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Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women considers the report of Serbia

Committee on Elimination of Discrimination
  against Women 

28 February 2019

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women today considered the fourth periodic report of Serbia on how it implements the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Presenting the report, Suzana Paunović, Director of the Human and Minority Rights Office of Serbia, said that the report did not contain detailed information on the implementation of the Convention in the Autonomous Province of Kosovo and Metohija since the Government did not have the capacity to monitor human rights situation there.  Domestic legislation had been improved including with laws on prevention of domestic violence, on free legal aid, and on gender equality.  The National Strategy for Gender Equality and the Coordination Body for Gender Equality were in place, and Serbia was the first country outside of the European Union to use the Gender Equality Index.  The participation of women in political and public life continued to see a positive trend, and women made up 37.6 per cent in Parliament today.  The Council for the Suppression of Domestic Violence oversaw the implementation of the law and by the end of 2018, more than 76,000 cases of violence had been considered and over 18,000 individual plans for the protection and support for victims of domestic violence had been made.  Serbia had demonstrated the capacity to respond adequately to migrant crisis, including by creating 16 asylum centres.

In the interactive discussion that ensued, Committee Experts lauded Serbia’s efforts towards the advancement of women’s rights and proceeded to interrogate regarding specific details of the new legislations and the exact nature of coordination between the new administrative bodies that supported the Government’s efforts towards gender equality.  They also pointed to the need for impact assessments and data on results of various programmes that had been initiated.  Of particular concern was the state of Roma communities despite the efforts mentioned by the State party.  The exclusion of the Roma from education and employment, and the nature of other social vulnerabilities such as surprisingly low life expectancy in these communities, remained quite stark.  This had created conditions for the higher incidence of social practices such as child marriages and co-habitation in these communities.  In general, gender stereotypes were strong in Serbian society and influenced many social practices particularly in the division of domestic and agricultural labour as well as in obstacles to economic and political empowerment of women.

In concluding remarks, Ms. Paunović, said that Serbia was aware of the challenges to be faced in the future and would pay great attention to the Committee’s recommendations and link them to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Hilary Gbedemah, Committee Chairperson, in her concluding remarks, congratulated the gains made by Serbia and encouraged the delegation to consider the recommendations for immediate follow within the deadline.

The delegation of Serbia was composed of the representatives of the Human and Minority Rights Office; Ministry of the Interior; Ministry of Public Administration and Local Self-Government; Ministry of Labour; Ministry of Education; Ministry of Justice; Supreme Appellation Court; Office of the Public Prosecutor; the Kosovo and Metohija Office; Refugee and Migrant Commissariat; Social Inclusion and Poverty Reduction National Team; Women's Parliamentarian Network; Members of Parliament; and representatives of the Permanent Mission of Serbia to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The Committee will issue the concluding observations on the report of Serbia 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 State 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 at 10 a.m. on 28 February to consider the fourth periodic report of Botswana (CEDAW/C/BWA/4).


The Committee is considering the fourth periodic report of Serbia (CEDAW/C/SRB/4).

Presentation of the Report

SUZANA PAUNOVIĆ, Director of the Human and Minority Rights Office of Serbia, said that the report had been prepared in a broad consultative process, including with independent bodies and civil society, but it did not contain detailed information on the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in the Autonomous Province of Kosovo and Metohija since the Government of Serbia did not have the capacity to monitor human rights situation there.  The Autonomous Province faced the worst violation of human rights and its non-Albanian populations were exposed to daily fear for life and health.  The text of the Convention and its Optional Protocol had been translated into 16 languages of national minorities, and Serbia made efforts to implement the measures in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action as well as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  A Government’s Council had been established to monitor the recommendations of the United Nations, including those made by this Committee - Serbia had implemented 71 per cent of its 24 recommendations issued in 2013.

The National Action Plan for the Implementation of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security and the adoption of National Strategy for Gender Equality signalled continuities in maintenance of strategic documents and action plans.  Domestic laws had been improved, such as the Law on Prevention of Domestic Violence and the Law on Free Legal Aid, the Criminal Code and the Law on Financial Support to Families and Children.  The Law on Registries and those on Asylum and Temporary Protection contained the principle of gender equality.  The issue of personal documents for more than 25,000 Roma people had been resolved.  Ms. Paunović remarked that the 2009 Law on Gender Equality adopted had to be significantly improved.  The Coordination Body for Gender Equality had been established in 2014 to coordinate the work of State administrative bodies, while the Sector for Anti-Discrimination Policy and Promotion of Gender Equality had been set up as a special unit within the Ministry of Labour, Employment, Veteran and Social Affairs. 

Serbia was the first country outside of the European Union to use the Gender Equality Index, said the Director.  The participation of women in political and public life had continued to see a positive trend.  The National Assembly had 93 women constituting 37.6 per cent; of the 20 Committees in the Assembly, women were chairpersons of seven.  The Strategy for Development of Education in Serbia until 2020, recognized and strove to reduce early school leaving to less than five per cent, while affirmative measures supported Roma students’ access to education: 2,220 Roma students were enrolled this year of which 56 per cent were Roma girls.  Law on Health Care and Health Insurance provided equal access to quality care.  The National Action Plan foresaw the support for the employment of vulnerable groups of women and more than 55,000 women from such categories were included in active employment policy measures.  Laws on prevention of domestic violence were in place, monitored by the Council for the Suppression of Domestic Violence.  By end of 2018, more than 76,000 cases of violence had been considered and over 18,000 individual plans for the protection and support for victims of domestic violence had been made.  The Government’s Anti-Trafficking Council adopted measures for combating the practice including establishment of police teams as well information and witness protection centres.  Serbia too faced a migrant crisis, and demonstrated a capacity to respond adequately with measures such as the creation of 16 asylum centres, the head of the delegation added, and remarked that sustainable conditions for the return of internally displaced people to the Autonomous Province of Kosovo and Metohija, which remained as low as five per cent had not been ensured, which was the responsibility of the international presence in the territory. 

Questions from the Experts

At the beginning of the dialogue, Committee Experts congratulated Serbia on the progress made and regretted the lack of information in the Autonomous Province of Kosovo and Metohija.  One of the Experts asked whether law on equality currently under consideration would include a comprehensive definition of discrimination against women. 

The delegation was asked to inform on the independence of the judiciary, access to the justice system for minority and vulnerable communities, and human rights training for the judicial bodies including in the knowledge of the Convention.

Would there be an impact assessment on the implementation of the national action plan on the Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, they asked, and pointed out that conflict affected women of non-governmental organizations working with them had not been consulted on the plan.  How could these groups be included and what could the criteria of selection be?  Also, to what extent were women in civil society groups included in the peace process and what preventive measures had been adopted to prevent and address violence against internally displaced women? 

Responses by the Delegation

In response to the questions, a delegate said that Serbia constantly monitored the implementation of the Convention and had translated it into the national language and all the minority languages of Serbia.  The Government had also published a booklet containing the practical recommendations made by the Committee during the previous periodic review. A seminar on the Committee’s recommendations had been organized, to which civil society organizations were invited to participate.  The delegation suggested that her country's approach could be an example of good practice for other States.

The legislative bodies worked continuously throughout the year and met twice in that time, and such legislative bodies were slow everywhere.  The Constitutional Amendments were a result of a broad consultative process that led to the preparation of the first draft Amendment and the delegation hoped that this process would uphold the highest European standards.  A delegate referred to the definition of discrimination against women and recognised that the current anti-discrimination law was not adequately aligned with European Union norms.

With regard to measures to publicize the Convention, the delegation stated that it had been translated into the national language and all the minority languages of Serbia. The government has also published a booklet containing the practical recommendations made by the Committee during the previous periodic review. A seminar was organized containing the recommendations of the Committee, to which civil society organizations were invited to participate. The Delegation suggested that its country's approach could be an example of good practice for other Member States. The country is fully engaged in promoting the status of women in Serbia.

The independence of the judiciary was paramount for the Serbian Government, the delegation said.  A large-scale constitutional reform had been launched to bring the Serbian constitution closer to European standards.  Moreover, after eleven years of intense debate on the issue, a law on free legal aid had now been adopted.  On the other hand, no data was currently available since the measure would not come into effect until next October. The delegation stated that it first needed to organize training sessions for the personnel concerned by this law and then public awareness campaigns.  Moreover, in the Serbian tradition of respect for minority rights, legal aid will be transposed into the minority languages of the country and there were plans to extend the free legal aid services to the municipal level.

The delegation disagreed that Serbia was regressing in upholding the principles of gender equality.  There was a women’s network in Parliament and the Government was committed to and monitored the implementation of all Sustainable Development Goals.

The impact assessment of the national action plan on women, peace and security had been carried out for the previous period.  The results showed that there were better responses from institutions and the processes and dynamics had become visible, including progress on the change in mindsets.  There was a growing trend in the participation of women in the peace process and peace missions, which had gone up to 14 per cent.  In the army, the participation of women was higher, for example, women made up 26 per cent of cadets emerging from military schools. 

Questions from the Experts

A Committee Expert commended Serbia for instituting initiatives and budgets for gender equality.  However, there were indications that the responsible coordination bodies for gender equality suffered from lack of resources and seemed to be fragile and subject to political fluctuations.  The responsible bodies for instituting gender equality and preventing discrimination had also been duplicated, the Expert noted and asked why this was the case especially when resources were scarce.  Was there a lack of political will on issues of gender equality? What was the nature of distribution of authority and responsibilities within and across coordination bodies?

On temporary special measures, another Expert noted the progress made by pedagogically oriented policies, especially those directed towards Roma girls.  However, the impact assessment of data was inadequate in these fields.  She added that the representation of women in social life showed imbalances and asked about more information and future steps in this direction. 

Responses by the Delegation

The delegation disagreed with the view that there was lack of political will on gender equality in Serbia, stressing that all the measures listed in the opening statement were an evidence of Serbia’s political will to improve the situation of women.  The Coordination Body for Gender Equality, the highest body set up nationally to deal with anti-discrimination issues, remained consistently in place despite three government changes since 2014.  In addition, Serbia was the only country outside of the European Union to adopt the Gender Equality Index, yet another example that political will was not lacking.

There were indeed two gender equality mechanisms and it was true that resources were limited, but there was a clear division of roles and mandates, for instance the Ministry of Employment, Labour and Social Affairs proposed legal acts and the Coordination Body assisted this process.  Gender responsive budgeting was an example of a good practice and Serbia could play a leading role in this. 

Special measures allowed equal access of women to the judicial system, while expert psychologist and counsellors were present in each school to provide support and career advice to encourage girls to pursue ‘non-traditional’ professions.  A new mechanism would introduce a unique Student Identifier that would enable precise and targeted forms of support to be provided in order to reduce drop-out rates.  Scholarships for Roma girls would be financed.

There were certain patriarchal norms of behaviour in terms of predominantly male or female professions.  Girls tended to attend vocational training and boys went into technical professions.  More women finished universities than men, which was at 59 per cent.  Affirmative measures for enrolment for Roma had been introduced in 2003, and 2,220 Roma students had been enrolled this academic year using the affirmative measure; of those, 56 per cent were girls.  Roma children without documents benefitted from affirmative measures, where all children were treated as equal when it came to enrolment.  The Swedish Police Assistance program has helped to set up a Women’s Police Network to empower women in exercising their right to equality. 

Questions from the Experts

A Committee Expert commended Serbia’s performance especially on its progress on the Gender Development Index and then referred to the problem of gender stereotyping and anti-gender discourse including in the media, as well as reinforcing notions of preserving ‘traditional’ roles of women as domestic workers.  How would these be mitigated, the Expert asked, and then raised the question of impunity of perpetrators of violence against women, requesting additional data on prosecutions in cases of domestic and gender-based violence as well social support systems of victims of violence.  Were there adequate protections against rape and sexual violence including crisis centres and helplines, and what protections were in palace for children witnesses of violence?

Another Expert commended the setting up of a shelter for victims of human trafficking and remarked that most victims were trafficked from Siberia as sex-workers.  What mechanisms for regularising migration were in place in order to prevent labour and sexual exploitation?  Could the delegation comment on prosecutions against perpetrators of human trafficking in light of legal provisions in criminal procedures that allowed for downgrading of the nature of these cases into civil courts?

Responses by the Delegation

The delegation said that several measures had been taken to encourage women to report perpetrators of domestic violence and recognized the need for a preventative approach in addition to punishment of perpetrators.  That was why in collaboration with civil society, the Ministry of the Interior had put in place a campaign to educate children on the risks through courses like ‘violence as a negative social tendency’.

The national action plan against human trafficking had been adopted and a national office for the fight against human trafficking set up.  The Council on the Fight against Human Trafficking has been created with the participation of many ministers.  There were local anti-human trafficking teams across Serbia and a logo with the motto ‘Serbia against human trafficking’.  There was the support from United Nations Development Programme and the Dutch Government for some of the initiatives.  There were shelters for children victims of human trafficking, two of which were in Novi Sad. 

Serbia was implementing the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, the Istanbul Convention, and had amended its Criminal Code which had strengthened the sentences for rape, and sex with children or with disabled persons, which has gone up to 12 years in prison.  New criminal acts had been introduced to tackle female genital mutilation, stalking, and sexual harassment.  Data collection had been improved and there was now a better database for instance which enabled a better understanding the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim as well as gender and age data.  The national helpline for handling violence was compliant, and direct assistance and support for victims included special protocols that provided access to social services for better economic empowerment.  The proposed changes to the Family Law included the mandatory treatment of the perpetrators as a preventive measure. 

Measures to change and tackle negative gender stereotypes included campaigns such as the ‘He for She’, while a virtual reality film on domestic violence was being made available with the message that violence was not only physical in nature.  A message that violence against women was unacceptable had been sent Through the Serbian football club in the league of champions, to an international television audience. 

Questions from the Experts

As for women’s political participation, Committee Experts congratulated Serbia for the historic appointment of the first woman Prime Minister, but noted that of 21 sectors in the Government only four were headed by women, while there were hardly any women in the security and military sectors.  The work of Women’s Parliamentary Groups had slowed down, and Roma women, or those with disabilities and other vulnerable groups were absent from political participation.  The Government had promised that five to eight representatives from each minority and from vulnerable groups would be included the Government Councils but the evidence of this was not substantiated. 

The safety and security of human rights activists and defenders was a cause of worry and signalled the failure of the Government in being able to uphold its commitments in this regard. 

Experts lauded the efforts to integrate Roma and noted that many were at the risk of being rendered stateless while a large number remained in temporary settlements.  They were often unable to access registration and birth certificates of children, while the request for mothers to show their identification documents was an important obstacle for some.  There was concern of domestic violence, sexual violence and early or forced child marriages within minority and vulnerable communities including in upholding of patriarchal norms that supported some of these practices.  

Continuing responses by the Delegation

The delegation said that women made more than 33 per cent of the Members of Parliament and said that the Women’s Parliamentary Network had been formed in 2013.  Each woman was elected by her own party to represented them.  In the foreign service, of the 1,020 persons 449 were women and 24 of 90 diplomatic consular missions were headed by women, including in Slovenia, Croatia, and Macedonia. 

The number of persons without identification documents had been decreased from more than 20,000 to around 400.  The Centre for Social Work investigated the cases where parents could not be identified, and subsequently the process of identification and provision of identity documents was undertaken.  Many persons without identification documents came from the Autonomous Province of Kosovo and Metohija thus verification of their identity and issuing of identification document was not an easy process.  According to a new draft law, child marriage would be eliminated with the raising of the age for marriage from 16 to 18 years of age. 

Questions from the Experts

Committee Experts took note of the landmark study on gender-based sexual violence in schools in Serbia, and raised concern about the resistance on the grounds of tradition to progressive tools that sought to mitigate these issues.  There was an evidence of persistent gender stereotypes and bias which also stigmatised gender rights activists and workers. 

The delegation was asked about the gendered structure of education and choices of professional training including measures to facilitate women to pursue other careers, and the measures to ensure that Roma and disabled girls have better access to education.

Responses by the Delegation

A manual for prevention of gender-based violence has been introduced in schools under programmes such as Integrated Approach to Gender-Based Violence in Serbia, said the delegation, adding that a rulebook to investigate cases of violations of one’s dignity, to guide in handling instances of doubt in determining cases of discrimination, had also been introduced. 

In high schools, physical education had become mandatory while sexual education at all levels would be introduced.  Democratic culture was yet another publication that would be published in March.  In previous textbooks, gender stereotypes had existed prior to 2009, and these had been changed to include awareness of greater diversity and forms of discrimination.  Students were being provided material to identify and understand various forms of violence.  The report of the incest trauma centre would be looked at soon. 

Questions from the Experts

Serbia’s achievements in the field of employment had come a long way, Experts said, but the country remained behind the European standard in gender equality in employment.  Gender pay gap remained a problem.  How did Serbia understand and interpreted what constituted work of equal value, since ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ jobs were differently valued? 

Sexual harassment was a barrier to women’s equal access of opportunities in the workplaces, they said and asked the delegation to provide data about the cases against sexual harassment and other measures to prevent and combat the phenomenon, including reporting and sanctions mechanisms that were in place.  What policies were in place concerning family-work life balance which included sharing of domestic work, responsible fatherhood, parental leave and so on?  Were there any data on initiatives to protect women with disabilities from harassment, violence, and discrimination in the workplace?

Responses by the Delegation

The delegation said that the law defined and prohibited sexual harassment, and there were 275 cases of sexual harassment with 26 convictions. 

Serbia recognised that women were particularly vulnerable in the labour market, even if there were no legal barriers for women’s access to employment.  The National Employment Strategy and local employment action plans were all designed to prohibit discrimination.  Women’s integration into labour markets was supported by active employment policies and there were initiatives to support women’s entrepreneurship.  The National Employment Strategy for 2020 envisaged that any violation of labour laws in advertising of vacancies including asking questions of personal nature was prohibited.  The Active Employment Policies also included women who were under higher risk of discrimination, including those with disabilities. 

Availability of disaggregated data on gender and age would allow better and targeted policies, said the delegation, adding that the Gender Equality Law contained provisions which would improve gender equality, including upholding equal pay for equal work.  In 2018, 225 fathers had used paternal leave and this number tended to grow.  Positive discrimination and affirmative action were used, for instance, in hiring one Roma woman despite the fact that she had failed to fulfil the conditions necessary for the job.  Serbia recognized that the measures were not adequate and there was space to do more in all the above areas, including the launch of surveys and data collection. 

Questions from the Experts

Committee Experts said that despite legal provisions, access to health for Roma remained problematic.  There was lack of awareness of modern contraceptive methods and early pregnancies were seen to be primarily among Roma girls.  The delegation was asked regarding specific actions for the above and if healthcare professionals were compelled to report cases of pregnancies of minors to police and judicial authorities.  Were early detection and treatment of cancer accessible to women across all spectrums of society?  It seemed that Serbia lacked vigour in dealing with the practice of abortion, including provision of contraceptive devices. 

Responses by the Delegation

The Government did not differentiate between Roma and other population in its action to reduce rates of abortion and increase the use of modern contraceptives.  The problem affected all walks of the society and the Government had launched several programmes to address the issue, including the upcoming introduction of sexual and reproductive health education in primary and secondary schools. 

Campaigns targeted at Roma women were in place and financial support was available to non-governmental organizations that worked with this group.  There were 85 Roma health mediators in communities who worked on informing and raising awareness among young Roma men and women on health and other topics of interest.  Health mediators made 36,790 visits to Roma communities and 1,420 visits to pregnant women, and had conducted over 11,000 interviews to inform Roma communities about healthy lifestyles.  Roma women life expectancy was ten years lower than the general population, therefore a lot of work was required.

All health sectors workers had to follow the protocol on reporting early pregnancies especially if there was an evidence or suspicion of violence.  A reporting form was available and would soon become a part of an integrated case information system. 

A project in the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina this June would provide free cancer preventive screenings which would include those who did not have health insurance cover.  In Belgrade, a free screening for early cancer detection was organised.  This was done along with media campaigns that were broadcast on television.  Abortion was also covered under the National Health Fund. 

Questions from the Experts

In the next round of question, the Experts remarked on the fundamental inequality between men and women in agriculture, also expressed though the low number of land and farm holdings by women and lack of credit support systems favourable to women.  What was the impact of the National Programme of Rural Development 2018-2020?

Alternative sources had shown that there were discrepancies in the achievements for Roma women, and asked if there would be further comprehensive studies to assess Roma women’s aspirations and the enhancement of their rights.  What percentages of women with disabilities received access to schooling and employment? Further inquiries were made regarding major measures taken to respond to migration waves and internally displaced persons in Serbia.  This question was broadened to include issues of women’s security. 

Responses by the Delegation

The delegation explained that 11 associations were given grants for empowerment of rural women and a national conference on Rural Women as Equal Citizens of Serbia had been organised.  The Government supported initiatives to procure traditional arts and crafts which employed 580 women.  A part of the €2 million funds would be allocated to support non-governmental organizations for empowerment of women and female entrepreneurship in the rural areas, while gender responsive budgeting would provide gender disaggregated data and evidence on the gendered nature of the problems.

Regarding refugees and internally displaced persons, there was affirmative action as well as provision of housing and women accounted for 30 per cent of the applicants.  All children, including refugee and displaced children, had to attend school from 5.5 to 15 years of age. There were special schools for disabled persons but the number had been reduced as many had been converted into resource centres for schools; 4,779 students with disabilities were in such schools.  Women received 37 per cent of the 401 scholarships accorded to sportspersons, while there was a near-parity in the number of men and women medallists.

Questions from the Experts

Committee Experts noted that there were good results in the sphere of family but inheritance rights did not favour women.  Seven per cent of women married before the age of 18 with not much difference between rural and women settlements.  A large number of Roma minors lived in forced co-habitation and child mortality rates were really high, and less than one per cent of Roma lived beyond the age of 60.  The fact that it was not possible to register marriages and children without physically being present, signalled a failure in e-governance – what was being done to remedy this?  What kind of support for tackling child marriage was available?  What was the property rights regime in separation and divorce?  What were the possibilities for paid paternal and maternal leave, especially in cases of adoption?

Responses by the Delegation

The delegation explained that a controversial issue in the laws on family was the ways in which maternity leave was calculated.  Maternity leave benefits were guaranteed to everyone, and fathers had the right to parental leave.  The amendments to the Family Law would set the legal age of marriage at 18, while an amendment to criminal law was being envisaged to eliminate forced and child marriage and that would include co-habitation with a minor.  

There was no discrimination against women on the matter of inheritance in the law but there were traditional and cultural patterns where sons were prioritised over daughters.  The property acquired through marriage of co-habitation was considered joint property of the partners regardless of who owned the title. The court considered the work of women working on the farm, on childcare or household work as contribution to the household, a matter which was being deliberated upon. 

Serbia supported a project called Welcome Baby which provided for electronic registration of children at centres where they were born.  147,000 Roma minority persons lived in Serbia and unofficial field data suggested that this number was beyond 200,000.  Female health mediators managed to halve the mortality rates of Roma women, and helped over 30,000 Roma persons find access to health services.

Concluding Remarks

SUZANA PAUNOVIĆ, Director of the Human and Minority Rights Office of Serbia, in her concluding remarks, noted that the reporting process had improved due to the participation of various stakeholders.  Serbia was aware of the challenges to be faced in the future and would pay great attention to the Committee’s recommendations and link them to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. 

HILARY GBEDEMAH, Committee Chairperson, in her concluding remarks, congratulated the gains made by Serbia and encouraged the delegation to consider the recommendations for immediate follow within the deadline.


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