The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women this afternoon met with representatives of non-governmental organizations and a national human rights institution to receive information on the situation of women in Canada, Burundi, Bhutan and Belarus, whose reports will be considered during the first week of the session.
Civil society organizations welcomed the commitment of Canada to gender equality and the steps taken since the 2015 general elections. Canada had fallen from the first to the twenty-fifth place on the United Nations Gender Equality Index since 1995, they said, and warned that women’s structural inequality could not be adequately addressed by piecemeal improvements to a few laws and programmes. A comprehensive national response was needed, which would take an intersectional approach and recognize the different experiences of inequality.
In Burundi, the customary law routinely discriminated against women in relation to land and inheritance rights, said the non-governmental organizations, which urged the Committee to encourage Burundi to enact a national Succession Act to protect the equal inheritance rights of women and nullify those aspects of the customary law which discriminated against women, and to put in place safeguards to secure land tenure rights of women through the registration of land procedure.
Representatives of non-governmental organizations stressed that Bhutan continued to make significant progress in addressing all forms of discrimination against women, but gaps remained in the delivery mechanisms translating polices into action. The allocation of human and financial resources had to be enhanced so that measureable progress would be made in levelling the playing field. Other issues of concern were the situation of rural women, criminalization of abortion, high rates of suicide of women, domestic violence, and the poor representation of women in political and public life.
Violence against socially or politically active women by mostly male State officials was an issue of particular concern in Belarus. The State violence – beatings, sexual assault, involuntary termination of women’s parental rights, illegal and forced placement in mental institutions, indirect pushing to suicide, and deportation from Belarus – were used to punish and silence, to reduce women’s social activity, prevent them from political participation, and produce obedient female citizens.
Speaking during the discussion were representatives from the Women’s Association of Canada, Chair of Indigenous Governance and Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action, BC CEDAW Group: Single Mothers Alliance of British Colombia, and Canada Without Poverty; Global Initiative on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Action Aid who spoke on Burundi; Tarayana Foundation and RENEW Organization from Bhutan; and the Coalition for Belarusian non-governmental organizations with the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, Poland, International Centre of Civil Initiatives “Our House”, Anti-discrimination Center “Memorial” and the “Identity and Law” Initiative Group with the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association. Canadian Human Rights Commission spoke via an audio link.
Live webcast of the Committee’s public meetings is available at http://webtv.un.org.
The next public meeting of the Committee will be on Tuesday, 25 October, at 10 a.m, when it will consider the combined eighth and ninth periodic reports of Canada (CEDAW/C/CAN/8-9).
Statements by Non-Governmental Organizations
Women’s Association of Canada said that decades of legislative changes and budget cuts to social programmes and benefits meant that women and girls in Canada were denied their rights under the Convention on a daily basis. Since 1995, Canada had fallen from the first to the twenty-fifth place on the United Nations Gender Equality Index, which meant that there was much to do and undo. Women’s structural inequality would not be adequately addressed by piecemeal improvements to a few laws and programmes. Canada needed a comprehensive national response that addressed all forms of discrimination against women and girls, which had to take an intersectional approach and recognize the different experience of inequality by First Nations, Inuit, Métis, racialized, disabled, refugee, immigrant, transgender, lesbian, bisexual, and single parent women and girls.
Chair of Indigenous Governance and Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action took up the issue of discrimination and women’s access to justice, saying that the Federal Government did not consistently require high-quality gender-based or human rights analysis of laws, policies and processes. Despite commitments to end sex discrimination in the Indian Act by restoring status to Indigenous women and their descendants, piecemeal amendments to the Act had not succeeded in restoring status to all those affected. Women faced multiple barriers in accessing justice to enforce their legal rights. Women were the main users of civil legal aid, but the financial support for civil legal aid had dropped dramatically since the 1990s, and legal aid was only available to women living well below poverty line, thus forcing many women to represent themselves in complex family law matters.
BC CEDAW Group: Single Mothers Alliance of BC called the Committee’s attention to financial, administrative and geographic barriers to accessing sexual and reproductive health services. Twenty-four percent of people in Canada lacked prescription drug coverage, and only 17 per cent of the hospitals provided abortion services.
Canada Without Poverty said that Canadian women continued to be paid less than their male counterparts and that Canadian gender wage gap was twice the global average. Patterns of job segregation by sex remained unchanged, with women concentrated in traditionally female and lower-paying jobs. More than 70 per cent of women with children were in paid workforce, and yet regulated childcare spaces were available for only 24.9 per cent of the children.
Native Women’s Association of Canada stated that Canada had to rethink and overhaul its approach to reaching gender equality and recognize and act upon the many ways in which Indigenous, racialized, disabled, refugee, immigrant, single parent, transgender, lesbian, and bisexual women were discriminated against.
Global Initiative on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Action Aid said that the customary law routinely discriminated against women in relation to land and inheritance rights. The legislation in Burundi still contained some outmoded laws, while some matters, such inheritance, had not been legislated yet. On issues of land and property, remedies available to women were inadequate, and judges were not trained to protect women’s rights. Burundi should enact a national Succession Act to protect the equal inheritance rights of women and nullify those aspects of the customary law which discriminated against women, and put in place safeguards to secure land tenure rights of women through the registration of land procedure.
Tarayana Foundation stated that Bhutan continued to make significant progress in addressing all forms of discrimination against women, including through the adoption of several key policy instruments to help improve substantive equality. However, gaps remained in the delivery mechanisms translating those polices into action on the ground, while allocation of human and financial resources ought to be enhanced so that measureable progress was made in levelling the playing field. Gender-neutral policies did not acknowledge the differences between the sexes nor did they appreciate their different needs. There was a need for better social security for women in rural areas in particular, as they were often affected by climate change-related natural disasters that increased their vulnerability in the absence of a steady income. Women’s representation in the political sphere was poor and at present there were only six female parliamentarians – two out of 25 in the Upper House and four out of 47 in the Lower House.
RENEW Organization called the attention to the fact that abortion was still illegal in Bhutan, forcing many women and girls to use unsafe illegal abortion services. Another issue of concern was the high rate of suicide of women, due to mental health issues, substance abuse, and domestic violence. The use of alcohol was culturally accepted and it amplified the rates of domestic violence. he Penal Code did not have severe punishment for perpetrators of domestic violence and did not prescribe counselling for perpetrators and victims of domestic violence. RENEW Organization had set up the first shelter for victims of domestic violence in Bhutan. Prostitution, human trafficking and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues were relatively new, for which development of sensitive approaches was needed.
Coalition of Belarusian non-governmental organizations with the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, Poland said that the anti-discrimination laws in Belarus were still limited in scope, declarative and not supported by efficient implementation mechanisms. Belarus had failed to create an independent national human rights institution in accordance with the Paris Principles not it had any other special administrative body vested with the power to consider complaints about human rights violations lodged by women. There was no effective mechanism of protection of the rights of girls and women, especially those vulnerable groups, such as women with disabilities, Muslim women, Roma women, women kept in temporary isolation facilities and pre-trial detention centres.
International Centre of Civil Initiatives “Our House” noted that socially active women often experienced violence from mostly male State officials, the purpose of which was to manipulate, punish or discipline women who were vocal in protecting their rights or the rights of their children. The purpose of the violence was also to reduce women’s social activity, prevent them from political participation, and produce obedient female citizens. The forms of the State violence against socially and politically active women included beating and or threats of sexual assault, involuntary termination of women’s parental rights or threats to do so, illegal and forced placement in mental institutions, and deportation from Belarus.
Anti-discrimination Centre “Memorial” spoke about the situation of families “at social risk”, whose children could be taken away. The decision on declaring a family “at social risk” was made by a commission, without court involvement. The amount of unjustified decisions in recent years had increased enormously. The criteria were very broad and the members of the commission frequently used their powers to exact revenge on family or a woman, or to threaten, intimidate and manipulate, and was often used against activist mothers, those who criticised teachers, suffered from domestic violence and called the police, or failed to pay for a kinder garden.
“Identity and Law” Initiative Group and the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association stated that lesbian and bisexual women and transgender persons were among the most stigmatized social groups in Belarus, who faced discrimination and violence in their day-to-day life. A law prohibiting dissemination of information that “discredited the family and marriage-family relations”, adopted this year, opened the path to abuse and harassment targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender defenders, and also targeting lesbian, bisexual and transgender women and their families.
Questions by Committee Members
An Expert noted with satisfaction that Canada had decided to open a public inquiry into the murdered and missing indigenous women, and asked whether non-governmental organizations were pleased with its terms of reference, and the implementation of the Committee’s recommendations by the Government of Canada. What was the opinion of the civil society of the situation of cyber bullying in the country?
It was unacceptable that women involved in prostitution in Belarus were criminalized. Experts asked about measures to address the demand side. Was there a chance for a progress in the near future in the area of registration, operation and funding of non-governmental organizations? Was there a review system in place for decisions made by commissions on declaring families “at social risk” which might lead to separation of children from the families?
An Expert asked about the extent of collaboration of the Government of Burundi with non-governmental organizations in the preparation of the report, the situation with sexual violence in the country post-April 2016, and the systematic clampdown on women human rights defenders. Question was also asked on the reactions to the stated intention of Burundi to withdraw from the International Criminal Court and whether it was possible to influence the Government to change the decision. What was the impact of the corruption on the capacity of the judiciary to conduct independent investigations, particularly in cases involving women? Another Expert asked about the proportion of women living under the customary law in personal and family issues, and which issues should be raised with the Government in order to improve the situation in customary law.
Committee Experts recognized the transitional phase in Bhutan and asked about the extent of engagement of civil society in the evaluation of impact of the national gender equality strategy, and in the preparation of the national gender equality plan. What was the status of the revision of school curricula, and the role of media therein?
Replies by Non-governmental Organizations
Representatives of organizations took the floor to respond to questions posed by the Committee on Canada and said that so far, less than half of the provinces and territories had declared their participation in the public inquiry into the murdered and missing indigenous women. The changes made to the terms of reference had taken all the meat off it: there was no human rights-based framework, no specific reference to the involvement of the police, and no independent review mechanism. That was of a significant concern to indigenous civil society organizations. The decision of the Government to open the public inquiry was welcomed, but it had not yet started, and there was no mechanism in place to ensure cooperation with non-governmental organizations. Prostitution was accompanied by violence, but was also an act of violence in itself, so the Nordic model of working towards abolition did promote gender equality, in particular for indigenous women. Cyber bulling of indigenous peoples by State officials was a regular occurrence, with negative, racist and derogatory comments being uttered by state officials, police, doctors, politicians.
The non-governmental organizations from Burundi would provide responses to Experts’ questions in writing during the private meeting.
Representatives of the non-governmental organizations from Bhutan said that the number of non-governmental organizations registered had grown to 49, and there were 15 more in the pipeline, so the civil society community was growing. The process of consultation on the national plan of action on gender equality was very thorough; the plans were good, but the problem was resource allocation and the implementation.
In Belarus, hundreds of women had been arrested during the big events such as the international hockey championship, under the suspicion that they might be involved in prostitution, and had been administratively detained for thirty days, without any proof. The commission was making its decisions very fast; it was made up of teachers, social workers and others, and children were removed from the family as soon as the decision was made. Parents could file a complaint with the court, but it would take six months or even a year before the court’s decision was made; a decision by the court would not prevent the commission to make a new decision and take the child again. Discrimination issues seldom rose in criminal and administrative court proceedings. It was still a criminal liability for organizations to be unregistered, and many organizations, particularly those working on discrimination issues, could not register because of the law in force.
Dialogue with national human rights institutions
Canadian Human Rights Commission, via audio link, said that the Commission was a national human rights institution accredited with an A Status under the Paris Principles, and had a broad mandate to protect and promote human rights, including receiving complaints and representing the public interest in mediation and litigation. The Commission was also monitoring the implementation of the law and measures to ensure the equality in work place for the four designated key groups: women, indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities and members of invisible minorities. One specific area of concern was the implementation of the Employment Equity Act, and particularly the fact that the participation of women in the workplace, and the equality they enjoyed had not improved since the passage of the Act in the 1990s, particularly in the private sector. The Committee should recommend to Canada to continue taking steps to promote equality in the workplace for women, particularly in management and decision-making posts.
Another area of concern was the fact that the current Indian classification system continued to discriminate against women, as it recognized lineage by male line only. Canada should take all necessary steps to ensure that no residual discrimination remained in the Indian registration system. Indigenous women represented 30 per cent of the inmate population in the federal correctional institutions, despite the fact that indigenous peoples represented four per cent of the country’s population. The federal correction system should be fully examined with the view of developing a concrete strategy to address that issue. Indigenous women were also over-represented in the segregation system, which was the Canadian system of solitary confinement, and the Committee should recommend Canada to stop using segregation to manage inmates with mental health problems.
A Committee Expert asked the Commission to evaluate the legislative proposal to amend the Indian Act and whether it would remove residual discrimination from the system. Responding, a representative of the Commission said that the legislative amendment had not yet been made publicly available, and the Commission could not comment now, but would be happy to do so in the future.
Asked how the Commission coordinated its work at the federal and provincial levels, the representative explained that all provinces and territories had the Human Rights Code similar to the Canadian to the Human Rights Act, and most had Human Rights Commission which had similar mandates; the Canadian Commission was a member of an umbrella organizations of Human Rights Commissions which worked together on various issues, facilitating coordination and discussing issues of jurisdiction. The Government should take additional steps to ensure coordination across federal jurisdictions.
In response to the Expert’s question concerning accountability of Canada as a State Party, for example in the implementation of the Committee’s concluding observations at the local level, the representative of the Canada Human Rights Commission said that the Commission monitored the compliance of Canada with the recommendations.