Experts stressed the need to modify cultural and traditional practices that were harmful to women this afternoon as the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women finished hearing questions posed to the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo following consideration of its initial, second and third periodic reports on implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
One expert suggested that good strategies and communications must be applied in the face of persistent practices that considered a woman to be no more than property. Many African countries had national committees against genital mutilation and other harmful traditional practices. With funding from United Nations agencies or other bodies, study trips could be undertaken to other African countries, where much could be learned.
She said Ministries responsible for culture should approach experts for help in spreading positive knowledge and habits. Traditional chiefs, rural women's associations and other authority figures could also exert a positive influence. The Democratic Republic of the Congo could learn from neighbouring countries like Zambia, which had been able to expand the use of contraception, despite having customs in common.
Other experts addressed discriminatory provisions in the country's Labour and Family Codes. Still others stressed the need to address the lack of solidarity among women, saying that was the first phase in the struggle for equality.
The Committee's next meeting will take place at 10 a.m. tomorrow, 26 January, when it will hear replies to questions raised about the initial and second periodic reports of Jordan.
Committee Work Programme
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this afternoon to continue its consideration of the initial, second and third periodic reports of the Democratic Republic of the Congo on implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. [For background information on those reports, see Press Release WOM/1163 of this morning.]
Questions and Comments by Experts
An expert noted that the security situation, political crisis and civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo did not favour an enabling climate for the implementation of the Convention. There were still discriminatory laws that needed to be reviewed and revised. The incapacity of married women was a great concern because they could not accomplish certain legal acts without the authority of their husbands. They could not conclude contracts and could only work with the authorization of their husbands, an authority that could be abused. A woman could not manage her own property.
She said that practices like polygamy were a devaluation of women's dignity and the report had made no mention of its abolition. The Government's political will was genuine as demonstrated by the establishment of national mechanisms, including a Ministry with regional secretariats.
Another expert said that all efforts to secure equality would come to nothing if the war continued to dissipate national energies. Peace would render human dignity to the people, as well as respect for the rule of law and participatory democracy.
There was no programme for a strong education system and no parliament where women could help make strong decisions, she said. It was striking that the report demonstrated a clear perception that there were two approaches: a legal one at the de jure level, and an actual one at the de facto level. However, the report did not describe any specific programme or instruments to bring about gender equality, including by fighting negative customs, genital mutilation, polygamy and stereotypes.
She asked which Ministry was responsible for women. What programmes needed strengthening? What steps could promote micro-activities, which provided 80 per cent of national revenues and were in the hands of women? There were also no programmes to end trafficking in and violence against women.
Addressing article 2 of the Convention, on eliminating discrimination against women, one expert agreed with the concern that women and others in the Congolese Government must use everything at their disposal to ensure that the human rights of women and children were protected. That would entail eliminating such practices as forced conscription. Peace and respect for human rights must be made a living reality for all people, especially women and children.
Turning to the drafting of a new constitution for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she stressed the need to ensure consistency between constitutional norms and family law. Resolution of contradictions was thus extremely important. For a comparative exercise, she suggested examining the South African Constitution, which had just been redrafted.
She stressed that if a right was given there should be a method for enforcing it. The report did not detail any such methods. It had also been stated that treaties had greater authority than domestic law. If that was so, why were there still internal laws that conflicted with international standards?
Another expert said the extension of the gender approach meant there was a good modern approach to the advancement of women. However, when there were projects and programmes, often the means to advance them did not exist. While there was help sometimes from institutions of the United Nations, there should be negotiations in African countries to ensure that national budgets granted more resources to programmes and projects in the area of gender advancement. What percentage of the national budget was allocated for such activities? she asked.
She said that another concern was the changes often caused by political instability. For the time being, the situation was good because gender issues were entrusted to a Ministry -- even though it was not a full-fledged Ministry. That achievement should not be allowed to regress -- there should always be an institution with ministerial status.
She wanted to know how implementation of the Convention would be achieved? She also asked what positive actions had been undertaken in the implementation of the Convention, given that women's participation in public life was very weak.
Another expert stressed the need to modify cultural and traditional practices that were strongly biased against women. Regarding polygamous marriages, what was the status of those wives who were married after the first wife, who may have been married under Christian rites? Was there any prohibition against dowry?
Having identified all the obstacles to ending discrimination, why had the Government not been able to take the necessary corrective measures? she asked. All the national mechanisms seemed to be in place, but perhaps more concerted efforts were needed as well as better coordination and funding.
An expert suggested that ministries responsible for culture should approach the Committee's experts for help in spreading positive knowledge and habits. In the face of the persistence of certain practices that considered a woman as no more than property, good strategies and communications must be applied. Many African countries had national committees against genital mutilation and other traditional practices that were harmful to women.
Traditional chiefs, rural women's associations and other authority figures could exert a positive influence, she continued. If United Nations agencies were approached for funds, study trips could be undertaken to other African countries where much could be learned. Provincial and district committees were needed to fight excision, circumcision, polygamy and other practices.
An expert, referring to participation in political life (Article 7), said that in a situation where a country was at war, the Committee must express solidarity with the women who were suffering and dying. Nothing could be achieved without political will and political pressure. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the women had participated alongside men in the liberation struggle. In that and other countries, women were not repaid for the sacrifices they made. They were treated as equals during war, but once peace was restored, equality was forgotten and women reverted to their traditional roles.
The lack of solidarity among women must also be addressed, she stressed. That was the first phase in the struggle for equality. All the institutions under the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Family must be mobilized to ensure genuine participation on an equal basis with men.
One expert drew attention to the law that required women to get their husband's permission to obtain a passport, and said that consistency required a change in that particular provision. If nationality was such a big issue then perhaps it should not be addressed by family law but by the constitution.
The report said that the current education system was a combination of the old and new system, an expert noted. She wanted to know what old and what new systems were being talked about?
She said despite all the measures established to ensure education for all, and in particular for the girl child, the facts pointed elsewhere. Girls lagged behind boys, particularly in the rural areas. She wanted to know whether or not schools were free? Was there a public and private school system? What was being done about literacy in rural areas since efforts so far were insufficient and Government expenses had decreased? Also, what was the policy to address the issue of girl children who were forced to drop out of school early?
She said the report had also not provided any information on the attitude to family planning.
An expert, referring to the right to employment (Article 11), said that the country's Labour Code contained discriminatory provisions that had not been changed since the release of the first report. The requirement that a woman's husband give his authorization for her to conclude contracts was not only a violation of her right to work, but also a violation of her right to movement.
She said it was contrary to International Labour Organization (ILO) standards, as well as the Convention, that a woman should give up part of her wages if she took maternity leave. The country's prohibition against night work for all women of whatever status was a violation of the right to free choice of profession.
Regarding polygamy, she asked whether all of a man's wives were entitled to pension or just the legal wife. Could a woman own land and hold a land title? Did she have access to credit without collateral? That was important because most micro-activities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo were run by women.
Another expert, addressing health issues (Article 12), noted that due to the war, it was understandable that health services had deteriorated seriously, with a consequent high maternity mortality rate. The budget intended for the health sector was now servicing the war.
She said the Democratic Republic of the Congo could learn from neighbouring countries like Zambia, which had been able to expand the use of contraception despite having some similar customary beliefs and practices. It was contradictory that one bill had created a national council on contraception while another forbade the display of contraceptives. Which one was being implemented.
An expert, addressing article 14 on rural women, said the greatest rate of illiteracy was prevalent in rural areas. Mortality rates were also the highest -- 30 per cent of non-assisted childbirth took place there. She said an energetic plan of action that would give priority to rural women was needed. It was also necessary to broadly disseminate the Convention and the legal rights of women in rural areas. Women had to fight for their rights since they were not acquired. However, women had to know about those rights to want them and mobilize for them.
Addressing the question of equality before the law (Article 15), an expert said that the report had identified many obstacles barring Congolese women from the full exercise of their rights. Most women were not aware of their rights and were therefore subject to the decisions of their husbands. Many women did not report abuses either because they did not know their rights or due to lack of education.
Recalling that there were no laws punishing prostitution, she noted that according to the report, there were laws to punish procurers. Girls from 8 to 12 years of age became involved in prostitution after being abandoned by their parents. It was the duty of all women to rescue girls who might have fallen into that situation -- for whatever reason - and to make every possible effort to reorient and rehabilitate them. They must be shown that there was a better life.
An expert, addressing article 16 on family law, said there was an all- pervasive concept of a husband's marital power. That particular power translated itself into many other Congolese laws. She cited as examples the nationality and employment laws. The husband's power was the core of the discrimination in the family law and that contradicted articles 2 and 16 of the Convention. She wanted to know the origin of that concept of power, since it was very similar to the Napoleonic code of France. The marriage law needed to be reviewed in light of prevailing international standards.
She said that the report had stated in one place that girls could get married at 14. In another place, it had put that age at 16. Whatever the age, both were in conflict with the Convention. The marriage law was threatening the right to health and education. Double messages should not be sent.