14 August 2006
Textile and Sugar Sectors Hardest Hit by Mauritius' Economic Woes, Globalization; Vulnerable Groups, Women most Affected, Anti-Discrimination Committee Told
Child Prostitution, Personal Law 'Versus' Civil Law Discussed as Mauritius Presents Combined Third, Fourth and Fifth Reports
NEW YORK, 11 August (UN Headquarters) -- The expert Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women today considered the combined third, fourth and fifth periodic reports of Mauritius, a country that, according to its Minister of Women's Rights, Child Development, Family Welfare and Consumer Protection, had faced a difficult economic situation since globalization and was losing jobs, primarily for women, as a consequence of trade liberalization in the textile and sugar sectors.
The Minister, Indira Seebun, reporting on her country's implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, said that, as a result of those challenges, the Mauritian Government had begun to undertake a series of measures meant to promote social and economic reforms. Presenting her country's report, she said that the Women's Rights Ministry was creating a parliamentary gender caucus, based on best practices at the global and regional levels, to advance the gender agenda at the highest level of Parliament. In addition, the 2006-2007 budget had included special programmes for unemployed women, such as the Empowerment Fund to promote the economic empowerment of vulnerable groups. Other initiatives included the provision of land for social housing and small entrepreneurs and special employment training programmes.
Emphasizing advances in education, she noted that the enrolment of girls at the secondary level was at 52 per cent, as compared to 48 per cent for boys. Even at the tertiary level, girls' enrolment was higher than boys. Efforts were under way -- including through a taskforce set up at the ministerial level -- to encourage girls to choose science and other non-traditional subjects, such as engineering. In addition, the Mauritius Institute of Education was beginning to revise textbooks to eliminate gender discrimination and sexual stereotyping.
Although Mauritius had a booming tourism sector, it was not regarded as a destination for sex tourism, she stressed. The Police Crime Prevention Unit had carried out regular sensitization campaigns in hotels and other institutions on ways to protect women from prostitution. In an effort to fight the commercial and sexual exploitation of young girls, the Government, in 2003, had created a drop-in centre where minors and victims of sexual abuse could gain psychological support. Sex workers were offered rehabilitation and given access to microcredit facilities.
In the discussion that followed, one expert expressed "shock" to learn that children as young as 10 years old entered the world of prostitution, and that there were 2,600 child prostitutes in the country. She asked if the whole aspect of customers, or clients, was being addressed, including whether any of them had been prosecuted. The Government was urged to reconsider its position regarding prostitution and to take "serious steps" to prevent it.
A country representative replied that, based on the findings of two studies, a national action plan had been adopted to address the issue of commercial sexual exploitation of children in an integrated and holistic manner and a committee consisting of Ministry and non-governmental organization representatives was monitoring its implementation. The Child Protection Act was also being examined, with a view to the possible need to elaborate a new one. Awareness-raising campaigns and training, as well as rehabilitation of children, were among the Committee's tasks.
Much time today had also been devoted to the issue of personal and religious law, as that related to marriage, the dissolution thereof, and inheritance. Even though Mauritius, on a recommendation of the women's Committee, had amended its Constitution to include protection against discrimination on the basis of sex, an exception had been made for people married under "personal law". Experts objected to that inclusion, concerned that such an exception offered possibilities for discrimination against women.
A member of the delegation of Mauritius explained that the Civil Code, which in the common-law system addressed all matters of marriage, had not been adaptable to the wishes of the extensive Muslim community. A provision for personal law had, therefore, been incorporated in the Constitution. Thus, personal law was not unconstitutional. The Muslim community had been arguing that those people who chose to be governed under personal law should be allowed to do so. Therefore, a balance had been struck. "There can be Mauritian solutions to Mauritian problems", he said.
He explained further that, when the Muslim Family Council had been told that, by adhering to personal law, international obligations were being infringed, the Council had replied that Muslims formed a sizeable minority, and that, in 1993, the United Nations had proclaimed the protection of minorities. According to the Muslim Family Council, provisions of personal law were restricted to marriage, dissolution of marriage and division of property. Only those Muslims who had voluntarily declared that they would be governed by the personal law were affected, it said.
Other issues addressed by experts were discrimination in the workplace, teenage pregnancy, issues of education and stereotypes in textbooks, access to land rights, abortion, maternity leave, HIV and AIDS and domestic violence.
Experts participating in this meeting were: as Chairperson, Dubravka Šimonović (Croatia); Dorcas Coker-Appiah (Ghana); Françoise Gaspard (France); Huguette Bokpe Gnacadja (Benin); Krisztina Morvai (Hungary); Fumiko Saiga (Japan); Hanna Beate Schöpp-Schilling (Germany); Glenda P. Simms (Jamaica); Anamah Tan (Singapore); and Zou Xiaoqiao (China).
Chamber A of the Committee will convene again in an open meeting at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 15 August, to consider the combined fifth and sixth periodic report of the Philippines.
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women had before it Mauritius' combined third, fourth and fifth periodic reports (document CEDAW/C/MAR/3-5) on that country's implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The report covers the period between 1993 to 2003. Part I of the report provides general background about the changes that have taken place in this group of islands in the Indian Ocean that have a population of about 1.2 million people. Part II presents the specific achievements relating to the various articles of the Convention.
The Ministry for Women's Rights, Child Development and Family Welfare has the responsibility to promote and defend women's rights as human rights and strives to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women. It coordinates most women's activities and ensures that legal measures are taken to promote equality between women and men. One of four units in the Ministry, the women's unit, serves as a focal point for women's issues, and functions through a network of 12 women's centres and about 1,000 women's associations throughout the islands. One of its primary tasks is to strengthen gender mainstreaming, taking into account the reproductive, productive and social roles of women.
The National Women's Council is a corporate body set up by an act of parliament in November 1985 to promote the interests and advancement of women. It also ensures that Government policies and actions meet the needs of women at the grass-roots level. The act will be reviewed by the Government.
Regarding article 2, on obligations to eliminate discrimination, the Government has taken a number of initiatives over the past decade. One is the Sexual Discrimination Act of 2002, which, among other things, provides for the protection of individuals against discrimination based on sex, marital status and pregnancy in areas ranging from employment and education to accommodations. The National Action Gender Plan of 2000 was a follow-up to the Beijing Platform for Action and integrates gender issues into the mainstream of Government and private sector activities.
Concerning article 5, on sex roles and stereotyping, the report states that males and females are still stereotyped in textbooks. Girls remain in traditional fields even when there is the opportunity to choose technical and scientific subjects. The Mauritius Institute of Education is beginning to revise textbooks to eliminate gender discrimination and sexual stereotyping. A task force was set up at the ministerial level to find methods to motivate girls into technical and science subjects.
On sexual exploitation of women, the subject of article 6, the report states that Government actions to eliminate the exploitation of women prostitutes include two studies on sex workers and the enactment of laws on child prostitution and adult sex workers. One such law, the Child Protection Act of 1995, protects children from prostitution.
Regarding political and public life, the report notes that, during the National Assembly elections of 2000, 7.3 per cent, or 39 of 534 candidates were women. Currently, women hold four of the 64 seats in the National Assembly.
The report acknowledges that women's representation in politics is low, but adds that the Government was committed to increasing that representation to 30 per cent by 2005. According to the Task Force Report of 2001, factors inhibiting women's entry into politics includes women's limited access to political institutions, the tailoring of many of these institutions to male standards, and the lack of media attention to women's potential.
Introduction of Report
Mauritius' delegation was headed by Indira Seebun, Minister of Women's Rights, Child Development, Family Welfare and Consumer Protection. The delegation included: Somduth Soborun, Mauritius' Permanent Representative to the United Nations; Premila Aubeelack, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Women's Rights, Child Development, Family Welfare and Consumer Protection; Satyajit Boolell, Parliamentary Counsel, State Law Office; and Israhyananda Dhalladoo, Subhas Gujadhur and Jaysen Kolaven Ramasamy from Mauritius' Permanent Mission to the United Nations.
Introducing the report, INDIRA SEEBUN, Minister of Women's Rights, Child Development, Family Welfare and Consumer Protection of Mauritius, said that the new Government was committed to the goals and principles of the United Nations, the realization of the Millennium Development Goals, the women's anti-discrimination Convention and all other international treaties to which it was a party.
She said that her country had faced a difficult economic situation since globalization, and trade liberalization had hurt the country's textile and sugar industries, leading to a loss of jobs, primarily for women. Yet, the Government had begun to undertake a series of measures meant to promote social and economic reforms.
The Women's Rights Ministry was creating a parliamentary gender caucus based on best practices at the global and regional levels to advance the gender agenda at the highest level of Parliament, she said. The 2006-2007 budget, approved in June, included special programmes for unemployed women, such as the Empowerment Fund to promote the economic empowerment of vulnerable groups. Initiatives included land for social housing and small entrepreneurs, a workforce programme emphasizing training, and other programmes for unemployed women.
Regarding article 12 on health, the Government had set up a high-level committee under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister to monitor the HIV and AIDS situation. A study conducted in June 2000 had found a steady increase in the number of detected cases of HIV and AIDS in Mauritius. On the issue of education, the enrolment of girls at pre-primary and primary levels was nearly the same as boys, 49 per cent compared to 51 per cent. At the secondary level, girls' enrolment stood at 52 per cent, compared to 48 per cent for boys. Even at the tertiary level, girls' enrolment was higher than boys, at 55 per cent. Efforts were being made to encourage girls to choose science and other non-traditional subject such as engineering. The Sex Discrimination Act of 2002 protected against gender-based discrimination and created the Sex Discrimination Division. Women were now occupying jobs previously male-dominated, including as bus conductors, drivers and engineers. The national airline now had four women co-pilots in a fleet of 11 aircrafts.
In an effort to fight the commercial and sexual exploitation of young girls, the Government in 2003 created a drop-in centre where minors and victims of sexual abuse could gain psychological support and counselling, she noted. The centre had helped 324 victims so far and it would be converted to a residence soon. To help sex workers, the Ministry was funding a non-governmental organization to implement a project called "Chrysalide". That would seek to rehabilitate sex workers, ex-detainees and substance abusers. The Government was also helping women abandon prostitution and gain access to microcredit facilities to begin new income-generating activity.
She said that Mauritius was not regarded as a destination for sex tourism, even though it had a booming tourism sector. The Tourism Act of 2004 had safeguards against the immoral use of premises licensed for tourist activities. And, the Police Crime Prevention Unit had carried out regular sensitization campaigns in hotels and other institutions on ways to protect women from prostitution.
Her Ministry was implementing a project funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), called "Capacity-Building for Gender Equality and Employment of Women", to promote gender equality throughout the country. Mauritius was already a signatory to the Convention's Optional Protocol and was initiating procedures for its ratification.
Committee experts started the discussion with questions and comments on issues under the Convention's articles 1 through 6 on: discrimination; policy measures; guarantee of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms; special measures; sex role stereotyping and prejudice; and prostitution.
Experts asked about the situation regarding "personal laws", as women married under personal laws, often religious law, were denied basic rights enjoyed by women under the civil marriage law. Other questions concerned the number of cases of sexual discrimination before the courts, the legal status of the Convention in national legislation, the 10-year gap between submission of the first periodic report and subsequent reports, and the parliamentary committee on gender issues.
Many questions were asked about the prevalence of prostitution, especially child prostitution, in Mauritius. KRISZTINA MORVAI, expert from Hungary, said she was shocked by a study on prostitution and the sexual exploitation of children, which claimed that children as young as 10 years entered the world of prostitution, and that there were 2,600 child prostitutes in the country. That study did not target the clients, however. She asked if any of the customers had been prosecuted, and suggested that the Government should reconsider its position regarding prostitution. Serious steps should be taken in addressing prevention of prostitution, which included clients.
Replying to the questions and concerns, a country representative said that Mauritius took the suggestions and recommendations of the Committee seriously and used them as important guidelines to bring legislation in line with international obligations. As for implementation of the Convention, he said within a month of receiving the recommendations last time, the constitutional process to amend its section 16 had been triggered, and a guarantee of protection from discrimination had now become a fundamental right. As Mauritius had the common law system, the Convention must be incorporated into domestic law, in order for it to have force of law. The Sex Discrimination Act was at the heart of the Convention's guarantees in that regard, as was the Protection against Domestic Violence Act.
Addressing the issue of personal laws, he said that matters such as marriage were covered by the Civil Code, which stemmed from the period of French colonization. Since independence in 1965, the Muslim community, or some 60 per cent of the population, felt that the Code did not meet their needs, and a provision for personal law had been incorporated. Marriage was covered by the Civil Code, but it was possible to be married under religious law. The matter was not yet resolved. The Muslim Family Council had been told that, by adhering to personal law, international obligations were being infringed. They had answered that Muslims formed a sizeable minority and that, in 1993, the United Nations had proclaimed the protection of minorities. According to the Muslim Family Council, provisions of personal law were restricted to marriage, dissolution of marriage and division of property. Only those Muslims who had voluntarily declared that they would be governed by the personal law were affected.
Mr. BOOLELL said that the Sex Discrimination Division had processed 17 cases in 2004 and all had been disposed, and 15 cases in 2005, of which three were pending and the rest, disposed. The law included a provision for seeking civil damages and was a less formal avenue for citizens to follow. The Mauritius judiciary was very open to the use of the Convention. Any legislation must conform to international instruments signed by the country. If national law conflicted, the national law would supersede, but that was very unlikely.
ANAMAH TAN, expert from Singapore, said that the Government was still underreporting incidents of violence against women, and she wanted to know what steps the Government was taking to change the mindsets of the general population about violence, as well as to sensitize law enforcement officials to the victims of the abuse. She also asked whether the Government had reviewed prior campaigns to curb violence against women and if counselling programmes were in place.
Another expert wanted to know what measures the Government was taking to ensure that victims of violence knew about their rights and how to seek legal counselling and other services. Another was concerned that prostitutes were discriminated against because they were prostitutes and prostitution was illegal. Did the law recognize that prostitutes could be raped? Other questions focused on Government measures to reduce sex trafficking on an island sought by tourists and to reduce sexual stereotypes in the school system and private sector.
Ms. AUBEELACK said that the Government was aware of the delay in the preparation of the latest report, adding that the new Government intended to produce reports more frequently. In order to disseminate information about the Convention to the public and Government officials, a streamlined version of the text had been distributed during a high-level forum, held on National Women's Day in March. The delegation would take the input gained during the current session back to Government officials, stakeholders and the human rights bodies in Mauritius.
She said that her Government was working with political parties to expand women's participation in the political process. With regard to the sex tourism trade, she said that the Prime Minister opposed that trade, and a sensitization campaign, already in place for law enforcement officials, was being expanded.
Regarding the protection of prostitutes, she said that any person who was a victim of rape was entitled to protection under the law. Cases of abuse were punishable. The Government had recently set up a special sexual assault unit in hospitals, where victims could obtain legal aid and psychological counselling, and give their statements to the police.
Addressing concerns about child prostitution, she said that, based on the findings of two studies, a national action plan had been adopted to approach the issue in an integrated and holistic manner. The Child Protection Act was also being reviewed, and a new Children's Act might be necessary. A committee consisting of Ministry and non-governmental organization representatives was monitoring implementation of the plan of action. Awareness campaigns and training, as well as rehabilitation of children, were among its tasks. There was a daytime centre where child prostitutes could drop in for counselling. That centre would soon become residential.
She said that her Ministry had been very actively engaged in information campaigns regarding domestic violence. Family bureaux across the country offered counselling. Poor women could get legal aid. The means for evaluating qualified candidates in that regard was being reviewed. An amendment to the Protection against Domestic Violence Act made it possible for, not only the husband, but anybody living under the same roof as the victim, to be prosecuted for domestic violence. One shelter was completely Government-funded, and other shelters, only partially. Sexual stereotypes were being addressed by Ministry projects, as well as in textbooks.
Mr. BOOLELL added that, regarding domestic violence, counselling was not mandatory and depended on consent by both parties. The Government was aware of the fact that poverty could cause prostitution and drug use. The recently approved budget contained an "Empowerment Fund" for women and the most vulnerable members of society. A zero-tolerance policy regarding sex tourism had also been adopted. The Child Protection Act had now been amended to include trafficking, and the judiciary had been sensitized to gender issues.
A follow-up question was asked by HANNA BEATE SCHÖPP-SCHILLING, expert from Germany, regarding laws that had not yet been amended to comply with the Convention. Also, it was not clear what actors were covered by the Sex Discrimination Act and whether that also covered religious communities and religious schools. She also wanted information on possible special temporary measures beyond the 30 per cent quota recommendation. She added that religious freedom could not be an excuse for discrimination against women.
Mr. BOOLELL replied that legislation could be a slow process. The Constitution had been amended. Also, the Civil Status Act had been amended to include a provision eliminating any distinction between the sexes on the question of nationality. The act on bails, which included a provision that no bail should be granted in cases of sexual assault, had not been upheld in court as it was considered not to be compatible with the Constitution. Legislation on legal aid must still be reviewed, in order to allow women greater access to the court. A provision in the Criminal Code was also necessary to allow for abortion in certain cases, such as danger to the health of women, and rape.
The law required equal pay for equal work, but in some sectors, such as in the sugar industry, there was no equality, he admitted. The labour organizations were working on it, and the labour laws were being reviewed. The Sex Discrimination Act covered all issues related to employment and also addressed areas such as education. It covered both the State and private sectors, as well as direct and indirect discrimination. The Act also included provisions against sexual harassment. A committee was being established to recommend amendments to the Constitution to include social, economic and cultural rights.
Experts then turned to articles 7, 8 and 9, which covered issues of: political and public life; representation; and nationality.
ZOU XIAOQIAO, expert from China, noted that there had been some progress in women's participation in politics; however, women's participation in Parliament was still low and a quota system still did not exist. Was the Government going to consider the quota system or take special temporary measures, as allowed under article 4 of the Convention? How did the Government intend to address the factors that prevented women's participation in decision-making? she asked.
Other questions by experts on political participation included how the Government could help women gain access to the resources needed to enter politics and if the Government would consider taking temporary special measures to boost women's participation. One expert urged the Government to use the Convention to counter societal resistance to women's shift into the political world, and another wanted details on Government actions to deal directly with the political parties now headed by men.
Ms. AUBEELACK acknowledged that the Government had not met the 30 per cent quota set for political posts, adding that bold measures were indeed needed. But, improvements had been made since the previous election. A recently created parliamentary gender caucus would give new momentum to the issue, and the media and non-governmental organizations were also working to encourage women's participation in politics. The public sector was recruiting more females, but the clerical grade was dominated by females. There was also room for improvement in the diplomatic corps, and the additional women joining the corps were doing so at the "second secretary level", or the entry point. Similarly, sufficient gains had not been made in the judiciary. For example, women held 70 per cent of the slots only at the magistrate level.
Ms. SEEBUN said that the State law office was reviewing legislation, with a view to giving more protection to women and children, and perhaps to increasing the penalties for related violations. More importantly, the Government was seeking to change societal attitudes, especially among men, which led to discrimination against women. It was also working to change men's view about their role in the home, for example, and holding pre-marital counselling programmes, as well as post-marital counselling sessions for couples. The Ministry was working with officials in the commerce and industry department to help women set up small businesses and become entrepreneurs. Uneducated women, for example, were encouraged to develop skills to generate their own income. The Government was deeply committed to improving the status of women and to protecting children, she stressed.
Mr. BOOLELL asked that the country was also in the process of setting up a strict electoral code to strengthen that system. It was reviewing the overall electoral system and exploring the possibility of creating a bicameral system.
Regarding article 10 on the educational system, FUMIKO SAIGA, expert from Japan, noting that the age for obligatory education had been extended to 18 years, asked if the obligatory education was free. She also wanted information about school dropout rates and the literacy rate in rural areas.
GLENDA SIMMS, expert from Jamaica, noted the country's high rate of teenage pregnancy and asked about the treatment of pregnant female students. Other experts sought more information about revisions to textbooks to eliminate sexual stereotypes. The salaries for female agricultural workers and the status of female migrant workers were other areas of interest.
Other questions related to women's access to land rights and inheritance and to the issue of licences and permits necessary to start a small business. The delegation was also asked for an assessment of a 1999 UNDP programme that had been completed in 2004.
Ms. AUBEELACK answered that education was compulsory up to age of 16 and that all levels of education were free. The teacher-pupil ratio in primary education was 1 to 29, and in secondary education 1 to 17. The dropout rate in 2004 in the secondary level was 7.1 per cent for boys and 6.7 per cent for girls. In 2005, there were 1,903 male primary school teachers and 2,980 female teachers. At the secondary level, the ratio was 1,069 to 1,293. Overall, the illiteracy rate had gone down. A difference in rural and urban access to schools did not exist. Transportation to schools was free. It was unlawful to refuse rights to education, including in cases of pregnancy. One non-governmental organization worked with teenage mothers, offering them, among other things, a place to stay for three years.
Although there was indeed a tendency for women to opt for teaching and health care, there were indications among girls nowadays to also opt for vocational courses. Women were also encouraged to participate in the entrepreneurial culture. Many men today worked in the tourist industry as cooks and such. Maternity leave was paid leave for up to three pregnancies; the fourth pregnancy was an unpaid leave. Paternity leave did not exist, but it was accepted practice that men took vacation upon the births of their children. Girls outnumbered boys in such areas of study as social studies and humanities, and starting this year, in law and management. Their enrolment in agriculture and science was on the rise. Overall, the female-male enrolment ratio at universities for 2005-2006 was 52.8 to 47.2 per cent.
Mr. BOOLELL explained that abortion was illegal in Mauritius. Amending the law was under consideration and required in-depth consideration and wide consultation. Some had the opinion that a doctor should do what he considered appropriate to save the life of a sick person. Labour laws had been amended, but a consolidated version of the labour law was still being worked on and would be presented to the National Assembly during the current session. The Labour and Industrial Relations Acts guaranteed the equality of men and women regarding work and dismissal. Concerning access to land, the Civil Code had been amended in 1991 to enable the woman to choose her "matrimonial regime". For example, she could decide to retain management of her own assets.
He said that a lot of permits and licenses were necessary for all kinds of commercial activities, and that hampered development of small businesses. That level of bureaucracy was now being addressed. An Institution for Small businesses not only empowered women with loans at favourable rates, but also gave them advice. Migrant workers had the same rights under the Labour Law as nationals, but migrant workers often had a working permit under a contract. That could result in threats of not renewing a contract. Some improvements had been made in that regard. Causes for the glass ceiling lay in exclusion from the informal network, pervasive stereotyping about women in leadership, and the lack of women role models. The problem had to be addressed at the level of social attitudes.
Ms. SEEBUN said the new Government was issuing primary business permits within three days so business owners could open their doors while securing more long-term paperwork. To help women without collateral to secure loans, the Government worked with the banks to facilitate loans for women of up to 300,000 rupees, without collateral. There was also an equity fund to help women start businesses. As Ms. Aubeelack had said, the Government financed many microcredit projects for women.
An expert reiterated her request for more information about Government efforts to eliminate sexual stereotypes in school curricula and discrimination in coeducational schools. She also asked again whether special temporary measures were being considered as a way to help housewives enter the work force. Other experts' questions this afternoon focused on why a free educational system had such a high dropout rate among students. Further details were sought on the HIV/AIDS infection rates for women and men, and experts wondered whether antiretroviral drugs were specifically available for mothers to prevent transmission to their children.
Another expert, noting that it was an obligation under the Convention for a State party to provide maternity leave, asked if the fact that Mauritius was not providing maternity leave after the third child was a way to control population growth.
Responding, Ms. AUBEELACK said that most State-owned schools at the secondary level were not coeducational. A few coeducational secondary schools were funded by the private sector and they were managed by the same policies dictated by the State Education Department. The Government's National Curriculum Revision Department was always reviewing school curricula and phasing out references to stereotypes in the textbooks.
Replying to a question about the high dropout rate among students, she said that some parents were not ensuring that their children remained in school, even though education was free. But, access to all schools, including vocational schools, was provided by the Government.
Country representatives said that, of the 600 known cases of HIV and AIDS, 200 were among women. Health care and antiretroviral drugs were free, and the Government had a national strategy, which incorporated the expertise of non-governmental organizations, to combat the spread of the disease. The use of syringes by drug addicts in prisons was the primary reason behind the spread of HIV, they said.
The delegation took note of the issue of the absence of maternity leave beginning with the fourth child. To clarify aspects of the coeducational system, a country representative said that most primary schools were State-owned and coeducational. For children of about 11 to 17 years of age, there were many coeducational schools in the private sector. But, pressure from parents had prompted the State to separate boys and girls at the secondary level. Mauritius was a secular and multinational society, which included people of many faiths.
Responding to a repeated question from Ms. SCHÖPP-SCHILLING, a member of the delegation said that the State did not discriminate against girls by providing less money for girls' schools at the secondary level. Boys were also required to take home-science courses.
Addressing the matter of teenage pregnancy, Ms. SEEBUN said that, currently, the Government was aggressively carrying out a parental educational programme, as parents also had responsibility in preventing teen pregnancies. It was necessary that sex could freely be discussed so that the girls could be protected. Sometimes girls of a young age did not understand how pregnancy was caused. Sex education programmes were also being aggressively introduced in schools, so that adolescents could develop a more responsible sexual behaviour.
Turning to articles 15 and 16 on law, marriage and family life, experts revisited the matter of personal laws. The Civil Code seemed to be the main law covering marriage, divorce and inheritance, but the Constitution seemed to have an exception to the protection against discrimination in the case of personal law. Did that mean that parties had the right in marriage and divorce to elect to use personal law or civil law? One court in Mauritius had proclaimed that it was not possible to allow religion to interfere in an area where the law was explicit. Personal law, therefore, should be repealed. Another expert asked if polygamy was allowed under personal law, and, therefore, under the national law.
Experts also asked about the shared responsibility of spouses for childcare and about the attitude of women towards abortion. It was suggested that, before the law on abortion was amended, women should be asked their opinion. Noting that domestic violence was a highly dangerous phenomenon that took place in the context of a relationship, one expert suggested that, if the perpetrator was not held responsible, such violence would not stop, and, therefore, mediation might not be the way to go and might, itself, even be highly dangerous. Clarification was also sought about the division of property during dissolution of marriage, especially in cases where the wife had contributed unpaid household or agricultural work.
Questions were also raised about training and sensitizing the judiciary regarding violence, the prevalence of forced marriages, and the fragmented manner in which divorce was handled -- with different courts for divorce, custody, alimony and protection.
Mr. BOODELL answered that there were indeed a number of regular seminars, nationally and internationally, to sensitize members of the judiciary to new developments and to the gender-based perspective of human rights. The present Chief Justice of Mauritius was a member of the Committee on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights. A human rights centre had been opened where both professionals and non-professionals had access to human rights information. It was true that the current Civil Code was rigid in the matter of divorce. There were proposals for a Family Code, which would have one judge for one family case, but the lack of resources was the biggest obstacle, even though there was national consensus.
He said that the Muslim community had requested that marriage and divorce be governed by the personal laws as the Civil Code was not been adaptable to religious practices. There was not yet a code to allow for sharia law. For the time being, the law allowed people to opt for being married religiously under the personal law. Provisions had been added to the Civil Code to provide for religious marriages. The Constitution had been amended following the recommendation of the Committee to ensure that provisions against discrimination against women were a fundamental right. That same Constitution had an exception for personal law. Personal law was, therefore, not unconstitutional. The Muslim community had been arguing that those people who chose to be governed under personal law should be allowed to do so. Therefore, a balance had been struck. "There can be Mauritian solutions to Mauritian problems", he said.
Mr. BOOLELL said there was no difference in budgets for girls' and boys' schools run by the State. Vocational schools that required special equipment, or technology schools with computer needs, might have larger budgets.
The Government shared experts' concerns about the increasing rate of teenage pregnancy, and the Ministry of Health was conducting an aggressive campaign to increase teenagers' awareness of their responsibility in that regard, Ms. AUBEELACK said. Domestic violence legislation provided many protective measures for victims of violence, such as the use of emergency protection orders and the prosecution of violators of those orders. In addition, the Government ran shelters and provided free counselling services and legal aid.
Responding to a series of questions about marriage, Mr. BOOLELL said that polygamy was negligible in Mauritius, but cases of bigamy had been prosecuted. Under Muslim religious law, a man could marry more than one woman. When a married couple's property was dissolved during divorce, a wife would most likely be given the matrimonial home. The work of civil society associations largely prevented forced marriages. The legal age of marriage was 18, and children between 16 and 18 years of age could marry with parental permission, but the union was still subjected to State approval.
Ms. SEEBUN added that she had appreciated the Committee's input, saying that its suggestions would be shared with Government officials, the media, non-governmental organizations and other stakeholders involved in the process of protecting women's rights.
Committee Chairperson DUBRAVKA ŠIMONOVIĆ, expert from Croatia, thanked the experts for their questions, and the delegation for their responses, and noted that Mauritius had made significant progress since the release of its second report. She also commended the country for starting the process to ratify the Optional Protocol.
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