8 July 2005
Experts Stress Need for further Action to Eliminate Harmful Traditional Practices, as Women’s Anti-Discrimination Committee Considers Benin’s Report
Country Is Commended for Enactment of Crucial Laws, Development of National Plan, but Effective Implementation Is Necessary
NEW YORK, 7 July (UN Headquarters) -- Commending Benin for its political will to overcome serious obstacles to the achievement of gender equality, expert members of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women today stressed the need for the Government to take further measures to eradicate harmful traditional practices and entrenched cultural stereotypes in order to achieve not only de jure, but also de facto equality of women.
The Committee was considering Benin’s combined first through third reports on the country’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Benin has been a party to the Convention since 12 March 1992, and its initial report was due in 1993.
Regarding the delay in the presentation of the country’s reports, a member of the country’s delegation said that in 1993, when the initial report should have been presented to the Committee, Benin did not have the institutions that could be tasked with preparing that document. Relevant machinery, including the Commission on Human Rights, had only been established in 1997.
Several experts commended the Government of Benin for its commitment to the implementation of the Convention and commented on the high level of its representation at the Committee, which testified to the country’s political will to implement the Convention. The reports presented by the country candidly analysed the problems Benin had encountered in that regard, which included a difficult economic situation, the lack of necessary funds and deficiencies in the country’s infrastructure. Deeply rooted cultural practices were not easy to eliminate. Traditional practices and stereotypes required many actions on behalf of the State and society, as well as individual men and women in Benin.
Among the positive developments, the experts noted elaboration of a national plan and a multi-sectoral policy for the advancement of women in Benin. Important legislative measures included a 2004 Code of Persons and the Family, which one of the country representatives characterized as “the core of the measures taken by the Government to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women”. In particular, the new legislation abolished the country’s customary laws, under which women were treated as perpetual minors, had no legal capacity and formed part of their husbands’ heritage. Under the new Family Code, the marriage age has been set at 18 years for both men and women; marriage is monogamous; distribution of duties within the household is to be shared; and inheritance rights are equal for both sexes.
While acknowledging the Government’s efforts to improve the situation of women through the enactment of crucial laws, the experts stressed the need to put in place measures for effective implementation of those laws. Changing the legislation alone could not change long-held attitudes of the people. Seminars, lectures and awareness-raising campaigns were among effective steps that could be taken. Also recommended by the experts was introduction of quotas to increase women’s participation in Benin’s public and political life.
Among the problems that still needed to be addressed, members of the Committee listed trafficking in girls for sexual purposes; violence against women; continued practice of genital mutilation; and forced, arranged or early marriages. According to Benin’s report, notwithstanding all the steps being taken, customary degrading practices, albeit decried, are still widespread, but the authorities are making efforts to eliminate discrimination and violations of women’s rights.
The Committee will take up Guyana’s combined third through sixth periodic reports at 10 a.m. tomorrow, 8 July.
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women had before it combined first through third reports of Benin -- a West African nation, which gained independence in 1960 (document CEDAW/C/BEN1-3). It is classified as a low-income country with a low human development indicator. Benin has been a party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women since 12 March 1992, and its initial report was due in 1993.
Benin’s population is composed of 42 ethnic groups, the largest being the Adja, the Fon, the Bariba, the Dendi, the Yoa-lokpa, the Peulh or Foulfoulbé, the Betamaribé and the Yoruba. French is the only working language in the country, but the main national languages -- Fon, Adja, Yoruba and Bariba -- are spoken by, respectively, 42.2, 15.6, 12.1 and 8.6 per cent of the population. Several religions coexist in Benin. Animism and Christianity come first with 35 per cent of adherents each, followed by Islam (20.6 per cent). Numerous sects have sprung up in the last few years
The Government reports that the Constitution of 11 December 1990 provides a framework for the protection of women against all forms of discrimination. Having ratified the Convention, Benin ipso facto recognizes its precedence over domestic law. While the Constitution stops short of defining discrimination against women, it contains many general provisions that grant equal rights to all citizens.
Among the remedies available to victims of discrimination, the document lists an appeal to the Constitutional Court, which decides upon the constitutionality or otherwise of the act; legal action, with all procedural guarantees, before courts of first instance, the Appeals Court and the Supreme Court; administrative appeals; and appeals to a human rights institution. Under article 125 of the Constitution, judiciary power is exercised by the Supreme Court and the courts and tribunals established in accordance with the Constitution. The country’s numerous non-governmental institutions are extremely vigilant in detecting and denouncing any act aimed at violating citizens’ rights and freedoms.
On the obligation for all States parties to the Convention to incorporate its provisions in their national laws, the Government points out that there is no specific text defining discrimination or incorporating the provisions of the Convention in domestic law. Under article 147 of the Constitution, violations of women’s rights can be directly invoked before Beninese judicial, constitutional or administrative jurisdictions, but “the question of the efficacy of the Convention’s implementation arises owing to the absence of any provision in domestic law for action to be taken in the event of violation”.
Among the steps to improve the status and situation of women in Benin, the report mentions review of the Criminal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure. The country’s family law and the law of succession are governed both by the Civil Code and the customary law. Under the customary law of Dahomey as set out in Circular No. 128 of 8 March 1931, women have the status of perpetual minors. Paragraph 127 affirms that women have no legal capacity and form part of their husband’s chattels and heritage; paragraph 128 states that a wife is inherited by her deceased husband’s natural heir. The customary law of Dahomey enshrines polygamous marriage; marriages are arranged by the father or, failing that, by an older brother or the head of the family. The future spouses’ views are not always consulted. The customary law also contains provisions concerning marriage by barter, widowhood, levirate and succession.
A draft Code of Persons and the Family is under study at the National Assembly, as are a number of draft acts concerning the punishment of rape, inducement of abortion, voluntary interruption of pregnancy and female genital mutilation (preliminary draft). A number of seminars have been held to inform local and national non-governmental organization s (NGOs), senior public administration staff and the population at large about the provisions of human rights instruments, in particular the African Charter of Human and People’s Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the African Child, and other human rights conventions and their additional protocols.
Among the existing problems, the report lists forced, arranged or early marriages; negative or nefarious traditional practices, such as excision or other acts of female genital mutilation that often entail loss of life; and trafficking in girls. Notwithstanding all the steps being taken, the degrading practices of widowhood and levirate, albeit decried, are still widespread, but the authorities are making efforts to eliminate discrimination and violations of women’s rights.
A Ministry of Health, Social Protection and Status of Women was established in 1996. In the interest of making it more operational, this Ministry has today been subdivided into two separate departments, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry for Social Protection and the Status of Women. The latter was subsequently renamed “Ministry of Social Protection and the Family” incorporating a Women’s Advancement Board. A draft Code of Persons and the Family has been prepared with a view to putting an end to inequality between men and women in matrimonial and succession matters.
According to the report, the reasons for the relative slowness of women’s development in Benin are related to their primary role as mothers and as the persons principally responsible for bearing and raising children. “The fact is that our women do not always have the time necessary for other (e.g. political) activities”, the report states. Added to this is the weight of custom, stereotyping, traditional practices and taboos.
On “social matters”, the report states that in cases where both spouses are civil servants, the husband has priority in benefiting from the right to family allowances. Women civil servants pay a higher salaries tax because they are classified as having no dependants or children. Women civil servants who are heads of households can, however, benefit from the said allowances. Moreover, the children and husband of a woman civil servant do not receive any survivors’ allowance in the event of her demise. The trade unions are trying to remedy this situation by campaigning for the adoption and implementation of new rules more favourable to women.
Introduction of Reports
Presenting her country’s reports, LEA HOUNKPE-AHOUGBE, Minister for the Family, Social Protection and Solidarity of Benin, said that her country was endeavouring to strengthen its judicial system and infrastructure. Through its 1990 Constitution, Benin had reaffirmed its commitment to the principles of human rights and democracy. That instrument provided for the establishment of regulatory institutions, whose competencies extended to the protection of human rights. Legislative power was exercised exclusively by the National Assembly. The Constitutional Court guaranteed public rights and freedoms under the Constitution.
Various governmental bodies dealt with the status of women, she continued, including the Ministry of the Interior, Security and Territorial Administration; Ministry for Justice and Human Rights; Foreign Ministry; and Ministry of the Civil Service. National commissions for the integration of women in development and for the promotion of women had been created in 2002. Several associations and NGOs conducted activities within the framework of protecting and advancing the rights of women. Among those, she mentioned the Association of Women Lawyers of Benin; Association Béninoise pour la Promotion de la Famille; Dignité Féminine; Benin Human Rights League and Defence for Children International Movement. Those organizations participated in the activities of the State structures in the area of human rights.
Among the measures undertaken to improve the situation of women, she listed new legislation, which included the 1998 Labour Code; the 2002 pension regulations; the 2003 law to repress the practice of genital mutilations; and laws related to sexual health and reproduction, as well as the 2001 law on presidential elections. In 2001, the country had adopted a policy on the promotion of women.
The country’s road to gender equality was not easy, however, she continued. Socio-cultural considerations within the country did not allow the Government to easily implement the equality provisions of the Constitution and international instruments that the country had ratified. It had been through concerted action by the Government, with the help of its development partners, NGOs and the civil society, that Benin’s new Family Code had entered into force in December 2004. Under this legislation, the marriage age was set at 18 years for both men and women, the marriage was monogamous, distribution of duties within the household was shared, and inheritance rights were equal for children of both sexes. Efforts were being made to make its provisions known throughout the country.
The Government attached priority to equality between men and women, she stressed. However, challenges continued to exist. For example, there were still cases of genital mutilation and violence against women. Those offences were prosecuted under the law. Public awareness campaigns and increase in the resources allocated for the protection of women’s rights were among the measures to address those issues. The challenge was to create a true culture of human rights, including women’s rights, in Benin. She was convinced that arrival of an expert mission to draft periodic reports on international human rights instruments would allow the country to fill the remaining gaps and achieve further progress.
Experts’ Questions and Comments
HEISOO SHIN, an expert from the Republic of Korea, noted that Benin was a developing country with 42 ethnic groups and 18 languages, which could create complications in implementing the Convention. Noting that the country also suffered widespread poverty and a high incidence of HIV/AIDS, she stressed the importance of political will in working towards gender equality and non-discrimination in fighting discriminatory practices and customs. She added that education was the key to development, and that the Government should cooperate with civil society in promoting education for girls.
CORNELIS FLINTERMAN, an expert from the Netherlands, asked what means were available to women in addressing violations to their rights in terms of the Convention. What was the role of administrative courts in such situations, and what was the procedure for airing such complaints in the constitutional court? He also asked about the independence or overlapping mandates of the country’s various human rights bodies.
MARIA REGINA TAVARES DA SILVA, an expert from Portugal, noted that national legislation often overlooked the influence that tradition and history could have on women’s rights. The report noted that women in Benin were in a disadvantaged situation because they had the primary responsibility of bearing and raising children, but also stated that men and women had equal opportunities, as well as salaries. In reality, women did not have equal opportunities or salaries. Adding that the Committee required more than just laws, she said the country should carry out further analysis on substantive equality in the country.
FRANÇOISE GASPARD, an expert from France, questioned whether ministries in the country affected by the Convention had been involved in drafting its report. Those ministries should be made aware of the Committee’s conclusions, as should Parliament, since it would be enacting laws to implement the Convention. What was the procedure for drawing up the report and how would it be monitored?
DUBRAVKA SIMONOVIC, an expert from Croatia, noted that the country seemed to have no domestic remedies for violations of the Convention. It was important to examine how the country would implement the Convention, as well as laws that had precedence over international laws. Also, was the Government planning to include a definition of equality in future legislation?
NAELA GABR, an expert from Egypt, questioned how the Government and its departments planned to adhere to the Convention. It was essential for women to play their part in directing the country’s affairs, which would have an important effect on development. Had all bills and documents favouring women’s rights been publicized, and what was the media’s role in raising awareness of them?
MARY SHANTHI DAIRIAM, an expert from Malaysia, asked whether the country’s legal framework would allow domestic legislation to be brought in line with international instruments. Had the definition of equality been laid down, for example, and had any exceptions been noted? Was there an analysis of the adequacy of laws to implement the Convention? How would cultural issues be addressed in implementation of the Convention?
HANNA BEATE SCHOPP-SCHILLING, an expert from Germany, was surprised that, according to the report, female urban population seemed to have doubled in recent years. She wanted to receive clarification in that regard.
National laws needed to be interpreted to bring them in line with the Convention, she continued. She was concerned about the country’s educational efforts as far as the definition of discrimination was concerned. Unless people in the legal profession understood that concept, the country’s major legal tool to combat discrimination was not being utilized. How did the country intend to educate the general public about the new Family Code?
ZOU XIAOQIAO, an expert from China, welcomed the adoption of the Family Code and asked if that instrument contained new provisions regarding the marriage age. Her other questions related to the country’s progress in the codification of new laws addressing the issues of genital mutilation and violence against women.
TIZIANA MAIOLO, an expert from Italy, said that adultery was among the issues not adequately addressed in Benin’s current legislation. The punishment for adultery was different for husbands and wives. She wanted to know what was being done to correct that situation.
Responding to the experts’ comments and questions were the members of Benin’s delegation, which included Lea Hounkpe-Ahougbenou, Minister for the Family, Social Protection and Solidarity of Benin; Dorothe Sossa, Minister of Justice, Legislation and Human Rights; Thierry Alia, Director for Human Rights at the Ministry of Justice; Genevieve Ogoussan, Director for the Promotion of Women at the Ministry for Family, Social Protection and Solidarity; Yvette Kpongnonhou, Technical Counsellor at the Ministry for Family, Social Protection and Solidarity; Judge Genevieve Boko Nadjo; and Edouard Aho-Glele and Bertin Babadoudou of Benin’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations.
Mr. SOSSA said that the country had had some difficulty in producing the responses to the Committee’s pre-session group questions. For that reason, the responses had only been provided to the experts in French.
Ms. BOKO NADJO assured the experts that their recommendations would be taken into account. All ministries had participated in the drafting of the country’s report through focal points established within each governmental body. Regarding the remedies available to female victims of violence, she said that the current penal code contained a number of provisions, which dealt with violations of rights, including women’s rights. Women could go before a tribunal, a court of appeals, or a higher court to get redress for violation of their rights. Any citizen of Benin could also go directly before the Constitutional Court.
Turning to the Code of the Person and Family, she said that its adoption by the National Assembly had been a significant development in Benin. It could be applied to all citizens, regardless of their sex or religion. In marriage, women could maintain their family name and add her husband’s name. The marriage age had been set at 18. The levirate system of marriage between people close in kin had been eliminated. In terms of the inheritance law, both widows and widowers had equal rights. Since the adoption of the new legislation, it had been a subject of several public awareness campaigns. Summary of the Code had been translated into four main languages spoken in the country.
The Code was the core of the measures taken by the Government to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women, she continued, but there were also other laws, including the legislation on punishment of female genital mutilation, sexual violence against women, a revision of the Penal Code, which provided for stricter measures against rape. As for adultery, it was no longer considered an automatic cause for divorce.
Regarding the delay in the presentation of the country’s reports, Mr. ALIA said that, indeed, the initial report should have been presented to the Committee in 1993. However, at that time, the country did not have the institutions that could be tasked with preparing those documents. Relevant machinery, including the Commission on Human Rights, had only been established in 1997. That body was created at the Ministry of Justice. Its functions included preparation of reports on the implementation of international conventions, to which Benin was a party. Thus, the Commission had taken part in the preparation of the reports related to the Convention.
Regarding the definition of discrimination, a representative said the constitutional court had embodied the notion of equality as a fundamental aspect of democracy and law, although the country’s laws did not contain an explicit definition of it. As for traditional customs, they had evolved over thousands of years and could not be eliminated overnight. Benin had been establishing the rule of law since 1990, and discrimination between men and women was gradually being eliminated.
She added that political will towards gender equality had been reflected in the creation of the Ministry of Family and Protection. The country had also carried out training and awareness-raising sessions on women’s rights, which gathered together judicial, governmental and private sector representatives.
Another representative said that Benin’s definition of discrimination agreed with that of the Convention, and that no problem in definition existed. Benin was facing many developmental difficulties, but that did not prevent it from respecting its international commitments. Recently, it had ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention, so that victims could bring their complaints to the international level. Stressing that the law did not tolerate a woman being subjected to violence, he noted that many of Benin’s courts were made up of women.
Addressing women’s economic status, a representative said the Government was taking steps to assist women in becoming autonomous financially. If women had financial means, they would be better able to contribute to the country’s development. Among other things, women were granted microcredit at a low interest rate. Traditional customs were gradually being dealt with to put women on an even footing with men. Even if there was still genital mutilation in the country, for example, it was no longer an official practice.
Experts’ Comments and Questions
FUMIKO SAIGA, an expert from Japan, said that from the country’s response, it was not quite clear which State institutions had the primary responsibility for the implementation of the Convention. Was it the Monitoring Committee or the Human Rights Commission? She also wanted to know about the coordination of various bodies’ functions and the staffing of relevant structures.
Ms. TAVARES DA SILVA, an expert from Portugal, also wondered about the national machinery responsible for the monitoring of the implementation of the Convention. She was pleased that all the ministries had been asked to make comments on the report, which had been prepared by an outside consultant. However, preparation of a report was also an opportunity to evaluate progress and policies undertaken for the advancement of women. Above all, it was an opportunity to prepare for future action.
MAGALYS AROCHA DOMINGUEZ, an expert from Cuba, thanked the Government of Benin for its commitment to the implementation of the Convention. The report presented by the country candidly analysed the problems it had encountered in that regard. Deeply rooted cultural practices were not easy to eliminate. Traditional practices and stereotypes required many actions on behalf of the State and society, as well as individual men and women in Benin. She asked about the measures taken to change the traditional stereotypes both at the formal level and at the community level. What impact did the country’s efforts have on the education, public conscience and cultural change? Did the Government work together with NGOs and civil society in that regard?
DORCAS COKER-APPIAH, an expert from Ghana, acknowledged the actions taken by the Government through the enactment of crucial laws in recent years. However, it was also important to put in place measures for the effective implementation of those laws. Changing the legislation alone could not change long-held attitudes of the people. Seminars, lectures and awareness-raising campaigns were among effective steps that could be taken. However, she wanted to know what other measures had been taken to stop such harmful practices as female genital mutilation. In that connection, she clarified that genital mutilation was an economic activity for those engaged in it. Had any alternative sources of income been offered to the practitioners to ensure that the laws were implemented?
KRISZTINA MORVAI, an expert from Hungary, noted that Benin was known as both a supplier and receiver of children for sexual purposes. A massive and complex programme of action should be put in place to address the problem of child trafficking. She urged the country to seek cooperation from the developed countries, which had a major role in encouraging the child sex and pornography business. Many customers of child prostitution came from those countries.
GLENDA SIMMS, an expert from Jamaica, stressed the importance of class division when speaking of gender equality in developing countries. Those who had benefited from education were not necessarily connected with the poorest of the people. She was pleased that NGOs were involved in gender equality because they would be more likely to work at the grass-roots level. Was there any collaboration between the Government and NGOs in the country?
She also asked whether the country had safe houses to shelter and assist trafficking victims. Adding that empowered women were threats to traditional societies, she asked whether work was being carried out to educate traditional men. Now that traditional laws were illegal, was the country planning to build more prisons to punish offenders?
Responding to the question on trafficking, a representative said trafficking in children had originally started as a time-honoured practice by which families with little means would entrust their children to those who could ensure their education. Little by little, the practice had deteriorated into the trafficking of today.
She stressed that trafficking in children in West Africa was not practised for sexual commerce, but transborder labour, so that children could provide money to their families. Only in extremely rare cases did sex or paedophilia occur, generally when children were trafficked to developed countries. Religious, legal aid and women rights centres had been established to assist trafficked women and children.
Addressing questions on education, a representative said Benin had not remained idle in promoting the rights of women and girls to education. It had established centres for young women and a national network to promote the schooling of young women and girls. It had also reviewed educational texts to change stereotypes, set up training courses for girls, and had established a programme to promote technical and vocational education for girls. There was also a policy to encourage girls to choose careers traditionally reserved for men. Unfortunately, however, the country lacked the qualified teachers, as well as infrastructure, to adequately carry out such programmes, which it was currently trying to resolve.
Another representative said the country had prepared a multi-sectoral plan of action on gender equality from 2001-2006 and mainstreaming related policies and programmes within ministries. A mid-term review of the plan had determined that the country’s means were insufficient to carry out all of its activities.
She added that Benin had also established a project to assess the status of women in the country. It was also training people to disseminate information about female genital mutilation, especially in areas that had high populations of children. The project aimed to raise awareness of the problem and the rights of the child.
Another country representative added that the Government’s efforts were limited by such objective factors as a high rate of unemployment. International assistance and cooperation were extremely important in that regard.
Regarding trafficking in children, members of the delegation said that it was a subregional phenomenon, and the efforts to stop that practice had been developed on that level. The country had signed an agreement with Nigeria and was cooperating with several neighbouring countries in that regard. A forthcoming regional meeting would be devoted to the efforts to combat trafficking.
The main bodies responsible for the implementation of the Convention included the National Monitoring Committee, which monitored the implementation of international human rights conventions, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. That was an administrative body comprising representatives of all the ministries, which met regularly and developed recommendations on the matters within its purview. Also in place was the National Advisory Commission on Human Rights, which included representatives of the Government and NGOs. That body was primarily responsible for the drafting of reports.
A member of the delegation said that harmful traditional practices, including genital mutilation, were illegal. Many persons had been brought to justice for practising genital mutilation. Committees were in place in each village to combat trafficking in children and genital mutilation. It was true that genital mutilation and trafficking in children were sources of income for certain individuals. However, it was important to find means to enforce the laws.
MERIEM BELMIHOUB-ZERDANI, an expert from Algeria, said representation of women at the decision-making level was not adequate in many developing countries, including Benin. However, many of those countries were making considerable efforts to rectify the situation. The participation of women in Benin’s political bodies was very low. She urged the Government to establish a quota system and introduce financial incentives to increase women’s participation in the country’s political parties. As a country with a serious external debt problem, Benin should also seek international assistance to achieve its goals.
Ms. GASPARD, an expert from France, said that women’s participation in decision-making was a prerequisite for the modernization of society. She was surprised at the very low participation of women in the political life of Benin. In the report, the Government referred to significant difficulties it had encountered. However, she wanted to challenge the reference to the low awareness of women. Was men’s awareness much higher? On the basis of the Convention, the Government could take special temporary steps, such as progressive quotas to achieve parity. Many African countries, including Rwanda and Uganda, had achieved significant progress that way. It was important to introduce a forward-looking policy to increase women’s participation in Benin.
VICTORIA POPESCU, an expert from Romania, congratulated the delegation for the high level of representation, which indicated the country’s political will to implement the Convention. However, it was important to speed up the advancement of women in Benin. While noteworthy progress had been achieved, more remained to be done. For example, five women were ministers in Benin’s current government, but women’s participation at many levels was inadequate. She wanted to know how many women were members of Parliament in Benin. The delegation had also referred to the network of elected women, which sought to promote women’s participation in the local government. She wanted to receive additional information in that regard.
MR. FLINTERMAN, an expert from the Netherlands, asked for more information about the country’s new nationality law. Could its current discriminatory provision, by which the Government could deny nationality to women of foreign nationality married to a man from Benin, be changed? Would it specify equal rights for men and women regarding the nationality of their children?
Regarding nationality, a representative said the country had just presented the first draft of a revised nationality code to the Supreme Court. Explaining the current law, he said that when a man from Benin married a foreign woman, she had no problem gaining Benin nationality after three months. But when a foreign man married a woman from Benin, the procedure was much more complicated.
She said the current draft for the revised code had been prepared with full consideration for international conventions, and should leave out discriminatory provisions.
Regarding women in decision-making, another representative agreed with the idea of quotas for political parties, adding that women could only be placed in higher positions through that system. The notion was problematic, however, since the Constitution enshrined the equality of men and women, and the quota system would discriminate against men. She added that women had previously occupied important roles in Benin, but had disappeared from political life with the advent of colonization.
PRAMILA PATTEN, an expert from Mauritius, asked whether development assistance programmes in the country addressed the educational needs of girls and women. Stressing that investment in formal or informal education was vital in achieving sustainable development and economic growth, she asked what efforts were being made to improve women’s access to vocational training, science and technology, and continuing education.
Ms. POPESCU, an expert from Romania, asked about any problems caused by language in programmes addressing educational level and literacy. How was the literacy programme conducted? Had the country mobilized civil society to participate in the campaign?
ROSARIO MANALO, Committee’s Chairperson and an expert from the Philippines, posed a question regarding the use of funds from debt-alleviation programmes.
Responding to questions regarding education, several members of the delegation said that in Benin, there was informal education for women through apprenticeships. There were also programmes for women in technical schools and vocational centres. As far as girls with early pregnancies were concerned, the law did not prevent them from going back to school, but they did not do so for social and cultural reasons. The country’s linguistic diversity did not give rise to educational problems, because education was conducted only in French. There were, however, literacy programmes in native languages.
Despite some debt alleviation, the country was not yet free from debt. Funds from debt cancellation had been frequently used to carry out social projects.
On employment, Ms. AROCHA DOMINGUEZ, an expert from Cuba, said that the Convention presupposed elimination of discrimination in that field. A member of the delegation had mentioned difficulties with guaranteeing jobs not only for women, but also for men. That was a problem around the world, but it was still the Government’s responsibility to ensure that there was no discrimination against women in the labour market and that they received the same remuneration as men for equal work. She asked for up-to-date statistical information showing women’s participation in various sectors of employment. It was also important to know about women’s income. What was the Government doing to ensure that the provisions of the Convention were implemented?
Ms. PATTEN, an expert from Mauritius, welcomed the enactment of the country’s Labour Code. However, despite some progress achieved, gross inequalities persisted. While laws were in place, their implementation was poor. Did Benin have a national policy to promote equal opportunities for men and women? She also wanted to know what measures were being contemplated to increase women’s participation in the civil service, especially at its higher levels. What was being done to eliminate discrimination in hiring of women? Had anti-harassment policies been developed?
She added that due to the difficult economic situation prevailing in the country, women had entered the informal sector. What was being done to promote women’s self-employment and increase their access to credit?
Responding to the question on sexual harassment, a representative said the country had no specific laws relating to that behaviour, but a combination of certain provisions of the penal code addressed it. In a few months, the country would have a new penal code, which should take sexual harassment into account.
As for employment, recruiting was open to both men and women, but there was no quota for women. In certain sectors, women succeeded better than men, and preference was being given to them in recruiting for those jobs. In the formal sector, the law was clear about discrimination, but such was not the case in the informal sector.
On the representation of women in the public sector, he said he had no data on that, but would forward information to the Committee.
SILVIA PIMENTEL, an expert from Brazil, noted that the report referred to female circumcizers who had taken on that trade because it was their only source of livelihood. It also stated that NGOs were training those people to perform other jobs, but the country should also undertake special measures to help in eradicating such mutilation.
Ms. DAIRIAM, an expert from Malaysia, asked what concept of women’s health the country was basing its services on, and whether there was sex disaggregated data to monitor women’s and men’s access to health services. What steps was Benin taking to ensure more universal access to health services, and was there a time frame and plan for such access? How did reasons for morbidity among women compare to those for men? She also asked for statistics showing the decline in maternal morbidity to be a result of improved care, whether abortion was still illegal, and what services were provided for health problems caused by unsafe abortions.
Ms. MORVAI, an expert from Hungary, noting that men must agree with their female partners on family planning services, asked whether the law required the female partner to authorize contraceptive devices or interventions for men. In the spirit of gender equality, must a female partner authorize sterilization for her male partner, or permit him to buy a condom?
Responding to questions about the practice of genital mutilation, the Minister for Family, Social Protection and Solidarity said that the Government had launched a dedicated struggle against the practice. An official ceremony had been held in the country to mark an end to genital mutilation. Knowing that there was a law forbidding the practice, those involved in it were now in hiding. Efforts were being made to educate girls and women about the issue. Educational programmes also sought to educate women about HIV/AIDS and the dangers of certain cancers. There was no discrimination between men and women in the area of health. The number of health centres was steadily increasing.
Turning to the issue of abortion, she said that it was allowed under certain circumstances. The Family Code stated that decisions about abortion and contraception should be made by husband and wife jointly. Women could not make such decisions without discussion in the family.
The Minister of Justice explained that, in 2003, the old law on abortion had been partially changed. Abortion was authorized when the life and health of the mother was at risk and when the pregnancy was a result of incest or rape. The reform was still provisional, and the debate on the matter continued.
As the Committee turned to the situation of rural women, Ms. SCHOPP-SCHILLING, an expert from Germany, said that she was quite impressed with various programmes to improve the life of rural women. She wanted to know if the country intended to continue with such initiatives as solar energy and access to water programmes.
Some 54 per cent of the population involved in the agricultural sector were women, she continued, but women did not own land or get significant rewards for their labour. She also wanted to know how many rural women were involved in polygamous marriages and how women benefited from the country’s development programme.
ANAMAH TAN, an expert from Singapore, joined her colleagues in congratulating the Government for passing significant laws to achieve gender equality. However, illiteracy was high in rural areas, and poverty was rampant. The passage of the new Family Code had abolished many customary laws and introduced equality within the family. While that was the situation de jure, she wondered what the de facto situation was like. What was being done to overcome the stereotypes, improve women’s access to land and increase their participation in water management committees? she asked.
Ms. ZOU, an expert from China, asked what kind of problems women encountered when seeking access to credit. She also sought information on violence against women, including incidence of domestic violence.
Responding to the question on rural women, a representative said they had access to credit, especially microfinance. Many rural women worked jointly with their husbands in their fields, but most women in the north and centre of the country grew crops on their own land, and were autonomous. Women even hired men to work on their fields, and then harvested and sold their produce at market.
Another representative said an article of the new Code of Persons and the Family had abolished customary practices violating women’s rights. It was a bit early to assess the impact of that provision on people’s lives, but much had been done in Benin to raise awareness of socio-cultural obstacles to gender equality since the advent of democracy in the country.
Addressing domestic violence, she said that was a matter one did not make public, but resolved within the family. When no solution was found in the family, the problem was referred to the moral authorities or religious chiefs of the village. Only in the rare exceptions when no solution was found at the latter level was the matter referred to the courts.
Regarding employment, another representative noted that women working in the fields received the same salary as men. As for water access, many villages that previously lacked water were now being provided with hydraulic pumps to meet women’s needs. Regarding polygamy in rural areas, no census had been carried out, although she said she may have some reliable figures.
Ms. SAIGA, an expert from Japan, noted that discriminatory provisions still existed in the country’s law on marriage and inheritance. Were those issues resolved in the new Code on Persons and the Family, and what was the effect of the new law on women in Benin? she asked.
Ms. BERMIHOUB-ZERDANI, an expert from Algeria, said the new Code on Persons and the Family was a revolution in terms of women’s rights, but that another law on customs and traditions still existed. That law stipulated that women were considered men’s property and were unable to inherit. If the family of the husband inherited before the new code, what was the situation today?
Following up on the customary law of Dahomey, Ms. TAN, an expert from Singapore, said that, in view of the passage of the new Family Code in 2004, all customary practices had been abolished. In the report, there was no mention of the religious laws, and she asked about those. In the event of inconsistencies between the new Code and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, would the provisions of the Convention prevail? she asked.
The Minister of Justice said that the first part of the report had been prepared long before the new legislation had been enacted. The Dahomey customary law contained provisions that denied women equal rights of succession and did not give them the same rights as men. Since the new Family Code came into force, however, the customary law no longer applied. People in old polygamous marriages, of course, maintained their status, but new marriages had to be monogamous. The regime of succession was also defined by the new Code. No cases had been tried under the new laws yet, but women had a right to protection of their rights under the new legislation. The issue of domestic violence was not covered by the current Penal Code, but the new draft of that law did address violence in the home.
The Minister for Family, Social Protection and Solidarity said that the delegation had noted all the contributions by the experts. The Government would continue its efforts to eliminate discrimination in the country.
Ms. SCHOPP-SCHILLING, an expert from Germany, asked for figures on the trafficking of children. She applauded the creation of a monitoring body on the implementation of international conventions. What plans did the country have to disseminate the Committee’s concluding comments? she asked. She recommended that the Government of Benin carefully study previous general recommendations of the Committee, particularly those related to special temporary measures to accelerate de facto equality between men and women. It was also important to differentiate between quota systems in politics and employment.
Ms. SHIN, an expert from the Republic of Korea, said that the report lacked statistics in practically all areas of application of the Convention, including such important areas as employment and violence against women. Basic statistics, disaggregated by sex, were very important for the implementation of the Convention. She wanted to know how the data was collected in Benin.
Ms. MORVAI, an expert from Hungary, emphasized that contraception and family planning were the joint responsibility of a man and a woman. The country needed to educate its population on such issues. If the country intended to introduce legal abortion, it needed to take measures to preserve women’s dignity. In her country, abortion had been introduced as a technical, medical measure, however, that had led to a large number of emotionally traumatized women who had undergone up to 15 abortions. The measure ended up liberating men rather than women, serving as a form of post-coital contraception.
Ms. SIMONOVIC, an expert from Croatia, asked if it was possible to directly invoke the Convention before the constitutional court or any other court in the country.
Mr. FLINTERMAN, an expert from the Netherlands, followed up on that question. Could a case questioning constitutionality of an act of Parliament come before an ordinary court? Also, legal proceedings were very expensive, and he wondered if legal assistance schemes existed in Benin.
Ms. DAIRIAM, an expert from Malaysia, said that the delegation seemed to believe that there was no discrimination if the law prohibited it. However, under the Convention, the country needed to achieve, not only de jure, but also de facto equality. Referring to a statement by the delegation that men and women had equal access to health services under the law, she asked if that meant that men and women actually used those services equally.
Ms. BELMIHOUB-ZERDANI, an expert from Algeria, said she had found nothing in the report to suggest that the country’s penal code included punishment for violence against women. Perhaps in the future, something could be added to sanction that crime, which would be a step forward for all African women. She also highlighted the need for a provision that would allow citizens to go directly before a constitutional court in the jurisdiction where they wished to validate their rights.
Regarding genital mutilation, a representative said it was true that there was reluctance to pursue the matter in the country, but senators for social promotion were pursuing actions taken previously by the Government, and punishment would be issued. Concerning reproductive health, she said it was not limited to reproduction, but included women’s health in every sense.
Another representative said all citizens could approach the constitutional court, which was not costly since lawyers were not compulsory. If an individual went before a civil court about a law not in keeping with the Constitution, there would be automatic recourse.
He added that the delegation had taken note of comments regarding the country’s lack of statistics, realizing that many areas required supporting data. An Institute of Statistics and Economic Analysis existed in the country, and was able to provide relevant figures.
Regarding child trafficking, another representative said that term in Benin referred to children who were displaced internally to a wealthier area, were sent to Nigeria to work or went to central Africa to stay with a family member. Such children were not sold to foreigners or strangers, but could be recovered and returned to their families at any time, or taken to centres where they attended school or learned a trade.
On abortion, she said the practice was authorized in specific circumstances, but not just because a woman wanted it. Regarding genital mutilation, she said the country would continue to raise awareness in the field. The entire population was working to address that situation, including men and traditional chiefs.
The Chairperson of the Committee, ROSARIO G. MANALO, highlighted the main issues raised in the discussion. She commented on the high level of the country’s delegation, which included two Ministers. To the Committee, that demonstrated the Government’s serious approach to the implementation of the Convention. She also commended the delegation for the candid nature of its responses. The measures taken to eliminate discrimination in Benin included the ratification of the Optional Protocol and the elaboration of laws on family and prohibition of genital mutilation. However, it was still necessary to define discrimination in accordance with the Convention and integrate that instrument into the domestic law. She urged the Government to increase the resources it allocated for the national gender equality machinery.
She welcomed Benin’s efforts to eliminate gender stereotypes. Many obstacles still remained, such as the lack of teachers and infrastructure, forced marriages, and female genital mutilation. Stronger measures were needed in that regard. Trafficking in women had been forbidden in Benin, but it was still necessary to actually stop all kinds of trafficking. Cooperation within the subregion on the subject of trafficking was of utmost importance.
Regarding women’s participation in political life, she said that the efforts to increase it could be seen in the balanced composition of the delegation. Participation of women in decision-making was still low, however, and the Government should consider adopting special temporary measures to rectify the situation. It was also important to raise awareness of the Convention. There were no woman ambassadors in the diplomatic service of Benin, and she suggested that a programme be developed to encourage more women to get engaged in international service.
Although equal rights in education had been proclaimed, some problems still remained, she added. Concrete measures should be taken to eradicate illiteracy and ensure that all relevant provisions of the Convention were implemented. Concrete measures were also needed to achieve equal pay for equal work and eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace. Despite the adoption of the Code of Persons and Families, forced marriage and disparity in the minimal age of marriage, the practice of polygamy and levirate still persisted. Measures were needed to eliminate all those kinds of discrimination.
Benin’s Minister for Family, Social Protection and Solidarity thanked the experts for their advice and reiterated her Government’s commitment to the efforts to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women.
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