taoaba Kaiea, Minister for Women, Youth, Sports and Social Affairs of Kiribati, introducing the reports, said that Kiribati faced many challenges in the implementation of the Convention, including barriers of isolation, overpopulation and lack of capacity and resources. 

He said that the rise of the sea level, climate change and king tides remained the most pressing issues.  King tides in particular were a chilling warning of the destructive impact of global warming.  Informing the Committee of the national efforts to adapt and strengthen the resilience, he said that those would yield more impact if matched with concrete multilateral efforts to combat climate change and provide resources for mitigation through sustained cooperation.

The delegation said that since the ratification of the Convention in 2004, Kiribati had progressed a significant number of measures to eliminate discrimination and violence against women.  It had tried and failed to introduce sex and gender as prohibited grounds of discrimination in the Constitution, which required the support of two-thirds of voters in a referendum.  Kiribati was a very patriarchal society and the Government was working on raising the awareness of the people on gender equality and women's rights, for example through a programme such as the Kiribati Male Behavioural Change.

Tumai Timeon, Deputy Solicitor General, Office of the Attorney General of Kiribati, in concluding remarks thanked the Committee Experts and welcomed the forthcoming concluding observations.

Gladys Acosta Vargas, Committee Vice-Chairperson, in her concluding remarks, commended Kiribati for its efforts and urged it to pay particular attention to the Committee's concluding observations that would be identified for immediate follow up.

The delegation of Kiribati consisted of representatives of the Ministry for Women, Youth, Sports and Social Affairs, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Health and Medical Services and the Office of the Attorney General of Kiribati.

The Committee will issue the concluding observations on the report of Kiribati 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 reconvene on Friday, 28 February at 5 p.m.  to publicly close its seventy-fifth session.

Report

The Committee has before it the combined initial to third periodic reports of Kiribati (CEDAW/C/KIR/1-3).

Presentation of the Report

TAOABA KAIEA, Minister for Women, Youth, Sports and Social Affairs of Kiribati, introducing the reports, warmly welcomed this first opportunity to engage in a constructive dialogue with the Committee and review the progress on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women in Kiribati.  It had taken over a decade for the Government to submit its report under the Convention, but the delay was not out of negligence or ignorance.  Reporting required capacity and resources, two of the key challenges for Kiribati in meeting its obligations under the Convention.

Since the ratification of the Convention in 2004, Kiribati had progressed a significant number of measures to eliminate discrimination against women.  The Family Peace Act 2014 criminalized domestic violence and provided protection orders to family members, while the Children, Young People and Family Welfare Act 2013 provided protection services to girls from exploitation and abuse.  The Penal Code had been amended in 2017 to expand the definition of sexual offences and the Disaster Risk Management and Climate Change Act adopted in 2019 recognized gender differences and the vulnerability of women and children in disasters.

In 2013, Kiribati had established the Ministry for Women, Youth, Sports and Social Affairs and in 2014, it had set up the Kiribati National Human Rights Taskforce composed of representatives of key ministries and non-governmental organizations.  The Ministry of Justice, set up in 2016, oversaw the implementation of human rights treaties.  The Gender Equality and Women's Development Policy 2019-2022 prioritized gender mainstreaming, women's economic empowerment, leadership and decision-making, and the elimination of sexual and gender-based violence. 

The lack of capacity and resources posed key challenges in meeting Kiribati's obligations under the Convention, the Minister said, and welcomed the continuous donor support to the efforts to eliminate violence against women.  The focus of measures was on primary prevention through, for example, the Strengthening Peaceful Villages Project which mobilized people to work together to eliminate violence in their communities.  The Kiribati Male Behavioural Change Programme supported male advocates to work with other men to change attitudes and violent behaviour.

Mr. Kaiea was pleased to inform the Committee of the growing support for people with disabilities and the improvements in their access to education, employment, buildings, and tools or specialized equipment for the disabled.  Kiribati had put in place a disability policy and a new disability fund, the Disability Support Allowance.

Kiribati faced many challenges in the implementation of the Convention, including barriers of isolation, overpopulation and lack of capacity.  However, the rise of the sea level, climate change and king tides remained the most pressing issues.  Kiribati was now frequently hit by king tides of up to 2.9 meters, which inundated the land and destroyed homes, crops, wells, roads and seawalls.  In the southern islands, where this was happening more frequently, hundreds of people had had to relocate and still lived in temporary accommodation.  King tides were a chilling warning of the destructive impact of global warming on the islands.

Kiribati was a focus country for the regional project that aimed to build women's resilience to climate change and women had been increasingly involved in decision-making and implementation of strategies on climate change and disaster risk management projects.  The national efforts would yield more impact in improving the lives of women and families if matched with concrete multilateral efforts to combat climate change and provide resources for mitigation through sustained cooperation.  In conclusion, the Minister stressed that the aims of the Convention could not be achieved without addressing the challenges from climate change and natural disasters, which were affecting the very basic right to survive and have the islands they could call their homes.

Questions by Committee Experts
An Expert noted that the Convention had not yet been fully integrated in the national legal system, the laws were still to be aligned with the Convention provisions, and a law on gender equality was lacking from the domestic legal arsenal.  Sex was not included as a prohibited basis for discrimination in the Constitution, as attempts to include sex and gender as prohibited grounds had been unsuccessful.

The Committee commended Kiribati for the establishment of the Office of the People's Lawyer and the introduction of free legal aid, however, access to legal aid remained limited given the very low number of lawyers, especially in the outer islands.  Many women still lived under traditional and customary justice systems and mechanisms, noted the Expert, and asked how the full enjoyment of their rights was protected and guaranteed.

Had Kiribati made any progress on establishing an independent national human rights institution?

Another Expert appreciated Kiribati's commitment to climate change adaptation and said that at the heart of the islands' vulnerability was climate justice – Kiribati did not contribute to climate change and yet it suffered its worst impacts.

The Expert recalled that following the cyclone in 2015, the seawall had failed, leading to the inundation of the maternity ward and the evacuation of women to the stadium, where they had given birth in the mud.  Seawalls continued to fail due to poor design and lack of capacity and resources to maintain them properly.  The Committee was also concerned about the growing water scarcity in the islands.

The Expert also referred to the historic communication of Kiribati nationals to the Human Rights Committee concerning the human rights impacts of climate change, and said that its impact on women and girls was undisputed.  She asked how Kiribati was building on traditional knowledge of the local population in adapting to climate change and strengthening the resilience. 

The involvement and participation of women in planning and decision-making on climate change and disaster management policies was commendable, but evidence was lacking of their contribution to the implementation of those activities.

Replies by the Delegation 

Kiribati had tried and failed to introduce sex and gender as prohibited grounds of discrimination in the Constitution.  Any constitutional amendment required the support of two-third of voters in a referendum and the support of two-thirds of members of Parliament.  Ultimately, the constitutional amendment was the aim; meanwhile, the Government was focused on changes that were easier to achieve, namely amending the existing laws to strengthen the protection from discrimination. 

Kiribati was a very patriarchal society and the Government was working on raising the awareness of the people on gender equality and women's rights.  One such programme was the Kiribati Male Behavioural Change Programme, which trained male advocates to work with other men to change their attitudes and behaviour towards women.  Also contributing to raising awareness was the Gender Equality and Women's Development Policy 2019-2022.  The new Kiribati development plan 2020-2023 also contained training and awareness raising activities on this topic. 

The Office of the People's Lawyer had been renamed the Office of Legal Services.  It had developed a plan of monthly outreach to islands, but it faced resource constraints, given the distance and remoteness of some of the islands.  Access to justice in outer islands was provided through mobile courts in some; in others, there were no alternatives to traditional justice mechanisms.

Due to the lack of capacity and resources, Kiribati had put in place regional human rights institutions instead of a national one.  It was currently conducting a scoping study to ascertain whether the establishment of a national human rights institution would be feasible.

Lack of resources was one of the most important challenges and obstacles in the implementation of the Convention.  That was why Kiribati was not yet considering the ratification of the Optional Protocol, as it did not want to take on responsibilities it would be unable to honour.

The delegation said that the maternity ward had been rehabilitated and the seawall rebuilt.  The Government had approved the relocation of this hospital further inland. 

The Government was working on upskilling women and providing vocational and technical training.  The Kiribati Institute of Technology had programmes that specifically catered to women, to make them more attractive to employers.

A programme financed by the United Nations Children's Fund and implemented by the Ministry for Women provided psychological support and counselling to women, children and persons with disabilities, to strengthen their resilience to climate change.

Questions by Committee Experts

Committee Experts congratulated Kiribati on its wide-ranging efforts to implement the Convention in spite of the challenges it faced, especially the environmental ones.

Oversight and accountability, coupled with clear mandates, were fundamental in realizing women's rights and addressing vertical and horizontal gender issues.  Was there an organizational structure and capacity to identify priorities and to design, implement and monitor actions that were necessary to fulfil the obligations under the Convention?

The Expert expressed a concern about the lack of technical capacity of the Ministry for Women, Youth, Sports and Social Affairs to respond to the dynamic and evolving gender equality issues and ensure that new forms of discrimination and inequalities did not erode the gains.  For example, how was this achieved in cyber technology investments and digital economy projections?

Replies by the Delegation

Responding, the delegation said that Kiribati had adopted a policy to eliminate sexual and gender-based violence and had set up a taskforce for its implementation.  It was composed of representatives of key Government ministries, non-governmental organizations and other stakeholders.  It met and reported regularly on the implementation of the policy and prepared activities such as the "16 Days of Activism" campaign.

As for the transition of the Kiribati National Human Rights Taskforce into a national human rights institution, the delegation explained that it was waiting for the final report of the scoping study on the feasibility of the establishment of a national institution.

Women could access several complaint mechanisms, including through a dedicated office in the Ministry for Women, Youth, Sports and Social Affairs.

A workshop on stateless children held in November 2019 had called for a constitutional amendment on this and other matters; this method could present another avenue towards strengthening gender equality in the Constitution.

Questions by Committee Experts

Continuing the dialogue, an Expert noted with satisfaction that temporary special measures were a part of Kiribati's legal system, as the Constitution allowed their application to eliminate discrimination against women.  However, no measures were currently in place to advance women's equality and accelerate the achievement of substantive equality between women and men.

Another Expert said with concern that Kiribati had one of the highest prevalence rates of violence in the Pacific region, due to the strong cultural patriarchal heritage and certain customs and practices such as gender role stereotyping.  Taking positive note of the policy and legislative reforms in recent years, including those addressing domestic violence and sexual and gender-based violence, the Expert asked about their implementation, significant achievements, and key challenges that still needed to be addressed.

Kiribati had the highest prevalence of girls who provided a response that wife-beating could be justified, which showed that changing mind-sets, stereotyping and stigma needed to be addressed more strongly.

What would Kiribati do to create a less hostile environment in courts for victims of sexual and gender-based violence and how would it proceed with the criminalization of marital rape?

Replies by the Delegation
The delegation said that indeed there were no temporary special measures in place now.  Kiribati believed that importance should be given to raising awareness and empowering women through various projects and activities, including in cooperation with civil society.

The Government was working with churches to support the running of the crisis centre in the capital, which in fact was run by nuns.  In outer islands, the Safenet Taskforce of the Ministry for Women, Youth, Sports and Social Affairs provided case management and referrals to the shelter in the capital.  The taskforce included 23 social affairs officers, among others.  The Kiribati Women and Children Support Centre aimed to increase its outreach to outer islands.

A training manual for responding to physical and sexual violence for the Kiribati Police Force had not been issued yet.  Due to lack of data, it was not possible to comment on the implementation of the Family Peace Act for Domestic Violence or its significant achievements.

Kiribati had conducted many programmes to tackle gender stereotypes.  The "Yes I Do" programme, initiated in 2018, had reached around 300 people in the capital and one outer island.  A study had been prepared on assessing the impact of the programmes and activities that aimed to change the stereotypes.

There was an active collaboration between the Government and civil society organizations.  The newly formulated strategic plan of the Ministry for Women, Youth, Sports and Social Affairs aimed to strengthen that collaboration.  Non-governmental organizations had actively advocated with the Government for the ratification of the Convention.

Questions by Committee Experts

In the next round of questions, an Expert pointed to a gap in the legal framework, which lacked provisions on trafficking in women, and expressed concern about the forced prostitution of girls as young as 12 aboard the fishing vessels, in hotels and local bars. 

It had been reported that with the crippling poverty, high unemployment through the loss of traditional forms of economic activity, a small number of fathers actually transported their daughters to the foreign ships and accepted cash or fish to supplement the family food.  Some young women from outer islands fled violent and patriarchal households and communities with limited employment opportunities and independently and voluntarily entered prostitution.

Another Expert took positive note of women's participation in public life, as they held 38 per cent of senior public positions and the first Attorney General was a woman.  However, women remained significantly under-represented in politics as they held only four of the 44 Parliament seats.  Decision-making in communities was closed to women, who were not allowed access to maneaba, a community court and hall and a heart of community governance. 

An Expert pointed to discrimination against women in matters of nationality and citizenship.  Unlike men, women could not transmit their nationality to children born abroad nor to their foreign spouse and could not have their children's names in their passports.

Replies by the Delegation

The delegation said that Kiribati had passed the law on trafficking in persons in 2008 and amended it in 2013 and that it prohibited the trafficking of women and girls.  But even with this law in place, Kiribati lacked the capacity, resources and data to implement it in practice.  Additional training and capacity building of the police was needed.

Prostitution was not criminalized, but gains from prostitution and procuring women and children to engage in prostitution were prohibited.  The delegation said that there was only anecdotal evidence of fathers taking their girls to fishing vessels for prostitution and that none of the parents could therefore be prosecuted.  The evidence of girls from the outer islands who came to the capital for purposes of prostitution was anecdotal too.

Ship captains were never prosecuted, however, their licenses were issued on the condition that girls did not board their ships.  The Government was raising the awareness of parents to support their children and not to engage them in prostitution.  Prostitution was not a matter to be addressed through criminal legislation but through social interventions in homes and families at risk.

The delegation said that the first women mock parliament had been initiated in 2015 and it had been held again in 2019; the aim was to encourage women to participate in politics and run for elected seats.  The initiative would continue and its timing would depend on the agreement between the Ministry for Women and Parliament. 

Women held eight of the 15 Secretary positions; nominations were merit-based and done by the President and the Cabinet.  The attitudes were changing, often under the influence of Christianity, and today, women were allowed to speak in the maneaba and sit in the front row.  This was especially the case for women who had risen up in their communities and were social leaders.   

The number of women groups was increasing and a greater number of mixed-members groups were run by women. 

The delegation said that there were indeed deficiencies in the Citizenship Act and that the discrimination therein was rooted in the Constitution.  A recent workshop had examined questions of statelessness, nationality of children, and the transmission of nationality, and had made proposals for the amendments of that law and the Constitution, which the Government had taken into account.

Questions by Committee Experts
Kiribati had passed the Education Act in 2013 and had achieved gender parity in primary education, while in secondary education, girls outnumbered boys, in spite of the traditional expectations that girls would stay at home and assist in house chores.  Still, about 30 per cent of girls aged 12 to 18 were out of school.  While primary school was free, access to secondary education was limited to those students who could pay the fees; in addition, there were very few secondary schools in outer islands.  Pregnant girls were expelled from schools, while the fathers were allowed to continue the education.

There were many challenges in the area of employment, especially in light of climate change.  The delegation was asked about the pay gap in the public and private sectors, the implementation of the legally guaranteed principle of equal pay for work of equal value, and comments on the "reasonable" length of forced work, which was allowed as a part of communal work and civic obligation.  The Employment and Industrial Relations Code prohibited sexual harassment in the workplace, noted an Expert, and asked whether there had been any complaints or prosecutions.

Replies by the Delegation
Women represented 51 per cent of public service employees and held most of the senior positions.  There was no gender pay gap in public service as all salaries were predetermined and each employee earned the corresponding salary.  There was no discrimination against women in terms of their pay in the public sector.  The gap however was present in the private sector and the Government intended to collect more information and data about the wage disparity between women and men.

Maternity leave in the public service was 12 weeks with full pay and women could only use it twice during their employment with the Government.  Private sector employees had the right to decide on the length and pay of the maternity leave, which nevertheless must not be less than 25 per cent of the salary.  Some employers, such as State-owned companies, paid maternity leave in full, while for others it was more difficult to provide full pay. 

Currently, there were no intentions to include the right to paternity leave in the law.  On sexual harassment, Kiribati was not a party to the International Labour Organization Violence and Harassment Convention 190.  There was no complaint mechanism for sexual harassment in the workplace, however, such a complaint could be filed with the police or the Office for Legal Services.

Fishery was the biggest industry in Kiribati and was open to women, however, no woman had made any application for a fishing license.  Some women had been turned down by private fishing companies; because they were a private employer, there was nothing the Government could do, as private companies dictated the availability of employment.

Under the Decent Work Programme 2019-2022, Kiribati would receive support from the International Labour Organization to strengthen its labour legislation and build the capacity of officers. 

Questions by Committee Experts

Health was one of the key priorities of the Kiribati national development plan, Experts noted with satisfaction, and commended the steps taken to strengthen maternal health services.  Kiribati continued to register very high child and infant mortality rates, which were the fourth and fifth highest in the region, respectively.  Church and faith-based organizations constantly challenged and obstructed family planning and contraception, while religious propaganda and prejudices hampered the access to essential healthcare services for many women, infants and children. 

All this took place against the background of deep patriarchal stereotypes and a high rate of violence against women.  The Committee raised concern about teenage pregnancies and asked whether abortion would be decriminalized in case of rape, incest, severe foetal impairments and risk to the life of the mother.

Another Expert noted the formidable challenges that Kiribati faced as a small island developing State and an archipelago of islands.  The Expert welcomed the Gender Equality and Women's Economic Empowerment Plan 2019-2021 that addressed topics such as financial literacy, budgeting, starting a business and skills training.  Was there a policy to enable women's entry into core economic sectors such as fisheries and the blue economy?  Kiribati's widespread geographical situation represented a significant challenge in providing women throughout the country with equal access to resources and opportunities.  This was particularly the case for women living in the outer islands

The Committee commended the enactment of the Child, Young People and Family Welfare Act in 2013 which removed cultural practices and provided for child custody arrangements to be made in the best interests of the child.  However, concern remained about the continued application of the provisions of customary laws – recognized by the Constitution – which discriminated against women in matters of property rights and child custody.  The prohibition of bigamy excluded traditional weddings.

Replies by the Delegation

The delegation said it would submit information on health in writing within 48 hours.

Kiribati was aware of the significant challenges that rural women and women from the outer islands faced.  The Gender Equality and Women Development Policy 2019-2021 contained many activities that targeted those areas.  A social administration officer in the administration of the outer islands discharged the mandate of the Ministry for Women, Youth, Sports and Social Affairs and oversaw the work of women development officers.  The Government was actively seeking external funding for development activities in the outer islands.

In partnership with the United Nations Children's Fund, the Government was increasing access to clean water and sanitation in five outer islands.  There were also other projects in this domain, namely the on-site sanitation project that treated sewage water, reduced soil contamination and the outer islands rainwater-harvesting project, solar water supply system programme and water, sanitation and hygiene projects in schools.  Women did not need a marriage certificate to register a business.  Lack of quality data was a veritable challenge.

Responding to questions on equality in marriage and family, the delegation said that the principle of the best interest of the child was applied in all child custody issues.  Kiribati had in place the law on bigamy.  The law on marriage prescribed obligatory registration of all marriages.  Due to lack of data, it was not possible to ascertain that bigamy was taking place. 

Patriarchy was the biggest obstacle to land ownership by women and land was passed from male to male and remained in the family.  However, land was no longer the key asset, especially in view of climate change, which was reducing its value.

The Kiribati Male Behaviour Change Programme had been recently revived and was now fully running.  Its members had received refresher training and the programme had been established in two outer islands.  It was still early to evaluate the impact of the project on men and communities.    

Concluding Remarks

TUMAI TIMEON, Deputy Solicitor General, Office of the Attorney General of Kiribati, thanked the Committee Experts and welcomed the forthcoming concluding observations.

GLADYS ACOSTA VARGAS, Committee Vice-Chairperson, in her concluding remarks, commended Kiribati for its efforts and urged it to pay particular attention to the Committee's concluding observations that would be identified for immediate follow up. 

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