14 January 2005

Women’s Anti-Discrimination Committee Considers Situation of Women in Gabon

Members Commend Will to Overcome Obstacles, But Note Contradictions

NEW YORK, 13 January (UN Headquarters) -- While Gabon had demonstrated great will in overcoming obstacles to gender parity, the situation of women in that country remained contradictory, both in terms of law and practice, expert members of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) agreed, as they considered the situation of women in Gabon over the course of two meetings today.

Noting that certain “grey” areas in Gabon’s legal framework perpetuated negative stereotypes of women, the experts stressed the need to bring the country’s national legislation, especially its family and personal status laws, fully in line with the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. One expert, while applauding Gabon’s commitment to the advancement of women, stressed the need to move beyond study and reflection to action. Consensus was important in seeking change, but without the Government’s full conviction of the need to change, and its courage to do so, things would remain the same.

Acting in their personal capacities, the Committee’s 23 expert members monitor compliance with the Convention, often referred to as an “international bill of rights for women”. Having ratified the Convention in 1983, Gabon was presenting its combined second, third, fourth and fifth reports to the Committee. It reported for the first time in 1988. In November 2004, it acceded to the Convention’s Optional Protocol, which allows individual women or groups of women to petition the Committee.

Hailing Gabon’s recent ratification of the Optional Protocol, experts agreed that the decision would give Gabonese women an additional tool for ensuring the Convention’s implementation at the national level. One expert noted that women would be able to challenge inconsistencies or unfulfilled obligations before the Committee. It was urgent, therefore, that the Government use the Optional Protocol as an additional tool for repealing all discriminatory laws.

Raising specific concerns, several experts noted the continuing practice of giving and receiving dowry, despite its prohibition under Gabon’s Civil Code. Other examples of legal discrimination included the right of the husband to enter into polygamous relationships, the inheritance rights of widows and the right of the husband to prohibit his wife from exercising her profession. Regarding polygamy, one expert noted that, faced with the possibility of abandonment, most women would accept a polygamous relationship. Designing laws to “protect” the family, another expert noted, should not be done at the expense of one member, namely the woman.

Introducing Gabon’s combined report, Angelique Ngoma, Minister for the Family, the Protection of Children and the Promotion of Women, agreed that most national laws needed strengthening in order to eliminate differences between the legal position and actual practice. However, Gabon’s silence since 1988 was not an indication of its inactivity. Gabonese women were involved in national development, not only as beneficiaries, but also as active participants. The country had ratified several international conventions without reservations because it wanted to belong to the international community. As such, it would focus on promulgating those laws that would be most beneficial to the country.

Responding to specific issues, other members of the delegation noted that, while the dowry practice was officially prohibited, it nonetheless remained very widespread due to certain traditional beliefs, particularly the belief in its “symbolic” status. With the international community’s help, Gabon was trying to overcome old practices. However, customs died hard. The law prohibiting dowry was not applied, for example, as parents would not consider allowing their respective offspring to engage in marriage without a dowry. Regarding the widow’s obligation to marry within the family, the relevant provisions of national law required review. While the State defended women and adopted measures to protect them, it was also important for women to “take the bull by the horns” and demand their rights.

Prior to the introduction of Gabon’s report, Hanna Beate Schopp-Schilling, expert from Germany, was elected Committee Vice-Chairperson.

The Committee will meet again at 10 a.m. tomorrow, 14 January, when it will take up Paraguay’s combined third and fourth periodic reports.

Introduction of Reports

Gabon’s combined second, third, fourth and fifth reports (document CEDAW/C/GAB/2-5) comprise the overview of that country’s situation and list the Government’s measures in implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women. Gabon ratified the instrument in January 1983 and submitted its first report to the Committee in 1988.

Prior to the document’s introduction by Angelique Ngoma, Minister of Family Affairs and Advancement of Women and Children, Gabon’s Permanent Representative, Denis Dangue Réwaka, introduced the country’s delegation, which comprised Vincent Ifounga, Ministry of the Family; Regina Aworet-Oberdeno, Director-General for the Advancement of Women; Honorine Nzet-Biteghe, President of the Observatory for Women’s Rights and Equality; Marie Anne Mboga, Ministry of Justice; Celestine Ndao, Ministry of Labour and Employment; and Blandine Befane, Ministry of Education.

In the document before the Committee, the Government reports that since the presentation of the country’s first report, the situation of women has improved “in the sense that today most Gabonese women have become aware of their role and place in society”. Numerous awareness-raising campaigns and information seminars on gender have helped to awaken men and women to the need to advance the rights of women, without whom any sustainable development would be impossible.

Among the legal measures to eliminate discrimination, the report lists an addition to the Constitution of the principle of equality of all citizens, regardless of gender; repeal of an ordinance forbidding the use of contraceptives; recognition of the right to contraception under the 1990 National Charter of Freedoms; measures to protect women’s health and social rights; and adoption of the Nationality Code furthering the interests of women and children. The President also introduced the National Day of Gabonese Women, which has been held on 17 April every year since 1998.

The combined report states that the Government has also carried out a study entitled “Social and legal aspects of the status of Gabonese women”, which highlighted a number of provisions that discriminated against women. Among the institutions set up to ensure effective application of all the measures introduced, the report mentions the National Commission for the Family and the Advancement of Women, the Observatory for Women’s Rights and Equality, and the inter-ministerial commission charged with reviewing all legislation discriminating against women. Established in 1983, the Department for Women’s Issues has gradually gained in stature, becoming the Ministry for the Family, the Protection of Children and the Advancement of Women in 2002.

However, the document notes, women continue to suffer discrimination in several areas and further efforts are needed with respect to sensitization of the people, participation of women in decision-making, and attitudes that continue to be dictated by negative stereotypes. For example, although article 270 of the Penal Code penalizes bigamy by the husband and the wife, and article 178, paragraph 2 allows either party to take another spouse during marriage, in practice, only the man may do so. A wife, therefore, has little option but to accept her husband’s decision, if she wishes to avoid being abandoned or divorced. Another example is article 692 of the Penal Code, which provides that a widow shall be deprived of her right of inheritance if she remarries, without compelling grounds, into a family other than that of her deceased spouse. In addition, though dowry is officially prohibited, it nonetheless remains very widespread due to certain traditional beliefs, particularly the belief in its “symbolic” status.

Regarding women’s participation, the report states that they are present in virtually all sectors of activity, including the Government, the civil service, the National Assembly and the Senate. However, there are not enough women in certain decision-making positions. For example, only five out of 39 government members are women. However, women are offered training opportunities on the same basis as men, and have access to all social services, health care, medical care, education, literacy programmes and property.

Among measures to advance equality, the Government reports its efforts to review military laws that discriminated against women regarding access to certain ranks. It has also introduced a number of special measures, including the appointment of women to positions of authority traditionally held exclusively by men (two female army generals, five female ministers, one female aeroplane pilot, one female Public Commissioner, and one female President of the Constitutional Court). Maternity leave is granted in addition to annual leave. Night work by women has been prohibited, as was work that is strenuous to their health. If an employer fails to respect those rights, appeals may be made in the courts, or cases may be taken up by the National Commission for the Family and the Advancement of Women.

According to the report, the Government and non-governmental organizations run awareness-raising campaigns aimed at providing mothers and fathers with family life education. These campaigns are carried out through the media or through periodic meetings. Instruction is also provided on such subjects as family planning, budgeting and HIV/AIDS. Acts of violence are penalized under the Penal Code. But, while there is no law giving husbands the “right to punish” their wives, in practice, it is hard for wives to report acts of violence inflicted by their husbands. A survey to be carried out on this subject will seek to determine the extent of such phenomena. Two films on violence are currently being produced and a film about incest, entitled “The weight of silence”, has already been produced. Assistance is provided to victims of sexual aggression and the law provides severe punishment for the sexual abuse of children.

Article 256 of the Penal Code stipulates that “anyone who commits rape shall be sentenced to five to 10 years’ imprisonment. If the crime is committed against a child under 15, the offender shall be sentenced to hard labour for life.”

Introducing the document, Ms. NGOMA said that the delay in presenting the reports should be attributed not to negligence, but to difficult circumstances. Gabon’s silence was not an indication of its inactivity and in fact, significant advances had been realized. Women were involved in national development, not only as beneficiaries, but also as active participants. The authorities provided women with the same opportunities as men and the Government had shown the political will to advance women’s equality and implement its obligations under the Convention. However, much remained to be done.

Addressing the questions raised by the Committee following the presentation of the country’s first report, she recalled that its members had noted that Gabon’s concept of equality seemed to differ from that of the Convention. That instrument defined discrimination as exclusion or restriction, while the country’s law-making authorities understood “equality” as applying to individuals, citizens with equal rights and obligations in civil, political and social relations. The Constitution of Gabon guaranteed the inviolable rights of its citizens without distinction as to race, sex, opinion or religion. Thus, it was merely a difference in terminology as the term “equality” also meant non-discrimination.

Among the experts’ concerns were the provisions of article 253 of the Civil Code, according to which the man was considered the head of the household, she said. But that should be understood in the context of Gabon’s traditions as far as family responsibilities were concerned. As heads of families, men acted in the interests of the family and the children.

She said article 260 of the country’s Penal Code prohibited prostitution and procuring. Anyone who acted to protect or promote prostitution could be sentenced to imprisonment or fine. She also addressed the issues of women’s position in the workplace, remuneration, health and protection under the law.

Experts’ Comments and Questions

Beginning its article-by-article consideration of Gabon’s compliance with the Convention, experts focused on the country’s institutional mechanisms for the advancement of women.

MAGALYS AROCHA DOMINGUEZ from Cuba said the information provided in the report left certain gaps, namely how women’s institutions tied in with other government institutions. What role did the Women’s Council play and did it have any legislative power? Established in 2002, what was its place within the state machinery? The Women’s Observatory, according to the report, was a non-governmental organization. Was it subordinate to the Ministry or was it an independent organ?

DORCAS COKER-APPIAH from Ghana noted that although dowry was illegal in Gabon, the law was ignored. According to its responses, the Government did not seem to believe in the negative impact of that practice. Dowry was a tool used for the subordination of women and men used it as an excuse to chastise wives, as they believed that paying a dowry gave them certain rights over their wives. Laws alone could not change long-held beliefs. It was important, therefore, to undertake awareness-raising and educational programmes to change stereotypical attitudes towards women. What concrete steps had been taken to educate the general public in their attitudes towards women, thereby raising their status in society?

MARY SHANTHI DAIRIAM from Malaysia said dowry symbolized the transfer of women from the family home to the marital home, a stereotypical view of women. What was the Government’s stand regarding cultural and traditional practices, such as the giving and taking of dowry, and the practice of polygamy. What attempts had been made to study its ill effects on women? Had an in-depth study on the negative impact of polygamy on children been conducted as recommended in 2002 by the Committee on the Rights of the Child? If so, how had the findings been utilized?

CORNELIS FLINTERMAN from the Netherlands noted that according to article 2 of Gabon’s Constitution, all citizens were equal before the law. Had any interpretation been given by the constitutional courts to that article, and was it in line with the Convention’s far-reaching definition of discrimination? International agreements, including the Convention, had precedence over national law. Did they also have precedence over the Constitution? Was the Constitutional Court obliged to interpret the Constitution in line with the Women’s Convention?

Also, who decided whether international agreements had precedence over national laws? he asked. Was it the judiciary? Were lawyers trained in international legal questions? What kind of specific measures had the Government taken to encourage women to bring cases before the court? That was particularly relevant in light of Gabon’s recent accession to the Optional Protocol. What measures would be taken to make it possible for women to address themselves to the Committee in cases of alleged discrimination?

FRANÇOISE GASPARD from France said she was impressed by the Minister’s statement, which demonstrated Gabon’s great will in overcoming obstacles to the advancement of women. Gabon was presenting a combined report, however, meaning there had been a significant delay in reporting on compliance with the Convention. While the Committee was aware that many countries might encounter difficulties in terms of technical and human resources in drafting reports, it was aware that other obstacles might exist. Much needed to be done in Gabon’s legal texts to eliminate discrimination against women.

Regarding the Convention’s dissemination, she asked if civil servants and magistrates were familiar with Gabon’s obligations under the instrument. Did the Government have plans to sensitize all actors involved under the Convention’s scope and had the Convention been translated into the different languages spoken in the country?

HUGUETTE BOKPE GNACADJA from Benin noted that while certain national structures for the advancement of women had been implemented, they had not yet begun to function. In what way had socio-cultural influences led to the inability of the Women’s Commission to start its work? Was it a question of a lack of human resources? The presentation had mentioned a prohibition against women working outside the domicile. Was that an example of legal discrimination or cultural practice?

DUBRAVKA SIMONOVIC from Croatia congratulated the country for its recent ratification of the Optional Protocol, which would give women additional tools to challenge the Convention’s implementation at the national level. For that reason, certain legal issues would need to be clarified. In 1989, the Committee had pointed out that the concept of equality enshrined in the Convention was different from the one enshrined in Gabon’s Constitution. Equality before the law was not the same as gender equality or equality in rights. There was a discrepancy between commitments and implementation at the national level. With the Optional Protocol’s ratification, women would be able to bring inconsistencies or unfulfilled obligations before the Committee. The Government would, therefore, have urgently to change discriminatory laws. Did it plan to further implement the Convention at the national level and abolish discriminatory laws?

Country Response

Responding to the first round of questions, Ms. NGOMA said she was grateful for the positive reactions following the report’s introduction and agreed that most of Gabon’s texts needed strengthening to eliminate differences between legal texts and actual practice. The dowry law had been adopted and things had evolved. But, while it was true that dowry should no longer be practised, not one family would agree to give away a daughter in marriage without the symbolic gesture. It was not a way of buying an individual but, a way of saying, “I am giving you my daughter. She is yours.” Women did not see the tradition as negative, she said.

Gabon’s national machinery included a women’s commission, she continued. There was also a national plan for elderly persons, which included the participation of several governmental ministries. After Beijing, institutional machinery had been established in order to give women a voice. Gabon had worked with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to set up the Observatory for Women’s Rights and Equality.

Ms. NZET-BITEGHE said the Observatory for Women’s Rights and Equality had been set up as an independent non-governmental organization. It had never encountered resistance from the State. The organization worked in homes and welcomed women who came to it. It organized awareness campaigns, disseminated CEDAW information, assisted women in courts and helped with family reconciliation.

On the family residence, she said that to protect the family, the State could not approve of the separation of spouses, but it was allowed, when necessary. Women had the opportunity to go before the courts when they did not agree with the choice of residence. It was not only women who were obligated to join their husbands. In some professions, when women could not find a place close to their husbands, they could stay close to their places of work. That related to the female members of the National Assembly, for example.

Regarding polygamy, Ms. MBOGA said that the choice of a polygamous or monogamous marriage was up to the spouses. Non-governmental organizations, religious groups and legal practitioners had objected to the legislative changes that had been proposed in that regard. The Constitutional Court could make determinations on the constitutionality of any given law relating to women, and wives had access to that court.

All conventions signed and ratified by the country had executive force in Gabon, she continued. Treaties prevailed over national legal acts and in all courts, women could draw on the Convention in protection of their rights.

Experts’ Comments and Questions

XIAOQIAO ZOU from China noted that Gabon was a developing country, which faced many difficulties and challenges. It was gratifying that it had made an effort to demonstrate its adherence to the Convention. Regrettably, the results of recent reviews of the situation of women were not mentioned in the documents before the Committee. According to a recent survey, Gabonese women lacked the knowledge on many topics and were not active in the promotion of their rights. However, it was not fair to blame women for that state of affairs and the Government should enable their participation and protect them from discrimination.

REGINA TAVARES DA SILVA from Portugal asked about the meaning of “gradual institutionalization of the gender approach”, which was mentioned among the social measures adopted in the country. Also, among reasons for psychological and moral violence, the report referred to female celibacy or infertility. Were women subjected to violence for those reasons?

The report stated that the same conditions applied to men and women and that they had equal opportunities and rights, she noted. At the same time, it referred to many cases of discrimination, for example, women were often denied access to credit and loans. That seemed to indicate a very restricted sense of what discrimination meant and the Government should reflect on that.

HEISOO SHIN of the Republic of Korea asked how the data about the situation of women had been collected and about the main obstacles encountered by the Ministry for Family Affairs and the Advancement of Women.

HANNA BEATE SCHOPP-SCHILLING from Germany noted that there were three levels of law in Gabon -- international, national and statutory. Regarding existing discriminatory legislation and the Government’s plans as far as the legal reform was concerned, was it pursuing the goals of bringing customary law into line with international standards? There were also important gaps in national laws. For example, there was no specific legislation condemning violence against women. Did the constitution allow for the application of special measures for the advancement of women?

FUMIKO SAIGA from Japan said that some of the country’s replies were somewhat confusing. For example, it was not clear which body was in charge of legal reform. Was it the inter-inisterial committee set up some years ago? What was the status of the bill on sexual abuse, which had been put forward and discussed in Parliament? Had it been adopted?

PRAMILA PATTEN from Mauritius, expressing concern about remaining discriminatory provisions in Gabon’s laws, sought to better understand the actual difficulties the Ministry had encountered regarding the inter-ministerial commission. Was it an issue of resources or a lack of political will? Regarding the challenge of ensuring the legal protection of women on an equal basis with men, and modifying discriminatory customs and practices, what measures had the Ministry taken to address customs and practices that impeded women’s fundamental rights and freedoms?

Ignorance of the law had been identified as a major obstacle to the enjoyment of women’s rights, she added. What was being done to reach women in rural areas? She also asked for more information on women’s access to legal protection. How sensitive was the judiciary to women’s issues and was there a legal aid system?

KRISZTINA MORVAI from Hungary said the so-called developing countries usually faced double pressure -- ensuring the advancement of women, while at the same time securing the expectations of international financial institutions. Given the disproportionately harsh effects of structural adjustment programmes on women, were there detailed plans to counterbalance those effects?

According to her research, Gabon had a considerable indigenous population, she added. While that group was relatively independent, they often lived under difficult, slavery-like conditions. Did the Government have data regarding indigenous women and girls? On the issue of trafficking, how many life sentences had been applied since the law came into force?

TIZIANA MAIOLO from Italy said there appeared to be a contradiction between the Constitution and the Civil Code, which recognized polygamy. While the woman’s consent was needed, facing the possibility of abandonment, most women would most likely agree to polygamy. What could be done to prevent such discrimination both in terms of the law and in practice?

Country Response

Ms. NGOMA said the fact that women had the option of asking for a divorce was not always known. The Ministry was currently defining the terms of reference for a study on the family. One of the study’s purposes was to see where monogamy was the rule. The Government was trying to improve behaviour. Women were given a choice and husbands needed the written consent of the first wife. Hopefully, the Committee would appreciate that it was not a simple issue.

Turning to other issues, she noted that while provincial services disseminated information on women’s matters, they were perhaps not adequately staffed. The Ministry for the Family had identified priority items for 2005. Given the country’s high illiteracy rate, literacy programmes were being focused on women. Banks did not give microcredit to women or men without a minimum degree of training. The Ministry worked to ensure that women were aware of their rights through education, awareness-raising and training campaigns. The Ministry wanted to introduce the concept of gender equality as an evolution of the system, in which men were seen as complementary in addressing women’s issues.

The President had enacted the trafficking law, she said, noting that transit centres had been opened in Libreville for children victims. Next week, a shelter would be opened and people were being trained to work in that area. Women did receive treatment in medical centres.

Ms. MBOGA added that while the Government understood the gravity of the trafficking in children, it could not be punished by the death penalty.

On the question of statistics, Ms. NGOMA said the Ministry faced both a problem of financial resources and skilled workers. Training and capacity-building were needed to ensure that the new concept of gender equality was understood throughout the various government ministries.

Experts’ Comments

Ms. COKER-APPIAH from Ghana said the main impediment to participation by married women at the international level was the consent required from their husbands. Thus, their right to full participation had been subjugated to the interests of protecting the family. Thus, the rights of a married woman became less than those of a single woman. Much as it was important to protect the family, that should not be done at the expense of only one member of the family, a woman.

She also had questions regarding the law regulating the passing of nationality to children.

VICTORIA POPESCU SANDRU from Romania said that some obstacles to the promotion of women related to the residence and domicile laws and to the fact that a wife required her husband’s consent. Such problems were more pronounced for rural women. How did the media reflect women’s efforts to participate in public life? Did the media play a role in overcoming negative stereotypes prevailing in the country?

MERIEM BELMIHOUB-ZERDANI from Algeria, stressing the importance of overcoming negative cultural and religious stereotypes, said the Beijing Platform for Action stated that African countries required special attention in that respect. The figures provided in the report on representation in the

National Assembly showed that some parties had more female representatives. The application of affirmative action measures could play an important role in increasing women’s participation and the media should play a role in that respect. If Gabon revised its electoral quotas, it could significantly increase the number of women in its elected bodies. Women should also be seen among the country’s ministers, judges and legislators.

Country Response

Ms. NGOMA thanked the experts for their proposals, saying that the Government would take them on board to improve the situation of women. Regarding discriminatory laws relating to the place of residence, the country had several female ambassadors working outside the country and accompanied by their husbands. An analysis of some 80 existing legal texts was now under way and women were taking part in that work.

Regarding women’s representation, she said that female councillors agreed that newly introduced quotas allowed them to participate in public life. However, the number of women on electoral lists remained very low, irrespective of the political party. Studies had shown that a critical mass of 30 per cent women’s participation had not yet been achieved, though there were several women in high-level decision-making positions.

Images generated by the media were not always positive, she said, adding that measures were being taken to improve that situation. Certain programme schedules were now being introduced to target female audiences and allow women to express their concerns.

Ms. MBOGA said Gabon had approved a new nationality code. Earlier legislation stated that if a Gabonese man married a woman of another nationality, she could easily acquire his nationality. That had not been the case for women marrying foreigners, but under the new legislation, women were allowed to pass on their nationality to their husbands.

On violence, a member of the delegation said that if a girl under 15 years was raped, a life sentence of forced labour was imposed on the offender. All other forms of violence were also punishable under the Penal Code, as were immoral behaviour and offences to public decency. Another country representative added that the Government was working on a sexual aggression bill which would be integrated into future legislation. Shame often prevented women from coming forward with their complaints and the Government was taking measures to address the situation. On the legal reform, the initiative belonged to the Government, but non-governmental organizations could draw the State’s attention to the gaps in the legislation and disseminate the relevant information. Pamphlets popularizing legal information were being distributed and there were committees in Parliament where the population and non-governmental organizations could bring up their concerns.

Experts’ Comments and Questions

ANAMAH TAN from Singapore, referring to article 14 of the Convention relating to rural women, asked what was being done to popularize the Convention’s provisions in that regard. Only 40 per cent of the drinking water supply was safe and a programme had been initiated to improve water safety in several provinces. What specific measures had been taken during the period when those projects were being implemented?

Ms. AROCHA DOMINGUEZ from Cuba said that some of the Committee’s previous questions regarding women’s participation in the labour force had not been answered. Gabon also lacked employment-related indicators in the 2004 human development report. What was being done to improve women’s situation in the labour market and protect their rights? The Government should make the relevant information available in its next report.

Ms. DAIRIAM from Malaysia noted that as very few women met the conditions for mortgages, one had to assume the existence of discrimination, albeit unintended. The report listed a series of initiatives to help women gain access to financial resources. How many women had benefited from such schemes and was there a complaint mechanism for those who did not? The provision of microfinance was an immediate intervention that was insufficient for addressing the deep rooted causes of poverty. Had the macroeconomic causes of poverty been studied?

Mr. FLINTERMAN from the Netherlands expressed concern at the low percentage of girls -- about 40 per cent -- attending junior high school. Some 7.2 per cent of girls attended high school and 2.63 per cent attended university. Had Gabon thought about adopting temporary special measures to accelerate the possibility of girls attending secondary had higher education?

Ms. SAIGA from Japan noted that while the mandatory education age was up to the age 16, the minimum marriage age for girls was presently 15. As the two did not coincide, could the marriage age not be raised?

Ms. SHIN from the Republic of Korea said education was the key to development, gender equality, and the advancement of women. Although it was mandatory for girls between the ages of 6 and 16, the current system did not seem to be working. Would the Government consider applying temporary special measures, such as scholarships, to provide incentives for sending girls to school?

Turning to the issue of employment, Ms. PATTEN from Mauritius asked if the Government envisaged enacting a law banning discrimination in women’s employment. She also asked about measures to protect women’s labour rights in the informal sector.

Ms. BELMIHOUB-ZERDANI from Algeria, noting the precarious situation of rural women, asked what measures were being taken to meet their health needs. The Beijing Declaration stressed the need to commit sufficient resources for developing countries. Since Beijing, had Gabon received substantial aid from wealthy countries?

Ms. TAVARES DA SILVA from Portugal expressed concern at high mortality rates among women, saying that the report provided little information on the matter. She was also puzzled by the report’s ambiguities on the question of family planning.

Country Response

Responding to that round of questions, Ms. NGOMA said that, after Beijing, developed countries were supposed to assist developing countries in implementing the Platform for Action. However, there had not been enough resources to realize the whole programme that Gabon had drawn up after Beijing. It had also requested assistance from several international programmes and agencies.

To other questions, she said her Ministry had been focusing on hydrological plans to better distribute water and improve water supply. Women in the civil service represented some 34 per cent of the workforce. They were employed mostly in secondary tasks and not enough of them were in decision-making positions.

The Government emphasized education and primary health care, she continued. Although there were more girls than boys at the primary levels of education, as children moved from grade to grade, many girls dropped out. New measures were needed to ensure parity in that respect. School attendance was mandatory until the age of 16, and the Government was introducing such alternatives as professional education to meet the needs of individual children.

She said that the age of maturity for girls was currently set at 15 and the Government was contemplating increasing it to bring national laws into conformity with international standards. With regard to women’s employment, many employers preferred to use men as bricklayers, for example, which would be true for any country.

To benefit from bank loans, formal guarantees were needed, she said. It was usually women who could not meet the difficult conditions imposed by financial institutions and for that reason, an aid and guarantee fund had been established. Gabon also had a fund to combat HIV/AIDS and treatment centres for HIV-positive patients had been set up. While the number of people receiving assistance was constantly increasing, the epidemic remained a source of concern. It was also important to address the needs of children orphaned as a result of AIDS.

PATRICIA MAKAYA FAYETTE, of the Ministry for Education, added that one of the causes of decreasing school attendance among girls was early pregnancy and childbirth. With respect to family planning, there was low usage of contraceptives, at just 11 per cent. The situation had been reviewed several times, and several laws had liberalized access to contraception. Measures were now being contemplated to facilitate implementation of those laws. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) had made contraceptives available in three major regions and women were encouraged to attend family-planning seminars.

The Government was also addressing the lack of doctors in rural areas, she said. Currently, most medical personnel were concentrated in the cities. A pilot project had been initiated to prevent transmission of HIV/AIDS from mother to child. Gabon did not have access to the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

On maternal mortality, she said some 600 mothers died each year. A national study had been conducted on that issue in collaboration with UNFPA. It had shown that the main cause of maternal mortality was illegal abortion.

Last Round of Experts’ Comments

Ms. GASPARD from France said that upon returning home, members of the delegation should support measures to ensure equality within the family, aligning the age of marriage for men and women, for example. She understood the cultural resistance to some initiatives, but Gabon had ratified the Convention without any reservations and was now obligated to ensure gender parity.

Ms. BOKPE GNACADJA from Benin, expressing concern about the Government’s actual desire to promote the status of women, said it had taken her own country

10 years to pass a law making monogamy the only permissible marriage scheme. While consensus on issues was important, the full support of the extended family would never be possible on such issues as remarriage. While not wishing to minimize the importance of research, at a certain point analysis was no longer needed.

Ms. XIAOQIAO from China noted that according to the Civil Code, after marriage, husbands served as the heads of households and managed common property. As that provision violated the spirit of the Convention, did the Ministry plan to take measures in that regard? Also, did women have the right to ask for a divorce?

Ms. TAN from Singapore said she was concerned that no measures had been taken to end polygamy. Since the Government was the only authority empowered to make changes, would it take steps to bring the Civil Code into compatibility with the Convention’s articles? In short, would the Government end polygamy? On the question of dowry, why was the law not enforced in that regard? Regarding widows’ inheritance rights, what was the Government doing to end the discriminatory practice by which the widow was obliged to marry into her husband’s family if she wished to benefit from her deceased husband’s wealth?

Ms. MORVAI from Hungary said the Government itself did not seem convinced about article 16 of the Convention, under which the same rights applied to men and women in marriage and at its dissolution. If the Government was not convinced, she asked, how would the public think otherwise?

Ms. BELMIHOUB-ZERDANI from Algeria expressed concern at ambiguities in the report about the marriage age and the age of consent. Regarding polygamy, the husband could change from a monogamous to a polygamous relationship. Gabon had been among the first countries to ratify the Convention without reservations. The Code was clear: both spouses must consent to marriage and there was no dowry. Gabon had strong legal arguments to ensure parity between men and women during marriage and upon its dissolution.

Ms. SIMONOVIC from Croatia said that after the ratification of the Optional Protocol, the situation should be vastly different. The delegation had explained that the Convention was above the law. In cases of inequality in inheritance rights, if the Convention was invoked, the courts would have to apply it. Therefore, it was urgent that the Government use the Optional Protocol as an additional tool for repealing all discriminatory laws.

Country Response

Members of the delegation pointed out that, when it came to negative aspects of the country’s culture, Gabon, with the help of the international community, was trying to overcome old practices. However, customs died hard. The decree on dowry was not being applied, for example, because in traditional terms, parents would not consider giving away their daughter in marriage without offering it, and men would not marry without receiving the dowry. Family planning was seen by many as a negative phenomenon and the Government was doing “a lot of explaining” to overcome that attitude. The role of education was important in that respect.

Ms. NGOMA said women could get a divorce if marriage became dangerous to their health or safety. Women and children could be considered as legal inheritors under the Civil Code, but certain cultural trends favoured the decision of the family council in that respect. The Government was looking into the situation.

She went on to say that various types of nurseries were available to mothers. The age of employment had been set at 16, because that was the age limit for obligatory education.

Ms. MBOGA said that a commission had been set up to consider matters of succession, which were of great concern to the Government, given that the country had ratified a number of international conventions without reservations because it wanted to belong to the international community. Now, it would take time to promulgate laws that would be most beneficial to the country. Women’s rights were defined in the Code, but implementation of decisions was often difficult due to traditional customs and practices.

The age of criminal responsibility had been set at 18, and that of civil majority at 21, she explained. At that age, a woman could get married without her parents’ permission. In exceptional cases, boys and girls could be married at an earlier age. The girls could be allowed to marry at 15 and boys at 18. The Government believed that, if granted, those exceptions should be applied on an equal basis.

Another country representative added that divorce could be requested either by a man or a woman. A document had been prepared which explained how family councils should be drawn up in case of the death of the head of the family. If a woman went to court to get her inheritance, the decision of the family council could be overturned. As for the widow’s obligation to marry within the family, the relevant provisions of national law needed to be reviewed. Currently, it was up to the judge to evaluate the case. The State defended women and adopted measures to protect them. It was also important for women to “take the bull by the horns” and demand their rights.

As for the punishment for leaving the family home, it was applied only if a woman left without a valid reason. All a woman needed to do was present such a reason. The Constitution was in force, and women were only punished if they stayed away for more than four months.

Concluding Remarks

Ms. SIMONOVIC from Croatia, noting that the answers indicated that women had a right to divorce and inheritance, but not on an equal footing with men, said that was contrary to the Convention, which stipulated gender equality. It was important to counter attitudes that prevented the Convention’s implementation and really implement equal rights at the national level.

Ms. BOPKE GNACADJA from Benin asked several questions about the Observatory for Women’s Rights, saying that the non-governmental organization was in fact headed by personnel of the Family Ministry.

GLENDA SIMMS from Jamaica encouraged Gabon to develop a public education programme, since the advancement of women was not only a matter of laws, but also of cultural values and mentality. As reported by the delegation, there were many deaths in Gabon resulting from botched abortions. That happened because safe abortion services were restricted. The delegation had also pointed to the early sexual activity of girls. In that connection, it was necessary to keep in mind that allowed to marry at 15, girls were trained to become sexually active at that age. Female genital mutilation also must be addressed, if it existed in Gabon.

Ms. SAIGA, from Japan, said that while laws were in place, they were often misinterpreted. Government prosecutors and the courts were not sufficiently severe to offenders. Advocacy and information about the law and the rights were as important as proper training for judiciary officials.

Ms. MORVAI from Hungary said that under article 16 of the Convention, men and women shared equal responsibility for the rearing of children, and asked if the Government acknowledged that, in fact, there was a difference in the responsibility of women and men.

Ms. TAN from Singapore said she had not received responses to several questions, including those on the situation of rural women.

Ms. BELMIHOUB-ZERDANI from Algeria said that, by coming to the Committee, the Government had demonstrated its courage and determination to implement the Convention.

Ms. NGOMA, responding to some remaining questions, said Gabon’s Civil Code recognized the man as the head of the household. Maybe that principle should be expressed differently, but the man’s responsibility was very important for national culture. The cultural stereotypes also meant that the education of young girls differed from that of young boys. However, little by little, gender equality was being established in Gabon.

The Observatory for Equality and Women’s Rights acted as the Government’s link with non-governmental organizations. The Government had an obligation to provide non-governmental organizations with at least minimal resources to work in the field. Numerous awareness-raising campaigns had been initiated to publicize the Convention’s objectives.

Regarding water programmes, she said they now covered some 80 per cent of the country. Gabon’s topography and high investment costs made it difficult to provide access to water for the entire national territory.

ROSARIO MANALO from the Philippines, Committee Chairperson, thanked the delegation for its responses and said that, although things were improving, some changes took a long time. However, she had sensed a shared passion for the promotion of women’s rights. The Committee would forward its recommendations to Gabon in due course.

* *** *