Burundi's Socio-Economic Crisis Impedes Protection of Women's Rights, Monitoring Body For Anti-Discrimination Convention Told

Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women - 488th Meeting (AM) - WOM/1246
Committee Takes Up Burundi's Initial Report

The lengthy socio-economic crisis in Burundi was impeding implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention monitoring body was told this morning, as it began its consideration of Burundi's initial report. Burundi ratified the Convention in 1991.

Introducing her country's report to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Burundi's Minister for Social Affairs and Advancement of Women, Romaine Ndorimana, described the effects of the crisis, which began in 1993 and, according to the report, has been characterized by ethnic conflicts, the deaths of thousands of people and displacement of hundreds of thousands. The effects were exacerbated by a 1996 economic blockade imposed by neighbouring countries.

Ms. Ndorimana said the country urgently needed international assistance, for its Government had to respond to the numerous needs of the population with extremely limited resources. Among the social groups affected by the crisis, women represented one of the most vulnerable. Poverty, disintegration of the infrastructure and continued activities of armed gangs were among the challenges facing the country.

There were, however, some trends for improvement since the ratification of the Convention in Burundi, and women's issues had been integrated among the concerns of the administration and the general public, she continued. Legal actions to change the situation of women included elimination of polygamy and regulation of the age of marriage, as well as adoption of laws allowing women to administer family property. The labour code had also been revised in 1993.

Following the signing of the Arusha Peace Accords in August/September 2000, it was necessary to establish an environment conducive to the elimination of discrimination against women, she added. Women were actively involved in the peace process, and it was important to promote their role as peace mediators. It was also necessary to include women in all management structures, including the committee for rehabilitation of the country and the committees distributing aid.

Following the report's introduction, several Committee experts welcomed the efforts and the political will of Burundi's Government to eliminate discrimination against women and stressed that peace needed to be established as a starting point for improvement. It was pointed out that further legislative amendments were needed to achieve true independence and equality of women. The Government's policies should include a gender perspective, and its rehabilitation plans should include specific programmes aimed at resettling women.

In an article-by-article discussion of the implementation of the Convention, experts said that an assessment of the discriminatory customary law was required to improve the position of women, who should be allowed to participate at all levels of society. It was also noted that the situation of the women living in refugee camps should be addressed, as well as customary practices discriminating against them. An expert underlined the importance of education in overcoming traditional, patriarchal stereotypes.

Remarks were also made about the vagueness of the report on several issues, including the concrete current measures and difficulties encountered in the country, and the situation regarding violence against women. Clarifications were sought concerning the budget of the country and the expenditures on the promotion of equal rights, for such costs demonstrated the seriousness of the Government's approach.

The Committee will continue its discussion of Burundi's report at 3 p.m. today.

Committee Work Programme

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this morning to begin its consideration of the initial report of Burundi (document CEDAW/C/BDI/1) on that country's compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Burundi, a landlocked and least developed country with a per capita income in 1993 of $155, ratified the Convention in 1991.

Part one of the report provides background information on the situation in the country and on the economic and legal context of activities to advance women. Part two of the report contains specific information regarding the implementation of various articles of the Convention.

The report states that in 1993, two years after signing the Convention, Burundi entered a period of socio-economic crisis, characterized by ethnic violence that has cost thousands of lives and driven hundreds of thousands from their homes. More than 70 per cent of those people, estimated in 1994 at 10 per cent of the country's population, were women and children who were living in conditions of indescribable depravation. It was in that context that the current report was prepared. "Thus, this is not an ideal time for delivering fine performances with regard to the protection of human rights, in general, and women's rights, in particular."

According to the report, due to the ongoing crisis, the most elementary rights in Burundi, including the rights to life and shelter, "are daily trampled under foot". As a result of ethnic conflicts, the situation of women has deteriorated in such sensitive areas as health and education. Many women are living below the poverty line, especially those displaced by the crisis. However, the question of the elimination of discrimination against women has been incorporated among the concerns of the authorities and the general public.

At the institutional level, ensuring respect for the Convention is the responsibility of the Ministry for Social Action and the Advancement of Women and the Ministry for Human Rights, which are supported by human rights leagues and women's non-governmental organizations. The Constitution of the country ensures equality of all persons without discrimination on the basis of sex, origin, race, religion or belief.

However, the status of Burundi women has long been determined by the patriarchal character of the country's society, the report states. Women have more duties than rights and must subordinate themselves to the customs governing the relations within society. Statute law has tried to correct the situation, and Burundi's family code has been amended. The reform eliminated many provisions discriminating against women, especially with respect to the sharing of responsibilities, custody of children, parental authority and adoption.

The report goes on to say that in the economic and social fields, the Government has encouraged the establishment of women's associations and development projects for women. Initiatives have been conceived to facilitate women's access to education, jobs and training. In the field of education, the drop-out rate between primary and secondary levels has been very high until now. Before the creation of communal schools, only 10 per cent of the children passing entrance examinations were admitted to secondary courses. In the 1970s, the Government introduced preferential treatment for girls in the entrance examination, but that practice was later discontinued. Other corrective measures will have to be taken in the regions with low rate of school attendance.

Regarding efforts to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct, the report states that the Union of Women of Burundi is increasing women's awareness of their role in society. Although very few women occupy leading positions in the National Assembly and in public or private corporations, attitudes are improving. For example, a pregnant girl used to be condemned to death by her own family. Very recently, she would definitely have been driven out of the school system. Now, she can resume her studies after giving birth, although in a different school.

Further, according to the report, efforts to prevent prostitution, indecent acts and rape include legal action under the Criminal Code. Even a death sentence or life imprisonment can be imposed if a rape results in the death of the victim. Generally speaking, the trafficking in and exploitation of women is not a significant phenomenon in Burundi's society.

Regarding employment, the report notes that despite the existence of fundamental legal provisions guaranteeing equal rights to employment, promotion and social security, male candidates are often preferred to female ones. The problem was aggravated by the structural adjustment programme, which reduced the job market. Customary approaches also prevent women from competing with men for top-level or managerial posts.

As for women's health, such factors as high birth rate, poverty, malnutrition, lack of information and excessive burdens of work exacerbate the situation. Burundi's health services are confronted with the lack of resources. Recent conflicts have led to the degradation or destruction of almost 30 per cent of the existing infrastructure and disruption of the supply system.

The fact that more than 80 per cent of births take place at home largely explains a maternal mortality rate at over 800 per 100,000 live births, the report states. The Government will have to redouble its efforts to promote reproductive health, especially in rural areas, where most of the people are illiterate. Abortion is prohibited in Burundi. The only acceptable abortions are therapeutic ones, when the baby is sacrificed to save the mother. Even in such cases, the abortion must be approved by two doctors.

In conclusion, the report states that the general context within which Burundi is addressing the question of eliminating discrimination against women is "not a very auspicious one". Yet, despite the difficulties, the question of the advancement of women has been incorporated among the concerns of the authorities, a number of laws that have damaged women's right have been amended, more women have entered the labour market, and women have taken up some senior posts. Even so, "with all the good intentions in the world, the situation of women will remain dependent on the country's overall level of development". Thus, Burundi's Government calls on the international community for support at a time of profound crisis.

Introduction of Report

Introducing her country's initial report, ROMAINE NDORIMANA, Minister for Social Affairs and Advancement of Women of Burundi, presented some general information about the country and said that the development efforts there had suffered as a result of a socio-political crisis in 1993 and economic embargo imposed on Burundi by the neighbouring countries in 1996. Among the various social groups affected by the crisis, women represented one of the most vulnerable. However, there were some trends for improvement since 1997.

Overcoming the challenges before it, the Government had made efforts to eliminate discrimination against women, she continued. Since the ratification of the Convention in the country in 1991, its Government had enacted several laws to change the situation of women in the country. Actions included the elimination of polygamy and regulation of the age of marriage by 18 for women and 21 for men, as well as adoption of laws allowing women to administer family property. The 1993 reforms established new family relations based on equality and respect for human rights. The labour code was also revised in 1993, but some further improvements were needed in labour conditions and the maternal situation of women. Instruments relating to human rights were an integral part of the country's legislation. The country's Constitution proclaimed equality of all its citizens before the law.

Two Ministries were responsible for ensuring respect for the Convention, she said. Despite the difficult situation, the question of the advancement of women had been integrated among the concerns of the public administration and public opinion in Burundi. In the economic and social areas, the Government had encouraged the establishment of women's associations and development projects for women to improve their status.

She went on to describe the efforts in education and said that corrective measures were needed in the regions of the country where school enrolment was low, including proactive enforcement measures and public information campaigns. Social prejudices were still present in the country, and few women had leadership roles in society. Traditional society was more demanding of girls than boys, but there were some positive changes in that respect. Assertive action was taken by Burundi to combat trafficking in women and prostitution. However, prostitution had assumed new dimensions because of poverty and crowding in the refugee camps, where many women lived.

In general, many women lived below the poverty line, she continued, and rural women were disadvantaged in many ways. The State had set up a system of social security to provide health care to families. The health insurance was inexpensive and accessible to all homes. Due to the crisis, however, access to health care had worsened, for the infrastructure had been destroyed. Several projects attempted to improve living conditions, family planning and health in rural areas. Promotion of income-producing activities for women was also among the Government's priorities. Out of the 17 provinces, 11 had new structures towards that end.

Recent changes included the signing of the Arusha Accords, which formed a basis for building lasting peace, she said. Now it was necessary to establish an environment conducive to the elimination of discrimination against women. The Accords granted equal status to men and women, and various administrative actions testified to that. The policy for the advancement of women had been formulated. At the current stage, it was necessary to include women in all management structures, including the committee for the rehabilitation of the country and the committees distributing aid. Women should be promoted as peace mediators, and taking into account women and children who were heads of household was very important. Burundi needed to draft, adopt and promulgate the law on the inheritance rights of women and rebuild houses destroyed. Women also needed training and rehabilitation.

She went on to say that women of the country participated in the peace process, having organized several conferences on the questions of particular interest to them. Last April, appeals from about 75 women from various sectors of society had given rise to the inclusion of some provisions in the Arusha Accords.

The Government of Burundi reaffirmed its readiness to take steps to promote women in implementation of the Convention, but it was still facing many other challenges, she said. Innocent people continued to be decimated by armed gangs. A cessation of hostilities was imperative. Economically speaking, the Government had to respond to the numerous needs of the population with extremely limited resources, and international help was needed for that purpose. Assistance from the international community was required on an urgent basis.

Comments by Experts

The Chairperson, CHARLOTTE ABAKA of Ghana, commended the delegation of Burundi for ratifying the Convention so soon after independence. She then opened the floor to comments from the Committee's experts.

Congratulating the delegation for having prepared the initial report, an expert stated that the report was vague and lacked the description of the concrete measures and difficulties that were currently taking place in the country. There was no description of the national budget for 1999, but it was clear from certain statistics that foreign aid made up more than half the national budget. She asked for clarification from the Government as to how much money was spent on poverty eradication projects for rural women.

Another expert said that although she was aware of the difficult situation Burundi was undergoing, she wanted to know more about the National Action Plan that was referred to in the report. She wondered what the results of that Plan were and how had non-governmental organizations been involved in implementing the Plan. Was it informal cooperation or was there a formal mechanism for the cooperation? she asked.

Aware of the difficulties that were being faced by the Government of Burundi, another expert commented on the initiative to include women in the peace talks and hoped that the effort would set an example for all the women in Burundi. The report did not include a description of how many women were still living in the refugee camps. She had statistics that some 80 per cent of the refugee population were women and children. She asked for more concrete information.

One initial deficiency in the report, the expert continued, was that there were no statistics on violence against women. She presumed that there was a high level of violence against women due to the current internal conflict, but could not guess the figures, as it had not been mentioned by the delegation or in the report itself. Had the country ever attempted to address gender-based violence? another expert added.

The first problem that the women and people of Burundi had to face was to find a way to establish peace, an expert said. The Family Code that was mentioned in the report was a courageous step, but she wondered why Burundi remained so far from the application of the Convention in relation to its legislation. She asked why there was a difference in the regulation of the age of marriage between boys and girls. She also wondered if arranged marriages did, in fact, continue according to the customary laws of the country.

Another expert, commending the delegation for their willingness to uphold the rights of women, agreed that peace needed to be established as a starting point for the improvement of the situation of women in that country. From a legal standpoint, she hoped that certain laws would be amended and created in order to help eliminate discrimination against women. The National Code would fall into that, and there were other laws that needed to be brought into the system, in order to replace the customary laws that currently existed throughout the country. An awareness campaign was also needed to implement the new laws.

Agreeing with that legal assessment, an expert said that it was commendable that the Government of Burundi had taken steps to promulgate certain laws, but the top priority should be to make peace. The new laws and rights that were addressed in the report needed to be disseminated throughout the country in regional dialects, so that rural women were aware of them. Unless that effort was made, the new laws would remain "dead letters".

The greatest obstacle to complying with the terms of the Convention was the war, an expert said. It was positive to hear that there was a Ministry for Social Action and a Ministry for Human Rights. She wondered how these two Ministries were connected. Was there a gender perspective in the programmes and policies that were planned for implementation of the Convention? She also asked if a new National Plan of Action would be created in the next legislative session.

Did the political will exist to do an overall assessment of the prevalent stereotypes with regard to women within Burundian society? an expert asked. She felt that would be the very first step towards addressing the issue of stereotyping. Another expert added that, especially in a country that was based on patriarchal cultural, it was very difficult to make changes. However, it was not clear from the report what methods had been used. She wondered if the broadcast and print media or textbooks had been used for that purpose.

With regard to women in public life, an expert commented on the under-representation of women and their lack of access to decision-making roles. It seemed that there was no public encouragement for women to go into public life, and reversing that trend did not seem to be a priority in the National Action Plan. What measures were envisioned to train women in political leadership? another expert asked.

With 166 countries having ratified the Convention, it was clear how difficult it was make women's rights a reality on the ground, an expert said,

especially in a deeply patriarchal society. Burundi was not an exception, and the efforts being made by the Government to improve the situation were appreciated.

Other issues raised by the Committee's experts included family violence, women in prisons, prostitution and trafficking, women in governance, women's involvement in the Arusha peace agreement, nationality claims, and Family Law.