Civil war, persistence of stereotypes hinder implementation of Women's Conference in Burundi, Committee told

Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women - 496th Meeting (AM)
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women this morning heard replies of the Government of Burundi on its initial report (document CEDAW/C/BDI/1), which was first introduced last week.

At that time, the Committee's 23 experts, who gather twice a year to monitor the compliance of State parties with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and give recommendations on its implementation, commented on the report and asked numerous questions regarding Burundi's compliance with the Convention. (For background information, see Press Release WOM/1246 of 17 January.)

Responding to questions today, Burundi's Minister for Social Affairs and Advancement of Women, Romaine Ndonimana, said that although her country had ratified the Convention in 1991, two years later it was plunged into an unprecedented crisis, which prevented it from implementing all the provisions of that instrument. However, she reaffirmed her Government's commitment to restoring the peace and security throughout the nation to allow women to fully develop their potential.

She also described the country's efforts to address the problems of rural women, to distribute information about the Convention, to improve women's position in the family and to combat violence against women. She also spoke about the legislation enacted in the country to improve the position of women.

The Committee agreed that the civil war had severely impeded the implementation of the Convention in the country, as did the deeply inferior role that women played in the Burundian society. Another serious concern was the spread of HIV/AIDS, which had deeply eroded any gains that had been achieved.

The Committee will continue its work at 3 p.m. today, when it is scheduled to take up responses from Kazakhstan.

Burundi's Response

ROMAINE NDORIMANA, Minister for Social Affairs and Advancement of Women of Burundi, reminded the Committee that two years after Burundi ratified the Convention without reservations, it had been plunged into an unprecedented crisis, which prevented it from implementing all the provisions of that instrument. She believed, however, that the country would succeed in the future, following last year's signing of the Arusha Accords.

To promote the advancement of rural women, the Ministry for the Advancement of Women had initiated a vast campaign of increasing sensitivity to women's problems, organizing women's committees for peace and development. The Ministry also organized family centres in various provinces of the country. Quite recently, major development programmes and projects to combat poverty had been set up in the country with the help of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and other United Nations agencies. They envisioned granting micro-credit to women and supporting their involvement in the economy. The Government was also making efforts to bring drinking water to the provinces, to achieve literacy of rural women and to ensure their adequate training.

Dissemination of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women was being implemented by the two Burundian Ministries responsible for the advancement of women - the Ministry for Social Action and the Ministry for the Advancement of Women. The women's movement was also disseminating awareness of the Convention. The National Action Plan to follow up on Beijing was initiated in 1997. Following national consultations and seminars on the topic, a three-year plan was developed, which involved a variety of partners and covered six priority areas identified in Beijing. However, not all the goals set by the plan had been achieved, in view of the difficult situation in the country.

Regarding abortion, she said that it was prohibited in Burundi. Legalizing abortion would be considered as promotion of lurid behaviour by the population. More information on abortion was needed, and campaigns on disseminating information about reproductive health were being planned.

On the right to expression, she said that women in Burundi did speak out in public gatherings, and they were represented in the judiciary. A quarter of the members of the Superior Magistrates Council were women. Women also accounted for 26 per cent of the Superior Tribunal for Commerce and Labour. However, it was necessary to urgently approve legislation on the succession rights of women.

Turning to violence against women, she said women were indeed exposed to physical violence in the country, including violence in the conjugal setting and rape. Violence was rarely discussed, as the traditional culture encouraged women to endure it silently. However, lately women were beginning to talk about that issue, and last year 17 rape cases had been brought before the Superior Court of the country. Those responsible were sentenced to three to 10 years in jail, and efforts were being made to determine the scope of the problem in order to stem it. It was important to provide women with guidance and assistance, and relevant measures were being taken.

On girls' education, she said the Government was encouraging schooling for all children regardless of sex. However, parents often wanted their girl children to help with house chores, keeping them at home for that purpose. There were no budget provisions per se, for girls' education. But as they represented 45 per cent of primary school students, efforts were underway to make parents aware of the need to provide education to girls, and a new non-governmental organization (NGO) was taking an interest in the problem. Measures were also being taken to improve attitudes towards single young women who become pregnant.

Before the crisis, significant funds from the national budget and foreign aid had been allocated to priority areas of development, including agriculture, health and education, she continued. Although the foreign aid had been suspended, it was encouraging that during a recent donors' conference in Paris, $440 million had been promised for the rebuilding of the country, repatriation and promotion of human rights.

Women in prison constituted about 2 per cent of the total prison population, she said. Crimes and offences committed by women included infanticide, murder, abortion and poisoning. As there was concern about minors living in prison and women nursing babies, the law had determined that children must leave prison by the time they reached the age of three. However, some felt that children should not be taken from their mothers. Special judges for children's cases would be appointed in the near future.

Regarding women's labour, she said that the country's work code spelled out clear-cut and universal principles, under which conditions for recruitment, training and wages were equal for men and women. Women enjoyed the same right to work as men. The cases of discrimination that did occur referred mostly to the private sector, although subjectivity and preference given to male candidates did occur, reflecting the traditional approaches.

It was impossible to gather relevant statistics in the country as a result of the ongoing crisis, however. Not everybody had jobs, and unemployment among women did exist. Minimum wage standards had been introduced by the work code. Provided men and women had the same qualifications, they were guaranteed the same pay by the law. In general, the Government intended to address the existing labour problems as soon as possible.

Workers in Burundi had a right to organize according to their professional interests, she said. Members of trade unions devised their own statutes and defined their programmes. Freedom for trade unions envisioned the right to resolve conflicts by collective means, including strike.

As for child care and kindergartens, they existed only in the capital and in several major cities. Where they were available, few women took advantage of these services because of the prevailing belief that mothers should take care of their children. Turning to prostitution, she said it was not a significant phenomenon in the country. Its occurrence was still negligible, but measures were being taken to prevent and punish that offence. A police unit responsible for minors protected young women from men who wanted to exploit them. Also, a consciousness-raising campaign was underway. Trafficking in women was unknown in Burundi.

Although marriage in the country was monogamous under the law, cases of polygamy could be found to a limited degree. As far as marital consent, taking care of children, and divorce were concerned, they had been formerly governed by customary law. Now a Family Code was in place to address those issues.

Responding to a question on discriminatory laws, she said that all juridical texts had been drafted to provide equal rights to both sexes. However, some provisions and articles indeed allowed for some discrimination against women. For example, article 123 of the Labour Code gave root to discrimination, providing half of regular salary to women on parental leave. The Government intended to bring all laws in conformity with the Committee in the near future.

Fighting HIV/AIDS was among the Government's priorities. Efforts were underway to make available anti-viral drugs, to increase allocations to the health sector and to educate the population in the dangers of the disease.

In conclusion, she said that the Government reaffirmed its commitment to restoring the peace and security throughout the nation to allow women to fully develop their potential. It hailed the efforts if the international community to help the country overcome the crisis and continued to appeal for international aid. Bilateral and multilateral cooperation should be resumed to allow to implement the peace agreements.

Comments by Experts

The Chairperson, CHARLOTTE ABAKA of Ghana, thanked the delegation for responding to the many issues that were raised. She understood that they were unable to get specific data as a result of Burundi's predicament.

One expert expressed hope that Burundi would continue to work to improve the life of women and to achieve adequate implementation of the Convention. She also hoped that Burundi would be able to establish peace and continue the process of development. Another expert hoped that the Government's programme to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS would be efficient and effective.

Ms. ABAKA said the Committee agreed with the delegation that the civil war had severely impeded the implementation of the Convention. The deeply inferior role of women in Burundian society was also a factor that impeded implementation. The spread of HIV/AIDS was a serious concern and was eroding any gains that had been made.

She noted that the family code in Burundi clearly discriminated against women in that it allowed for a difference in the legal age of marriage for men and women. It also stated that the husband was the head of the family. Women were also discriminated against in the penal code which put the crime of adultery in terms more favourable to men than women. The issue of domestic violence, including rape, was of great concern, as was the condition of women and girls in the refugee camps.

It was important, she said, to make the teaching of human rights a priority, but the most important thing was peace. She wished to encourage the peace process and acknowledged the role that women had played in that process. She hoped that women would be able to demonstrate that peacemaking was not a personal agenda but an issue of life and death. There was a need to make psychological expertise available to those who had experienced trauma as a result of the civil war.

The Committee recommended that the Government of Burundi continue, and even increase, its efforts to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS, she said. Educating the population about the dangerous consequences of the disease and promoting the use of condoms were both welcome initiatives. She recommended that the Government seek assistance from the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

Speaking on behalf of the Burundian delegation, Ms. NDORIMANA said her Government would continue to work at improving the situation. She hoped that next time around, she would be presenting a rosier picture.