17 August 2006

Anti-Discrimination Committee Commends Women's Empowerment Agenda of Chile's First Female President as It Considers Country's Fourth Periodic Report

New Government Urged to Expedite Reform, Set Quotas for Parties' Electoral Tickets

NEW YORK, 16 August (UN Headquarters) -- The expert Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women today lauded the women's empowerment agenda of Chile's first female President but urged her new Government to expedite anti-discrimination reform and set quotas requiring political parties to include a set percentage of women on their electoral tickets.

Experts heard Laura Albornoz Pollman, Minister of the National Service for Women (SERNAM) and head of the 11-member Chilean delegation report on the country's recent expansion of legal rights and protections for women in a broad range of areas, including divorce and child custody settlements, basic education, maternal health care, the workplace, sex crimes and domestic violence.

The role of women and gender relations were undergoing a profound transformation in Chilean society and President Michelle Bachelet had made gender mainstreaming throughout the Government a top priority.  Her appointment of a 50-per-cent female Cabinet had shaken the country to its roots.

However, several experts noted that women remained far from achieving gender parity with men in political and economic life, expressing concern that few Chileans were studying to become career diplomats and that women held only two of the country's elected Senate seats.

Ms. Albornoz Pollman responded by saying that a law had been proposed to provide greater financing for female candidates so as to increase their political participation.  Another country representative pointed out that a draft bill had been introduced that would require political parties to set quotas for the number of female parliamentary candidates.  The Government had also created a new Good Labour Practice Code, a mandated compliance instrument to increase the number of women in decision-making positions that did not depend on elections.

The discussion also focused on sex education and the rise in teen pregnancies at a time when Chile's overall birth rate was declining.  Delegates described initiatives to educate young people about their sexual health as a combined effort of the health and education ministries, as well as the national youth institute.  The programmes -- which aimed to cut teen pregnancies by 45 per cent by 2015 -- tried to absorb the concerns of teenagers as they helped students take responsibility for their sexual conduct.  Since 1991, the Government had allowed pregnant mothers to remain in school and, two years ago, had set rules to let pregnant students file complaints if they suffered discrimination.  Last year, scholarships had been awarded to provide childcare assistance to young student mothers while they remained in school.

Chile's new administration was also cracking down on sexual abuse and domestic violence, according to members of the delegation.  The Government had redesigned its sex-crime legislation in 1999 and the country now had victim protection units armed with new methods and instruments to prosecute sexual crimes and hand down stiffer punishments for offenders.  A new law allowed the family court system to set sanctions for any type of mistreatment, even without injuries, and all cases of habitual physical mistreatment were turned over to the penal system as criminal acts.

Experts participating in today's meeting included:  as Chairperson, Dubravka Šimonović (Croatia); Dorcas Coker-Appiah (Ghana); Françoise Gaspard (France); Huguette Bokpe Gnacadja (Benin); Krisztina Morvai (Hungary); Fumiko Saiga (Japan); Hanna Beate Schöpp-Schilling (Germany); Glenda Simms (Jamaica); Anamah Tan (Singapore); and Zou Xiaoqiao (China).

Chamber A of the Committee will meet again at 10 a.m. Thursday, 17 August, to consider the third periodic report of the Czech Republic.


Before the Committee was Chile's fourth periodic report (document CEDAW/C/CHI/4), which outlines efforts to implement the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women from January 1999 to December 2002, and provides an account of measures taken, progress achieved and difficulties faced.  Since the submission of its third periodic report in 1998, Chile has made significant progress in improving the status and condition of women through legal reforms, public policy changes and programmes.  Nevertheless, obstacles to full gender equality remain.

The report includes input prepared by various ministries and agencies, under the coordination of the National Office for Women's Affairs, and comprises two main chapters, the first on general aspects of the status and condition of women during the past decade.  The chapter deals with Government policies, measures and legal initiatives organized according to the articles of the Convention.  It comprises eight topics:  the principle of equality of men and women before the law; anti-discrimination measures; changing social and cultural patterns; civil and political rights and expediting gender equality; economic, social and cultural rights; marriage and family relations; suppressing violence against women; and ending discrimination against specific groups of women.

According to the report, trade liberalization during the 1990s has had significant economic, social and political implications in Chile.  The challenge before the country is to analyse the ensuing impact on and potential for women, and to ensure that the liberalization process created a real opportunity for improving their condition and status.  Also during the last decade, the female population has steadily become more urban and fertility rates have dropped.  In addition, there has been an increase in the numbers of female-headed households and young women with university degrees.

The report states that article 1 of the Political Constitution of Chile has been amended to declare that "persons" rather than "men" are born free and equal in dignity and rights, and that article 19 now includes the phrase that "men and women are equal before the law".  Several laws -- on family abandonment and the payment of alimony and support, intrafamilial violence, education and civil marriage, among others -- have been amended to provide greater protections for women and girls.  The Chamber of Deputies has approved a draft law to criminalize sexual harassment in the workplace and the Criminal Code has been amended to expand the definition of rape and eliminate the requirement that a raped woman be of "good reputation".

In December 1999, the Chilean Government signed the Optional Protocol to the Convention, the report says.  The Chamber of Deputies approved the Optional Protocol but it was withdrawn by the executive branch during a special legislative session of the Senate in January 2002.  The main arguments for rejecting the Protocol, as presented to the relevant Senate Committee by Chile's highest ecclesiastical authority, were that it would "hand over" national sovereignty to a body like the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, which had the power to impose a law permitting abortion on the country.

Introduction of Report

Chile's delegation was headed by Laura Albonornoz Pollman, Minister for the National Service for Women (SERNAM), and also included:  Heraldo Muñoz, Permanent Representative to the United Nations; Amira Esquivel, Director of Human Rights, Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Patricio Reinoso Varas, Chief of Staff, SERNAM; Maria de la Luz Silva Donoso, Head of International Relations and Cooperation, SERNAM; Marco Rendon, Head of Legal Amendments, SERNAM; René Castro, Director of the Women's Programme, Ministry of Health; Regina Clark, Head of the International Relations Department, Ministry of Labour; Debora Solís Martínez, National Coordinator, Technical Secretariat for Sexual Education, Ministry of Education; Paula Recabarren, Legal Adviser, Ministry of Justice; and Belen Sapag Muñoz de la Pena, Second Secretary in charge of the Third Committee, Women's Affairs and Civil Society, Permanent Mission of Chile to the United Nations.

Introducing the report, LAURA ALBONORNOZ POLLMAN, Minister for SERNAM, said Chilean society was deeply transforming its perception of the role of women and gender relations, as evidenced by the creation in 1991 of SERNAM and the appointment of its director to ministerial rank.  In 2000, Chile had adopted several measures to make gender mainstreaming a priority, including the creation of the Council of Ministers of Equal Opportunity.  Comprising 10 members of the Presidential Cabinet, the Council directly advised SERNAM.  In addition, the Programme for Improving Gender Relations had been designed to help public agencies incorporate a gender perspective in their programmes and policies.

SERNAM had made significant headway in incorporating women's issues into its national and international agendas, she said.  The various awards it had received from international agencies were proof of that success and many countries had asked Chile for technical assistance.  SERNAM was now implementing its second equal opportunity programme and, in the future, all of Chile's 181 public agencies would be required to incorporate similar programmes and policies.

She said the Ministry of Education had devised strategies to help poor adult women gain access to basic education.  Women accounted for 69.5 per cent of participants in the "I Learn with You" basic education campaign.  Last year, Chile had set a nationwide pedagogical policy that included a gender perspective.  Education officials had established indicators to track women's enrolment in schools and the inclusion of women's issues in school curricula.  Still, women were often encouraged to go into lower-paying jobs requiring less education.

While the nation's birth rate was declining overall, the pregnancy rate among girls age 15 to 19 was on the rise.  In an effort to keep girls in school, the Government had set rules to protect the right to education, particularly of pregnant girls and mothers.  Those rules also set penalties for violators.  Chile had an advanced sex education programme and last year it created an integrated sexuality and gender education strategy, involving government, non-governmental organizations and the private-sector, with particular emphasis on prevention of child sexual abuse and the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Turning to public health, she said the new national health programme provided services to reduce maternal mortality, breast and cervical cancer and depression.  Women with HIV/AIDS and their children received free treatment.

Regarding labour, she said that, although the participation of women in the workplace was increasing, they accounted for just 38 per cent of the total labour force.  The current administration was focusing on eliminating discrimination against women in the workplace and the Labour Code established equal pay for equal work while penalizing sexual harassment.  The Bachelet Administration had also installed a "good practices" code to ensure non-discrimination and equal treatment of men and women in the public sector, and to enable both sexes to balance work and family life.  In addition, the Government had adopted legal reforms aimed at assisting women in the agricultural sector through improved safety and hygiene in the workplace, as well as childcare services for temporary workers.  This year, 800 nurseries would be built to care for 25,000 children.

Concerning the criminal justice system, she said special units had been set up to investigate domestic violence and sexual abuse.  The Government had trebled public investment in family law, installing 258 family court judges.  Women were now able to seek redress for domestic abuse in the courts and the President had proposed amendments to improve family court operations.  The recently created Civil Marriages Act established the right to divorce and recognized that spousal abuse was grounds for immediate divorce.  The Act also contained the first explicit acknowledgement of the financial value and responsibility of raising children, as well as the need for economic assistance to do so.

She said that legislation in 2001 had set a minimum requirement for child nutrition and a new law would soon be introduced mandating financial compliance with parental obligations.  During the last decade, Chile had adopted its first Domestic Violence Law, which guaranteed equal protection for victims and their relatives.  Further, police had been granted special powers to detain perpetrators of domestic violence.  Since 2001, 29 domestic violence centres had been set up and more shelters and telephone hotlines for victims were planned.

Interactive Dialogue

In their opening set of questions, the experts sought data on how globalization, international commercial policies and trade liberalization had affected women; how the Government cooperated with non-governmental organizations in policymaking and other activities; and how the Convention was incorporated into the court system.  They also asked about obstacles to ratification of the Optional Protocol and Government strategy to control trafficking in persons.

Other experts sought information on mechanisms to help reform the legal system and eliminate discrimination, and on SERNAM, as still others asked what legal system prevailed in the event of conflicts between national law and international treaties, such as the Convention.

Ms. ALBORNOZ POLLMAN said the Government was analysing data concerning global trade so that the women's service could use it.  Non-governmental organizations played a role in the diverse working groups set up by SERNAM, such as the working group on indigenous rural women, which operated with participation by non-governmental, as well as social, organizations.

Another country representative said that international instruments signed and ratified by Chile superseded State organs.  While it was difficult to maintain a conclusive opinion, international treaties held the force of law in most cases of conflict between national law and international treaties.

On the topic of discrimination, he said the previous Government had introduced a bill that would let people access the judicial system in claims of sex and gender discrimination.  The bill, having been passed by the Lower House, was now before the Senate and a positive outcome was expected.

Ms. ALBORNOZ POLLMAN said SERNAM was a public service headed by a female minister who was a member of the President's Cabinet.  It advised the President and used its resources to link women's issues to the various ministries.  It did not have abundant budget resources, but a 30 per cent budget increase was proposed for 2006.  While SERNAM was not a ministry, its head participated in the Government and its primary challenge was to convey the importance of women's development in Government to the citizens as it worked towards greater gender equality.

On the issue of special measures, experts wanted to know the status of a 2003 bill that set quota regulations for decision-making positions and whether the Women's Service planned to use affirmative action laws, not necessarily quotas, but other mechanisms such as timetables and goals, to move more women into public administration.  What were its plans for temporary special measures to achieve equality?

Regarding domestic violence, one expert asked what organization held responsibility for providing care for child victims and for rehabilitating abusers.  How could victims of domestic violence obtain protective measures from the courts?  Other questions focused on the progress of the national programme for the prevention of family violence; the family court system; and whether the Government was considering comprehensive legislation to deal with sexual, psychological, physical and other types of violence.

Another expert wished to know what the newly appointed women in power would do to ensure the passage of substantial legislation to ensure the long-term equality of women.  And on domestic violence, did the family court system view battered women as not guilty in cases where they murdered men who beat them consistently?

Ms. ALBORNOZ POLLMAN said the proposed quota for decision-making bodies had not gone thorough the legislature because of difficulty in making it compatible with other proposed legislation.  The Women's Service was working to develop legislation that would promote greater participation of women in political life.  The President's appointment of a 50 per cent female Cabinet had shaken the country to its roots.  The Government had created a Good Labour Practice Code, a mandated compliance instrument to increase the number of women in decision-making positions that did not depend on elections.  The Government was also working with the private sector.

Another representative said laws had been proposed to provide greater financing for female candidates so as to increase their political participation.  Concerning domestic violence, a new law allowed the family court system to set sanctions for any type of mistreatment, even without injuries.  All cases of habitual physical mistreatment were turned over to the penal system as criminal acts.

Regarding sexual violence, the delegate said Chile had redesigned its sex crime legislation in 1999 and the country now had victim protection units armed with new methods and instruments to prosecute sexual crimes.  Today, most agencies gathered statistics on the number and type of accusations.  In most cases when a battered woman had killed her partner, they had been absolved by the courts in recognition of the previous violence.  In 2005, 46 women had been murdered by their partners.

Experts asked about the parliamentary status of the Optional Protocol and about measures to ensure that national laws were compatible with the Convention.

Regarding patria potestas, or paternal authority, a country representative said the rules had changed.  The authority established the right of the father to administer his child's estate and/or assets while an amendment established the right of the mother to custody of her child.  However, both parents could agree to grant custody to the father if they chose to do so.  If they could not agree, the mother was granted custody.  The parent with custody had the right to paternal authority, an important change in Chilean legislation.  Another delegate said that a draft law, supported by the executive branch, would give paternal authority to both mother and father.

Another country representative said international law took precedence over national law.  The Supreme Court and the Appeals Court had evolved in jurisprudence to enforce international treaties and the former followed the dictates of the Inter-American Court.  While such jurisprudence was not uniform, it was a step in the right direction and a growing trend.

Turning to the issue of trafficking in persons, the delegate said that a newly introduced bill would standardize the crime.  The Prosecutor's Office, SERNAM and the Ministry of Defence were working together to devise more comprehensive legislation.

Regarding quotas to ensure women were appointed to congressional posts, another country representative said there was no such quota system but a draft bill had been submitted.  The President wished to change the binominal system and introduce, during her four-year term, a quota law that would promote women in public positions.  That would require amending the current electoral system.

An expert asked about plans to ratify the Optional Protocol with respect to trafficking in persons.

In response, a delegate said that Chile had, in fact, ratified the Optional Protocol on trafficking in persons in 2005 in relation to organized crime, as well as the Protocol on the trafficking of migrants.

Some experts sought clarification regarding special police measures to rein in domestic violence.

A country representative responded by saying that the courts could force an aggressor to leave his home and refrain from contact with his victim in cases where there was presumed risk, such as a prior criminal record or prior intimidation of the victim.  In such cases, the punishment became a matter of criminal record and the aggressor was registered as a domestic violence perpetrator.

Experts then turned to articles 7 through 9 of the Convention, concerning political and public life, representation and nationality.  They noted that, while many Chilean women held university degrees in public affairs, few had won political office or entered the foreign service.  Were there plans to adopt gender parity measures since only two of Chile's 39 senators were women, and since 38 of those senators were elected?  Did the new female President have plans to appoint women ambassadors?

Ms. ALBORNOZ POLLMAN agreed with the need to change prejudicial attitudes that did not support women's participation in politics and to amend the binominal system.  Several strategies had been devised to end such prejudice and enact a quota law.  Still, that was not any easy task.  A quota system would require the suppression of the activities of congressional deputies and judges, meaning, in effect, persuading them to pass a law that would drive them out of Congress.  The President had persevered in changing the prevailing attitude that there was a lack of women capable of serving as senators.

A country representative added that a draft bill aimed at creating a quota for Senate seats had been introduced but not yet debated.

Another country representative noted that the binominal system was a carry-over from the Pinochet dictatorship that gave equal representation to candidates receiving up to 66 per cent of the vote and those receiving more than 33 per cent.  While a bill to reform the binominal system had been introduced, it had thus far not passed.

A delegate said the Foreign Ministry was concerned that so few women were studying to become career diplomats, whose careers began at the level of third secretary.  The President was now limited in tapping into the diplomatic corps for ambassadorial appointments because only two women held the post of minister counsellor.  She could only turn to the private and public sectors to place more women in ambassadorial posts.

A delegate clarified that, since last December's elections, the 38-member Senate contained two women and 36 men.

Experts sought details on the Government's strategy to improve the situation of seasonal workers and the plight of extremely poor women, as well as steps to bring more women under the benefits of the social security system.  Other questions focused on plans to prevent and treat AIDS; measures to curb sexual stereotypes in the university system as girls chose their courses and careers; and information on teenage pregnancy and school dropout rates, including whether there were laws to prosecute older men who made teenage girls pregnant.  Experts also wanted to know why the higher literacy rates among women were not translating into more women in the job market.

A country representative said that, in order to help ease problems relating to young people's sexuality, the Ministry of Education was giving teachers, through training programmes, for example, the skills to teach sex education in schools.  The schools were also helping families strengthen their role in teaching children about their sexual and emotional health.  Since September 2005, the schools had run such programmes from kindergarten through middle school.

The delegate said that, since 1991, the Government had allowed pregnant mothers to remain in school and, two years ago, had set rules to let pregnant students file complaints if they suffered discrimination.  Since 2005, scholarships had been awarded to help young student mothers with childcare while they remained in school.  A 2005 study of female and male students up to the age of 19 years showed that 22,000 female students were mothers and 11,000 male students were fathers.  Twelve years of schooling was compulsory in Chile.

Another country representative said initiatives to educate young people about their sexual health were a combined effort of the health and education ministries, as well as the national youth institute.  The programmes tried to absorb the concerns of teenagers as they helped students take responsibility for their sexual conduct.  Another delegate said the Government was aiming for a 45 per cent cut in teenage pregnancies by 2015.

On the issue of HIV/AIDS, delegates said Chile had a plan that provided diagnosis and under which no one with the disease was denied treatment.  There was also has a non-discrimination policy regarding HIV/AIDS and the educational system gave middle school students information on prevention.

One delegate pointed out again that the Government had redesigned sex-crime categories to provide more protection for victims, strengthen prosecutors' ability to try cases and generally increase the punishment handed down to offenders.  Most complaints involved family members or a person known to the victim.  A juvenile responsibility law set out measures to rehabilitate the offenders.

Another delegate said the number of Chileans living in poverty had declined over the latter part of the 1990s.  The Government had a programme to identify very poor families at the local level and work with them to provide access to social services, such as job opportunities and welfare benefits.  The programme was being expanded to other vulnerable groups.

One expert asked why Chile used the term "equity" instead of "equality" in some material, noting that some conservative forces at the Beijing Conference wanted to replace "equality" with "equity" in documents.  More information was required on the low employment rate among women, their absence from executive positions, the shocking wage gap between male and female incomes, and the feminization of poverty in old age.  Other questions focused on the Government's efforts to help protect women against the transmission of HIV/AIDS by their partners and to provide access to contraception for all women.

An expert noted that illegal abortions affected mostly poor women, and asked whether there were any Government efforts to revise a law that banned abortion, made it a crime and required public hospital officials to report it.  Another expert sought clarification of the code on voluntary sterilization.  Rural farm workers and entrepreneurs were also the focus of questions.

A country representative said SERNAM was working with the Ministry of Economy to offer better services for women who ran, or sought to launch, microbusinesses.  The administration was seeking to amend property laws so that married women could administer their own assets separately from those of their husbands.  If approved, a draft bill would guarantee and promote women's rights to start their own enterprises.

Regarding the gender gap in pay, another delegate noted that women workers, particularly those in the informal sector, tended to earn less than men and were more likely to hold part-time or temporary positions.  New measures had been instituted to offer training, as well as bonuses, for women in temporary posts.  Such programmes were aimed mainly at women heads of household.

Chile's productive sectors had taken steps to reduce labour discrimination, adopting national "best practices" to ensure gender equality in the workplace, the delegate said.  A draft law governing subcontracting was in the final stages of negotiations and the Federal Government, in partnership with municipal labour offices, had created a procedural manual to provide training scholarships for women and strategies to incorporate a gender perspective in the workplace.

Turning to sex education, another country representative said that, in 2004, officials had launched a campaign to encourage monogamous sexual relationships, particularly among young people.  Abortion was available through the public health system although there were restrictions on access and coverage.  An estimated 60 per cent of the sexually active population used contraceptives and, while people in poor regions had better access to sex education, unwanted pregnancies were still more prevalent in those areas than in urban areas.

The delegate said the Government had changed "family planning" to "fertility regulation" to emphasize the personal right of both men and women to make decisions on fertility.  In that regard, new regulations would be available in the next few weeks.  Sterilization requirements had been relaxed in 2000 and women were no longer required to get prior consent from their male partners.  Rules regarding a woman's age and the number of children she had also had been eliminated.

Another country representative said fellowships and scholarships had been granted to 1,900 pregnant teens and women so they could finish school and the President was seeking fellowship coverage for 50 per cent of all pregnant teens and women.

Turning to the area of marriage and the family, experts asked about efforts to increase the minimum legal age for marriage, which was 16 years of age for both boys and girls; and information about family courts, such as their affordability and accessibility for women seeking protective measures, divorce or other services.  They also queried how family courts quantified the value of a woman's work at home when deciding to divide assets during a divorce.

One country representative acknowledged that the Civil Matrimony Act set the age of legal marriage at 16.  Family courts provided compensation for a woman's domestic work using various factors, but there were no set minimum or maximum levels.  When a marriage was dissolved, the assets were generally distributed on a 50-50 basis.  The Government believed in the importance of a woman's access to the family court system, and a Government investment in the family justice system was imminent.  Training was ongoing in the family court system and prosecutors, for example, were being trained to work with family violence complaints.  Another delegate added that the Government was also working to provide job training for women who were heads of households.

DUBRAVKA ŠIMONOVIĆ, Committee Chairperson, thanked the experts and the Chilean delegation for their constructive dialogue and said the Committee would provide concluding comments to guide the country as it prepared its next report.

Ms. ALBORNOZ POLLMAN urged the Committee to inform the delegation of any unanswered questions.

Ms. ŠIMONOVIĆ said the country's new female President and Cabinet members should help the nation approve the Convention's Optional Protocol and assist in implementing treaty provisions at the national level.

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