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Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women assesses the situation of women in Fiji

GENEVA (23 February 2018) - The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women today reviewed the fifth periodic report of Fiji on its implementation of the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Mereseini Vuniwaqa, Minister for Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation, introducing the report, said that in the last twelve years, Fiji had undertaken extensive legal reforms to ensure that laws reflected international best practice and had adopted a new Constitution in 2013, which had put in place a new electoral system.  As a result, women’s representation in Parliament increased to 14 per cent after the 2014 elections, the highest in history.  Fiji was conscious that its Government and civil society must do more to deal holistically with the socio-economic barriers to greater participation of women.  Rates of violence against women and children and domestic violence in Fiji were among the highest in the world.  The Prime Minister had labelled it a national shame and Fiji addressed gender-based violence as a matter of national importance across all sectors.  Important alliances had been formed with religious and non-governmental organizations, including in changing mentalities based on culture and religion, gender stereotyping and the “hyper-masculinity” that continued to prevail in the society.  The first Man Up Campaign to awaken male involvement in this battle had been put in place while the Service Delivery Protocol for handling of gender-based violence cases by relevant stakeholders would be launched on the International Women’s Day this year.  The recently launched National Development Plan was the first such plan that prioritized areas for gender equality, said Ms. Vuniwaqa who reiterated Fiji’s firm belief that there could be no holistic development without women.

In the ensuing dialogue, Committee Experts appreciated a broad catalogue of prohibited grounds of discrimination in the 2013 Constitution, and regretted that a comprehensive legislation on gender equality and a definition of discrimination against women in accordance with article 1 of the Convention were still lacking.  Fiji should consider the adoption of an anti-discrimination law specifically focused on women, girls-child and lesbian, trans, bisexual, and intersex women, they urged.  The National Gender Policy 2014 had set out the strategy for achieving gender equality in public and political life but did not contain a strong monitoring framework to ensure its timely and effective implementation.  Rates of violence against women in Fiji were among the highest in the world and the most prevalent form was sexual violence against girl child, Experts noted with greatest concern.  Patriarchal norms and gender stereotypes remained deeply rooted in the society; enforcing the idea of women’s inferior position in the family and society, they contributed to all forms of gender-based violence, which cost the society an estimated seven per cent of the gross domestic product.  The Committee was very concerned about the prevalence of trafficking in women and children, and particularly worrying was the high number of girls sold by their own families as a way to cope with poverty, including in the aftermath of the Cyclone Winston, which had devastated Fiji in 2016.

Ms. Vuniwaqa said in her concluding remarks, said that gender-based violence remained Fiji’s number one concern and commended the judiciary for their hard stance in sanctioning perpetrators of violence against women.  The current challenge was the coordination of all the efforts and stakeholders working on addressing gender-based violence.  In this context, the Service Delivery Protocol soon to be launched would go a long way in harmonizing the approaches.

Dalia Leinarte, Committee Chairperson, commended Fiji for its efforts and encouraged it to address various recommendations, which the Committee would issue with the purpose of the more comprehensive implementation of the Convention throughout the State party.

The delegation of Fiji was composed of the representatives of the Ministry for Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation, Ministry of Education, Heritage and Arts, Solicitor General’s Office, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Permanent Mission of Fiji to the United Nations Office at Geneva

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 will be available via the following link: http://webtv.un.org/meetings-events/.


The Committee will reconvene at 4 p.m. on 26 February to hold an informal discussion with non-governmental organizations and national human rights institutions from Saudi Arabia, Suriname, Luxembourg, and the Marshal Islands, whose reports the Committee will consider in the second week of the sixty-ninth session.

Report

The Committee has before it the fifth periodic report of Fiji (CEDAW/C/FJI/5).

Presentation of the Report

MERESEINI VUNIWAQA, Minister for Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation of Fiji, said that in the last twelve years, Fiji had undertaken extensive legal reforms to ensure that laws reflected international best practice.  The 2013 Constitution was an expression of the will of the people and the result of wide and robust consultations throughout the nation.  The 2014 general elections held under the new Constitution had seen an 84 per cent of registered voters - 49 per cent of whom were women - exercising their right to vote.  More women than ever before had stand as candidates in those elections – 17 per cent, and as a result, women today held 14 per cent of parliamentary seats, highest in history.  Fiji acknowledged that more must be done to address low representation of women in Parliament, which was due to cultural gender stereotyping, and the old electoral system that favoured men and some communities over others as it had been race-based.  The electoral system in Fiji was young and tested only once, in 2014, but, coupled with continuing work by the Government and non-governmental organizations to deal holistically with the socio-economic barriers to greater participation of women, it had proven to be conducive to the increase representation of women in Parliament.

There was a strong political will to empower Fijian women and fight high rates violence against women and children, which the Prime Minister had labelled a national shame.  His call to action to all stakeholders had created a national movement and the joining of private sector organizations in the first Man Up Campaign to awaken male involvement in this battle.  A national forum had been activated in 2017 to enable the cooperation of religious organizations, which had a huge role to play in the fight against violence against women and children.  The Ministry was currently establishing additional four taskforces under the Women’s Plan of Action to enable an effective implementation the obligations under the Convention: on equal participation in decision-making, formal sector employment and livelihoods, access to services, and women and the law.  At the moment, only one taskforce was active, on eliminating violence against women, which had accomplished a lot including the finalization of a service delivery protocol to consolidate a seamless handling of gender-based violence cases by relevant stakeholders.  This protocol would be launched on the International Women’s Day this year.

Fiji had one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the world, which had pushed the Government to address domestic violence as a matter of national importance across all sectors.  Important alliances had been formed with non-governmental organizations in a common quest to combat gender-based violence and there was an awareness that more needed to be done to eradicate the phenomenon.  The key was in changing mentalities based on culture and religion, and to remove gender stereotyping and the “hyper-masculinity”; in a country that was deeply cultural and religious, this was not an easy feat.  Fiji had recently launched its National Development Plan, which was the first such plan that prioritized areas for gender equality.  It included policies to increase women’s participation in formal sector employment and at all levels of government and civil society, to eliminate violence against women and children through responsive policing and coordinated referral networks, improve women’s access to all social services, and review legislation and policies.  Fiji firmly believed that there could be no holistic development without women who must be part of the discussion for inclusive economic growth.

Questions from the Experts

At the beginning of the interactive dialogue, the Committee addressed issues related to the international and legal framework protecting the human rights of women in Fiji.  What was blocking the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention, and the ratification of the Optional Protocols to the two International Covenants, on civil and political rights, and on economic, social and cultural rights?

The framework for the rights to equality and non-discrimination in the 2013 Constitution contained a broad catalogue of prohibited grounds of discrimination, but it was regrettable that Fiji still did not have a definition of discrimination against women in accordance with article 1 of the Convention and that it still lacked a comprehensive legislation on gender equality.  According to reports received, lesbian, trans and bisexual women did not in practice benefit from the protection against discrimination clearly enshrined in Section 26 of the Constitution.

What measures were planned to ensure better access to justice for women particularly those living in poverty, and to increase awareness of the judicial actors about gender-based stereotypes, which were at the root of discrimination women still suffered in the justice system?

Another Expert remarked that anti-discrimination laws addressed general themes and invited Fiji to consider the adoption of an anti-discrimination law specifically focused on women, girls-child and lesbian, trans and bisexual women.  
 
Responses by the Delegation

The delegation said that the 2013 Constitution contained an extensive catalogue of rights and had recognized, for the first time, economic, social and cultural rights.  During its 2013 Universal Periodic Review, Fiji had committed to ratifying all nine core human rights treaties by 2020.  It had ratified five so far and remained committed to ratify the remaining four by 2020; currently, there was no ratification timetable.

Fiji maintained that until the ratification was completed, the mechanism currently in place was robust enough to cater to issues arising from discrimination against women.  The delegation noted examples of changing or striking down of laws in relation to rape and forced marriage, which courts had found non-compliant with the 2013 Constitution.

The 1969 Public Order Act provided a possibility for any group of people or an organization to hold a public meeting or a demonstration, with a permit.  Since 2014, there had been demonstrations and public meetings, including those that openly criticized the Government.  The law expressly prohibited expressions of hate speech against any community.

Fiji recognized that free and strong media were a critical factor of a strong democracy and that was why the Constitution expressly recognized the freedom of media as a precondition to freedom of expression.  Fiji had taken steps to guarantee those rights in practice.  The Constitution – and rightly so - limited the right to freedom of expression in that it expressly prohibited hate speech, propaganda to war, incitement to violence, and incitement to hatred on any of the prohibited grounds of discrimination as listed in the Bill of Rights.

The Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Commission was a Constitutional office, responsible for promoting human rights in public and private institutions; education on rights and freedoms; and monitoring, investigating and reporting on the observance of human rights in all spheres of life.  The Commission could make recommendations to the Government and propose laws on matters related to the enjoyment of human rights in the country.  It had the mandate to receive and investigate complaints of violations of human rights, and to file court appeals for redress.  The Commission was purely independent, as it was responsible of its own budgetary process and reported only to the Parliament.

The Constitution did not expressly adopt a definition of discrimination against women, but in its Section 26 it prohibited discrimination against persons on a very extensive grounds, and thus recognized, addressed and prohibited intersecting forms of discrimination.  Those provisions were translated into national legislation, such as employment act.  Fiji believed that although there was no stand-alone anti-discrimination law, the current approach and the extensive list of prohibited grounds of discrimination in Section 26 of the Bill of Rights, provided adequate protection against discrimination.  

Questions from the Experts

Committee Experts noted the progress in the strengthening of the national gender machinery including through the establishment of different task forces; the concern remained however about its ability to address adequately gender-based violence, the cost of which amounted to seven per cent of the gross domestic product of Fiji in 2013, according to the Asian Development Bank.  The budget of the Ministry for Women in 2013 stand at only 0.013 per cent of the national budget, which raised concern about the efficiency of any action to achieve substantive gender equality.

Experts wondered about the authority of the machinery since the Ministry for Women relied heavily on the Ministry of Justice for the protection against discrimination and the advancement of gender equality.  What was the relationship between the two, how much power did the Ministry for Women have over other Ministries in the implementation of gender equality policies?   How did the Ministry ensure the most effective inclusion of civil society?

Fiji should consider the use of temporary special measures in the spirit of article 4 of the Convention until substantive equality was achieved.  Had women been dully identified as disadvantaged groups requiring affirmative action?  Could the delegation inform of affirmative action programmes for women that had been put in place?

Responses by the Delegation

Responding, the delegation explained that, while the budget of the Ministry of Women was small, it was nevertheless a part of the national budget; it needed to be evaluated and seen in connection to the resources allocated to other sectors, which had clear impact on gender equality.  For example, the investments in rural infrastructure had a huge positive impact on the situation of rural women, and the budget allocated to the Ministry of Justice translated into greater access to justice for women including though increased availability of legal aid.

In terms of the authority of the Ministry for Women and the coordination with other ministries in the implementation of gender equality policies, the delegation said that there were gender focal points within ministries who were responsible for gender mainstreaming into policies of programmes of their respective ministries.  

Temporary special measures should be considered as a last resort; the first step should be to encourage political parties to put more women on electoral lists.

The Ministry for Women recognized it was not able to implement the National Gender Policy alone and was aware of the importance of working with non-governmental organizations to this end.  Fiji planned to meet with civil society organizations after this interactive dialogue, discuss the concluding observations and chart the way forward in their implementation.  The financing and support for non-governmental organizations so far had been ad hoc and the Government was principally supporting those that were working with large groups of women, mainly on supporting livelihoods.  

Questions from the Experts

In the next round of questions, Committee Experts commended the recognition by Fiji that domestic violence was a national shame, and noted that patriarchal norms and gender stereotypes remained deeply rooted in the society and so contributed to all forms of gender-based violence and enforced the idea of women’s inferior position in the family and society.

What mechanisms were in place to ensure that, under no circumstances, the traditional practice of apology, the “bulubulu”, was accepted in domestic violence cases and so forced women to remain in abusive relationships?  What was being done to eradicate violence against and the exclusion of lesbian, trans, bisexual, and intersex women and address the underlying stereotypes?

Violence against women, both by intimate partners and non-partners, was of deep concern.  The rates were staggering: 64 per cent of women who had been in an intimate relationship suffered violence.  The most prevalent form of sexual violence was child sexual abuse.  Of concern was the number of domestic violence cases in which children were sexually abused, including children with disabilities.
 
How was the State contributing to the efforts of non-governmental organizations to fight violence against women, to support women’s access to justice, to help women to realize the dimensions of violence that affected them, and to protect children from sexual violence and abuse including in their own families?

The Committee was very concerned about the prevalence of trafficking in women and children.  Particularly worrying was the high number of girls sold by their own families as a way to cope with poverty.  This practice had been observed in the aftermath of the Cyclone Winston that had devastated Fiji in 2016.

Responses by the Delegation

Responding, the delegation stressed the importance of changing mentality and mindsets as the first step in addressing the underlying stereotypes which perpetuated violence against women.  Fiji was aware of its capacity and competence deficit to develop a comprehensive behavioural change and communication programme and it relied on the support of its international partners in this aspect.  The Government had already taken initial steps to change the mindsets and had engaged with the religious organizations.  

A helpline for victims of domestic violence had been put in place; the Government was fully aware that more must be done to reach isolated and remote communities, which, given the geography of the country, was a challenge.  Often, there were delays in taking perpetrators to task.  The Government wanted to engage with civil society organizations and non-governmental organizations on a much stronger footing, to deliver the programmes and monitor the implementation of the national plans and policies.

“Bulubulu” was a cultural practice which fostered forgiveness in a village setting, but it did not have a role to play in the criminal prosecution and judicial proceedings.  Judges were being trained to ensure that traditional practices such as that one did not have an impact on sentencing of sexual offenders.

Fiji had recently ratified the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, and had successfully prosecuted and sentenced several persons for the crime of trafficking in persons since 2010.  Currently, several cases were pending before the courts.  The issue of victims as witnesses in human trafficking cases caused a problem for the prosecution, as some found it hard to stay in Fiji and give evidence, and others suffered psychological and emotional trauma.  This was a particularly important obstacle in cases of trafficked children, as they often found it hard to give evidence against the parents implicated in the trafficking.  Fiji did not have a stand-alone anti-trafficking legislation or a national anti-trafficking policy.

Sex work was criminalized and any attempt to decriminalize it would have to involve extensive public consultations to address the related cultural and religious concerns.  There were currently no programmes for the rehabilitation and support of sex workers.

Questions from the Experts

In the next round of discussion, Experts remarked that the National Gender Policy 2014 had set out the strategy for achieving gender equality in public and political life but did not contain a strong monitoring framework to ensure its timely and effective implementation.
 
The delegation was asked about measures it envisaged to increase the participation of women in the political sphere, including the adoption of gender quotas in electoral candidates lists; about the number of women diplomats and actions taken to remove barriers to greater number of women being appointed in ambassadorial posts; and how many Fijian women held senior-level positions in regional and international organizations.

In matters of nationality and birth registration, women enjoyed same rights as men but birth registration required a payment with a penalty for late registration, which, in the context of country’s geography, posed a particular burden to women from rural and remote areas.

Responses by the Delegation

Measures to promote women in leadership and their participation in political life included training programmes, specific programmes for indigenous women, and the bridge programme first implemented in collaboration with the United Nations Women.  On community level, work was ongoing to support women wishing to run for local councils.  

Fiji was working to strengthen the implementation of the National Gender Policy, including through a reporting forum with civil society and non-governmental organizations to assess its implementation, before end of 2018.  The taskforce on equal participation of women in decision-making and the taskforce on women and law were being revived; they were important components of the implementation of gender equality policies.

Currently, two Fijian women served as ambassadors.  The civil service recruitment process was open to all, and the Ministry for Women was aware of the need to strengthen cooperation with Ministry of Foreign Affairs in ensuring greater participation of women in the diplomatic service.

Fiji had expanded the number of birth registration offices.  A registration of a new born baby up to the age of one was free of charge; there was a $2 fee for an issue of a birth certificate.

Questions from the Experts

Committee Experts commended measures taken to support enrolment and progression in education of girls and the programmes that supported poor children to attend schools.  Lack of gender disaggregated data in the area of education continued to hamper adequate analysis of the situation in the sector and the definition of new policies.  

The delegation was asked about steps to ensure retention of girls in schools, gender profile of teachers and instructors, number of girls in technical and scientific fields, opportunities extended to pregnant girls and adolescents to continue education, sexual and reproductive health education, and the steps currently taken towards the full prohibition of corporal punishment in schools.

Although the legal framework guaranteed equal employment and labour rights to women and men, the labour force participation in 2017 was 76 per cent for men and only 37 per cent for women.  The good education of girls did not translate into good employment opportunities for women, who continued to be concentrated in low paid professions.  

What would be done to eliminate occupational segregation including by temporary special measures?  What were the main causes of the significant wage gap – 19 per cent in same employment positions – and which actions were being taken to ensure equal pay for equal work?

Responses by the Delegation

Responding, the delegation said that in Fiji, the enrolment rate for girls was very high.  It was lower than boys at the primary school level, but higher than boys at the secondary level.  The retention rate for girls was about 90 per cent.  In alignment with the national education plan that focused on digital literacy, only 72 out of over 900 schools were without Internet connection, and there were efforts to offer distance and online learning opportunities to students in rural areas.

Fiji was currently reviewing curriculum and textbooks and would use this opportunity to remove gender stereotypes; new curriculum would be rolled out by 2019.  Tropical Cyclone Winston had greatly damaged 496 schools; they were being rebuild with new construction safety standards in mind, and particular attention was being paid to sanitation, which played a role in girl school retention.  New schools applied the sanitation standard of 30 girls per toilet.

A lot of work was ongoing on teenage pregnancy including peer training, parental training, counselling, and the development of an agenda policy on teenage pregnancy.  In terms of child protection, the delegation explained that each school had a child protection policy and a child protection officer; teachers received training in child protection as well.  Fiji had adopted a mobile phone policy within the school system to address cyber-bullying.

During its previous Universal Periodic Review, Fiji had made a commitment to review the legislation on corporal punishment, which was now in its draft form.  Section 11 of the Constitution extended definition of torture and cruel, ill and degrading treatments to schools, providing students with the right to redress.  Another redress avenue existed under the Crimes Act, and there were cases in which teachers had been prosecuted for corporal punishment of their students.

Unemployment rates in Fiji were declining although women continued to suffer higher rates than men did.  Fiji had adopted a minimum wage legislation and was putting in place a system to monitor compliance by private sector companies.  Fiji was a very young country with 70 per cent of the population under the age of 40 years.  The low retirement age at 55 years meant that the retirees could pursue employment and remain active either through various Government schemes such as senior volunteers, or by taking up opportunities overseas.

Questions from the Experts

Another Committee Expert took note with concern of deterioration in health institutions and asked how Fiji ensured access to health services for the population in remote and rural areas and about measures in place to prevent brain drain of health professionals, which often adversely affected quality of services.  What were the conditions under which women and girls could access abortion?  What were the abortion rates and the related mortality?

The delegation was asked about the fund for children living in poverty and how, in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, Fiji supported groups most at risk of poverty.  How Fiji ensured that women fully benefitted from economic growth and development and could access all opportunities?

The Committee noted that there were around 700 villages in low-lying lands in which disaster management committees had been set up, with a participation of women, and asked when this approach would be extended to all villages and communities at risk of climate change.

Experts asked the delegation to explain measures put in place to protect rural women from discrimination due to traditional practices in land ownership, inheritance and other areas of life.

Responses by the Delegation

The delegation said that there were six levels of health service delivery, from nursing stations to hospitals.  Nursing stations could be found throughout the country; they were opened Monday to Friday, and were staffed mostly by female nurses trained in pregnancy referral system and emergency delivery.

More than 90 per cent of pregnant women had four antenatal visits to clinics in 2017, and 99 per cent of births were attended by skilled birth attendants.  HIV/AIDS testing services were available in antenatal clinics, hospitals and outreach services.  Prevention of HIV/AIDS from mother to child was available free of charge.  Abortion did not feature among the top five causes of maternal mortality.

The Crimes Act allowed abortion performed by a qualified medical professional, and in case of incest, rape, and serious danger to physical and mental health of the mother.  Fiji had reviewed doctors’ salary scale in an effort to prevent a brain drain; as a result, a number of doctors had returned to the public service.

Women had actively participated in the preparation of the recently launched national humanitarian and disaster management policy, and this was one concrete expression of the contribution of women to the discussions on climate change, food security, disaster preparedness, etc.

There was a restriction on foreign ownership of land, particularly residential; the regulations were more lax for commercial land.  Social land belonged to the State, which leased it for a determined period of time.

Questions from the Experts

A Committee Expert commended Fiji for raising the age of marriage to 18 years for boys and girls and asked how law enforcement officers and the public were made aware of the new law.  What was the impact of the Marriage Act on the eradication of customary marriages namely forced marriage and polygamy?  

What was being done to combat huge delays in the work of the family court?  Those delays seriously hampered access to justice for women as only five per cent of those who encountered problems in the domain of family law addressed the family court.

Responses by the Delegation

Responding, the delegation said that Fiji had not conducted a robust study to assess the implementation of the 2003 family law.  

Customary marriages were not recognized under the law, nor were child marriages.  It was incumbent upon the family and the community as well as civil society organizations to report such cases, which were then adequately dealt with by the police.

Marital rape, or sex without consent in a marriage, was illegal.

Concluding Remarks

MERESEINI VUNIWAQA, Minister for Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation of Fiji, said that gender-based violence remained Fiji’s number one concern and commended the judiciary for their hard stance in sanctioning perpetrators of violence against women.  The current challenge was the coordination of all the efforts and stakeholders working on addressing gender-based violence.  In this context, the Service Delivery Protocol soon to be launched would go a long way in harmonizing the approaches.

DALIA LEINARTE, Committee Chairperson, commended Fiji for its efforts and encouraged it to address various recommendations, which the Committee would issue with the purpose of the more comprehensive implementation of the Convention throughout the State party.
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