1 February 2006

Women's Anti-Discrimination Committee Considers Report of Mali; Harmful Traditional Practices, Women's Poverty among Issues Raised by Experts

Country's Minister for Advancement of Women Describes Broad Range of Policies Aimed at Enhancing Women's Status, Improving Living Conditions

NEW YORK, 31 January (UN Headquarters) -- Recognizing negative sexual stereotypes and harmful traditional practices as key barriers on the path towards gender equality, the Government of Mali was planning multisectoral strategies to establish "a critical mass of women who are aware of their rights, have a positive image of themselves and demand change", that country's representatives told the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women today.

The Committee's 23 experts, acting in their personal capacities, monitor compliance with the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. They took up Mali's second through fifth periodic reports on the implementation of the Convention, in two meetings today.

One of the first African countries to accede to the Convention, without reservations, Mali ratified it in 1985 and the Optional Protocol in 2000.  Under the Protocol, the Committee can consider complaints regarding violations of rights protected under the Convention, once domestic remedies are exhausted, and initiate inquiries into situations of grave or systematic violations of women's rights.

Mali's reports -- introduced today by the country's Minister for the Advancement of Women, Children and Family, Diallo M'Bodji Sene -- list a number of traditional practices that still persist in the country, including giving a girl in marriage to a witch doctor for religious reasons (Allah mandi) and "betrothal at birth".  Nine out of ten women continue to be subjected to excision, and in some ethnic groups, widows are considered to be part of the dead man's estate. 

The Government reports that, in adopting the policies and action plans for the advancement of women (2002-2006), it is endeavouring to take additional measures to enhance the status of women and improve women's living conditions in Mali. The country's legislative, regulatory and administrative measures for the advancement of women include the establishment of the national programme to eradicate the practice of excision; adoption of a new Penal Code that incorporates new offences relating to the protection of women; and introduction of a Commercial Code, eliminating the requirement that a married woman have her husband's authorization in order to engage in a business activity.

One of the country's representatives said that, in an effort to change people's perceptions, it was necessary to look at cross-cutting issues, while targeting attitudes and discriminatory conduct. Members of the delegation also emphasized the need to examine the roots of harmful practices, and push for raising awareness and for discussing the issue outside of the medical arena -- which was usually the safest way to address a culturally sensitive practice -- instead of simply treating it as taboo.

The experts agreed that strong measures were needed to address harmful stereotypes and practices.  While welcoming the Government's political will to strengthen the rights of women, an expert said that female genital mutilation could not be overcome without appropriate legal measures. Other countries had introduced legislation criminalizing such practices, but Mali was still wondering if such measures should be introduced. Along with campaigns to raise awareness, it would be useful to find alternative employment for people who practiced incisions professionally.

An expert pointed out that a State party to the Convention had an obligation to improve women's de facto position, through concrete projects and measures, resulting in "equality of results". It was important to overcome the underrepresentation of women, redistributing resources and power between men and women.  The application of special temporary measures was very important in that regard.

Members of the Committee also noted that there was no specific legislation targeting violence against women in Mali.  With a high level of tolerance within the society, it was difficult for women to come forward and denounce the perpetrators.  In that connection, an expert said that the abuses listed in Mali's report were rooted in the ideology of patriarchy, or justified under the cloak of tradition and custom.  And, while that particular issue was difficult for African countries to address, it was true that customs and traditions could indeed change over time.

While expressing appreciation for the Government's efforts in the area of health, a member of the Committee also noted the gap between the vision and reality in Mali. For instance, there were high rates of maternal mortality and morbidity, a high fertility rate, frequent pregnancies, shortfalls in prenatal and post-natal care, low contraception use, and the use of clandestine abortions.

Several experts were struck by the depressing statistics on poverty in Mali, which reached almost 80 per cent in some areas. Far more women lived in poverty than men, especially in rural areas. Despite the Government's efforts to combat poverty, not much had changed for women on the ground. They had limited access to land, property, credit and means of earning a living. It was important to ensure that women had access to the funds that had been set aside for the vulnerable and excluded.  It was also necessary to conduct impact studies of the programmes that had been put in place. 

Among other matters raised in the debate, were the issues of women's access to land, property rights, the country's Islamic tradition in relation to women's rights, and Mali's customary laws, which include polygamy. Several questions related to the proposed amendments of the country's Family Code, with the speakers insisting on the need to overcome resistance to change and eliminate discriminatory provisions from the Marriage and Guardianship Code.

The Committee will meet to conclude its session on Friday, 3 February.


The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women had before it Mali's second, third through fifth periodic reports on the implementation of the Convention, which covered the period from 1990 to 2002 (document CEDAW/C/MLI/2-5). Mali ratified the Convention on 10 September 1985. Following ratification, the country presented its initial report on the implementation of the Convention in 1986. In September 2000, Mali ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention.

The Government reports that the issues involved in advancing the rights of women in Mali are "a matter of timely concern", and apply to all sustainable development policies in every sector. Since 1991, when Mali made the transition to democracy in its public institutions, there has clearly been a political will to strengthen the rights of women, as evidenced by the large number of measures undertaken at different levels by Government departments and agencies, and in various sector development programmes.

The State's actions consist principally of legislative, regulatory and administrative measures, including the establishment, in 2002, of the national programme to eradicate the practice of excision; the adoption, in August 2001, of a new Penal Code that incorporates new offences relating to the protection of women, particularly war crimes, crimes against humanity and trafficking in children; and the adoption, in 1992, of a Commercial Code eliminating the requirement that a married woman have her husband's authorization in order to engage in a business activity. The proposed family law reform calls for the elimination from the Marriage and Guardianship Code, of provisions that discriminate against women, including in matters of inheritance.

The country's action plan for 1996-2000 was developed by the Office of the Commissioner for the Advancement of Women, in cooperation with its technical partners, women's associations and non-governmental organizations. Focusing on the priority areas of education, health, women's rights, participation in public and economic life and institution building, it was approved by the Council of Ministers as the reference framework for participation by all players working for the advancement of women. 

However, despite the progress that has been made, sociocultural and socio-economic constraints that prevent women from exercising all their rights continue to exist. What has been achieved needed to be consolidated, and a new way forward had to be found.

Mali's Constitution prohibits discrimination of every kind, including all discrimination on the basis of sex.  The country's 2001 Penal Code, while not covering discrimination on the basis of sex, provides legal protection for the rights of women on an equal basis with men through national tribunals, State agencies and other public institutions. Indeed, the Code of Civil, Commercial and Social Procedure, the Code of Penal Procedure, and proceedings before administrative bodies make no distinction between men and women. 

However, instances of domestic violence, typically perpetrated by the husband, are tolerated by society in some cases. As no provisions have been established to deal specifically with domestic violence, such offences are punished within the general framework of provisions covering wilful assault and injury, homicide, rape, and so forth, under the Penal Code. At the same time, the report recognizes that, in certain ethnic groups, widows are subjected to humiliating and degrading practices. For example, a widow's head may be shaved or she may be stigmatized by her late husband's sisters "for any wrongs she may have committed during her husband's lifetime". Some ethnic groups also regard the widow as part of a dead man's estate.  As a result, instead of inheriting her late husband's assets, she becomes one of those assets. 

Among traditional practices that still persist in the country, the report lists the giving of a girl in marriage to a witch doctor for religious reasons (Allah mandi) and "betrothal at birth", consisting of promising a newborn baby girl for marriage to a particular individual or into a particular family. Women and children continue to be subjected to excision and other practices that may be harmful to their health. 

Access by women to certain levels of administrative and political responsibility is difficult, the report states. They also remain underrepresented in decision-making bodies. This is particularly true in the Parliament, whose membership consists of 132 men and only 15 women.

In the area of health, men and women enjoy equal rights and dignity with regard to reproductive health. The law establishes that every individual may lead a sex life that is responsible, satisfying and risk-free. Partners in a conjugal relationship and individuals have the right to decide freely how many children they will have, and the spacing between them, according to their own best judgement, and to have access to the necessary information for that purpose. Abortion is permitted to protect the life of the mother. Also, if pregnancy could put the life of a married woman at risk, she is entitled to have access to an irreversible method of contraception by giving written consent to the procedure. The wilful transmission of HIV/AIDS is categorized as attempted murder.

Introduction of Reports

Mali's reports were introduced by its Minister for the Advancement of Women, Children and Family, DIALLO M'BODJI SENE, who said that her country had ratified the Convention in 1985, and had subsequently ratified the Optional Protocol. Her country was committed to promoting social justice and peace. It had presented its first report in 1987 but, for reasons beyond its control, had been unable to appear before the Committee again until today. Since 1960, Mali had seen three political regimes, all of which had put the needs of women and children at the heart of their leadership initiatives.  Indeed, Mali's first commission focused on women dated back more than 30 years.

Still, women's rights during that early period -- characterized throughout by a one party system -- were not fully enjoyed, because of restrictions on their freedom of expression and the women's rights movement.  She highlighted other institutional advances over the past two decades, leading up to the creation, in 1997, of the Ministry which she headed. One thing that had been true throughout all those changes and challenges was the Government's commitment to the advancement of women and towards stamping out discrimination. In adopting the policies and action plans concerned with the advancement of women (2002 to 2006), the Government endeavoured to remove the obstacles that still existed, by taking additional measures to enhance the status of women and improve women's living conditions in Mali.

Mali's Constitution spoke clearly on matters of equality, she continued. The country's Labour Code had also been revised in 1992. In education, the country had worked to raise school enrolment for girls by some 30 percentage points over the past decade. Mali had also authorized and supported special gender training for teachers, as well as for those who wrote textbooks. The country also actively encouraged girls to pursue courses of study in the sciences and technology. In the area of health, the Government sponsored free distribution of malaria nets, as well as antiretroviral drugs.  Special outreach in those cases had been targeted towards rural women. 

Special affirmative-action measures had also been taken to improve literacy and maternal health care.  Disabled women were also a focus of the Government, she added. As for women's participation in public life, she said the current Government had five women Ministers out of 29.  Overall, she acknowledged that women were still underrepresented in the Government. At the same time, there was a push under way to raise the level of participation of rural women. That went hand in hand with several agricultural-based policies aimed at improving the lives of women in rural areas. 

But, despite much progress, she stressed that women still bore a major social burden and expressed concern that not enough of the country's budget was targeted to address the unique socio-economic challenges women faced. She was convinced that, with dedication, political will and working closely with non-governmental organizations, Government structures could be improved, so that women's issues could be addressed more comprehensively. She assured the Committee that, when the Government returned with its next report, it would be drafted based on the Committee's recommendations.

Experts' Comments and Questions

Opening the dialogue with the delegation, CORNELIS FLINTERMAN, expert from the Netherlands, said that he did not know any other country where the Human Rights Day was celebrated like it was in Mali. On that day -- 10 December -- the state of human rights was discussed throughout the country. He wondered if the women's rights were discussed, as well.  He then posed questions regarding the status of the Convention in Mali, the role of non-governmental organizations in presenting discrimination cases to the courts, and steps that the Government intended to take to further strengthen the legal system in Mali. 

The country's Constitution prohibited discrimination of any kind, but there was no definition of discrimination in that instrument, he continued.  Were both direct and indirect discrimination against women prohibited by Mali's laws? Mali was one of the first countries that had ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention, which allowed individuals and groups to seek redress from discrimination from the Committee, after domestic remedies had been exhausted. He also addressed the issue of special temporary measures, urging the Government to study the Committee's general recommendation in that regard.

HUGUETTE BOKPE GNACADJA, expert from Benin, congratulated Mali on having been among one of the first African countries to ratify the Convention without reservations. That was outstanding for a country where 90 per cent of population was Muslim.  Now, it was important to improve education and awareness, introduce appropriate legislative measures for the advancement of women and implement existing laws. She sought additional information on the country's legal reform. Did the Government intend to include specific reference to gender-based discrimination under the Penal Code or address sexual violence directly? What had been done to amend the Family Code and abolish remaining discriminatory legislation and practices?

The Government had made significant efforts to improve its machinery for the advancement of women, she said, but she wanted to know about the real impact of the measures that had been introduced. 

PRAMILA PATTEN, expert from Mauritius, said that important efforts were being made to advance the situation of women in Mali, despite the country's difficult economic circumstances. However, reading the report, she had been struck with a sense that there was a misunderstanding of what special temporary measures were. The Committee's general recommendations could clarify the matter. Special temporary measures extended beyond the purely formal introduction of legal provisions. There was also an obligation to improve a de facto position of women through concrete projects and measures.  It envisioned "equality of results". 

It was important to overcome the underrepresentation of women, redistributing resources and power between men and women, she continued. Application of special temporary measures was very important in that regard. Given Mali's clear political will, she wanted to hear about the country's affirmative action policies and actions. The report clearly addressed the efforts to overcome discrimination in the area of education, politics, employment, but those were not special temporary measures, which she urged the Government to introduce. 

FRANÇOISE GASPARD, expert from France, said that Mali's report was very candid regarding the situation of women in the country and the challenges ahead.  he Government had shown its determination to advance gender equality, but much remained to be done. Among the positive developments, she welcomed the positive results in school attendance rates.  However, harmful stereotypes persisted and strong action was needed to address that issue. Among the negative practices, she singled out female circumcision, with some 90 per cent of the rural population practicing this form of genital mutilation. While other countries had introduced legislation criminalizing such practices, Mali was still wondering if such measures should be introduced.  Female genital mutilation could not be overcome without appropriate legal measures. One of the ways to reduce the practice was to find alternative employment for people practicing it. She also asked about the results of the country's campaigns to raise awareness.

She also addressed the situation of widows, who were often considered the property of the deceased.  Widows' heads were often shaved. There was no specific legislation targeting violence against women. With a high level of tolerance within the society, it was difficult for women to come forward and denounce the perpetrators. What did the country intend to do to overcome such negative practices and change the prevailing mindsets among the population?

Also focusing on violence against women, DORCAS COKER-APPIAH, expert from Ghana, noted that the abuses listed in Mali's report were rooted in the ideology of patriarchy, or justified under the cloak of tradition and custom. And while that particular issue was difficult for African countries to address, it was true that customs and traditions could indeed change over time. Initiatives to raise awareness were critical in that regard, she said, but admitted that they were not enough, since cultural practices were so deeply entrenched.

She asked when Mali's relevant legislation would come into effect. Did the State have any programmes aimed at sensitizing police and law enforcement officials on the treatment of victims of violence and abuse? Would new laws address such things as forced sex in marriage?  On trafficking, she said that that practice -- particularly domestic workers -- was on the rise throughout the West African region. What was being done to reintegrate women victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation? Did those women have access to free legal services or health care?  How many traffickers had been convicted over the past few years?

Delegation's Response

Assisting the Minister in the dialogue with the experts were the following members of the delegation: Mali's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Cheick Sidi Diarra; Diarra Kadiatou Samoura of the Ministry for the Advancement of Women, Children and Family; Kante Dandarra Toure, National Director for the Advancement of Women; Salif Samake of the Ministry of Health; Daouda Cisse and Mamadou Diakite of the Ministry of Justice; representatives of civil society, Sohoyata Maiga and Soumare Assa Diallo; Soumano Yagare of the Ministry of Education; Diallo Assitan Diallo, Director for the Programme to Promote Equality; and Issa Konfourou Deuxieme of the Permanent Mission of Mali to the United Nations.

Opening Mali's response to the experts' first round of comments, Ms. M'BODJI SENE said the country's Constitution, which dated back to 1992, admittedly had some shortcomings.  Indeed, it was perhaps time to revisit and update Mali's guiding document.

The delegation's legal expert said that, in the Constitution, gender-based or ethnic discrimination was clearly condemned, although discrimination was not defined per se. Further, the tenets of the international covenants and conventions on human rights that Mali had signed, trumped the Constitution.  On the legal system, she said that the country had held seminars to educate lawyers and jurists about the Convention and other international instruments.

To the experts' concerns that no cases referencing the Convention had yet been brought before the courts, she said that, at present, several such cases were winding their way through lower administrative bodies. All avenues had to be followed before such cases reached the high court. Overall, she assured the Committee that Mali's legal system was "awaking from its lethargy".

Another delegation member highlighted the reawakening of the women's movement in Mali, noting particularly that, as democracy had spread, women had been able to meet, express their opinions and share their concerns with the Government. She was certain such issues as equality within marriage and conjugal violence would be dealt with, as laws regarding marriage and family life were revisited or updated.

On the issue of excision and other relevant matters, Ms. M'BODJI SENE highlighted an upcoming subregional conference that would aim to address the issue. In Mali, 9 out of 10 women were victims of excision, making the matter a major issue.  It was an ancient and entrenched practice, whose roots must be examined and exposed. And, of course, the medical consequences for young girls and future mothers were critical.

There was a need to push for raising awareness, for discussing the issue outside of the medical arena -- which was usually the safest way to address the culturally sensitive practice -- or as simply something that was taboo. It was also time to perhaps look at punishment, she added.  But there was always the fear that a head-on public assault would drive the practice underground, and that would only heighten the already grave medical consequences.

She noted that the Government had once undertaken a programme encouraging the handover of ceremonial knives at the village-level. But, as it turned out, that had not amounted to a "handing over of the practice", since, once knives were turned over, the practice was handed over to others. It was clear, therefore, that any approach to dealing with the matter must be comprehensive and culturally sensitive, in equal measure.

Turning to violence against women, particularly those trafficked for domestic work, another delegate said that their situation was a major focus for the Labour Ministry. Programmes were in place to apprise those young girls of their rights, particularly regarding indecent or inappropriate behaviour of their employers, and their rights to recourse.

On trafficking in women, a member of the delegation said that, recently, some of the regional trafficking networks had been eliminated. Supported by the Ministry for the Advancement of Women and the Ministry of Security, a coalition against the trafficking in women and girls had come into being in 1999.  Training for police officers and border patrols was being provided.  Authorities had expressed their intention to provide assistance to the coalition in setting up shelters for the victims of trafficking and forced prostitution.

Another member of the delegation said that, for more than 10 years now, representatives of civil society had been closely collaborating with the Government in its efforts to improve the situation of women. In its ongoing dialogue with various ministries, civil society often took initiatives and attracted the Government's attention to the cases where women's rights were violated.

Regarding stereotypes, it was said that, indeed, they were one of the obstacles to the true advancement of equal rights for women. Despite the Government's campaigns to raise awareness, even women themselves continued to resist change in many areas.  Thus, more focused efforts were needed.  Among other things, it was important to improve girls' school attendance, strengthen women's economic capacity to make them more independent, and provide information and training. The Government was planning multisectoral strategies to address the issue.

Another country representative said that, in the efforts to change people's perceptions, it was necessary to look at cross-cutting issues, while targeting attitudes and discriminatory conduct. It was important to establish a critical mass of women who were aware of their rights, had a positive image of themselves and demanded change. Programmes on national radio and television were among the measures aimed at improving the situation.

On domestic violence, another member of the delegation said that the report referred to some 10 forms of domestic violence that were covered under the country's Penal Code, as well as its Marriage and Guardianship Code. Some members of civil society provided legal assistance to women victims. The country had a national plan of action on domestic violence, which would cover a number of important areas, including training for judges and medical personnel, as well as awareness campaigns.

Experts' Questions

HEISOO SHIN, expert from the Republic of Korea, lauded the high level of the country's delegation, which also included representatives of civil society. While welcoming a role of civil society, however, it was the Government that the Committee held accountable for the implementation of the Convention.

NAELA MOHAMED GABR, expert from Egypt, asked about traditions and customs with regard to women, and said that Islam was the leading religion in Mali. Islam had always been very fair towards women, but negative traditions persisted. It was important to make a distinction in that regard.  She wanted to know about the role of the country's spiritual leaders?

DUBRAVKA ŠIMONOVIC, expert from Croatia, addressed the Convention's primary role in domestic legislation under international law. Did the country's Constitution enshrine the principle of equality between men and women?  Were specific sanctions for discrimination on the basis of gender included in Mali's domestic legislation?  Was female genital mutilation considered a violation of women's rights under the Constitution?

MARIA REGINA TAVARES DA SILVA, expert from Portugal, said that addressing female excision from the purely medical standpoint was not sufficient. It was a difficult issue to resolve, but it might be helpful to clearly address it as a violation of women's fundamental rights, including the right to life.

Delegation's Response

On the inclusion of a non-governmental organization representative in Mali's delegation, Ms. M'BODJI SENE said that, although the Government had full responsibility for the protection and promotion of women's rights, it nevertheless had close relationships with civil society groups on women's issues.

Another member of the delegation addressed the intersection of Islamic tradition and women's rights.  She stressed that there was an overall misinterpretation of that religion, which led many outside it to believe that women were generally mistreated, when that was not the case. The Government was working with religious leaders, as well as encouraging men at the community-level, to work in campaigns to raise awareness to change that false perception.

On monitoring implementation of the Convention, a Malian delegate said that the country's foreign affairs administration was in charge of follow up. She went on to say that the principle of equality was enshrined in the country's Constitution. Regarding marriage, divorce and inheritance, she said that there was indeed some discrimination, but legal remedies were being outlined that would subsequently be put in place. Here, she told the experts that, when gaps in legislation were identified, a lengthy "rereading" process was triggered, and the Government encouraged training on the application of international human rights instruments. Nothing hindered jurists from referencing the Convention or other covenants.

To the experts' suggestion that female genital mutilation could be considered "violence", "battery" or other injury under the law, another delegate reiterated that cultural sensitivities needed to be taken into consideration. The beliefs surrounding female genital mutilation and excision were very strong, and Mali was at the stage of raising awareness about the difference between myth and reality.

The Government was aware that a concrete law on the matter was necessary. As to whether the practice should be seen as a violation of human rights or the right to life, another delegate said that attempts to introduce that theory had also sparked cultural backlash. The Government continued to work with non-governmental organizations to spread the message throughout the country and among the various ethnic groups.

Experts' Comments

Addressing the obligations under the Convention concerning women's participation in political life, Ms. GASPARD said that she noted how few Malian women were represented in parliament, and that even fewer were mayors. Mali must go further, she said, suggesting a programme of progressive quotas, based on article 4 of the Convention. And, given the situation of rural women, the establishment of quotas at the municipal level would be particularly important.

She added that, at the community level, many women were illiterate, but so were the men, and that did not stop them from holding council seats. She also stressed that, in any case, women were more attuned to such matters as water collection and family life. She called for more details on women's involvement in law enforcement.

Ms. COKER-APPIAH asked whether a Malian woman could pass on her nationality to a foreign-born spouse. She also wondered if the new draft Personal and Family Code took into account women's rights to take decisions with regard to children in the family.

Delegation's Response

Ms. M'BODJI SENE said that women were very active in political life, but were indeed underrepresented at the level of elected official. She said the Government was undertaking a quota programme that would set the levels of participation for men, as well as women, and should be seen as a step forward. Another delegate said that the issue of quotas was a major concern among civic groups, who were battling for more seats for women in parliament, as well as other decision-making posts. There was a push to keep the women already involved in politics, promote them and, raise awareness among women about supporting their own.

On nationality, she said if a Malian women married a foreigner, the man could make a request for nationality. The process took two years. So, there was discrimination in such cases, and that was being examined.

To another question, a member of the delegation said that some progress was being made in the draft Family Code, by the terms of which a widowed or divorced woman could be considered a head of a household.  At the same time, the male was reaffirmed as head of household. The law of obedience would be removed, however. There would also be equal parental authority and equal rights of guardianship.

Experts' Questions

Mr. FLINTERMAN said that, clearly, education was a means of advancing the implementation of human rights.  He was happy to note several positive steps taken by the Government in that respect, but noted that, given the difficult socio-economic situation in the country, it still had a long way to go. Was there a time frame for achieving 100 per cent participation of both boys and girls in primary education?  Was the country seeking international assistance in that respect?  Were there any detailed plans to increase the participation of girls in secondary and higher education? Were there any special temporary measures to assist girls in achieving access to secondary and higher education?

He also said that he was struck by a statement in the report that girls were more likely to drop out.  That experience was different from that of many other countries, where girls were more likely than boys to continue their education.

Ms. TAVARES DA SILVA expressed appreciation for the Government's efforts in the area of health, but also noted the gap between the vision and reality in Mali. For instance, there were high rates of maternal mortality and morbidity, high fertility rate, frequent pregnancies, shortfalls in prenatal and post-natal care, low contraception use, and the use of clandestine abortions. She had also been struck by the long list of cruel customs that were harmful to women's health. That raised the issue of the need to intensify education and efforts to raise awareness. Information in regard to HIV/AIDS was also important.

MARY SHANTHI DAIRIAM, expert from Malaysia, said that although the delegation had listed numerous plans and programmes in place to address women's health, the Committee would like more concrete information on efforts to address issues such as water-borne diseases and the health effects of traditional and cultural practices. She wondered if Mali had instituted a multiministerial mechanism to approach health matters comprehensively.

She noted the very real progress under way to improve child and maternal health, but was concerned that very few women took part in post-natal treatment services. Had surveys been done to see why this was the case?  Perhaps such surveys could unearth specific problems. She also asked if studies were being conducted to look into Mali's high abortion rates. On excision, she wondered if the Government was following up on its efforts to ensure that the practice was not carried out at health centres.

Ms. PATTEN said that the situation of employment for women was very bleak, and asked if there was an active policy of gender mainstreaming in labour and other programmes. She also asked for clarification on matters related to women's access to credit, particularly in the informal sector. Did women have equal access to markets?

Did the Government have any programmes in place that would assist women in transition from the informal to the formal sector? Were there any plans under way to reformulate wage structures to reflect international norms, particularly regarding equal remuneration for equal work? Did the Government encourage women to take up non-traditional jobs?  What was the situation of disabled women in the workplace?

Delegation's Response

On education and the enrolment of girls in schools, Ms. M'BODJI SENE said that, indeed, enrolment rates for girls had been on the rise for some 10 years now, and programmes were under way to train those who dropped out of school. Another member of the delegation said that Mali's mainstreaming goal was to see as many women educated as possible. A planned six-year educational development programme -- 30 per cent funded by the Government, with the rest handled by financial and technical partners -- was well under way, she said.

She said that the Government had also initiated a programme; "Education for All".  Mali had reviewed its objectives on the basis of the Millennium Development Goals, and aimed to achieve gender balance in primary education by 2015. With the help of international organizations, the country was also elaborating plans to improve women's enrolment in secondary and higher education institutions. School curricula were being revised to improve the way women were depicted.

The main enrolment problems were encountered in rural areas, and, for that reason, that was where the Government focused its efforts to improve education and eliminate illiteracy, she said. The gap between girls' and boys' enrolment was smaller in the north of the country, where a project to address the problem had been undertaken, with the help of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Government of the Netherlands. A campaign to raise awareness was aiming to change the attitudes of teachers, who sometimes tended to disregard girl students, saying they did not have the same capabilities as boys. A system of grants sought to promote girls' participation in education. Education was also needed to overcome the traditional mindset, according to which girls did not need an education. Instead, they should get married and devote their attention to the family.

Regarding health, a member of the delegation said that the programme to combat HIV/AIDS had been in existence for one year in Mali.  Thus, an evaluation stage had not yet been reached.

Another country representative said that significant progress had been achieved in many areas.  For vaccination, the country had attained 85 per cent coverage, for example. The fact that Caesarean sections were free had significantly reduced maternal mortality, and free HIV screening was also provided to the population. However, many health indicators also related to the elements outside of the framework of medicine, per se. It was also important to address, at the level of the community, the issues of hygiene, behaviour in the family and behaviour at work. Thus, the country was now focusing on actions to reduce poverty and identify bottlenecks in the strategies that were already in place.

Returning to the issue of excision, and whether any of its practitioners had been punished, a member of the delegation said that a circular had been distributed throughout the country that strictly prohibited the practice. On why few women took advantage of certain family planning options, she said that there were very few contraceptives or birth control products available in Mali. And, even though those that were available were inexpensive, the rumours that swirled around some methods of contraception often discouraged their use.

On women in the workplace, another member of the delegation said the Government was actively trying to improve that situation, particularly regarding pay scales and maternity leave, which currently was eight weeks.  She went on to highlight loan and credit programmes focused on women. Another delegate told the Committee that there were village-level credit unions throughout the country, to support and help rural women. A new World Bank-led poverty reduction programme also targeted rural women. There was also a range of development programmes and initiatives targeted towards rural women.

She went on to stress that women generally had no problems when it came to access to land.  Moreover, Mali's draft property law contained sections that specifically addressed rural women. But, the real question was not access to land, but how to hold own to it. There was a need to ensure that women had the requisite income to maintain land, she said.

Experts' Comments

Ms. COKER-APPIAH said that one was struck by the depressing statistics of poverty in Mali, which reached almost 80 per cent in some areas. Far more women lived in poverty than men, especially in rural areas.  While congratulating the Government on its commitment to combat poverty, she said that it seemed that not much had changed for women on the ground. They had limited access to land, property, credit and means of earning a living. It was important to ensure that women had access to the funds that had been set aside for the vulnerable and excluded. She wondered about the impact of the programmes that had been put in place.  What steps had been taken to ensure that women could develop their businesses? While some training was provided, she wondered if training on financial management was being provided, as well. Were there any plans to simplify business registration procedures, introduce tax incentives for women and ensure that all women had access to social security benefits?

ANAMAH TAN, expert from Singapore, said that there was insufficient education for rural women. Early marriages often caused girls to drop out of school, and course curricula were not specifically targeting girls.  Women were not free to take classes, because they often faced closely spaced pregnancies. What had been done to address those specific issues? She also asked for updated statistics on the most recent trends, and wanted to receive an impact assessment of the Government's strategic programme to reduce poverty.  Customary law still impeded the exercise of women's property and other rights. In that connection, she wanted to know about public education projects to dispel customary practices, with regard to property and land.

Ms. GASPARD noted a contradiction between the statement in the report that customary laws presented problems as far as women's access to land was concerned, and the statement during the meeting today that there was no problem with women's access to land.

Country Response

A member of the delegation said that measures were being taken to improve women's access to credit.  There was a five-year-old programme to develop women entrepreneurs. Another speaker added that there were no elaborate national statistics on poverty in the country, but research was under way on wealth in the agricultural sector. Studies had also been undertaken on the impact of some projects and programmes. Literacy and management training were provided in concert with microcredit projects.

Another country representative said that attempts were being made to motivate rural women to join health insurance and education schemes. She hoped the country would go further, as far as social security for rural women was concerned.

Ms. M'BODJI SENE reiterated that women faced no discrimination in their efforts to gain access to land managed by the State. She acknowledged that, according to tradition, women often did not get access to fertile land.

Experts' Comments

FUMIKO SAIGA, expert from Japan, said that she understood that access to Government land was non-discriminatory, but asked for more explanation about inheritance: did women gain access to fertile land when their husbands died?

KRISZTINA MORVAI, expert from Hungary, asked for follow-up information on sexual harassment in the workplace.  She also wanted to know what was being done to address the pay gap between female and male civil service workers.

Delegation's Response

A member of the delegation said that all land in Mali was State owned, but that there were two types: registered or unregistered. Registered land could be given or administered by the State, while unregistered land was given to communities to use.

Ms. M'BODJI SENE said a measure had been approved to address the salary gap. On disabled women, another delegate said that there were no specific laws on the books, but various ministries were working actively with disabled person's organizations to ensure their participation at all levels of society. She cited specific examples of measures that had been put in place to support blind women. On heightening awareness to sexual harassment in the workplace, she said that women were encouraged to seek legal assistance when the matter arose. At the same time, the Government was aware that, sometimes, when women were fired, they attempted to use accusations of harassment as recourse. At the same time, the Government was aware that "abusive firings" also masked sexual harassment.

Expert's Comments

Taking up issues regarding Mali's marriage laws, Ms. GNACADJA stressed that there were several inequalities, including in provisions pertaining to marriage age, divorce proceedings, and property ownership, among others. She was also concerned that certain provisions opened the door to polygamy. And, while she understood that rapid changes in civil legislation were often met with resistance, she urged the Government to press ahead with reforms that had been planned for legislation covering marriage and parental authority.

It was time to address these matters head on, particularly as they intersected with Islam, the country's main religion. She noted that, while the issue of religion was touted in some circumstances, its impact was ignored in personal matters. Islam and customary laws could not justify numbering wives, or getting rid of one wife for another, once she reached a certain age.

Ms. TAN echoed those concerns, wondering if there were any plans in the draft Family Code to abolish polygamy, particularly since that practice was a form of discriminatory stereotyping. Further, she wanted to know, in cases of multiple wives, what happened with property and land distribution?  Why did men have the main responsibility for determining where a family would live?  On early and forced marriages, she wondered what provisions in the countries draft family code or current Marriage and Guardianship Code addressed that matter, as well as marital rape. What paths had the Government pursued to ensure that laws pertaining to marriage were obeyed by men as well as women?

Country Response

Responding to those questions, Ms. M'BODJI SENE said that the dialogue was now touching upon highly sensitive issues. She agreed with everything that had been said about polygamy. She hoped that the new Family Code was a step in the right direction, as far as that situation was concerned, but it was not possible to completely eliminate the practice of polygamy at this point.

Progress in the work on the new legislation could be very slow, due to the sensitive nature of the issues involved, another member of the delegation said. Many innovations, including a ban on polygamy, could be rejected by certain groups of population. In fact, it was not only men who remained in favour of polygamy. Women who did not have economic independence still supported that practice, as well. It was necessary to seek public support for the reform, and Mali's civil society was very active in that regard.

The draft Code had to build consensus on such issues as polygamy, she continued.  In the current Code, if the spouses opted for monogamy, the situation could still be changed to that of polygamy, with a woman's consent. Now, the choice of monogamy had become irreversible. That way, the rights of the women were better protected. As for the alimony, in the current Code there was a provision, under which it could be repealed in the case of immoral behaviour. Those provisions had now been eliminated. Also deleted had been the provisions, under which a woman needed a guardian in the case of her husband's death.

GLENDA P. SIMMS, expert from Jamaica, said that women like Ms. M'bodji Sene must become more subversive, to make change. She stressed that the issue of controlling female sexuality was at the root of women's underdevelopment worldwide. "We must take back our sexuality in order to make change," she said.

Ms. M'BODJI SENE thanked the Committee for its frank comments.

Wrapping up the discussion with an impassioned statement that drew the applause of the Malian delegation, MERIEM BELMIHOUB-ZERDANI, expert from Algeria, who chaired the day's meeting, said it was important to note that Mali was one of the first African countries to ratify the Convention. Mali was a small country that, like many African countries, had struggled for years to overcome the tragic 

echoes of a colonial past. Mali, like much of Africa, was today moving at lightening speed to make up for so much lost time. Men and women must work together to make up that time. They must work together to harmonize national laws with international laws.

Indeed, it was the duty of all the men and women of Africa to ensure that women's rights were protected and promoted. "We can no longer accept compromise", she said, urging the Malian delegation to face, head on, issues such as forced and early marriage, and polygamy. African and Muslim women today were duty bound to ensure that their daughters and nieces did not face the same challenges, or suffer the same indignities.  "We must continue to fight," she said.

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