25 January 2005

Women's Anti-Discrimination Committee Takes up Report of Eritrea; Told Gender Equality Efforts Hindered by Stereotypes, Poverty, War

President of National Union of Eritrean Women Presents Report, Says Women's Equal Rights Continuation of Policy Central to Liberation Struggle

NEW YORK, 24 January (UN Headquarters) -- Eritrea's efforts to achieve gender equality were hindered by deep-rooted traditional stereotypes and poverty, which was exacerbated by persistent droughts and the border conflict with Ethiopia, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women was told, as it took up the situation in that country in two meetings today.

The Committee's 23 independent experts were considering the combined initial, second and third periodic reports of Eritrea on its compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Presenting her country's report, the President of the National Union of Eritrean Women, Luul Gebreab, characterized Eritrea as a new nation, which had only gained independence in 1991 and had once again been pushed into war in 1998-2000.  Under the circumstances, the human rights issues raised in the Convention were not going to be implemented in one day.  However, having ratified the Convention in 1995, Eritrea was committed to the cause of gender equality and equal rights for women as a prerequisite for development and national security.

In fact, the Government's efforts towards full equality today were a reaffirmation and continuation of the policy that had been central for the liberation struggle, she said.   Eritrea's struggle for gender equality preceded the launching of the Convention in 1979 and the International Conference on Women in 1975.  During the country's 30-year-long struggle for national liberation, women had participated equally in the economy, education and health affairs, as well as policy formulation, governance and military operations.  One third of the liberation forces in active combat were women.

She also emphasized that regional peace and stability were prerequisites to sustainable socio-economic and political development.  Displacement of a significant portion of the country's population and the hardships inflicted upon Eritrea's people by Ethiopia's refusal to abide by the final and binding decisions of the Independent Border Commission, as well as the Security Council's failure to enforce the implementation of the border demarcation decision, were real and present impediments in Eritrea's efforts to promote the cause of women.

As the Committee proceeded with its detailed consideration of Eritrea's compliance with the Convention, its experts focused on the fight against traditional stereotypes as one of the main challenges before the Government.  Yes, traditions were deep and there was no "one-size-fits-all" solution, one expert said, but women of the world should not compromise.  In order to do away with the patriarchy, Eritrean women should be prepared to challenge men on such issues as female genital mutilation and early marriage.

Several experts also took issue with a delegate's statement that it was difficult for the Government to prohibit such deep-rooted practices as female genital mutilation, because if they were just stopped officially, they would go underground.  One expert told delegates that one could not afford to be patient when the fundamental rights of women were violated.  In that connection, an expert said that, while changing attitudes might take a long time, laws to eliminate harmful practices must be in place.  Sometimes the presence of the law could change the attitudes by itself.

Another member of the Committee cautioned against the possibility of a reversal of the gains achieved during the liberation struggle.  During revolutionary phases, women often asserted themselves and challenged their traditional roles, she said, but when stability came, they were forced to return to their traditional roles.  Campaigns to raise awareness and education were of great importance in that regard.

"Fight on!" was the recommendation of another expert.  The advancement of women required the determination and involvement of the whole population, including men and women, she said.  The country needed progressive laws in such areas as education, participation and land ownership.  It should also pursue a quota policy and make women visible.

It was also noted in the discussion that poverty took a greater toll on women than men.  When an expert expressed concern over the 40-per cent rate of female-headed households in Eritrea, a member of the delegation said that it could be attributed to the aftermath of war, which had also slowed down the country's industrialization and raised the number of the unemployed.  However, to survive, women were increasingly taking over such traditionally men's roles as those of construction workers.  Also, with the country's Labour Code not containing any discriminatory provisions, training was being provided to women on their rights.

Among other issues discussed today were the situation of rural women, women's health, high maternal mortality rates, early and forced marriages, abortions, women's rights within the family and the coexistence of Eritrea's State laws with nine systems of customary law that applied to various groups of population.

The Committee will take up the reports of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia at 10 a.m. Wednesday, 25 January.


When the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this morning, it had before it Eritrea's combined initial, second and third periodic reports on its implementation of the Convention (CEDAW/C/ERI/1-2 and Corr.1).  Although Eritrea ratified the Convention in 1995, the Government says the submission of an initial report was delayed by war.

Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993.  In 1994, the Government issued a "macro policy statement" outlining the country's development strategies for the next 20 years, in which "the equal rights of women will be upheld and all laws that subtract from this right will be changed".  In 1997, the Constituent Assembly ratified a national constitution drafted by the Eritrean Constitutional Commission, of whom 40 per cent were women.  Also in 1997, a law reform committee was established to reform or repeal the colonial Civil and Penal Code, putting a Transitional Code in its place.  That Code calls for the exclusion of all discriminatory clauses and connotations and the inclusion of protective legal measures.

However, even if legislation provides for equal rights and opportunities, attitudes and cultural practices still constitute major obstacles that affect possibilities of change, the report states.  Traditionally, women are considered as supplementary, rather than vital members of the family.  Men's control over women is reinforced by religious and traditional barriers, as well as customary laws and taboos.  Issues affecting gender equality in Eritrea include violence against women; trafficking and exploitation; disadvantages faced by rural women; disadvantages faced by women in the economy; genital mutilation; and lack of knowledge about their rights.

According to the document, enormous efforts were made by the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) during the national liberation struggle (as early as 1977) to break all traditional barriers and encourage new roles for women.  The report states:  "For the first time in their history, Eritrean women were allowed to join the liberation movement, taking up arms and fighting side by side with their male counterparts; organize themselves into women's organizations; participate in democratic elections of village councils, becoming decision makers within their communities; own land in the new land tenure system; and participate in rural schools."

The Government reports that the border conflict with Ethiopia has been a major setback for the country's development.  As a result of the conflict, over half a million Eritreans have become internally displaced persons.  Insisting that "the conflict must be resolved peacefully and legally", the Government states that it is its principle conviction that women's rights and participation cannot be asserted if the fundamental change does not embrace the vast majority of women, and if access and opportunity is not widely open to all.  Otherwise, the whole issue of empowerment would remain cosmetic.

A non-governmental organization called the National Union of Eritrean Women is the primary machinery used to advance gender equality, and works in close cooperation with the Government, local and international non-governmental organizations, and the general community.  The National Union was involved in the process of drafting the constitution, as well as in the process to reform the civil and criminal codes.  In addition, it carries out sensitization programmes within the community and among women of the legal provisions relating to gender equality.  It has also proposed a five-year National Plan of Action on gender development, as well as creation of gender focal points in some ministries.  However, the report acknowledges that the National Union must be "empowered structurally" in order to monitor mainstreaming activities within the government sectors and other agencies.

The Government has also adopted certain affirmative measures, which includes stipulating that 30 per cent of the seats in Parliament are set aside for women.  Today, women hold 30.5 per cent of the seats in the District Assemblies, of which 93 per cent came through the quota system.  Rewards are provided to parents in the remote areas who send their daughters to primary schools.  All development projects from community grant funds are to be provided only if 50 per cent of the beneficiaries are women.  Slightly lower entry scores for girls have been introduced in universities, nursing and technical schools to encourage their participation.

Among other things, the report touches on the practice of genital mutilation, which is widely exercised in Eritrea.  Economic development and access to education among women and men is cited by the report as an influence on this decline, but to expedite the change a public campaign is said to be "of utmost necessity".

In the area of education, the report mentions a vast campaign against illiteracy, which was initiated by the EPLF as early as the 1970s.  Currently, the illiteracy rate is 51 per cent, girl's attendance ratio at primary level is 41 per cent in urban areas and 27 per cent in rural areas.  Regarding the situation of rural women, the report states that, in general, they are economically and socially disadvantaged, having less education than their urban counterparts.

Traditionally, maternity and child rearing is considered as the sole function of a mother, not as a social function or a common responsibility of both parents.  Mothers and girls are obliged to carry the domestic load and are discouraged from participating in any social and political aspects of life.  However, through the course of time, family education and cultural transformation, parents are beginning to bear common responsibility.  This change is more vivid among parents with education compared to parents with no education.

The main causes of morbidity and mortality in Eritrea are preventable diseases the report states.  The root problems include limited access to potable and clean water; malnutrition; inadequacy of maternal and child health-care services; and inadequacy of reproductive health education and family planning.  The Ministry of Health has been exerting major interventions to address the health service challenges.  As far back as the liberation movement, the health service in Eritrea started "producing barefoot doctors, nurses and other qualified health staff".

Introduction of Reports

Eritrea's reports were introduced by the President of the National Union of Eritrean Women, LUUL GEBREAB, who said that her country's struggle for gender equality preceded the launching of the Convention in 1979 and the International Conference on Women in 1975.  During the country's 30-year-long struggle for national liberation, women had participated equally in economy, educational and health affairs, as well as policy formulation, governance and military operations.  In fact, one third of the liberation forces in active combat were women.  The Government's efforts towards full equality today were, indeed, a reaffirmation and continuation of the awareness and policy that had been central for the liberation struggle.

In November 2005, the country's 1994 macro-policy, which had proclaimed that all efforts would be made to enhance awareness of the decisive role of women in the transformation of the country, had been revisited and developed further, resulting in the adoption of a National Gender Policy that mainstreamed gender issues.  The Constitution of Eritrea codified women's constitutional rights to participate in any position of leadership, vote  and stand for election for any political seat and pursue, on equal basis, economic, commercial and trade advantages.

On the progress made in 2005, she described the steps to ensure gender mainstreaming in various ministries and sectors.  The National Union had been reconfirmed as an autonomous national coordinator for the cause of Eritrean women.  Resolutions were adopted addressing such important issues as an increase in women's participation in political and public life, economic empowerment, equal access and ownership of land and greater access to health care and education.  For the first time in 2005, a woman was appointed as a governor of one of the country's six regions.  Another was appointed mayor of the city of Massawa.

On education, she said that the country's policy ensured equal rights and opportunities for both sexes.  The Education Gender Policy was aligned with the Millennium Development Goals and strived to achieve universal primary education by 2015. Eritrea's "food for education" programme was designed to increase women's participation in education by compensating their time -- which could have otherwise been used in search of food -- with free basic food supplies.  More than 70,000 women had benefited from that programme in 2004-2005.  Also introduced in the country was a one-year "stop-gap remedial academic curriculum".

Poverty was the root cause of malnutrition and ill health among the population, she continued.  In the past five years, a persistent draught and the border conflict with Ethiopia had aggravated the incidence of poverty in Eritrea.  To address the situation, the Government had introduced a programme for free distribution of essential vitamins, iodine and mosquito nets to women of reproductive age.  A five-year programme had been adopted at the end of last year to train more health professionals, provide health-care centres with adequate resources, include midwifery training as a requirement in nursing programmes, and offer sex education in schools across the nation.  Legislation was being drafted to prohibit female circumcision and ensure that legally accepted and safe abortion services were provided.  Measures were being taken to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS.

In the economic sphere, steps were being made to create employment and promote income generation for women.  Among the key elements of the country's programme in that respect, she mentioned the measures encouraging women who owned small agricultural and commercial businesses; provision of training in non-traditional skills; low-interest loans; and steps to reduce women's household load.

Turning to the main constraints faced by the Government, she said that poverty took a greater toll on women than men.  To reduce dependence on rain-fed agriculture, the Government was spearheading a national campaign to build in the shortest possible time the necessary infrastructure, including dams, irrigation systems and feeder roads.  It was obvious, however, that the resource and time requirements of such an effort were immense.

Cultural, religious and customary practices and values also had a negative effect, she continued.  National laws might be promulgated and effectively harmonized with international laws, but long-held beliefs and practices could be insidious.  Also, as a small, newly independent developing country, Eritrea suffered from the lack of complete and reliable data needed to plan and implement its programmes.  The Government had recently drafted a National Statistics Act that would require all households and institutions of the public and private sectors to provide statistical information on a regular basis.

Last but not least, regional peace and stability were prerequisites to sustainable socio-economic and political development.  Displacement of a significant portion of the country's population and the hardships inflicted upon Eritrea's people by Ethiopia's refusal to abide by the final and binding decisions of the independent Border Commission, as well as the Security Council's failure to enforce the implementation of the border demarcation decision were real and present impediments in Eritrea's efforts to promote the cause of women.

Experts' Comments

CORNELIS FLINTERMAN, expert from the Netherlands, asked whether the Convention would be part of Eritrea's national legal system by 2007, as the report had indicated, and what that would actually mean in legal terms.  How aware was the country's judiciary of the Convention, and were there any training programmes addressing its implementation?  Also, was the country considering ratification of the Convention's Optional Protocol?

FRANÇOISE GASPARD, expert from France, noted that Eritrea had no law banning female genital mutilation, which went against the letter and spirit of the Convention, although a draft bill on the subject was being studied.  When did the country plan to complete its consideration of that draft law?

SALMA KHAN, expert from Bangladesh, asked whether Eritrea's special law reform committee would review the country's customary laws.  What status did customary laws have in the country's civil courts?  Also, which government agency had prepared Eritrea's report?

NAELA GABR, expert from Egypt, asked what status the Convention had in Eritrea, and what national machinery was in place to implement it.  What was the mandate and source of financing for the non-governmental Eritrean women's unit?  Could that unit submit drafts to amend existing legislation affecting women?  Also, how did the country plan to coordinate national legislation with international agreements?

HEISOO SHIN, expert from the Republic of Korea, noted that Eritrea's constitution described discrimination and gender equality rather differently than the Convention.  What was the delegation's understanding of discrimination against women?  Did the country have any mechanisms in place to apply sanctions in cases of violations to gender equality?  Did Eritrea plan to embody the Convention's definition of discrimination and gender equality into its constitution or legislation?

FUMIKO SAIGA, expert from Japan, asked whether Eritrea's women's commission had come up with any concrete proposals on laws to be amended or harmonized with the Convention.  If so, was there a time frame for such changes?

HUGUETTE BOKPE GNACADJA, expert from Benin, noting that Eritrea had adopted a civil code, asked whether its laws were enforceable.  Also, what was the process in the country for revoking laws?  What body could revoke or modify laws?

KRISZTINA MORVAI, expert from Hungary, asked about the role of Eritrean women in peacekeeping and reconciliation in the country.  In addition, which industrialized western countries were cooperating with Eritrea in its efforts to achieve women's rights?

Country Response

Ms. GEBREAB then responded to the experts' questions, assisted by other members of the delegation, including Araya Desta, Tesfa Alem Seyoum and Amanuel Giorgio of the Eritrean Mission to the United Nations; Tsehai Habtemariam, of the Eritrean Embassy to the United States; Mogos Fasil, Legal Expert; and Elsa Hailemariam and Samrawit Michel, of the National Union of Eritrean Women.

She said that Eritrea was a new nation, which had gained independence in 1991 and had been pushed into war in 1998 again.  Under the circumstances, in its reports, the country could "miss a lot" due to its limited capacity.  However, the Government was working to change the situation.

Having ratified the Convention in 1995, Eritrea was now committed to the cause of gender equality and equal rights for women as a pre-requisite for development and national security.  At the same time, it was natural to expect that all the human rights issues raised in the Convention were not going to be implemented in one day.  The country had its Constitution, various legislative documents and administrative and labour courts.

On female circumcision, she agreed that it was a violation of women's human rights.  However, it was a deep-rooted practice and if it were just stopped officially, it would go underground.  As a result, out of fear of punishment, the family would not take a girl to the hospital, if she started bleeding, for example.  It was also an issue of awareness and education.

Agreement had now been reached on the need to have a law on the matter in place, but advocacy work needed to go hand in hand with it, she continued.  The draft legislation would be discussed at different levels.  It was necessary to step up the efforts to raise awareness of the issue, and she believed that work would be completed in a couple of years.

Regarding traditional and civil laws, she said that much of the population followed the Sharia family law, which was in contradiction with the national law.  Despite the official marriage age of 18, under-age marriages were widely spread in the country, for example.  Raising awareness of the national laws was an ongoing struggle, which would involve a change in attitudes.  One of the aspects of the problem was that many children were not registered at birth and parents would just bring witnesses to testify that a bride was 18, although in reality she might be only 16 years old.

Another member of the delegation added that legislative work in Eritrea included efforts to repeal old colonial codes, draft new laws and bring customary legislation in line with international norms.

On the national machinery, Ms. Gebreab said that the National Union had been established before Eritrea became independent.  Initially, it was the national non-governmental organization fighting for women's rights, independence and social equality.  In 1995, when the Government ratified the Convention, it became the country's central autonomous body for the advancement of women.  Some 10 per cent of its budget was financed by the State.

Regarding the National Union's role, she said that, on the issue of land, for example, the Government's proclamation said that men and women were entitled to equal rights.  However, when the policy came to be implemented, attempts were made to allocate land on a family basis.  Following an intervention by the Union, that trend was reversed.  The legal unit of the Union hears complaints and works with the authorities to address them.  In addition, different ministries look into gender-based discrimination complaints that come to their attention and use administrative remedies to address them.

On the efforts to harmonize Eritrea's domestic laws with international laws, she said that "each and every article of the Convention is the commitment of the Government".  Based on that commitment, the Government was trying to promulgate new laws.  She did not envisage any problem with their implementation.

Regarding women's role in peacekeeping, she said that they wanted peace and had to be self-reliant.  The country had been fighting its war on its own.  Its people had been asking for help.  "How many of you have heard us, is a question mark", she said.  However, the country was not going to point fingers now -- it wanted to go ahead.   Eritrea's women wanted peace, but it was necessary to work for just peace and the implementation of the decisions of the Border Commission.  She had lost five of her children in the war, but, if needed, her grandchildren would go to war again.

ZOU XIAOQIAO, expert from China, asked whether the National Union of Eritrean Women was a governmental mechanism or a non-governmental organization.  Also, which government bodies were responsible for implementing the Beijing Plan of Action?

MARIA REGINA TAVARES DA SILVA, expert from Portugal, asked whether all Eritrean ministries were involved in promoting gender equality, and what role men played in the process.  She also asked for clarification about national mechanisms the country had to address gender equality.

HANNA BEATE SCHOPP-SCHILLING, expert from Germany, asked whether the country's report had been discussed in the cabinet.  She also noted a confusion in the report between policies and affirmative action.  What had been adopted to ensure gender mainstreaming in the country's ministries?

Ms. GASPARD, expert from France, asked whether the country had other non-governmental organizations addressing the plight of women.

Ms. SAIGA, expert from Japan, asked whether the country's national gender action plan had been updated.  What relationship did the National Union have with the Eritrean Government?  Also, what was the Union's structure and how many people were involved in it?

Ms. SHIN, expert from the Republic of Korea, noted that Eritrea's report lacked data on violence against women, and asked how the National Union would guarantee that such information was included in future reports.  Could the Union use its extensive network to collect data on women?

ROSARIO G. MANALO, expert from the Philippines, asked how the National Union actually worked, how it coordinated with the Eritrean Government.  Had the Union considered presenting the Government with a gender budget?

Country Response

A member of the delegation explained that the Union functioned as both a non-governmental organization and a national governmental mechanism promoting gender equality.  The Union examined gender policies from the Government's perspective, identifying gaps and shortcomings.  In the area of economic empowerment for women, the Union had become a lobbying mechanism.  The Government also consulted the Union on policies and strategies related to its poverty reduction strategy paper and other international instruments.

It was clearly stated in national gender policy, she added, that the Union would work as a women's mechanism, although the country's ministers would be responsible for implementing gender mainstreaming.  The Union had proposed that the Government set up a national gender resource and research centre to train people in gender analysis and planning, making it a part of the university.

As for other women's groups, she said the Union had chapters in different regions, and there were also other organizations and women's groups in the country, which it encouraged.

The Nations Union initiated gender policy formulation, and then discussed it with the Government, she said.  This year, the Union had developed specific time-bound programme for education, and discussed it in ministerial meetings.  The policy was supported by a task force from different ministries, and the ministers had adopted it.

Efforts were also being made to gather sex-disaggregated statistical data, she said, with assistance from the United Nations system.

Another member of the delegation said that the struggle for independence was not only to liberate the country, but also to liberate the population of the social evils.  Discrimination against women was one of those evils.  Thus, it was important to address the situation.  Her generation was committed to bringing the change for the coming generations.

Experts' Comments

GLENDA P. SIMMS, expert from Jamaica, commended the delegation for its presentation of the reports and the women's role in the liberation struggle.  However, trying to gain freedom, it was also necessary to address the inequities within the country, and the fight against traditional stereotypes was one of the main challenges before the Government.  Yes, traditions were deep and there was one size did not fit all, but women of the world should not compromise.  Were Eritrean women prepared to challenge men on such issues as genital mutilation and early marriage?  It was necessary to deconstruct the patriarchy.

MARY SHANTHI DAIRIAM, expert from Malaysia, said that while participation in the national service was required of the country's citizens, young girls could be exempted for the purposes of marriage.  From independent sources, she knew that participation in service provided certain benefits.  Marriage seemed to have primacy, however.  Had the implications of such exemption been studied?  She also asked about the incidence of violence against women in service.

While welcoming the Government's efforts to improve the situation of women, DORCAS COKER-APPIAH, expert from Ghana, noted that some discriminatory practices still persisted in Eritrea.  It was important to challenge the stereotypes in respect of women. She was worried about an earlier statement that it was difficult for the Government to prohibit some deep-rooted practices.  Experience showed that changing attitudes might take a long time, but laws must be in place to eliminate harmful practices.  Sometimes the presence of the law was the factor that could change the attitudes by itself.  She also wanted to know about the impact of some of the programmes initiated by the Government.

DUBRAVKA ŠIMONOVIC, expert from Croatia, commended the frank nature of the report and wondered if it had been presented to Parliament.  Also commenting on the difficulty of changing the stereotypes, she asked about concrete measures taken in that regard.

Ms. TAVARES DA SILVA, expert from Portugal, said that sexist views on women seemed to be quite strong in Eritrea.  Little information had been provided in the report on the measures to address such attitudes.  During revolutionary phases, women often asserted themselves and challenged their traditional roles.  However, when stability came, they were often forced to return to their traditional roles.  Warning the Government about such a possibility, she said that campaigns to raise awareness were of great importance, as well as education.  A disturbing argument had been made by a country representative regarding the need to be patient when campaigning for change.  One could not be patient when the fundamental rights of women were violated.

Country Response

Ms. GEBREAB said that the persistent nature of stereotypes was a hard reality.  The best thing that Eritrea had achieved so far was that women were confident and that they were prepared to stand up for themselves.  The Government had also launched education and literacy campaigns that she hoped could bring good results.  Efforts were also being made to bring women together in order to make them self-sufficient.  Criminalizing female genital mutilation would make it easier to fight that evil, and the draft legislation was being considered towards that end.  The Government had also invited religious leaders and various groups to discuss the issue.  Media campaigns and talk shows had also been organized.  What she was trying to explain, however, was that changing the mindsets within the country would take time.

Regarding women's participation in the national service, she said that it was a national obligation for each and every citizen.  However, married women had an option of not participating in it.  "We do not push a Muslim woman in a far-away village to participate" in the national service, she said.  The Government encouraged them instead.

In cases of sexual harassment, she said, a woman could complain to her employer or the National Union, and the problem would be dealt with.  In that respect, it was important to build up a woman's confidence from a young age, preferably from the primary educational level.

Hindrances to gender equality remained, she continued, and the Union was trying to develop different strategies to solve the challenges it faced.  Land, for example, was only allocated to couples in the man's village.  The Union had challenged that practice and it had been changed. The Union was also attempting to assess women's participation in Parliament and to change attitudes and stereotypes about women.

Experts' Comments

Ms. MORVAI, expert from Hungary, complimented Eritrea on its view that women did not freely choose prostitution, but entered it for reasons beyond their control. Noting that the country had developed programmes assisting women to leave prostitution, she asked how it had carried them out and what had been achieved.  Were there also programmes targeting men who used prostitutes?  Also, did the country have a trafficking problem?

Country Response

A member of the delegation said that trafficking in women and children was not a problem in Eritrea.  Of more concern were the conditions women faced as immigrant workers overseas, and the effects of conflict, which had displaced many women from their homes.

Addressing tourism in the country, another delegate noted that prostitution was one of the negative side effects of that industry.  Eritrea preferred a type of tourism that would leave current social conditions intact.  The Ministry of Tourism had been trying to promote environmentally friendly and eco-tourism, which could benefit the county economically and socially.

Another member of the delegation added that women were often pushed into prostitution, if they could not support their families.  The National Union was trying to encourage local officials to assist those women in finding other commercial activities.

Experts' Comments

Ms. ZOU, expert from China, noted that the participation of Eritrean women in international affairs was low, and asked whether the Government intended to change that through capacity-building, training or quotas.  Also, why did the Government not use a quota system in raising women's participation in the electoral process?

MERIEM BELMIHOUB-ZERDANI, expert from Algeria, said that she herself had fought for her country's independence, and the advancement of African women was of particular importance for her.  The situation of Eritrean women, who constituted some 30 per cent of the liberation forces, should improve.  That required determination and involvement of the whole population, including men and women.  Her advice as an expert from a country similar to Eritrea was "fight on".  Also needed were progressive laws in such areas as education, participation and land.  The country should pursue a quota policy and make women visible.

MAGALYS AROCHA DOMINGUEZ, expert from Cuba, joined the experts who had welcomed the Government's commitment to the implementation of the Convention. Much had also been said about the difficulties that the Government was confronting, and she wanted to know what had been made to ensure women's broader participation in the positions of power.  What was the situation as far as the appointments to the ministries were concerned?  What was the status of women at the local government level?  She also asked for further information on conscience-raising campaigns in the political area.

Country Response

A member of the delegation said that the representation of Eritrean women in foreign service was low, particularly at the decision-making level.  Deliberate action was needed to rectify the situation.

Another delegate said that women were encouraged to participate in government service.  In particular, instructions were in place that allowed hiring women without insisting on a high academic level.  Women could also improve their education through correspondence and evening courses.  Positive discrimination measures were also implemented in some cases.  However, such measures were not enough; quotas were needed.  The percentage of women at the local level ranged from 2 to 10 per cent.

Experts' Comments

Ms. KHAN, expert from Bangladesh, asked whether Eritrean women had the same right as the country's men in transmitting nationality to their children, born either inside or outside Eritrea, or to foreign spouses.

Country Response

A member of the delegation said that a new law had been adopted stating that both women and men married to non-Eritreans had the same rights to transmit their nationality to spouses and children.

Experts' Comments

Ms. AROCHA DOMINGUEZ, expert from Cuba, stressed the importance of Eritrea's literacy programme, in which 80 per cent of the participants were women, as well as that of continued study to retain new skills.  Had the country developed any programmes to ensure continuity of study for those with literacy training?

Country Response

A member of the delegation noted that participants in the literacy programme had mainly been young people, who had insisted that study programmes be continued.  The Ministry of Education had been developing programmes to ensure that literacy programmes include continued study in the future.

Experts' Comments

MS. SHOPP-SCHILLING, expert from Germany, asked how many complaints had been received by the Ministry of Labour regarding employer discrimination against women.  Was the country setting up labour codes or legal aid that was accessible to women suffering from discrimination?  What was it doing to educate women about their employment rights?  Were there any regulations for the informal labour market, and how many women were involved in that sector?  Were they harassed during informal work, or was it seen as an opportunity?  Were there regulations to protect female domestic servants?

Country Response

A member of the delegation said the conflict in Eritrea had slowed down various industries, and employment was low.  Due to the war, women had taken over in different sectors, especially in construction, for their survival and because employers needed labour.  The National Union wanted to build on that in developing a sustainable scheme for women's employment.  In agricultural areas, women were beginning to work in the fields, and efforts were also being made to continue that practice.

Regarding complaints about discrimination, she said they often came to the Union, which brought them to the Ministry of Labour.  The Confederation of Eritrean Workers was also active in training workers about their rights.

Experts' Comments

Ms. GABR, expert from Egypt, asked whether Eritrea had engaged in any joint programmes with the African Union in the area of health, especially in eliminating female genital mutilation, which was a flagrant violation of women's rights.

SILVIA PIMENTEL, expert from Brazil, commended the Government's determination to rebuild the country on a gender-equality basis and seek real change, instead of cosmetic changes.  However, she had to insist that female genital mutilation needed to be urgently addressed.  The phenomenon should be treated as gender-based violence.  Both education and laws prohibiting discrimination were needed.  It was also important to look at the issue from the human rights perspective and take into account the Committee's general recommendations on the matter.  She also noted that Eritrea's maternal mortality level was among of the highest in the world.

On the latter, Ms. DAIRIAM, expert from Malaysia, noted that, while recently the figures had been brought down, they still remained high.  Among the reasons were a lack of access to qualified personnel and health care.  In that connection, she asked for details regarding the country's safe motherhood programme, as well as the data on under-age marriages and early pregnancies.  She also remarked on the prevalence of unsafe abortions and asked if any measures had been put in place to meet the needs of women affected by war.

Ms. ŠIMONOVIC, expert from Croatia, said that, according to the report, women in rural areas often did not have access to medical facilities.  Had any progress been achieved since the document had been submitted?  Also, as it was prohibited by the Convention, female genital mutilation should not be perceived as legal.

PRAMILA PATTEN, expert from Mauritius, wanted to know about the follow-up to the administrative steps taken by the Cabinet of Ministers last November to improve women's participation and ensure equal rights in the ownership of land.  How was discrimination in the recruitment and hiring of women being addressed?

Country Response

Ms. GEBREAB agreed that female genital mutilation was a harmful practice and said that she realized it must be ended.  The Government was pursuing the matter.  It was also important to cooperate on the regional level, as the practice was not widely spread in Eritrea alone.  In that connection, she cited the case of the Sudan, where female genital mutilation had been banned a long time ago, with no implementation.  She wanted to emphasize that when her Government put some measures in place, it insisted on carrying them out.

In that connection, a member of the delegation added that, during his recent visit to Sweden, he had found out that some of the Eritreans living in that country went out of the country to perform female genital mutilation on their children, for they knew that it was forbidden in Sweden.  For that reason, his Government considered it extremely important to educate the population first and work at changing the prevalent mindset in the country.  Regarding maternal mortality, health was a cross-cutting issue, and the Government was handling it from different angles.  Thus, it focused its efforts not only on health measures per se, but also on the building of roads, development of the mobile phone system and emergency training for relevant personnel.

The President of the National Union said that rape of women of all ages had been widely used during the war.  The strategy within the country was to provide training and support not just to individuals, but whole groups of women affected by rape.

Continuing, she stressed the Government's commitment to revisit the national gender action plan and identify time-bound programmes to implement it.  Gender mainstreaming would ensure that each sector performed activities to be evaluated by the National Union.  The Union had also negotiated resources needed to implement the action plan in each sector.

Regarding employment, the Government had provided subsidies to each family in the war-torn areas of the country.  Some were using those resources to make local products, demonstrating that the subsidies had been well spent.  As for labour complaints, they generally went to the Labour Court, but could end up in the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, if they contained further implications.

Expert's Comments

ANAMAHTAN, expert from Singapore, noted that entrenched traditional attitudes had been slowing down women's access to land in Eritrea.  What had been the impact of the Proclamation on Land Issues, and how many women had gained ownership to land, compared to men?  Also, what progress had been made on the draft land regulations?  Was there a time frame for them to be completed?

Ms. SIMMS, expert from Jamaica, asked whether Eritrea was looking at alternative irrigation and solar energy for its rural population.

Country Response

A member of the delegation said the Proclamation on Land Issues was gender-sensitive, and had given women equal access to land ownership.  The Proclamation said all people were entitled to land for his or her residence, but a land backlog forced the Government to focus on families with three, four or five children.

As for women's rights to housing location, the Ministry of Land had stated that women should be allowed to build a house in their birthplace if their husbands agreed.  From 2006, a married woman could obtain land in her own village.  Regarding alternative energy, she said the country had introduced smokeless stoves to minimize wood use, and was working on a method for solar cooking.

Experts' Comments

Ms. COKER-APPIAH, expert from Ghana, stressed that continuous education and awareness-raising was needed in women's rights.  Once awareness was raised, structures and support services were needed to allow women to achieve their rights.

She also noted that the report had described rape as an offence, but that most instances went unreported.  Victims were often reluctant to report rapes to law enforcement due to the police attitude to that crime.  Did the country have any programmes to educate the police in responding effectively to victims of rape or other forms of sexual abuse?

Ms. PATTEN, expert from Mauritius, asked whether arbitration sessions for divorce were mandatory, and who conducted them.  Also, what efforts had been made to ensure that women formed part of arbitration committees, and that members were trained in the Convention?  Did the country have legislation regarding matrimonial property, which women could apply in cases of domestic violence?  How were women represented in front of the arbitration committee?

Ms. TAN, expert from Singapore, asked what the Government was doing to educate the public about the minimum 19-year marriage age, and to reject the practice of forced marriage.  Would the country's final civil code stipulate that customary rules for marriage and divorce, which discriminated against women and went against the Convention, be abolished?  Did the community practise non-discriminatory inheritance laws?

Mr. FLINTERMAN, expert from the Netherlands, said it was clear that the Government was committed to gender equality.  However, he was baffled by the provision that one of the spouses could object, in the interest of the household, to the other's choice of employment.  How likely was it for a woman to make such an objection? Could the provision be used as a legitimate excuse for a man to prohibit his wife's work outside the home?

Ms. GNACADJA, expert from Benin, said that equality in marriage was a sensitive issue, even in the most democratic countries.  As one could not expect to reach consensus, it was important to combine measures to raise awareness with clear and non-compromising reform.  According to the reports before the Committee, the State recognized sharia and customary law and intended to consolidate and harmonize them with domestic norms through legal reform.  In practice, it seemed impossible to harmonize the discriminatory provisions of the sharia with the Convention.  "Please do not give room to exceptions, because they perpetuate discrimination", she pleaded.

Ms. BELMIHOUB-ZERDANI, expert from Algeria, inquired about the status of the draft civil law and noted that there were nine kinds of customary law that applied to various population groups.  In that connection, she wanted to know how marriage was registered in Eritrea.  How were marriage and divorce between a Muslim and non-Muslim man and woman handled?

Country Response

Ms. GEBREAB said that, as stated in the report, the constitutional law was the supreme law of the country, but, at the same time, the reality on the ground needed to be taken into account.  Marriages were performed in the country both under the civil law and under the nine traditional codes.  The tradition, the culture and the religion could not just be ignored, and the rights of various communities could not be denied.  The issue was not easy, but the Government was looking for a harmonious way of resolving it.  Advocacy work and education were the focus of the Government's efforts.

Regarding the right to object to a spouse's occupation, she said that it was an area that needed to be looked upon and adjusted.  While the official marriage age had been set at 18 years of age, under-age marriages still existed, partially due to the lack of enforcement capacity.

Regarding inheritance, she said people either divided property equally, or the government claimed it. The husband's property, according to civil law, must go to the wife, while sharia law allowed the wife one eighth of the property.

Concluding Remarks

The Committee Chair, ROSARIO G. MANALO, expert from the Philippines, stressed that Eritrea must overcome sexual stereotypes and discrimination, and entrench its national women's machinery firmly in the Government.  The Government had signed the Convention and, more than any other organization, was responsible for its implementation.

Eritrea had progressed from conflict to peacebuilding, she said, and now was the time to eliminate discrimination and inequality in the country.  Time was of the essence and every opportunity must be seized to provide women with the same opportunities as men.

Ms. GEBREAB, President of the National Union of Eritrean Women, said her Government was accountable to the National Union, but the relationship between the two bodies should be evaluated, so that lessons could be learned.  She hoped the Committee would develop mechanism for understanding the situation and common ground for further discussion could be found.  More effort and resources should be devoted to understanding different national circumstances.

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