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Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women reviews the report of Guyana

Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination
against Women

12 July 2019

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women today examined the ninth periodic report of Guyana on its implementation of the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Amna Ally, Minister of Social Protection of Guyana, introducing the report, said that Guyana had worked tirelessly to implement the Convention and had made progress in gender equality and women’s empowerment despite financial and institutional constraints.  Legislative reforms and national legislation consistent with the objectives and purposes of the Convention had been made, including the enactment of the laws on domestic violence, prevention of discrimination, marriage act, sexual offences, and common law unions.  Two sexual offences courts had been established and had achieved 50 per cent conviction rates.  The principles of equality and non-discrimination were enshrined in the revised Constitution which guaranteed the fundamental rights and freedoms of all people living in the State, the Minister continued, and said that Guyana recognized its responsibility to remove legal gaps and eliminate discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.  During the 2011-2015 period, women occupied 33 per cent of seats in the National Assembly and in 2019, that figure had increased to 36 per cent.  Women represented 40 per cent of the members at the level of the Cabinet. 

In the dialogue that followed, Committee Experts welcomed Guyana’s recognition that the equal participation of women and men in all spheres of life and development was imperative to achieving a just, equitable, and prosperous society, and commended the significant increase in the number of female magistrates and the establishment of the specialized sexual offences courts.  They discussed the situation of indigenous women at length, urging the State party to engage more constructively with its indigenous peoples; revise the Amerindian Act in line with the principles and provisions of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and other international standards; ensure the implementation of the principle of free, prior, and informed consent; resolve the issue of non-recognition of collective land ownership; and strengthen their access to justice and basic services.  Experts remarked that women and girls were currently not protected from indirect and intersecting forms of discrimination in public and private spheres, and stressed the critical importance of a functional, well-structured, and well-resourced national gender machinery, and that this was quintessential to achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment goals. 

In her concluding remarks, Ms. Ally expressed hope that the delegation was able to respond to the very many concerns that had surfaced during the dialogue with the Committee. 

Hilary Gbedemah, Committee Chairperson, in her concluding remarks, commended Guyana for its efforts and urged it to pay particular attention to the Committee’s concluding observations that would be identified for immediate follow up.

The delegation of Guyana consisted of representatives of the Ministry of Social Protection, Ministry of Public Health, National Commission of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and the Permanent Mission of Guyana to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The Committee will issue the concluding observations on the report of Guyana at the end of its seventy-third session on 19 July.  Those, and other documents relating to the Committee’s work, including reports submitted by States parties, can be found on the session’s webpage.

The webcast of the Committee’s public meetings can be accessed at http://webtv.un.org/.

The Committee will reconvene on Friday, 19 July to publicly close its seventy-third session.

Report

The Committee has before it the ninth periodic report of Guyana (CEDAW/C/GUY/9).

Presentation of the Report

AMNA ALLY, Minister of Social Protection of Guyana, introducing the report, said that Guyana had worked tirelessly to implement the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and had made progress in gender equality and women’s empowerment despite financial and institutional constraints.  Legislative reforms and national legislation consistent with the objectives and purposes of the Convention had been made, including the enactment of the laws on domestic violence, prevention of discrimination, representation of peoples, combatting trafficking in persons, marriage act, sexual offences, and common law unions.  Two sexual offences courts had been established and had achieved 50 per cent conviction rates.  The penal system was working: police and officers were now being held accountable for crimes committed.  Guyana was aware of the remaining challenges, but remained committed to implementing the Convention and preserving the dignity of people.  The Committee’s concluding observations and recommendations guided the country in the legislative and policy reforms in order to guarantee the rights of all and the advancement of the status of women in Guyana, emphasized Ms. Ally.

The principles of equality and non-discrimination were enshrined in the revised Constitution which guaranteed fundamental rights and freedoms of all people living in the State, the Minister continued, and said that Guyana recognized its responsibility to remove legal gaps and eliminate discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.  The reform of human rights institutions was being prepared, under which the Human Rights Commission would be made more independent and empowered.  The national gender and social inclusion policy would provide strong leadership within institutions to ensure that a gender perspective was reflected in all its practices, programmes, and policies.  Guyana had been selected as one of the six beneficiary Caribbean countries of the Spotlight Initiative to end violence against women and girls; the country programme, to be funded to the tune of €4.5 million, would be finalized in November 2019.  The Minister denounced the recent attack on one of the leading lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer rights activists, and stressed that such an attack did not have a place in the society. 

The Representation of People Act allowed for the inclusive participation of women in decision-making processes as it stipulated that one third of the list of representatives of each political party in local and national elections must be women.  During the 2011-2015 period, women occupied 33 per cent of seats in the National Assembly and in 2019, that figure had increased to 36 per cent.  Women represented 40 per cent of the members at the level of the Cabinet.  Gender-based violence continued to represent a challenge, the Minister noted, and said that her country was the first in the Caribbean to establish a specialized court for sexual offences; the first had been launched in November 2017 and the second in May 2019.  Both had been set up in the regions where approximately 80 per cent of the population resided and measures were now being taken to set up more courts throughout the country.  Model guidelines for sexual offence cases had been developed, taking into account international standards and practices for the management of such cases, and training had been implemented for judges and public prosecutors.  A national plan of action for domestic and sexual violence had been finalized and an essential service package for survivors had been developed.  Initiatives to provide universal access to sexual and reproductive health remained a national priority and every effort was being made to ensure that investments in the public health system were geared towards improving service delivery. 

Fuelled by mega oil discoveries and the production that was set to hit close to one million barrels per day by mid-2025, Guyana was the first of the five fastest growing economies in the world.  Its economy was expected to grow by 33 per cent in 2020 and 222.9 per cent in 2021, which would have huge positive outcomes for the nation, said Ms. Ally in conclusion.    

Questions by Committee Experts

Stressing that the ratification of the Convention was useless without its robust implementation and access to justice for women, Committee Experts congratulated Guyana on the significant increase in the number of female magistrates and the establishment of the specialized sexual offences courts.  How were those courts and their services accessible to women with disabilities and to indigenous women in remote areas?  The Committee was looking forward to the amendments to the sexual offences act which was currently before the High Court and was experiencing important delays.  What was being done to expand access to free legal aid through the territory?

Collective land ownership had not been recognized, which had important consequences on the rights of indigenous women, the Experts noted with concern, and urged Guyana to engage more constructively with its indigenous peoples, and revise the Amerindian Act in line with the principles and provisions of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and other international standards, in particular the principle of free, prior, and informed consent.  Furthermore, Guyana should translate the Convention in indigenous languages and educate indigenous women about their rights.

The Experts took note of the projections for Guyana’s economic transformation and urged the country to ensure that social development and women’s rights would be a priority.

The Experts asked the delegation to explain the legal status of the Convention and remarked that there was currently no protection for women and girls from indirect and intersecting forms of discrimination in public and private spheres.  The definition of discrimination against women was not in line with article 1 of the Convention, they noted with concern, and asked about the status of the draft bill to amend this definition.  Consensual same-sex relationships were criminalized – when would a law be enacted to decriminalize such conduct and protect lesbian, trans and bisexual women from discrimination and violence?

Replies by the Delegation

With regard to judicial services for indigenous women, the delegation said that great improvement had been made since 2015.  For example, courts started visiting, on a quarterly basis, region 1 and region 9, both hinterland regions where most indigenous peoples resided.  The geography of the country did not allow for the regular presence of courts in the interior, explained the delegate, and stressed that the efforts to provide greater access to courts for indigenous women would continue.  There was also an intention to expand access to legal aid clinics across the country, keeping in mind the geography of the country.   A work plan had been developed based on the sexual offences act which was being used by the judges and magistrates, while the Chancellor and Chief Justice were very involved in the issue of gender-based violence and sexual offences.

The issue of land was a thorny one and had not gone unnoticed.  Guyana wanted to put in place a regulatory framework in indigenous lands and had established a Commission to regularize the distribution of land in interior locations; it was treating this issue as a priority.  There were areas where some progress had been made, but the efforts to this end would continue.

The promotion of and awareness raising about the Convention was an ongoing activity and more attention was being paid to promoting it in indigenous languages too.  Radio stations for hinterland regions had been established, thus facilitating communication with people living there.  The information about the Convention was included in the curricula in secondary schools and in the documents of the Amerindian Council; public service announcements about the Convention and how it benefitted women and men were being aired on different channels, including those for Amerindians.  The Ministry of Social Protection, which had the mandate for issues such as gender-based violence or human trafficking, was regularly educating and sensitizing its staff.  The content of the Convention was included in the national gender equality and social inclusion workshops conducted in the 10 administrative regions.  

Guyana believed in a level playing field and non-discrimination against any individual or group, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.  Programmes and collaboration were ongoing between the Government and the police and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex associations. 

Questions by Committee Experts

The Exerts welcomed Guyana’s recognition that the equal participation of women and men in all spheres of life and development was imperative to achieving a just, equitable, and prosperous society, and the setting up of the Women and Gender Equality Commission and Regional Women’s Affairs Committees as structural entities for advancing women’s rights.  Concern remained, however, that their capacity was constrained by fragmentation and the low level of resources, while gender had not been systematically mainstreamed into development strategies and there were indicators or data to measure the performance of gender equality and women’s empowerment efforts across the board.  Furthermore, there was no evidence of a gender responsive budgeting system.  All those pointed to the complexity of gender inequalities and the technical expertise required to deal with intersecting rights violations.  A functional, well-structured, and well-resourced national gender machinery was quintessential to achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment goals. 

How was Guyana using temporary special measures, in all their diversity, to correct historical injustice, reverse discrimination, achieve social justice, and accelerate the progress towards substantive gender equality?  What temporary special measures were in place for vulnerable groups of women, such as women with disabilities and indigenous women, as well as for women impacted by oil exploration and climate change?

Replies by the Delegation

On special temporary measures, the delegation explained that the budget of the sustainable livelihood entrepreneurial programme allowed for women in particular to organize themselves into groups, design their projects and apply for grants.  To date, $220 million had been allocated for the programme, and most had been used to fund activities in indigenous communities.  The Five Bs Programme, initiated by the President, provided buses, books, bicycles, board, and breakfast to children to increase school enrolment and retention, which had achieved extraordinarily results in remote and poor communities.  School feeding programmes had been set up in rural communities and were yielding important results; the programme would be expanded in the 2020 budget.  The Women’s Leadership Institute planned to expand the programme to include training on manufacturing and other issues, and would also allow access to men.

Gender mainstreaming had been recognized as key to achieving gender equality and had been included in the national action plan for the implementation of the gender and social inclusion policy, which was awaiting funding from the Caribbean Development Bank for its implementation.  Capacity-building activities of the Regional Women’s Affairs Committees were already ongoing to prepare them for the implementation of this national action plan.

Civil society to date had not identified a person to head the national human rights commission.

Questions by Committee Experts

More efforts were needed to challenge discriminatory stereotypes and so prevent gender-based violence, said the Experts, and asked whether media policy and cyber legislation had been adopted.  What subjects had been included in the revised curricula that aimed to eliminate gender stereotypes. and how were boys included?  Major obstacles remained in the implementation of laws against gender-based violence and domestic violence, including the capacity of the police and the coordination between different entities.  How were women included in the development of the national action plan against domestic violence, and when would this plan be ready for implementation?  What specific plans and timeline were in place for the expansion of sexual offence courts to other areas of the country?

Noting that Guyana was a source and destination country for trafficking in humans for sexual exploitation or forced labour, Committee Experts asked about the prosecution rate for perpetrators, whether the national action plan to combat trafficking in persons 2017-2018 would be extended, and the support, rehabilitation, and compensation available to victims.  What was the situation of the more than 60,000 Venezuelan refugees in Guyana?

Replies by the Delegation

The situation of Venezuelan migrants was an issue of great concern, the delegation said, adding that 20 families would soon receive significant support.  A task force comprised of all ministries had been set up to address the issue of the migrant population.  One of the programmes it had approved was “shock assistance for migrant families”. 

Men against violence groups had been set up, while the domestic violence and sexual offence division at the Ministry was available to provide the necessary training.  The approval of the media policy was expected in the next quarter. 

The national action plan against trafficking in persons 2019-2021 had been approved.  Victims of human trafficking were entitled to services such as shelter, health, and social services, return to school, and social assistance for the victims and their dependents.  The services were available in several languages, including English and Spanish.  The priority was to integrate them into the society, stressed the delegation.

Questions by Committee Experts

In the next round of questions, Committee Experts welcomed the act on the representation of people and raised concern that it did not provide guarantees that political parties would allocate seats to women on electoral lists.  What plans were there to adjust the electoral system to ensure the greater participation of women in Parliament and other elected positions, as recommended by the Carter Centre?  What was being done to expand childcare options for women engaged in public and political life?  Bearing in mind ethnic and religious animosities that were often stirred by elections, Guyana should revise the electoral system to go across the lines of divisions and comply with international standards.  The delegation was asked about the support available to women to enter into the diplomatic and foreign service, and the measures in place to promote the greater political participation of indigenous women.

The Experts commended Guyana’s humanitarian approach to receiving and hosting Venezuelans, including providing them with temporary stay permits that allowed them access to health and education services.  The birth registration rate of children under the age of five stood at 91 per cent – why were the other nine per cent not registered and what was being done to ensure that all children born in the county, including in remote and hinterland areas, were registered?  Was any data available on stateless indigenous peoples and stateless migrants, especially returning Guyanese and their descendants returning from Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of)?

Replies by the Delegation

The representation of women in Parliament had increased from 33 to 36 per cent and women held 40 per cent of Cabinet-level posts.  Guyana took note of the Carter Centre recommendations and said that it had an Electoral Committee in place.  A number of programmes had been developed to strengthen the capacity and skill of women to engage in politics, including on leadership.  The completion of child and families’ centres was nearing completion.

There were many women in the diplomatic corps.  Guyana believed in equal opportunities and inclusionary politics, and that all persons were equal regardless of their sex, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.

Questions by Committee Experts

The Experts congratulated Guyana on achieving gender parity in primary and secondary education, and the almost equal number of girls and boys who received scholarships.  The delegation was asked about the proportion of the national budget allocated to education, as well as the efforts undertaken to reduce the critical issue of school dropout, including for indigenous girls.  Did women and girls with disabilities have equal access to education, including mainstream education?  Did programmes to address early pregnancy involve working with parents to raise their awareness about the importance of education for their girls, as a measure to reduce the number of girls who married very young.

Replies by the Delegation

The Ministry of Social Protection had a unit dedicated to industrial training, while recently, the Kurukuru training complex for young people had been commissioned.  In the pipeline was a programme to engage people in technical and vocational education and training, both youth in school and individuals out of school.  There was no intention to put in place legislation on lesbian, trans and bisexual women.  Sixteen per cent of the national budget was dedicated to education.  The Government was opposed to corporal punishment and believed that there were other ways and means to educate children.  Since the new Government had taken office, priority had been attached to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education.  It was not possible to track how many indigenous girls and women graduated from university since data on race was not being systematically collected.

The principle of equal pay for equal work applied and salaries for professions did not distinguish between women and men.  Incidences of sexual harassment could be reported to the chief labour inspector.  The current mechanism had been reviewed and some gaps had been identified; a terms of reference had been recently drafted to prepare anti-harassment policy.

The National Commission for Disability received subventions, and several programmes for persons with disabilities were in place.  The national trust fund, managed by several ministries, provided grants to persons with disabilities to start up their businesses.

Currently, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education had started small initiatives for teen mothers or pregnant girls who attended teen clinics and their classes on basic life skills, pregnancy, and reproductive health; they also received care packages to help them prepare for motherhood.

Questions by Committee Experts

The Committee Experts commended the efforts to combat the transmission of HIV, but lack of focus on indigenous women as a vulnerable group was a concern, as was stigma against people living with HIV/AIDS.  Guyana had one of the highest suicide rates in the world - 44.2 out of 100,000 Guyaniens took their own life.  What measures were being taken to improve the mental health of the population, particularly migrant girls who reported the highest suicide rate?  Abortion was legal during the first eight weeks of pregnancy; after the first eight weeks, it was allowed only under very limited circumstances.

Indigenous women did not seem to always have access to identification documents, without which they could not access basic services or banking and financial services.  Many of the countries in Latin America faced complex decisions concerning the exploitation of natural resources, the Experts noted, and asked whether Guyana had evaluated the oil and gas extraction activities from an environmental point of view, their contribution to climate change, and the impact on indigenous peoples, and on the quality of water, air, land and forests.  What consultation mechanisms with indigenous peoples had been put in place and how were women involved in decision-making?  

Replies by the Delegation

Guyana had “never dropped the ball” as far as the HIV epidemic was concerned, and it continued to pursue efforts to control the transmission, even when the rates started declining.  Particular attention was thus being paid to youth and to eliminating stigma and discrimination.  The funding from the Global Fund was being used to support mothers living with HIV/AIDS, particularly in the interior and in the regions in which the prevalence among indigenous peoples was higher.

In 2017, a loan had been signed with the Inter-American Development Bank to fund activities aiming to reduce infant and maternal mortality rates.  Partnerships had been developed with universities in the United States, and home training programmes were ongoing to train obstetricians and other skilled personnel as a critical component in reducing infant and maternal mortality rates.  Still, the presence of skilled staff in the interior was not assured on a permanent basis, and many services were being provided through outreach.  The Ministry of Public Health had set up a mental health unit, which was delivering services through outreach.  A specific mental health programme targeting migrants was being developed. 

The school health club was a mechanism through which students and teachers were trained as peer educators; currently, clubs were active in six of the 10 regions and continued to deliver comprehensive reproductive health education.  The sexual and reproductive health policy had been presented to the Cabinet, and it prescribed activities to reduce the incidence of early pregnancies.

Questions by Committee Experts

In the final round of questions, Committee Experts regretted the ongoing discrimination against indigenous women which continued to prevent their advancement.  Were new measures being envisaged to engage proactively with indigenous women in their communities and ensure their participation in decision-making?  Education was a powerful tool that could enable rural women to participate in resolving their problems, thus it was essential that they had adequate access to quality education.  The unresolved problem of land continued to impede the progress, development, and advancement of indigenous women.

While there were no differences in equality between women and men before the law, access to justice for women and men was very unequal.  What measures were in place to allow indigenous women, women from remote areas, women with disabilities, and lesbian, trans and bisexual women access to justice?  According to a 2017 report by the United Nations Children’s Fund, 23 per cent of girls married before the age of 18 and four per cent before the age of 15.  The prevalence of child marriage with legal consent was very high, and nine per cent of adolescents aged 15 to 19 had given birth.    

Replies by the Delegation

The delegation stressed that there was no difference in participation in decision-making between women in the interior or those on the coast.  Lack of participation might be due to lack of popularity.  Every effort was being made to improve women’s access to justice, but it would take a long time, said the delegation.

Child marriage was an old and very troubling concern that had been addressed through various approaches, including educating families, educating girls, or engaging religious institutions.  One organization that worked with adolescent mothers had many sad stories about girls impregnated by their fathers or stepfathers.  Guyana would not stop to work on reducing the practice because it was wrong and it was unacceptable.  Persons under the age of 16 were not allowed to be legally married.  A mechanism was in place to report all births by girls under the age of 16 and perpetrators were prosecuted.  Child protection was everybody’s business - that was the slogan of the Child Protection Agency, which operated a 24-hour helpline for children and where any abuse of children could be reported.

Guyana was facing many challenges in the new context and the commitments made in the framework of the Paris Agreement, a delegate said, stressing that Guyana was one of the very few countries in the world which had adopted a Green State Development Strategy.  Additionally, it was participating in the programme of action for a green economy, a collaboration between the United Nations Environmental Programme and 13 countries around the world in an effort to ensure that their nationally determined contributions under the Paris Agreement were realized. 

Guyana had managed to successfully balance the green economy and the brown economy and had put in place policies that committed all institutions and State activities within the framework of the green economy and its international environmental commitments.  Furthermore, it was one of the very few countries in which all Government expenditures and investments were evaluated through “green lenses”.  Guyana was well aware of the risks involved with the brown economy and the disproportionate impact of climate change and the brown economy on the rights of women.  Efforts were being deployed to support communities and population groups that needed help.

Concluding Remarks

AMNA ALLY, Minister of Social Protection of Guyana, in her concluding remarks, expressed hope that the delegation was able to respond to the very many concerns that had surfaced during the dialogue with the Committee. 

HILARY GBEDEMAH, Committee Chairperson, in her concluding remarks, thanked the delegation and invited Guyana to accept an amendment to article 20, paragraph 1, of the Convention concerning the Committee’s meeting time.  The Chair commended Guyana for its efforts and urged it to pay particular attention to the Committee’s concluding observations that would be identified for immediate follow up.

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