United Nations: Reconciling Tradition With Progress Main Challenge For Vanuatu’s Women, Anti-Discrimination Committee Told
Vanuatu, a culturally and linguistically diverse Pacific island State admitted to the United Nations in 1981, reported to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women today that it found itself at odds with traditional political and cultural systems and processes and, as such, Vanuatu’s women faced the challenge of reconciling tradition with progress.
Presenting the country’s combined initial, second and third periodic report was Isabelle Donald Sikawonuta, Minister for Justice and Social Welfare. She conceded that, in the process of nation building, Vanuatu’s Government was challenged by the cultural dominance of men in its society. Nevertheless, the Government was committed to sustained growth and development through the improved participation of women in decision-making roles. However, it felt that progress and development needed to be managed in such a way so that it did not erode or undermine traditional systems and practices that protected women and children.
Access to improved health services and education across the 80 inhabited islands remained priorities for women, she said. While maternal and infant mortality had been significantly reduced, strengthening maternal health services was another key priority. Progress had been made towards eliminating gender disparity in tertiary education. Although the Constitution afforded equal rights to women and men, the Government continued to encourage institutions to establish and/or review mechanisms for promoting and enhancing the status of women.
Vanuatu was committed to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, having ratified it without reservations in 1995, she said. In December 2006, the Parliament ratified the Convention’s Optional Protocol, which allows individual women from the State party to bring complaints about discriminatory laws or practices to the Committee after exhausting all local remedies, and she had personally deposited the instrument of ratification to the United Nations yesterday.
She said that during compilation of the present report, there had been calls for more vigorous action from Government to improve women’s status. As a result, she had hosted the first ever National Women’s Forum in August 2006, which had resulted in the National Plan of Action for Women 2007-2011. Progress had been slow in getting women into decision-making roles in public life, but recent appointments of women by the Government had included the Public Prosecutor and of two senior-level civil servants to the Recruitment Panel for executives.
During the day-long exchange in which several experts underscored tension existing between the Convention, the Constitution, and customary law, Committee Chairperson and expert from Croatia, Dubravka Simonovic, said that when a country ratified the Convention without any reservation, it was the obligation of the Government to harmonize national laws with the treaty. Now, with the additional step of having ratified the Optional Protocol, giving all women the chance to challenge discriminatory laws, it was extremely important for Vanuatu to study how that instrument would operate at the national level. It was up to the lawyers in the country to see how to proceed as soon as possible with changes and ensure that all laws were in compliance with the Convention.
Experts expressed concern that “custom shadowed everything” in the island State. One said she recognized the value of original culture and that the position of women in Vanuatu was different from what it had become under colonization and the missionary influence. However, many countries had moved away from those stereotypical roles, and article 5 of the Convention had asked the State party to modify them. While culture and tradition were important sources of identity for Vanuatu’s people, the country should sort out what was a valuable cultural source of identity and what was discriminatory and harmful to some in the society, particularly women. There were ways to separate what constructed cultural identity from what deconstructed it and discriminated against women.
With 79 per cent of the population of roughly 200,000 living in rural or remote areas, several questions centred on what measures the Government envisaged to provide support to women there. Access to health care facilities was of particular concern, given the high levels of asthma and respiratory illness, owing to the type of smoke-producing cooking fuels used. One expert, noting that disabled women and children and the elderly in rural areas were the most deprived segment of the rural communities, asked if there was a comprehensive plan to improve the lives of rural people and plans to provide the health clinics with more equipment and medicines, as well as qualified doctors and nurses.
A member of the delegation drew attention to a draft amendment to the Environment Act, which would deal with the effects of the smoke resulting from the use of cooking fuel. As for the health system, another explained that it was classified into four levels: provincial hospitals, health centres, dispensary and village aid post. There were 200 or so village posts in the rural areas where primary health care services were provided. There were qualified nurses and doctors, but there might not be enough doctors to “man” all facilities. The village centres were run by village health workers who had received 12 weeks of training. There were also mobile clinics that visited mothers and children.
Also participating in Vanuatu’s delegation were: Myriam Abel, Director General, Ministry of Health; Dudley Aru, Acting Attorney General; Hilda Taleo, Director, Department of Women’s Affairs; John Niroa, Director of Secondary, Technical and Further Education, Ministry of Education; and Marilyn Tahi, Executive Director of Vanuatu Women’s Centre.
The Committee will meet again in a formal meeting on Tuesday, 22 May at 10 a.m., to consider Pakistan’s combined initial, second and third periodic report.
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met today to take up Vanuatu’s combined initial, second and third periodic report (CEDAW/C/VUT/1-3).
Heading Vanuatu’s delegation was Isabelle Donald Sikawonuta, Minister for Justice and Social Welfare. Also participating in the delegation were: Myriam Abel, Director General, Ministry of Health; Dudley Aru, Acting Attorney General; Hilda Taleo, Director, Department of Women’s Affairs; John Niroa, Director of Secondary, Technical and Further Education, Ministry of Education; and Marilyn Tahi, Executive Director of Vanuatu Women’s Centre.
Introduction of Report
Introducing her country’s report, ISABELLE DONALD SIKAWONUTA, Minister for Justice and Social Welfare of Vanuatu, said that with a population of some 219,000 -- of which women comprised about 49 per cent -- Vanuatu was a country of considerable beauty and diversity. Since its independence in 1980, the Government had worked hard to improve the lives of its people through sustainable economic growth and improved incomes, while also conserving resources for future generations. The vast distances between the 80 inhabited islands, as well as a lack of dependable transportation and communication facilities, continued to impede development initiatives. Some 80 per cent of the population depended on the traditional economy for their livelihood, to which women contributed substantially.
Vanuatu, like other Pacific island States, faced the challenges of amalgamating old and new systems of governance, she continued. In the process of nation building, Vanuatu’s Government had found itself at odds with male-dominated traditional political and cultural systems and processes. The Government, however, was committed to sustained growth and development through the improved participation of women in decision-making roles. One of the challenges facing Vanuatu’s women today was the constant need to reconcile tradition and progress so that they could take their place in society. Progress and development needed to be managed in such a way so that it did not erode or undermine traditional systems and practices that supported and protected women and children.
Access to improved health services and education continued to be priorities for women, she said. Progress had been made towards eliminating gender disparity in tertiary education. While maternal and infant mortality had been significantly reduced, tackling challenges in strengthening maternal health services was a key priority. Although the Constitution afforded equal rights to women and men, the Government continued its efforts to encourage institutions to establish and/or review mechanisms for promoting and enhancing the status of women.
Highlighting some key developments since the report’s completion in 2005, she noted that it had taken her country some time to provide the Committee with its initial report. Vanuatu was, however, committed to the Convention, having ratified it without reservations in 1995. In December 2006, the Parliament had ratified the Convention’s Optional Protocol, which had been published on 5 February 2007 in the Government’s official gazette. She had personally deposited the instrument for ratification to the United Nations Treaty Section yesterday.
During compilation of the present report, there had been calls for more vigorous action from Government to improve the status of women, she said. As a result, she had hosted the Government’s first ever “National Women’s Forum” for one week in August 2006, which had resulted in the “National Plan of Action for Women 2007-2011. The Forum would be held every four years. While acknowledging that progress had been slow in getting women into decision-making roles in public life, the Government was committed to appointing women into senior positions, as seen in the recent appointment of the Public Prosecutor and the appointment of two senior women civil servants to the Recruitment Panel for all executive positions.
Noting that Vanuatu was going to the polls in 2008, she said positive steps were being taken to increase public awareness and understanding of the democratic processes and how women’s input could bring about better balance in Government and improved outcomes for women and children. The Government, in collaboration with the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), was providing voter education, leadership training and civic education. In the April 2007 elections in Luganville, a woman had won a seat in the municipal election and had been appointed Deputy Lady Mayor. The Government continued to assist the Vanuatu Women’s Development Scheme (VANWODS), a microfinance institution targeting women, in its efforts to expand.
She noted that the Parliamentary Committee, established in 2006 to receive public comments on the family protection bill, was currently progressing with its activities with a view to passing the bill later this year. A workshop had been held in December 2006 for all members of Parliament on the bill. In 2005, the National Council of Chiefs had revoked the 80,000 vatu bride price. They had, however, maintained the traditional forms of bride price.
In its ongoing efforts to improve the status of women, the Government’s recent activities included enhancing existing mechanisms for gender mainstreaming. In 2006, the Ministry of Education had launched a leadership training programme for women in senior positions in education and had appointed one female to a director position. In 2006, the Penal Code Act had been amended to provide the definitions of sexual intercourse and make them more inclusive. Amendments to the Citizenship Act had also been initiated.
“The Vanuatu Government was committed to improving the status of women,” she said. “We face considerable challenges in our endeavours, but we believe our work will continue to enhance and eventually empower women so that they can enjoy their fundamental human rights and participate in all spheres of life on an equal basis with men”, she said.
Experts’ Comments and Questions
FERDOUS ARA BEGUM, expert from Bangladesh, asked a series of questions about the property rights of women, noting the statement that property rights and inheritance rights were governed by national legislation and customary law. The delegation had stated that women were involved in all discussions about land use; but what about ownership? Vanuatu ratified the Convention without reservation and had incorporated it into its laws. Now the treaty was binding on the country. When would amendments be made to allow women equal rights as men to land ownership, as per the Convention’s demands?
As for discriminatory laws against women, under Vanuatu’s gender equality policy, of the 208 laws under review, 12 had been found to be discriminatory to women. When would the Government take the initiative to revise and abolish those laws? She also asked for more details about citizenship.
CORNELIUS FLINTERMAN, expert from the Netherlands, said he was not fully clear about the status of the Convention in the domestic legal order. He asked whether the treaty could be invoked directly, and, if so, whether it prevailed over national legislation. He also asked whether the treaty’s provisions were applied when they were in conflict with domestic law. It was possible for women to bring complaints to the Committee, but that implied that the issue of local remedies was even more important and he was not sure about the accessibility of those remedies within the legal order.
Noting that one important obligation of a State party to the Convention was that States must provide effective protection against any act of discrimination by tribunals or other judicial organs, he pointed to tension between the Constitution, Convention and customary laws. Which prevailed?
MARIA REGINA TAVARES DA SILVA, expert from Portugal, said that the Convention was about equality and not about equity and fairness only. Fairness was “very nice, but it’s not enough”. The report mentioned a list of measures in various areas, but very little evaluations. There were a lot of gaps in the answers, indicative of a certain level of passivity regarding the evaluation process. For example, in the education policy, the report said it was not known what aspects had been implemented. Also, no study had been undertaken to address the economic difficulties of women. Nor was it known what steps had been taken to encourage women to enter non-traditional occupations, or steps taken to address teenage pregnancy. The lack of information seemed to show a detached attitude about the Government’s responsibility. She sought a more proactive attitude on the part of the Government.
Turning to preparation of the report, HEISOO SHIN, expert from the Republic of Korea, asked about the responses and differences of opinion between women and men during the workshops that had been set up to draft the report. Had there been any lessons learned from those responses. Had the definition of discrimination been explained and understood? Had there been any discussions about what that meant? That was important because the Convention’s article 2 required that legislation enshrined that principle of non-discrimination, and so far, there was no law in Vanuatu that included the definition of discrimination against women. The delegation had referred to attempts made to ensure gender neutrality, but the Convention guaranteed non-discrimination, both direct and indirect. So although the laws could be neutral, there could be indirect discrimination. Had the latter concept been addressed?
FUMIKO SAIGA, expert from Japan, also drew attention to the tension among the Constitution, customary law and the Convention. She asked what the Government intended to do to abolish discriminatory customs and about the procedure for amending acts.
DUBRAVKA SIMONOVIC, Committee Chairperson and expert from Croatia, expressed concern about the Convention being used for interpretation rather than for direct application. It was important, especially in the initial report, to understand the legal position of the Convention, specifically whether it was applied directly or incorporated through national legislation. She sought clarification on the legal position of the treaty. On the report’s preparation, she said it was comprehensive and transparent, and had included non-governmental organizations. She suggested that the Government also consider involving parliamentarians and other levels of society because it was important to have high visibility in the reporting process and for implementation of the Committee’s concluding comments.
Responding to the first round of questions, a member of the delegation noted that amendments to the Constitution had been discussed for some time, and parliamentary committees had been set up to examine them. To date, however, the committees had not brought the amendments before Parliament. Once their reports were finalized, they would come before Parliament for debate. The Law Reform Commission had been established by a parliamentary act, and its members were to be appointed by the Minister of Justice. No appointments had been made yet, however. The Government was currently considering the matter. The proposed amendments to the Citizenship Act had been looked at by the relevant commission, but had yet to come before Parliament for debate.
Concerning the Convention’s status, he said that while Vanuatu had ratified the Convention, it now needed the domestic law to enforce its provisions in national legislation. Regarding access to remedies under the law, citizens had the right under the Constitution to apply to the Supreme Court if they felt that their rights were being infringed. Direct remedies were available through the court system. As the supreme law of the land, the Constitution prevailed in the case of conflict between the Constitution and customary law, as well as between the Constitution and domestic law enacted to implement the Convention’s provisions. Regarding a definition of discrimination, the Constitution prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex, race or religion. A specific definition of discrimination in the Convention’s terms had not been provided, however.
Another member of the delegation noted that in 2006, the first National Women’s Forum had reviewed the critical areas of concern for women. Discussions had commenced on the issue of discriminatory legislation. While the Constitution provided for equality before the law for men and women, further work was needed in the area of attitudes. The Government had started awareness-raising activities, not only for the Government but also for non-State actors, including through the formal education system.
Regarding the process for amending legislation, another member of the delegation noted that if specific legislation required amendment, the policy behind that amendment needed to be developed by the ministry concerned. Once a policy was developed, it needed to be brought before the Council of Ministers for approval. Once that approval was given, instructions were given to the Attorney General to begin drafting the amendments. Once the drafting was done, the draft bill had to be put before the Cabinet for approval. Once the Cabinet approved the draft bill, it was forwarded to Parliament for debate. Once passed, it was forward to the President, who then assented to the act. Once presidential assent was given, the act was referred to the state law office. It did not come into force until published in the official gazette.
Another member added that discussions had started on the issue of property rights. Training for judges and officials on the issue had been held.
Experts’ Questions and Comments
MARY SHANTHI DAIRIAM, expert from Malaysia, stressed the need for a holistic action plan for the advancement of women. In reading the report, she noted the 1996 action plan for the 12 critical areas relating to the Beijing Platform of Action. In 1997, however, a gender equity policy had been formulated with nine benchmarks in recognition of the lack of a clear policy on women. Why had that deficit not been recognized when the Convention had been ratified in 1995? It seemed that plans for the Beijing Platform for Action, the Millennium Development Goals and the Convention were seen as parallel commitments and not as commitments within a unified human rights framework with the Convention serving to provide the legal normative standards. If one saw the Convention in that way, separate plans were not needed. It did not appear to her that the Convention had played a part in providing the framework. The nine benchmarks needed to be developed in a framework that promoted equality, eliminated discrimination and reformed the structures through which discrimination could be eliminated. One dimension of those structures would be to meet the challenge of amalgamating old and new legal systems.
VIOLETA NEUBAUER, expert from Slovenia, said she had been impressed with the evidence since 1982 of political commitment at the highest level to work towards women’s full and equal participation in local and national affairs. In 1997, the Government had sent a strong political message by adopting the nine benchmarks under the gender equality policy. On the other hand, when looking at national mechanisms in the country, there was an absolute lack of necessary resources and capacities for national mechanisms for the promotion of women and the achievement of gender equality. The Department for Women’s Affairs needed to rely on donations, despite the yearly budget allocated to it. Financial constraints were a barrier to establishing units of the Department at the provincial level. Did the Government intend to overcome those barriers to achieve the plans it had committed to develop?
SAISUREE CHUTIKUL, expert from Thailand, asked if it was true that there had not been a systematic evaluation of the nine benchmarks or goals of 1997. If that was so, then on what basis was the national action plan for women formulated? Within the new plan, she urged the Government to include indicators for monitoring progress. She also sought more details about the action plan itself.
On the national mechanism, she noted that the Department of Women’s Affairs was situated within the Ministry of Justice and Social Welfare and that a suggestion had emanated from the National Women’s Forum to restructure that –- to have a separate ministry of women’s affairs. She wished to know the delegation’s reaction to that. She also wanted to know more about the Ombudsman’s office, and to whom the women complained under the Convention’s Optional Protocol.
MAGALYS AROCHA DOMINGUEZ, expert from Cuba, posed a series of questions about the financing of the national mechanism. She noted that, while funding had increased in the past three years, voluntary funding was received from other countries, such as Canada and New Zealand. She asked whether foreign funding supported specific programmes that did not necessarily coincide with the country’s priorities, but with the donors’ interests instead. She also wanted to know how the Government reconciled the differing priorities among all the territories.
Ms. SHIN, expert from the Republic of Korea, also focusing on the national plan of action, asked how it would be implemented. She also asked about data collection, specifically how the office of the Ombudsman dealt with complaints when they were not disaggregated by gender. Could that office divide the data into men’s and women’s complaints? Like previous experts, she also asked about the financing of the national mechanism.
A member of the delegation said that the national action plan had flowed from the Women’s Forum, which had brought together women from all parts of the country. The plan was awaiting further documentation in June, and it would then be disseminated to the various stakeholders, including the Government ministries and non-State actors, to encourage their assistance in its implementation. The action plan was “too big” for the national machinery to implement alone. Women gathered at the Forum had called on the Government to look into further assisting the Department of Women’s Affairs in getting more resources and to include in its mandate, not just policy-making, but implementation as well.
She said that the women had also called for offices to be set up in the provinces and for a strengthening of the gender focal points within each ministry. There were a lot of constraints in terms of capacity and resources, but the focal points were an area where progress could be made within each ministry to incorporate a gender perspective within each Government sector. The budgets would soon be submitted for 2008, and upon the delegation’s return to Vanuatu, the national action plan would be submitted to the ministries. Each ministry could then include in their budget all required activities under the plan, which contained about 400 recommendations. Those could not be carried out at once, but, hopefully, with the expansion of the Department, there would be better mechanisms, not only for implementation, but also for improved monitoring of progress across the whole of the Government, she said.
Another member of the delegation addressed his responses to questions about the Ombudsman Act. The Ombudsman received all complaints from men and women about actions of the Government. The delegate did not presently know how many had been received by women as compared to men. The country did not have a national human rights commission, he said in response to another question.
Experts’ Comments and Questions
HANNA BEATE SCHÖPP-SCHILLING, expert from Germany, congratulated the Government on employing temporary special measures, but said there seemed to be some misunderstanding about their nature as compared to general policies for women. Vanuatu was not alone in that misunderstanding. She advised the delegation to study the Committee’s general recommendation 25, which explained the difference between general policy and temporary special measures, or affirmative action, which was specific preferential treatment of women for a limited period of time in order to overcome past discrimination.
She then asked to what extent the political parties had taken up the idea of temporary special measures in nominating women candidates or taking up a quota system. She asked a number of questions about female scholarships and the application of temporary special measures for girls in technical and vocational training.
A member of delegation said there had been informal discussions with the political party representatives on voluntary quotas for women, and in 2006, there had been a quota awareness workshop, which brought together the heads of political parties. Subsequently, a committee was set up to further consider the matter. That committee was still collecting information on that. Research would continue on that topic in the short term, and in the long term, legislation would likely be considered, she said.
On the question of scholarships, another member of the delegation cited several statistics for males and females, adding, however, that he lacked comprehensive data presently as to how many women were entering technical areas. Last year, consultations had taken place to evolve an education programme. The decisions that had resulted were for all policies to include gender equity and make provisions for students with special needs across all the provinces. Hopefully, a strategic plan for education would be elaborated before the end of the year.
GLENDA SIMMS, expert from Jamaica, responding to the comment by the delegation that progress must not “erode” traditional systems that supported and protected women, noted that article 5 of the Convention committed the State party to modify social and cultural patterns. As most traditional practices had been developed by men, it was necessary to identify which practices inherently promoted women’s rights. While the chiefs had revoked the 80,000 vatu bride price, they had maintained traditional forms of bride price, such as payment in cattle, pigs and traditional mats. She suggested that the Government remove not only the monetary aspect of bride price, but also the provision of pigs and cattle. Non-governmental organizations were important to the process. Did the Government support them? The Government needed to articulate which traditions were positive and which were negative.
DORCAS COKER-APPIAH, expert from Ghana, said that in view of the long delay in moving the family protection bill forward and given customary attitudes regarding traditional familial roles, how could the Government assure the Committee that the bill would be passed into law later this year? The procedure for applying for protection under the bill appeared quite cumbersome. Was it easily accessible for ordinary women in Vanuatu? Was free legal aid provided for those who could not afford lawyers when applying for protection orders?
Regarding the issue of the bride price, she said it was known that the institution of marriage was one of the social institutions under which women appeared subordinated. Having a form of payment reinforced women’s subordinate position. There was a need, therefore, to reconsider the customary bride price.
Ms. TAVARES DA SILVA, expert from Portugal, said the report contained some extraordinary statements in regard to the prevalence of negative stereotypes in Vanuatuan society. That was also reflected in the consideration of rape or assault as crimes against morality and the lenient sentencing of offences. A comprehensive strategy to address the matter was necessary and urgent. What did the Government intend to do to further accelerate the cultural change required by article 5 of the Convention?
FRANÇOISE GASPARD, expert from France, congratulated the Government for the quality and sincerity of the report. Stereotypes and negative prejudices against women had consequences in all areas of public and private life. They also led to the masking of direct and indirect discrimination against women, and explained the failure to react to violence against women and the difficulty they had in accessing decision-making positions. Noting reluctance on the part of women to criticize men, she noted that women were often criticized by men, especially in the field of politics. Women must be able to do the same. A global strategy was needed to address stereotypes.
Responding to questions on the issue of custom, a member of the delegation noted that in the preamble of Vanuatu’s Constitution, the founding fathers had recognized Melanesian traditional values as a way of life for Vanuatu prior to its independence in 1980. One conflict between old and new was the payment of bride price. The cash element of bride price had been removed, but the customary exchange of gifts remained as part of the country’s culture.
On the issue of protection orders, another speaker explained that the court fee was 3,000 vatu. The legal system was easily accessible. Women applied to magistrate courts. They could also apply through the police, the legal aid system and women’s courts. Friends of the victims’ families and employers of the victim could apply on a woman’s behalf. Legal aid was also available.
SAISUREE CHUTIKUL, expert from Thailand, asked if research had been conducted on the issue of trafficking in women. Had the Government ratified the United Nations Protocol on the suppression of trafficking in persons? If not, would it consider doing so? She also wondered if it would consider using the document of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights regarding the protection of victims in cases of trafficking. Trafficking was linked to poverty, violence against women, educational opportunities and gender discrimination. She hoped the Women’s Affairs Department would consider that target group in the plan of action. Prevention measures could be initiated at the local level, including changing attitudes and values of employers.
Mr. FLINTERMAN, expert from the Netherlands, said that while the Government knew that prostitution existed, it had not conducted any research on the nature of prostitution. He was disappointed to read that no future study was planned on finding alternative economic solutions to the issue of prostitution. Did the Government envision the collection of information in order to provide a proper policy on the elimination of prostitution?
Responding, a member of the delegation noted that at the moment, the strategy on women’s economic empowerment focused on microfinance for disadvantaged women. Once the programme was developed, however, she hoped it would be able to focus on specific groups.
ZOU XIAOQIAO, expert from China, asked how the Government had evaluated the situation when plans had yet to be implemented. Also, did the Government have any intention to reconsider past plans with the addition of new policies and plans for implementation that were feasible? She also wished to know whether there were any plans to train Government officials in the field of women’s equality so as to raise the willingness of women to participate in political life. Did the Government have any plans to eliminate the still discriminatory environment for women in politics so as to establish an enabling environment for them?
MERIEM BELMIHOUB-ZERDANI, expert from Algeria, said, “It is high time for Vanuatu to give a position to women”. The country unreservedly supported the Convention and had entered no reservations to the Optional Protocol, meaning that it gave importance to the treaty and to international law as being higher than domestic law. Given that, she was “astonished” that in Vanuatu so many rights were “taken away from women who give so much to this country”.
She noted that the Constitution still did not give women many opportunities. Land was governed by customary law and could not be given to women. Women had to “reach” Parliament in order to change things there. Matters had to change through the will of those who wrote the Constitution and the laws. The delegation had said that it had begun work on a law on quotas and had held a meeting on that in November 2006. There had to be quotas; there had to be a minimum representation of women in Parliament of 30 per cent, and even more in Vanuatu. The Government had to be proactive. “We want progress in Vanuatu,” she urged.
A member of the delegation focused on the issue of training, saying the Government understood the crucial need to educate women to create the demand for better governance.
On land, she said it was neither owned by men nor women in the traditional sense; it was community owned. However, since land had become a commodity that could be sold, it tended to be owned more by men than by women. That was a subject discussed considerably at the National Land Summit held in 2006, and the subsequent recommendations had stressed that women needed to be consulted in that regard. Land tribunals were being set up, and the view was that women must be part of those. So, some land reforms were under way.
On a quota system, there had been a quota forum in November 2006, and the general feeling had emerged that it was “not culturally appropriate right now” in the legislation for there to be quotas, but work would continue with the political parties to have voluntary quotas, and a committee had been set up to consider proposed legislation. The immediate recommendation, however, was for political parties to “look around” for potential women candidates.
Experts’ Comments and Questions
FUMIKO SAIGA, expert from Japan, posed a few questions about the Ombudsman. She also wished to know the content of the proposed citizenship amendment.
Ms. GASPARD, expert from France, said that the transfer of nationality to the children was “an old fight for women”. She had been astonished, upon reading the report, that the Government had for a long time envisaged reversing discriminatory legislation. Why had it taken so long? What were the obstacles to work that began eight years ago? She wished to be reassured that there would be compliance with the Convention’s article 9, which concerned nationality.
A member of the delegation said that the Government had its own legislative agenda for each year and it had many other amendments before it, such as ones concerning development issues. All amendments still had to come before Parliament, just as the citizenship proposal would, for enactment.
Experts’ Comments and Questions
Ms. SIMMS, expert from Jamaica, said that the issue of girls’ education challenged all the goals because girls needed to be educated to their fullest potential. Some ideas about the role of women, as detailed in the report, suggested that women occupied traditional roles in Vanuatu. That, in turn, suggested that more female role models were needed, “who have broken the frontiers of non-traditional areas”. Those should be brought into primary schools especially, and into rural areas, to poor people’s children. They should see people like themselves who had broken frontiers. The Government had to try very creative strategies. Instead, it seemed that teachers continued to do “chalk and talk”, but some more innovative ways were needed to move the country from its “ Third World” status into real development. She encouraged the delegation to look carefully at education.
Ms. DOMINGUEZ, expert from Cuba, said that it was difficult in a country with a dispersed population to guarantee universal coverage. However, she agreed that education was an essential way to change women’s position in society. On the plan to create boarding houses and secondary schools separated by gender, she said she understood why the boarding houses would be separate, but not why the schools would have to be separate, concerned that that would reinforce stereotypes. Were boys and girls educated differently? What concrete training measures were being employed for teachers to change the educational system?
Ms. XIAOQIAO, expert from China, said she appreciated efforts to improve the literacy levels, but she pressed the delegation about whether there were any plans for free and compulsory education so that all children, including girls, would attend school. According to the report, some girls dropped out because of economic problems. The report had provided no information, however, as to whether reforms had taken place to eliminate stereotyping from textbooks, curricula, teacher training, and so forth.
Noting the reference in the report that teenagers were becoming sexually active at a very young age, but not using contraceptives, SILVIA PIMENTEL, expert from Brazil, asked what they were being taught about HIV/AIDS. Specifically, she wanted to know about health and sex education in the classroom. Also, would the Government make resources available to finance technical training for girls and other forms of non-formal education, especially in rural areas, particularly since, according to the report, 80 per cent of women in Vanuatu found it difficult to send their daughters to school because education was so expensive? Like the previous expert, she asked whether the Government would declare that education was free so that more girls would have access to it.
A member of the delegation said that the Government, through the Education Ministry, provided education that was for all. As for whether special care was given to women and girls, that would be dealt with through the national action plan for women. On the issue of separate schools, there had been no substantial discussion to go ahead with that until a proper report was made on how that would make a substantial difference. That required further research, he said.
He said there were women teachers in secondary schools, but he agreed that there needed to be more examples of role models in rural areas. It was true that there were more female teachers in primary schools and kindergartens. It was difficult finding women for secondary and even primary schools, in part, because they did not really attain leadership roles in education, such as principals. That situation was still “not as you would like it to be”, he said.
As for reforming the curricula and textbooks to make them more “friendly” to females, he said that was a “big area” to be dealt with in the education sector strategy. The Director General had just appointed a task force to deal with those areas. As for textbooks, he acknowledged that there was still a difficulty in the country’s capacity to produce its own textbooks, both in terms of financial and human resources, but that was another area in the strategy.
Regarding compulsory and free education, he said that more females were enrolling in schools, and starting this year, basic education had been extended from one to six years, to year eight: “That’s what we can manage at the moment financially.” However, free and compulsory education was only to year six, as some boarding fees were paid during years seven and eight, he explained. As for HIV education in schools, there was science education in schools.
A member of the delegation noted that the Ministry of Health worked with the Ministry of Education to carry out awareness-raising programmes in the schools, including on sexual and reproductive education.
Experts’ Questions and Comments
PRAMILA PATTEN, expert from Mauritius, asked if there was any plan to amend the Employment Act to impose penalties on employers who did not give time to nursing mothers. She asked for more information on the Act, including when it had entered into force. Did the Act include a provision to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of marital status and family responsibilities? What mechanism was in place to ensure that the private sector respected the labour legislation? On occupational segregation, what efforts were being taken to promote women’s equal participation in senior management positions in highly skilled jobs?
RUTH HALPERIN-KADDARI, expert from Israel, said the legal framework of the labour legislation had not been very clear. The report did not mention what the Act would include. She was not clear on very basic issues. Would it contain, for example, a provision for equal pay for work of equal value? Regarding inspections and enforcement by the Labour Department against discrimination on the basis of marital status and motherhood, she asked if that had started and whether it would concentrate on mothers being given time to nurse their babies. Would the workers compensation bill cover the informal sector? Was data available on the ranks and positions of women in the governmental sector?
A member of the delegation said the Employment Act was a general act covering the country’s employment issues. The Act specifically prohibited sexual discrimination in the workplace. Maternity rights were also provided for in the Act, including maternity leave and compensation. He had noted questions on proposed amendments and would provide more information in that regard. On the issue of legal aid, the office of the Public Solicitor provided assistance to the needy through the courts.
Another speaker noted that different organizations were providing literacy programmes for women. Regarding the ranks and position of women in the governmental sector, she noted that the Government had established human resources offices in all agencies. Things were getting better in terms of women’s standing in the Government. One third of Government workers were women. Their salary was lower than that of men, however, as they occupied lower ranking jobs. While women were aware of their rights, economic factors often prohibited their access to those rights.
On workers compensation, a draft for such legislation was currently being discussed, another member of the delegation said. Once completed, the draft would be finalized for Parliament. He hoped it would go before Parliament by the end of the year. The Employment Act provided for an office of the commissioner for labour, through which employees could register their complaints.
Ms. DAIRIAM, expert from Malaysia, stressed the need for data regarding women’s health, especially in terms of protecting young people from sexually transmitted diseases, HIV/AIDS and unplanned pregnancy. It was important to know why young girls were unable to use contraception. Did the Government plan to address the problem? In that regard, she encouraged the Government to consider providing a comprehensive plan that would enable young girls to refuse sex and have more confidence in themselves. As an advisory body, did the National Council on Women discuss the issue of women’s health with the Government?
Ms. PIMENTEL, expert from Brazil, said it was well known that some religions impeded the implementation of public policy, mainly in the area of reproductive health. How did the Government handle that issue? Encouraging careful consideration of the Convention’s general recommendation 24 on women’s health, she also asked for information on the assistance provided to older women, including access to health services that addressed the disabilities associated with ageing. What plans did the Government have to improve health services for women, particularly pregnant women? Why were health services not free, and would the Government address that issue?
Responding to that round of questions, a member of the delegation agreed that there was a gap in the area of health data. A policy paper was currently being drafted to better manage health data. There were many programmes promoting safer sex practices. Some non-governmental organizations had created drop-in centres to enable girls and boys to receive information on sexually-transmitted diseases. The Catholic Church was aware of the Government’s policy regarding contraception and did not provide strong objection. The Government consulted all stakeholders, including the National Council of Women, one member of the delegation said.
Health services, added another speaker, were provided free of the charge, especially for disadvantaged groups.
Experts’ Questions and Comments
Ms. PATTEN, expert from Mauritius, noted that as the National Provident Fund was the only insurance scheme for most workers, what efforts were being made to sensitize people about the Fund? What measures were in place to encourage non-wage workers to benefit from the Fund as voluntary members? Would new provisions cover casual and domestic workers? She also asked about the retirement age. Were efforts being taken to ensure that the private sector received access to benefits?
Ms. SCHÖPP-SCHILLING, expert from Germany, asked for more information on the successful women’s development scheme, formulated as a microfinance project in 1996. Noting plans to expand the programme in 2008, she wondered if the project could be used in all parts of the country, given the small markets on some of the islands and the distances needed for transportation. She was not clear as to how the project worked. How many women did they plan to cover, and what was happening with interest and service fees. By now, those fees should have accumulated into a constant budget helping the institution to function.
A member of the delegation said it was too early to gauge the Fund’s progress, but it was doing well. There were plans to extend the Fund to the outer islands and membership in it was growing very fast. VANWODS, the microfinance institution targeting women, was self sufficient. VANWODS was not the answer for everything, however, but was just part and parcel of the bigger programme. The programme was just for women, and she hoped it would be expanded to include other services as well.
The retirement age in the private sector was also 55, a member of the delegation added.
Ms. PATTEN, expert from Mauritius, asked what measures were envisaged to provide support to women living in rural or remote areas. To what extent were rural women, who were most affected by the environmental problems facing the country, present during policymaking at all levels in that regard?
Turning to cooking fuel use, ANAMAH TAN, expert from Singapore, said that the effects from the smoke from the two main forms of fuel used in Vanuatu often resulted in respiratory illnesses, particularly in the rural areas. She asked if there was any available data disaggregated by sex on asthma and acute respiratory illness. Since women performed most of the household chores, they probably bore the brunt of the effects of the cooking fuels. She also asked whether the Government had looked into alternative fuels. Did people living in the remote provinces have any access to health care facilities? Also, what was the most recent budget for health care services? Was gender-based violence an issue in the rural areas?
Also very concerned about the situation of rural women, especially given that 79 per cent of the population lived in rural areas, Ms. BEGUM, expert from Bangladesh, said that given the remoteness of those areas and the environmental conditions, rural women had less access to government services and were thus subjected to early death and disease. School enrolment in those areas was also very low as compared to other parts of the country. Disabled women and children and the elderly in rural areas were the most deprived segment of the rural communities. She asked if there was a holistic approach and a comprehensive plan to improve the lives of rural people, especially in terms of their health. What plans were there to increase the number of health clinics and provide them with more equipment, medicines and contraceptives? Also, was there a plan to provide qualified doctors and nurses in rural areas?
In the education sector, she asked if there was a programme for adult education or non-formal education for adolescent girls and women. Also, was there any programme for work study for adolescent girls and young women in the remote areas, especially since 80 per cent of women in rural areas found it difficult to send their daughters to school?
A member of the delegation said there were statistics on the prevalence of asthma and acute respiratory illnesses, but she did not have those with her. As for the effects of the smoke, that was not only in the rural areas, but also on the farms. There was an amendment under review to the Environment Act, which would examine the effects of the smoke resulting from the use of cooking fuel.
As for the health system, she explained that it was classified into four levels: provincial hospitals, health centres, dispensary and village aid post. There were 200 or so village posts where primary health care services were provided, so there was a four-tiered approach to health care nationally to broaden access. A hospital was being built in the northernmost province of Torba, which was very remote. There were qualified nurses and doctors. There might not be enough doctors to “man” all facilities. The village centres were run by village health workers who had received 12 weeks of training. There were also mobile clinics that visited mothers and children.
Another member of the delegation added that the Government had a programme called the “rural economic development initiative” in all the provinces. The programme had specific funds allocated for women. That was an area that she hoped would grow with the expansion of the national machinery and women’s offices in each province.
On adult education, another member said he was grateful to the non-governmental organizations, which had assisted in that area. Regarding school fees, those basically applied to secondary schools. It was true that those were very expensive for most parents. Attempts had been made to subsidize those costs, “but that didn’t work out”. Those attempts would continue, and the Education Ministry had been instructed that each educational authority should pay a certain amount.
Elaborating on the replies to domestic violence, another member said that rural women participated heavily in raising awareness about that phenomenon. They had also been trained to collect data on what was taking place in their communities and in counselling sessions. Attempts were being made to collect data at all levels and share that with the Government. Rural women were considered in all aspects of training, not only in domestic violence, but in business, fisheries, agriculture, marketing, and so forth.
Ms. COKER-APPIAH, expert from Ghana, noted the possibility of marrying two people under the different marriage systems, namely the Christian Marriage Act and custom marriage. The consequences of the two systems were different. Under the Christian Marriage Act, marriage was monogamous. Under customary law, it was polygamous. Monogamy did not allow for marriage under any other system. There was a clear conflict in terms of marriage laws. She also asked for information on legislation regarding property rights and inheritance.
Ms. TAN, expert from Singapore, said it was quite common for a man to marry under customary law and then marry the same woman under civil law. If he divorced his wife under customary law, was he still married under civil law? What happened to children under customary law? Which law prevailed in regards to children? On the issue of maintenance, a wife would need to prove that her husband committed a crime before receiving maintenance under the law. Did the Government plan to amend the law, and would it make funds available to women who needed financial support? Did the Government plan to harmonize the law?
Ms. BELMIHOUB-ZERDANI, expert from Algeria, said she was just as astonished as her colleagues to note that Vanuatu had different types of marriage under the official legal system. Under the official legal system, custody was decided in the clear interest of the children. Under customary practices, the child was considered the father’s property. How did judges decide on the issue of divorce? What did the Government intend to do in that regard, she asked, stressing the need to harmonize the family code with the Convention. She also highlighted the need to fully respect article 16 on marriage and dissolution of marriage. Another issue was that of the minimum legal age of marriage, she said, noting that the marriage age for boys and girls was 18 and 16, respectively. She reminded the delegation that Vanuatu had ratified the Convention without reservation.
Ms. HALPERIN-KADDARI, expert from Israel, said she understood that the customary courts were the village courts and that they did not necessarily have legal recognition. How did the system work? Were the customary courts supervised, and did women judges sit on village courts? She also asked for more information on the bride price issue. She thought that bride price only applied in the case of customary law. She was also confused about the issue of property rights. Did civil law exist in that regard?
Most of the legislation in relation to family law dated back to pre-independence times and had not been amended, a member of the delegation said. There were three types of recognized marriage, namely civil, custom and church marriage. It was very rare that a person would marry under one regime and marry again under a different regime. If one married under custom, they would divorce under the same system. In order to remarry under the civil marriage system, one had to formally divorce through the courts. Villages on the same islands could have different customs. He had never come across “double marriages”. With a population of some 219,000, one would know if that was happening. There was no specific legislation in regard to inheritance.
Island courts, which were the lowest courts, were a formal part of the judiciary, he added. In land cases, where decisions were given by island courts in regard to customary ownership of land, appeals went directly to the Supreme Court. Its decision, once rendered, was final. There were no female judges on the courts. Women did, however, serve on magistrates’ courts. Regarding custom courts, women could serve as judges depending on the customs of the different areas. Under customary law, it was the chiefs who settled disputes. Customs varied from island to island. On legal age for marriage, the legislation had not been amended since independence. On bride price, the 85,000 vatu cash bride price had been revoked. In the customary context, it was part of Vanuatu’s culture for couples to exchange gifts.
Experts’ Comments and Questions
Ms. SIMMS, expert from Jamaica, asked about pit latrines and rural electrification, stressing that, for the situation of women to change, the infrastructure must change. It was women who managed the water resources for the family, and sometimes the efficiency in the local districts was lagging. The Government should prioritize some of those major infrastructure projects, even though the population was low on some of the islands. The Minister for Justice and Social Welfare should emphasize that the national budget should be done differently, since the budgeting process was key to women’s development.
Ms. SCHÖPP-SCHILLING, expert from Germany, said she recognized the value of original culture, and that the position of women in Vanuatu was different from what it had become under colonization and the missionary influence. However, many countries had moved away from those stereotypical roles, and article 5 of the Convention had asked the State party that it modify them. While culture and tradition were important sources of identify for Vanuatu’s people, the country should really sort out what was a valuable cultural source or identity and what was discriminatory and harmful to some in the society, particularly to women. There were ways to separate what constructed cultural identity from what deconstructed it and discriminated against women, she said.
Ms. DAIRIAM, expert from Malaysia, asked if there was a proactive plan to assist young girls to avoid teenage pregnancies, either through contraception or abstinence. Also, how did the health clinic staff deal with young people who came into their clinics? In relation to the court system and appeals from island courts, it seemed that “custom keeps shadowing everything”, she said. Were there women who were knowledgeable in custom and who could give advice to the courts?
A member of the delegation said that the sanitation policy was presently being finalized and would be implemented as of next year.
On teenage pregnancy, the Ministry of Health could not do everything, another member of the delegation said. There were group educators, a drop-in centre for counselling, a counselling training programme for health care workers, and so forth. Drop-in centres had been created in two towns for young people. There were some gaps, but two main non-governmental organizations had young people working with them, and she expected that they could go out and train other young people on how to communicate with their peers about preventing pregnancy.
Another member of the delegation said it was at the discretion of the Chief Justice to appoint people to assist in the courts’ deliberations.
Female island court judges were appointed, another member offered. Responding to the question of pit latrines, she said that there were also ventilated and other categories of toilets in use. Proper technology was offered in all rural areas.
Experts’ Comments and Questions
Mr. FLINTERMAN, expert from the Netherlands, asked whether a judge would –- in case he felt a particular law did not conform to the Convention -- apply domestic law or refer the matter to the legislature to urge it to modify existing legislation that violated the Convention.
Noting that Vanuatu had ratified the Optional Protocol, he said that individual women had to first exhaust all local remedies before complaining to the Committee. In that light, was it the Government’s intention to reconsider the status of the Convention since women could now directly invoke its provisions?
Returning to a question he posed this morning about the tension between domestic law, the Constitution and the Convention, he said he was told that the Constitution formed the supreme law of the land, but the Constitution seemed to be somewhat ambiguous. He sought clarification about whether it was the supreme law of the country.
Regarding application of the Convention, a member of the delegation said that, in order for it to be applicable, domestic law would have to be enacted. Where the Convention was considered by a judge, a decision would be taken, but it would also be mentioned in that decision that the Government should consider amending the relevant law to give effect to that decision. However, the judge could not refer the matter directly to Parliament.
The Constitution was the supreme law of the land, and amendments were being considered by the parliamentary committee, he said.
Experts’ Comments and Questions
Ms. SIMONOVIC, Committee Chair and expert from Croatia, said it was clear that when a country ratified the Convention without any reservation, it was the obligation of the Government to put national laws into effect without any delay. Now, with the additional step of ratifying the Optional Protocol, giving the chance to all women to challenge discriminatory laws after exhausting domestic remedies, those discriminatory laws and discrimination could be brought before the Committee. So, it was extremely important for Vanuatu to study how the Optional Protocol would operate at the national level. That must be studied by lawyers in the country to see how to proceed as quickly as possible with changes and ensure that the laws were in compliance with the Convention, which was a legally binding instrument and demanded full compliance.
Ms. SHIN, expert from the Republic of Korea, joined Mr. Flinterman in pointing out the discrepancy concerning the Constitution’s preamble. She was not really satisfied with the reply given by the Acting Attorney General on data collection. She had asked about the office of the Ombudsman, specifically whether it was possible to disaggregate complaints by gender. Was there an office of statistics, or was that up to the ministries? It was important, for the sake of implementing the Convention, that there be data in every field disaggregated by sex. The Department of Women’s Affairs needed to intervene in that regard, she stressed.
Ms. COKER-APPIAH, expert from Ghana, said she had not understood the response to the property rights question. If a couple converted a marriage to a monogamous one and the man died after they had acquired property, what was the women’s interest in the property since it had been registered solely in the man’s name? Did any law guarantee the woman, as the spouse, to some part of the property?
Ms. HALPERIN-KADDARI, expert from Israel, re-asked her question about the risk of women not obtaining their property rights and of losing their children. She asked if that risk involved women in general, or only women who were married under customary law. It was not clear either from the report or the answers provided. She also asked what percentage of couples married under customary law versus under civil law, so as to get a full picture of the situation. What system of adjudication dealt with marriage and divorce under customary law?
A member of the delegation said the comments about data collection had been duly noted by the Department of Women’s Affairs, and, yes, there was a statistics department.
As for property rights, under the Land Lease Act, if a man died, the property went to his wife or a legal representative. The wife could make an application to the land registration office to get the property put in her name.
Regarding the risk of women losing their children, the customs varied on that. When an application was made for custody, the court assessed which parent was most suitable. If the father died, then children always remained with the mother. Basically, the island courts dealt with issues of marriage and divorce, he said.
Ms. BEGUM, expert from Bangladesh, said she was going to address the issue of women with disabilities but it had already been raised.
Ms. SIMONOVIC, Committee Chair and expert from Croatia, noted that with Vanuatu’s ratification of the Optional Protocol and personal deposit of the instrument of ratification yesterday at the United Nations, there were now 87 States parties to the Optional Protocol. That was both a significant step and obligation for State parties. She hoped it would also be an additional incentive for the Convention’s implementation at the national level.
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