Burundi + 3 more

Conflict in Democratic Republic of Congo key element of Anti-Discrimination Committee discussion

Press Release WOM/1163 - 20000125
The conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was a key element at the heart of discussions this morning as the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women took up that country's initial, second and third periodic reports on implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Introducing the reports, Anastasie Moleko Moliwa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Minister of Social Affairs and the Family, said that conditions of extreme poverty had been exacerbated by the 1996-1997 war of liberation and the current war of aggression imposed on the population by the country's neighbours to the east -- Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda.

She stressed the risk that the Government's commitment to promoting women's rights might yield no benefit if the national territory continued to suffer occupation by aggressors who continually raped and massacred women and children without any voice being raised at the United Nations to condemn the perpetrators of those crimes.

As the Committee heard comments and questions from its members, one expert said the absence of peace in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was a major impediment to the implementation of the Convention. The country must mobilize its women to help in the implementation of the Lusaka Peace Agreement of July 1999.

Also this morning, experts raised issues relating to the impact and consequences of the war, including the situation of refugees; rape and the treatment of its victims; female genital mutilation; and the persecution of media, human rights workers and non-governmental organizations.

The Committee will continue hearing comments and questions raised by members 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 third periodic report of the Democratic Republic of the Congo on the status of implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (document CEDAW/C/COD/3), as well as the initial and second reports submitted by the Government of the former Republic of Zaire (documents CEDAW/C/ZAR/1, CEDAW/C/ZAR/2/Add.1 and Corr.1).

According to the third periodic report, the Government has implemented a three-year programme (1997 to 2000), which includes the following objectives: to ensure the economic advancement of women through the women's enterprise initiative; to ensure their legal and cultural advancement through information on women's rights; to ensure their social advancement through training and the development of women's human capital and the status of women; and to protect the health of women and children by improving their nutritional status, developing primary health-care programmes and reducing the daily workload of women.

However, in addition to the impact of war and the multifaceted crisis in the country, the report notes the persistence of traditional views which see women as incapable of managing national affairs. That attitude is occasionally nurtured and perpetuated by women themselves. Also noted is the persistence of discriminatory legal provisions, particularly one establishing the legal incapacity of married women.

Among other obstacles listed in the report are: the low level of education among women and their high illiteracy rate; their lack of knowledge in all areas; their lack of interest in public affairs; and the lack of solidarity among women themselves. It is primarily at elections that the lack of confidence of women in other women becomes apparent.

In the economic field, the report states, obstacles include lack of access of rural women to land ownership, which is still the prerogative of men; lack of leisure and appropriate technologies for rural women; the long distances they must cover on foot to reach health centres; and insufficient access to credit and other production resources.

Other economic obstacles are difficulties in supplying materials for conserving harvested crops and moving produce; limited participation of women in community meetings; and the under-representation of women in bodies responsible for drawing up economic and development programmes.

The report also lists obstacles facing women in the education, health and cultural fields, as well as administrative constraints such as inadequate budget, weak institutional capacity, deterioration of public administration services and discriminatory social and administrative practices.

Despite those obstacles, the Government began elaborating a National Programme for the Advancement of Congolese Women with the support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the report states. Scheduled for implementation in the period 1999 t0 2004, that Programme covers the 12 critical areas of concern of the 1995 Beijing Platform of Action.

According to the report, the goals set in the Programme respond to the concerns of: women themselves, who seek to raise their status, take charge of their own lives and participate in national reconstruction; the Government, which wishes to integrate women in development and facilitate their access to national resources and their participation in political and economic life; and the international community, which recommends to States the advancement of women in all spheres of national life.

Regarding the definition of discrimination (Article 1), the report cites the country's Constitution, which states in Article 112 that "treaties and international agreements duly ratified or approved [by the Democratic Republic of the Congo] shall ... have greater authority than do laws".

It notes that while international law takes precedence over domestic law, certain provisions of Congolese law discriminate against women in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. It outlines several such domestic laws that have not yet been amended.

Regarding the principle of equality in the Constitution (Article 2), the report says that in July 1998, the new Government, which came into power on 17 May 1997, established an advisory body -- the National Women's Council -- for the promotion, protection and defence of the specific rights of women. Its mission was, among other things, to ensure the implementation of national policy with respect to the protection of women; to harness all the vital national energies in fighting for the advancement of women; and to propose actions to be undertaken in that area in conformity with international recommendations.

The National Women's Council is also responsible for preparing all the periodic reports of the international instruments on women ratified by the Democratic Republic of the Congo and evaluating the implementation of the National Programme and the recommendations of international conferences.

On measures to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women (Article 5), the report states that sexual discrimination has an essential cultural basis, and that the stereotypes that regard women as inferior continue to predominate, especially in the rural areas. Women still live with the taboos and interdicts maintained by men as a way of protecting their status and making a mystique of their superiority. For instance, foods such as eggs and game must not be eaten by women for reasons put forward by each local culture.

The report says the media are still abusively exploiting the image of women and girls on the basis of the recognized stereotypes by disseminating sensational information about sex and crime. Women are now beginning to become aware of this negative image through the awareness campaigns run by non-governmental organizations. They are still under-represented in the decision-making areas of the media, and have no contribution in censuring the offences against the image of women.

Regarding traffic in women and exploitation of women for prostitution (Article 6), the report states that there are no statutory provisions outlawing prostitution, although those who support it may be prosecuted under the Criminal Code. Owing to the extent of poverty in the country, the incidence of prostitution is on the rise and adolescent girls are tending to become sexually active at an early age, frequently without taking contraceptive measures or precautions against sexually transmitted diseases or AIDS.

According to the report, obstacles to the advancement of women in the political and public spheres (Article 7) include the effect of ingrained attitudes, lack of solidarity among women, the maintenance of discriminatory legal provisions, women's ignorance of their own rights and their accumulated educational lag. In Government representation at the international level (Article 8), women are only minimally represented in the diplomatic service. Out of 361 posts, 18 are filled by women and 343 by men.

On equal access to education (Article 10), the report says the state of war and the population's overall poverty have made it difficult to achieve educational goals. There are more pre-schools in urban areas than in rural areas, where they are virtually non-existent. For that reason, girls under age five have little access to pre-school. Moreover, owing to the low socio-economic level of most parents, such access is extremely limited for young girls in urban areas as well.

While the right to work (Article 11) is recognized by the Labour Code for both men and women, the report states that the capacity of married women to conclude employment contracts remains limited owing to the faulty interpretation of article 3 of the Labour Code by employers, who require married women to produce an authorization from their husbands. Very few women enjoy a survivor's pension in respect of the employment of their late husbands. A married woman is not entitled to family benefits or family services, even if her husband is unemployed or poor.

The report says that the situation of rural women (Article 14) has not changed. The restrictions on their opportunities for development have worsened and women continue to suffer from inability to own land, distance from health centres, and inability to obtain credit.

Regarding equality in marriage and family relationships (Article 16), the report states that all the rights of the woman concerning conjugal relations are governed primarily by the Family Code, which has not changed at all since 1987. The biggest problem lies at the level of implementation due to obstacles arising from customs, prejudice and the attitude of women themselves.

Whether violence against women takes the form of wife-beating, rape, genital mutilation or the image of women in the media, women victims of violence often do not report it to the authorities unless there is extensive physical injury.

The report says legal clinics are places where female victims of violence can tell their stories and receive counselling and psychotherapy. Some 418 people were registered and heard by experts over a period of close to one month. Those hearings revealed that violence arose in connection with matters of inheritance, divorce, polygamy, refusal to acknowledge paternity, alcoholism, dowry, lack of family communications, abuse of marital authority, interference by in-laws, management of the family budget and the weight of taboos and tradition.

Also before the Committee are the initial and second reports submitted by the Government of the former Republic of Zaire (documents CEDAW/C/ZAR/1, CEDAW/C/ZAR/2/Add.1 and Corr.1).

The initial report concludes that while considerable work was being done by the Government of the former Republic, non-governmental and other organizations to support the advancement of women and to eliminate discrimination against them, efforts still needed to be made at the legislative level, particularly as regards married women.

It says that a reversal in attitudes was imperative and that women themselves must make an effort to understand the importance and validity of the fight they must wage against men in order to realize all their rights and participate effectively and without restrictions in the development of the former Republic.

The second report recommends steps to be taken to abolish all discriminatory provisions in existing legislation and harmonize the various national legal texts in order to eliminate any contradictions. The Government should ensure the establishment and rehabilitation of structures, initiate and sustain actions aimed at changing mentalities through grass-roots education, social and women's centres, rural radio, television and film, among other means.

Other recommendations contained in the report are steps to be taken by non- governmental organizations and associations, women and international organizations. All partners -- governments, national and international organizations, churches, women and men must make a commitment to ensure that Zairean women and men work together for a harmonious society and a credible and prosperous country.

Introduction of Reports by Government

ANASTASIE MOLEKO MOLIWA, Minister of Social Affairs and Family of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, introducing her country's reports, said that local conditions of extreme poverty had been exacerbated by the 1996/1997 war of liberation and the current war of aggression imposed on the population by the country's neighbours to the east -- Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda. Following the assassination of the President of Rwanda in 1994, the ensuing war between that country's Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups had led to a massive influx of refugees into the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

She said that while the State was constitutionally bound to take measures to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women and to protect their rights, discrimination remained a fact due to certain negative attitudes and customs which relegated women to an inferior social status. In addition, certain laws were contrary to constitutional provisions.

In particular, article 448 of the Family Code still contained the juridical incapacity of the married woman, she said. The country's Labour Code stipulated that married women could not be employed if there was express opposition by the husband. Regarding adultery, the Penal Code was more severe for women than for men. The Ministry was developing texts to eliminate all discriminatory provisions.

She said that certain beliefs and unfavourable customs and practices such as dowry and arranged marriages still persisted in both rural areas and towns. They continued to exert a strong influence on the status of women and on the roles of women and men in the family and in society. Stereotyped images of women were maintained and inculcated very early in the lives of young girls so that they grew up with an inferiority complex with respect to boys.

Prostitution was a living reality in Congolese society as elsewhere in the world, she said. However, statistics were lacking since there was no institutional framework to cater to that category of women. According to figures covering the capital, Kinshasa, between 1994 and 1999, prostitution had been practised mainly by women between the ages of 20 and 45 years. While there were no formal laws prohibiting prostitution, the city's authorities had taken measures to restrict the movement of prostitutes after 8 p.m.

She said Congolese women were victims of physical, psychological and moral violence. Only some of this was known because most women preferred to remain silent. A network of non-governmental organizations was working to raise their awareness of the need to report violence.

Constraints to implementation of the Convention, she said, included the fact that political will was limited by the country's difficult situation over the last three years; society's disregard of negative practices as well as the disregard of women themselves; the lax attitude towards sanctions against those who violated women's rights; the difficult economic situation aggravated by the war; and the lack of awareness about the Convention.

She stressed the risk that the Government's commitment to promoting women's rights might yield no benefit if the national territory continued to suffer occupation by aggressors who continually raped and massacred women and children without any voice being raised at the United Nations to condemn the perpetrators of those crimes. Without a context of peace, belief that violence and other forms of discrimination against women could be eliminated in whatever country was illusory.

Comments and Questions by Experts

AIDA GONZALEZ MARTINEZ (Mexico), Chairman of the Committee, congratulated the delegation for its well-prepared reports and said that the Committee was aware of the problems facing the country. Members of the Committee were interested in stating their specific concerns on certain points of the report, particularly the measures to be undertaken in the future in order to fully implement the Convention, taking into consideration the difficult situation in the country.

As the Committee proceeded to discuss the report, an expert noted the great progress achieved in the country despite the difficult political situation. The reports were frank, comprehensive and transparent, and that was a tribute to the delegation. Women's questions were being taken into account at all levels in the country. It was commendable that the draft constitution was devoting attention to the elimination of discrimination against women. The country was on the right track, and it had every encouragement from the Committee in that respect.

Continuing, she said that her concerns included the low use of statistics, which she would like to see more of in the next report. She also wanted to have more information regarding the position of refugees in the country. The report also skipped somewhat on the impact and consequences of the war. The number of rapes and the treatment of their victims were of interest, as well as the question of poverty. She also wanted to know more about polygamy and its consequences.

Another expert said that the Democratic Republic of the Congo was rich in its natural resources, but poor as a result of war. Now the country had new institutional machinery, and the scope of the Government's undertakings was impressive. The National Programme for the Advancement of Women took into consideration the provisions of the Convention on Women. Now appropriate human and financial resources were needed for the proper implementation of that programme.

She was concerned that the country's reports showed little change in such areas as the entitlement of widows to pension. Also of concern was the fact that women still needed their husbands' authorization to work. She wanted to know what steps the Government had taken regarding female genital mutilation, violence against women and polygamy. Enactment of new legislation was needed in that respect. Her last concern was about refugees and their means of livelihood.

An expert said that the report would help the Committee to identify the problems facing the Congolese women. The country had adhered to the Convention, but the situation there was still a cause of concern. Progress in constitutional development was still in the preparatory stage. More action was needed to further eliminate discrimination against women. In practical terms, the programmes were in effect, and she wanted to know the exact figures regarding their implementation. She also asked what institutions had participated in the drafting of the reports and what other international human rights instruments the country had acceded to.

Another expert said that, according to the report, the Ministry of Human Rights had been established in July 1998 to protect the freedom of all citizens; however, in the same year, the Government had announced a new policy requiring non- governmental organizations to register with the authorities who would certify their good standing. Many Congolese human rights workers, fearing persecution, had since fled to neighbouring countries and only a few non-governmental organizations had been declared to be in good standing. All media releasing news on human rights violations had been silenced.

She asked how the Government could explain the contradiction of establishing a Human Rights Ministry on the one hand and persecuting media and non-governmental organizations on the other. How could the Committee's conclusions be published in that country if they were critical of its implementation of the Convention?

Another expert said the Committee was aware that the war had made women and children its main victims. The rehabilitation of widows and orphans was vital. There also existed continuing violence against women and many other topics related to the Convention's articles. It was important to enact education laws to change the deep-rooted system of beliefs now existing.

She said that the existence of the National Commission for Women would constitute the basis for necessary change. More information was needed on its structures, personnel and functioning. The establishment of a Human Rights Ministry was also important and it was necessary to know its relationship with the National Commission. What tasks had the greatest priority?

Another expert said the absence of peace in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was a major impediment to the Convention's implementation. Africa needed peace and the country had an important role to play in mobilizing its women to help in the implementation of the Lusaka Peace Agreement of July 1999. The plight of women had worsened before the liberation and during the current conflict, rape was being used as a tactic of war. Absolute peace was vital.

Referring to the recruitment of child soldiers, she noted that about 10,000 children were in active service in the country's military. The rights of children must be ensured. They were not meant to be soldiers.