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Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women reviews report of Antigua and Barbuda

GENEVA (20 February 2019) - The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women today examined the combined fourth to seventh periodic reports of Antigua and Barbuda on measures taken to implement the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Samantha Nicole Marshall, Minister of Social Transformation, Human Resource Development and Youth and Gender Affairs of Antigua and Barbuda, introducing the report, informed the Committee that the Government had accepted the amendment to article 20(10) of the Convention and highlighted the vulnerability of the twin islands to climate change.  A specific law on the Convention had not been adopted, but a number of legislative instruments gave effect to its provisions.  The principle of equality between women and men and the prohibition of discrimination based on sex were embodied in the Constitution.  The Domestic Violence Act 2015 enhanced a clear definition of acts of domestic violence, the revision of the Sexual Offences Act 1995 was planned, and the Government aimed to address antiquated legislation that established the legal age of marriage at 14 with parental consent.  The Support and Referral Centre had been set up in 2016 as a one-stop centre for survivors of gender-based violence; the first of its kind in the Caribbean region, it provided a round-the-clock response to sexual assault and supported victims’ access to justice.  The sexual violence model court had been set up in January 2019 to introduce specialized procedures to remedy the deficiencies in the handling of sexual offences.

Committee Experts commended Antigua and Barbuda’s efforts to advance the rights of women, mentioning in particular the setting up of the sexual offences model court, training of lawyers on the Convention, and the national strategy to eliminate gender-based violence.  However, it seemed that the focus of policies and efforts was on gender-based violence, to the detriment of an intersectional and multi-faceted approach to discrimination against women, as called for by the Convention.  The Convention or its parts were not yet included in the Constitution, Experts said, while the lack of a specific law or policy on the political empowerment of women resulted in unfocused and uncoordinated Government action.  They urged Antigua and Barbuda to use temporary special measures to accelerate de facto gender equality and women’s equal opportunity in all areas of social and economic life where gender balance was lacking.  Experts took positive note of near gender parity in school enrolment and girls’ superior performance at secondary and tertiary levels, but were concerned that rights through education did not materialize for Antigua’s girls, as better educational outcomes did not translate into greater access to work, leadership positions, and increased incomes.

In her concluding remarks, Ms. Marshall reiterated that Antigua and Barbuda was working and would continue to work to make major footprints and increase gender equality in the country.

Hilary Gbedemah, Committee Chairperson, in her concluding remarks, urged the country to pay particular attention to the concluding observations identified for follow up.

The delegation of Antigua and Barbuda consisted of representatives of the Ministry of Social Transformation, Human Resource Development and Youth and Gender Affairs.

The Committee will issue the concluding observations on the report of Antigua and Barbuda at the end of its seventy-second session on 8 March.  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 Thursday, 21 February at 10 a.m., to consider the eighth periodic report of Ethiopia (CEDAW/C/ETH/8). 

Report

The Committee has before it the combined fourth to seventh periodic reports of Antigua and Barbuda (CEDAW/C/ATG/4-7).

Presentation of the Report

SAMANTHA NICOLE MARSHALL, Minister of Social Transformation, Human Resource Development and Youth and Gender Affairs of Antigua and Barbuda, informed the Committee that the Government had accepted the amendment to article 20(10) of the Convention and then highlighted the vulnerability of the twin islands to climate change, citing in particular the September 2017 Hurricane Irma, the largest-ever recorded hurricane to impact the western hemisphere.  Antigua and Barbuda recognized the way in which women shouldered dual responsibilities as caregivers and breadwinners, and the absence of a national measurement framework for the contribution of domestic workers to the gross domestic product.  The country was committed to advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment in spite of the challenges.  Antigua and Barbuda did not have a specific law on the Convention, but had enacted legislative instruments giving effect to its provisions.  The principle of equality between women and men and the prohibition of discrimination based on sex were embodied in the Constitution. 

The Status of Children Act 2015 abolished the legal distinction between children born within or outside of marriage, the Domestic Violence Act 2015 enhanced a clear definition of acts of domestic violence, and the revision of the Sexual Offences Act 1995 was planned.  In addition, the Minister said, the Government aimed to address antiquated legislation that established the legal age of marriage at 14 with parental consent.  The National Strategic Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence 2013-2018 was in place, and the Government was drafting legislation to address sexual harassment and a national policy to address workplace discrimination and harassment in the public service.  The Support and Referral Centre had been set up in 2016 as a one-stop centre for survivors of gender-based violence; the first of its kind in the Caribbean region, it provided a round-the-clock response to sexual assault and supported victims’ access to justice.  In January 2019, Ms. Marshall continued, Antigua and Barbuda had launched the sexual violence model court, another first in the Caribbean region.  It was intended to introduce specialized procedures to remedy the deficiencies in the court’s handling of sexual offences.

While Antigua and Barbuda did not have specific laws or policies for the equal participation of women in positions of power, leadership, and decision-making, women’s involvement in political life had steadily increased since 2004, when the first women had been elected to the House of Representatives.  As a result of the 2018 general elections, two women had been elected to the House of Representatives, while the Senate maintained gender parity, with nine of its 18 members being women.  The 2014 country gender assessment had highlighted socio-economic factors that accounted for the gender pay gap and the lower representation of women in executive-level positions, including several agents of socialization such as schools, churches, and mass media and the resulting stereotyping of women.  Antigua and Barbuda enjoyed a high literacy rate of 99 per cent; there were no structural barriers preventing girls from studying non-traditional subjects such as electronics or woodworking, but cultural norms still played a role in students’ choice of subjects.  Measures were being taken to reduce gender stereotyping within the education system, while a policy had been instituted in 2012 to guarantee continued access to education for pregnant girls.

In conclusion, Ms. Marshall said that Antigua and Barbuda’s commitment and passion for advancing gender equality in the country and the region was evident, and recognized that there was still a long way to go despite the gains over the years.

Questions by Committee Experts

At the beginning of the dialogue, Committee Experts welcomed the delegation of Antigua and Barbuda after the long hiatus of 20 years, and commended the steps taken to advance the rights of women, mentioning in particular the setting up of the sexual offences model court, which was a landmark in the Caribbean region as it offered victims specialized services and access to justice.

Concern remained about some longstanding issues, the Expert said.  It was regrettable that, despite the recommendation by the Constitution Reform Committee in 1999 to include the Convention’s definition of discrimination against women, the Convention or its parts were not yet included in the Constitution.  What steps had been taken to harmonize the legislation of Antigua and Barbuda with its international human rights and women’s rights obligations, especially with regard to the prohibition of discrimination against women and the decriminalization of same sex relationships?  What was the status of the Equal Opportunity Bill 2017?

Turning to access to justice, the Expert asked the delegation to outline steps taken to ensure that vulnerable women did not face gender-based discrimination in access to justice, and to inform on resources allocated to ensure the functioning of the Support and Referral Centre, and whether it would be expanded to provide free legal aid to women.

Replies by the Delegation

The delegation explained that the Support and Referral Centre and the sexual offences model court had been had been set up to address deficiencies in support to victims, their treatment by the police, and their access to justice.  There was therefore a close nexus between the two institutions since both aimed to provide more uniform and holistic services to the victims.  The police had established the Special Victims Unit in the same building where the Support and Referral Centre was based, which ensured more timely responses.

One of the key areas that had been identified in order to provide greater support to women victims of violence was free legal aid.  The staff in various institutions was being trained and it was expected that the sexual offences model court would be much more efficient in this regard by January next year.  The Government had approved resources for the setting up of a forensic lab, whose services would be offered free of charge to victims of violence, including DNA testing, the costs of which at the moment were prohibitive.

As for the legislation in the pipeline, the delegation said that the consultations on a sexual harassment bill were continuing, and sensitization and awareness building efforts were ongoing in workplaces to educate people on what was appropriate and what was not, regardless of culture and traditions.  Conversations on the decriminalization of same sex relationships were ongoing and would continue, but due to the prevailing culture in the country and the region, those conversations might take longer than elsewhere.  The revision of the law on sexual offences and in particular the provisions concerning marital rape were on the legislative agenda in 2019.

The delegation confirmed that Antigua and Barbuda did not have a specific law on discrimination against women or any vulnerable group.  A committee had been formed in 2018 and it was expected that once its terms of reference were approved, it would address the issue and recommend a course of action to the Government.

Questions by Committee Experts

Committee Experts took positive note of the actions taken through the Directorate of Gender Affairs to implement policies and plans, the adoption of the Education Act, training of lawyers on the Convention, and the national strategy to eliminate gender-based violence.  But it seemed that the focus was on preventing gender-based violence, to the detriment of an intersectional and multi-faceted approach to discrimination against women, as called for by the Convention.

What legal and policy measures were in place to promote and protect women’s rights across sectors and what resources were assigned to meeting the goal of substantive gender equality in all spheres?  Had gender equality officers been established in all ministries?  How was the Directorate of Gender Affairs structured and resourced to enhance accountability for achieving gender equality and bridging gender gaps, and how were the ministries held accountable for ensuring gender mainstreaming in their activities and policies?

The lack of a specific law or policy on the political empowerment of women meant that the activities of various Government institutions were very different and uncoordinated.  What was preventing the adoption of a law or policy?

Replies by the Delegation

The delegation explained that the Directorate of Gender Affairs had been focused on the issue of sexual and gender-based violence due to the pervasiveness of those phenomena.  The Directorate was also working on other determinants of vulnerability of women to gender-based violence, including education and economic empowerment, and it had a number of intersecting programming activities to support the entry of women into work, career development, and balancing private and professional life.

The Directorate was also working on strengthening institutional mechanisms to mainstream gender across the Government.  To that end, gender focal points had been identified in Government institutions.  A gender management framework was being developed with the assistance of international partners, to be used by all ministries and institutions, which would be championed by the President. 

Gender focal points had recently met to discuss the harmonization of Antigua and Barbuda’s international commitments under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Beijing Platform for Action, and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and to align the national development plan with those instruments.  A lot of effort was being invested to build capacity and an understanding of importance of gender mainstreaming by Government officials.  The National Strategic Action Plan on gender-based violence had expired at the end of 2018; it would not be extended but rather integrated in the Gender Equality Action Plan. 

Antigua and Barbuda was very young in terms of awareness and knowledge about gender equality and gender mainstreaming, so the priority was on educating officials, including cabinet ministers.  This ground work would be certainly followed by a specific law and policy on gender equality.

Data was a long-standing problem, so an electronic database on gender-based violence had been introduced to remedy the issue; comprehensive and disaggregated data was now available, for example on the relationship between victims and perpetrators, language, educational background, etc.  The electronic database was meant to provide an immediate access to service providers, including police, non-governmental organizations, and others.  The sexual offences model court would also use the database and input their data within, which would enable others to track and monitor the progress of cases.

Questions by Committee Experts

An Expert remarked that Antigua and Barbuda had not attempted to adopt temporary special measures to support the greater participation of women in political life and accelerate de facto gender equality and women’s equal opportunity in other areas of social and economic life, where gender balance was lacking.

Replies by the Delegation

The delegation explained that there were two main political parties and two smaller parties, both of which were headed by women.  Given the current beliefs concerning the participation of women in politics, the Government believed that the right direction at the moment was to engage with the political parties, sensitise them on the importance of women’s participation in politics, and give them the necessary support to include more women on their tickets.  This engagement process was to start soon, and it was hoped that it would be followed, at some point, by a law on women’s political participation.

The Government remained committed to economically empower women and was developing the Entrepreneurial Fund for Women to facilitate access to finances to start up or expand their business.

Questions by Committee Experts

The Committee commended the efforts to address the prevalence of discriminatory gender stereotypes in the society and asked whether an institutionalized mechanism was in place to monitor the effectiveness of those initiatives and how civil society organizations were involved in the process.  Would resources allocated to the initiatives enable their sustainability and continuation?  Concerning education, what more could be done to dismantle gender stereotypes that contributed to violence against women, and resulted in the educational segregation of girls?

What were the intentions concerning opening shelters for victims of violence, and to increase outreach to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex communities?   

The Committee also welcomed all the efforts to strengthen the fight against trafficking in persons and support the victims, and asked what would be done to give effect to the law on human trafficking in order to prevent forced labour and exploitation of women.  Why had there been no prosecution and sentencing of perpetrators of human trafficking and had there been any investigations into alleged complicity of border agents with traffickers?

Replies by the Delegation

A monitoring and evaluation framework was in place for all public initiatives and programmes, including those aiming to eliminate discriminatory gender stereotypes.  However, behaviour change took a long time so as of now, no change in behaviour had been recorded as a result of those initiatives.

Significant work was ongoing with the Ministry of Education, including on specifically stating a commitment to promote gender equality in its policies and develop gender-responsive education curricula.

Antigua and Barbuda recognized that a dedicated shelter was necessary, and that would probably follow the setting up of the Support and Referral Centre and the sexual offences model court.

A Committee on trafficking in persons was in place, and trafficking legislation had been revised and strengthened in 2015.  A number of tools were being used to identify victims of trafficking who were guaranteed various support services and had a choice of staying in the country or returning to their home countries.  The issue of convictions for the crime of human trafficking was indeed a challenge and a weakness, and the Government remained committed to addressing this gap.  Training of staff was ongoing and it was working with the International Organization for Migration to ensure that the necessary tools and strategies were in place.  Prostitution was illegal, and the challenge was the lack of adequate training of the police to address the issue. 

Legislation on the equal rights of persons with disabilities obliged the Government to ensure accessibility.  A Committee had been formed to that end to assess the situation and recommend a course of action.  This assessment would encompass all public buildings, including the shelter.

The very introduction of the sexual offences model court was a way to address the low rate of convictions for rape and other forms of sexual violence, including to close loopholes in the investigation and prosecution of perpetrators through greater multi-departmental cooperation. 

Questions by Committee Experts

Turning to the representation of women in political and public arenas, the Committee took positive note of the gender parity in the Senate and the increase in the number of elected women during the general election in 2018.  There was room for progress in women’s representation in the cabinet, which stood at 30 per cent, and in the House of Representatives, where women made up only 11 per cent, as well as in the Government and police.  What was being done to transform institutions and policies in order to increase women’s representation, including through non-traditional approaches?

Did the law grant equal rights to foreign women and men to obtain nationality through marriage?

Replies by the Delegation

The Law on Nationality guaranteed equal rights to foreign women and men to obtain nationality through marriage.  The consent of both parents was necessary in order to issue a passport for the child, unless one parent had sole custody.

As for the political representation of women, the delegation noted that although small, the number of women in Parliament represented an achievement and progress, and it was essential to continue awareness raising and the education of all, and also continue leadership programmes for young women and girls to learn about the functioning of the House of Representatives and the Government and incite them to run one day.

Questions by Committee Experts

Antigua and Barbuda had achieved near gender parity in school enrolment, and girls performed better than boys at secondary and tertiary levels, however rights through education did not materialize for Antigua’s girls and did not translate into greater access to work, leadership positions, and increased incomes.  What linkages were there between education and workplace practices to ensure that formal certification carried equal social and economic currency.  Girls should be exposed to the work sector by means of internships.  What had been the impact of initiatives to address stereotypes in education?  Decisive action was needed to tackle cultural norms.  When would Antigua and Barbuda apply temporary special measures, such as scholarships, to bring about the change in enrolment?  What was the impact of the 2008 Education Act on gender equality in education?

The Committee urged Antigua and Barbuda to ensure that its forthcoming comprehensive sex education programme addressed, inter alia, the question of power in intimate relations, and focused on the prevention of early pregnancies.  What mechanism was in place to prevent and address sexual violence in schools and when would corporal punishment be abolished?

Replies by the Delegation

The delegation said that there was an ongoing discussion on the abolition of corporal punishment, which was something that the Government would most likely do, and the Ministry of Education had initiated the development of a policy on school discipline.  The country, in partnership with the United Nations Children’s Fund, had already started the school friendly process, and training sessions were ongoing for all those in daily contact with schoolchildren.  The Educational Act covered all resident children attending school, and migrant children were treated on an equal footing with nationals.  The Government was working on developing inclusive education and was hoping that the system would be fully implemented within two years and that all children with disabilities would be in mainstream education.

Young people were very much aware about the issue of sexual violence and sexual offences and expressed themselves through art; for example, they had developed a play to spread awareness on the sexual offences model court.  There was a clear procedure for reporting cases of sexual offences and sexual violence in school, first to the school and then to the police.  A clear policy was in place to ensure the continued access to education for pregnant girls, but often they did not feel comfortable going back to school.  They had an option to enrol in the youth educational and empowerment programme, which was free of charge and in which they were allowed to select and study nine subjects.  The Government had created child friendly spaces – crèches - to assist with the care of the children.

Technical training programmes were in place to allow for a wide choice of professions, including engineering, which were opened to young girls and boys.  Antigua and Barbuda had identified several key areas for national development and was working with children to raise their awareness and interest, while a number of ministries and public institutions took on interns and young people to provide them with work practice; many could access Government scholarships too.

Questions by Committee Experts

Women in Antigua and Barbuda suffered both horizontal and vertical discrimination in the labour market, gender stereotypes still prevailed which meant that employers favoured men, and it was clear that there was no equal sharing of responsibility in the family and society.  The delegation was asked about measures taken to address occupational segregation and discriminatory stereotypes that were at the root of discrimination against women in the workplace.  The violation of the principle of equal pay for work of equal value was a criminal offence – had anyone been prosecuted for this?

Replies by the Delegation

The delegation said that there was no formal mechanism to monitor the pervasiveness of discriminatory gender stereotypes in the workplace, and said that it was possible to ascertain – from consultations and informal discussions – that there was a shift in the way that the society viewed the gender-based division of roles and responsibilities.  Since Antigua and Barbuda had conducted a review of discriminatory laws and practices, it was aware of gaps in the Labour Code, which was now being extensively revised.

The Social Security Board was reviewing the legislation, and would address the gaps and discriminatory provisions therein, including to extend the scope to include domestic workers.  The non-contributory fund was in place to assist those who did not contribute.  After the first reading in March 2018, the bill on sexual harassment had been returned for further consultations.  It was hoped that the law would be on the books by the end of this year or next year.

Questions by Committee Experts

The Committee was aware of the inclusive universal health care system and noted with concern that private health structures were nevertheless in place, and in some instances even reduced women’s access to quality health services.  As for the medical benefit scheme, what medical services did it offer and was it accessible to stay-at-home women? 

The delegation was asked about the decriminalization of abortion, access to contraceptives for girls under the age of 17, and forced sterilization of girls with disabilities.

Replies by the Delegation

In response, the delegation said that a ministerial committee had been set up to close gaps and better support individuals exercising their sexual and reproductive rights.  One of the recommendations made during the recent legislation review had been to decriminalize abortion; the issue was before the Attorney General for further action. 

Antigua and Barbuda had invested heavily in health care: the largest allocation of the public budget was to the Ministry of Health.  This had resulted in concrete improvements in health indicators: maternal mortality had been an issue before, but over the past seven years or so, it had dropped to zero; mother-to-child HIV transmission had been eliminated; and the rate of premature births had been significantly reduced.  In addition, the country had been removed from the list of countries vulnerable to Zika virus.   

Questions by Committee Experts

In the next round of questions, the Experts raised the issue of discrimination against unmarried women in accessing bank credits, loans, and mortgages, and asked what structure was in place to ensure that the national social protection bill would be gender-sensitive.

A report on poverty in Antigua and Barbuda of 2007 had found that 52.8 per cent of women lived below the poverty line and highlighted especially the vulnerable position of elderly lone women.  Was an anti-poverty strategy in place and how was its impact monitored?  Had it produced any good practice in empowering women to break out of poverty?

The delegation was asked about its policies and programmes geared towards the empowerment of rural women and their advancement, including on measures to support their farming and other income generation activities, and increase their access to land and land deeds.  The Experts stressed women’s vulnerability to climate change and disasters, and asked about attention provided to vulnerable women in disaster preparedness and recovery.

Replies by the Delegation

Traditionally, the land in Antigua and Barbuda belonged to the Crown, thus many people did not have deeds, even if they had built their homes there.  The delegation stressed that certain parts of the islands were at risk of sea level rise; in order to reduce the vulnerability of people and communities to disasters, the Government had identified lands for residential purposes and was selling plots for the symbolic price of one dollar.  Agriculture land had been identified and was available to rural women, who could access resources and support from various entrepreneurial schemes and programmes.

There was a discussion with the private sector concerning the accessibility of women to various financial instruments, and the Government was also providing low interest loans to women having problems accessing banks.  Another poverty assessment was being prepared, the delegation said, reassuring the Experts that the Ministry was championing the inclusion of gender in the new anti-poverty strategy.  Several programmes were in place to support the elderly, such as ElderCare programme which provided free assistance on a daily basis to all seniors who registered with local authorities.

Questions by Committee Experts

A Committee Expert commended the delegation for a truly interactive dialogue and asked whether there was a family court in the country and whether it was accessible to all women in all parts of the country.  It seemed that women used legal aid mostly for family matters.  The aid was not free but was subsidized, which could hamper women’s access to justice.  The Divorce Act did not contain provisions for the division of property, which was governed by traditional practices, the Expert noted, asking whether this would be revised to ensure that the law gave equal weight to financial and non-financial contributions of the spouses during the marriage.  How were women and their rights protected at the termination of common-law unions?

Replies by the Delegation

The delegation said that there was a family magistrate, supported by the child adoption board and criminal magistrate, and there was continuing training for judges and other officers of the family court.  The court did conduct mediation.  The institution of legal aid had been established to support vulnerable persons, so the discussion would be held concerning the small fee that users were required to pay.  The Maintenance Act was very successful and was one of the most effective ways to ensure that children were taken care of.  There had been no reported cases of child marriages, even if the provision allowing marriage at the age of 14 was on the books; that was why it would not be problematic to remove it from the law.

Concluding Remarks

SAMANTHA NICOLE MARSHALL, Minister of Social Transformation, Human Resource Development and Youth and Gender Affairs of Antigua and Barbuda, concluded by reiterating that the country was in the early stages so to speak, and that it was working and would continue to work to make major footprints and increase gender equality in the country.

HILARY GBEDEMAH, Committee Chairperson, in her concluding remarks, thanked Antigua and Barbuda and urged it to pay particular attention to the concluding observations identified for follow up and to report back to the Committee on time.

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