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PRESS CONFERENCE ON WOMEN IN AFGHANISTAN

Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

30 January 2002

At a Headquarters press conference this morning, a panel of women’s rights experts introduced a statement of solidarity with the women of Afghanistan, which will be formally adopted tomorrow by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, at the close of its current session.

Panel members were Committee Chair Charlotte Abaka of Ghana, Committee member Savitri Goonesekere of Sri Lanka and Jane Connors, Chief, Women’s Rights Section, Division for the Advancement of Women.

Ms. Abaka said the 23 expert members of the Committee, charged with monitoring the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, felt obliged, as women’s right’s activists, to send a message of support for the war-ravaged country’s women and girls.

She said after the Taliban had taken over Kabul in 1996, the Committee -– the only United Nations treaty body that dealt exclusively with the human rights of women and girls -– had been alarmed to learn of the severe limitations being placed on Afghan women and girls, particularly the outright denial of access to education and employment.

Now that international efforts were under way for the recovery and reconstruction of Afghanistan, Ms. Abaka said, it was time to express solidarity with those who had been the first, and perhaps most unfortunate, victims of the Taliban rule. The Committee’s statement emphasized the importance of the equal participation of men and women during the reconstruction, and expressed hope that the tenets of the Convention would guide all public and private actions during that process.

The statement also recognized that the Afghan women had suffered through years of privation, losing all their fundamental human rights, particularly the right to life, education, health and work. It welcomed the resolve of the international community to assist in the rebuilding of the country and called upon all parties concerned to respect internationally recognized standards of human rights, particularly those of women, which were an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights. That was considered essential to achieve peace and stability in the country.

Ms. Goonesekere of Sri Lanka then gave a brief overview of the Committee’s work during this session, which began on 14 January. She said one of the major developments with regard to the implementation of the Convention had been the adoption of an Optional Protocol, providing an avenue for women whose individual complaints had not been adequately addressed by local authorities to bring discrimination issues before an international body.

Two of the countries whose reports had been taken up during this session -– Iceland and Uruguay –- had ratified that Protocol, she continued. The Committee expected to receive its first individual communications during the course of the year. The Protocol would be an important tool to ensure respect for international human rights norms at the national level, she added.

The other reports examined by the experts during this session -– Fiji, Portugal, Trinidad and Tobago, Estonia, Russian Federation and Sri Lanka -- had revealed some interesting commonalities, Ms. Goonesekere continued. Domestic violence in particular had emerged as a very serious issue which affected all the countries. By example, she noted that in Russia, incidents of murder through domestic violence were very high -- some 14,000 each year.

Ms. Abaka said that the Committee continued to emphasize the importance of the participation of women in the peace process. Reports of rampant human rights violations in Chechnya, particularly rape, had been cause for great concern. But, during the Committee’s dialogue with Russia’s representatives, the experts had been pleased to hear that women in the region had begun to take the initiative in finding peaceful solutions to the untenable and violent situation in Chechnya.

Sri Lanka had also benefited from the positive contributions of women working to negotiate peace in that country, where conflict was severely affecting the lives of women and children, she added.

The issue of trafficking in women across borders had been raised several times during the session, particularly in relation to the situation in Russia and Estonia, said Ms. Goonesekere. The sad interface between the breakdown of economies and women’s search for employment often provided traffickers with opportunities to exploit women sexually.

Ms. Abaka expressed concern that some of those same issues severely affected women domestic workers around the globe, but particularly those from developing countries. In many cases, their rights were protected in their homelands, but they were often left with no recourse when they were forced to go abroad. She called on all governments to ratify the International Convention on Migrant Workers. She noted that Singapore and Hong Kong had good policies and programmes in place to help domestic workers.

Ms. Goonesekere went on to highlight examples of positive laws and policies that had been put in place. For instance, Trinidad and Tobago, even with its past experience with colonialism, had introduced several interesting initiatives since ratifying the Convention, including the 1999 establishment of a human rights unit to ensure monitoring of international human rights conventions.

Ms. Connors, Chief of the Women’s Rights Section, Division for the Advancement of Women, said the Convention was one international instrument that truly made a difference. Iceland had been among the countries that had been able to show that it had been able to put in place some of the Committee’s recommendations at the national level. She added that more and more of the Committee’s suggestions and approach was being used by lawyers and judges as they made decisions that changed the lives of women in their countries.

One of the striking things about the Committee’s current session had been the increased number of non-governmental organizations that had come to observe their countries being questioned on implementation, she said. More change would come at the national level, when women began using the Optional Protocol, because there was nothing that made a State change its policies and programmes more quickly than an international complaint by an individual. The more States joining the “club” of 168 Parties to the Convention meant that more change would be felt on the ground.

All was not lost for African women, Ms. Abaka said, in response to a question on the current situation on the continent, particularly north of the Sahara. Indeed, many positive changes were under way and one welcome event had been the recent ratification of the Convention by Saudi Arabia. Echoing the words of Ms. Connors, she said once a country “joined the club” a window of hope opened to the possibility of positive dialogue to find solutions to lingering problems.

Continuing, Ms. Abaka said implementing the Convention and the reports received by the Committee were a learning process for all. For example, Egypt, whose periodic report had been reviewed in the previous session, had made tremendous changes using the tenets of the Convention. The same was true in Tunisia, which had also used the Convention to guarantee many human rights for women in that country. With those positive examples in mind, the Committee was looking forward to its upcoming review of the situation in Morocco. Ms. Abaka had every hope that the Government would report that implementation of the Convention, as well as the Committee’s past recommendations, had made positive changes in the lives of the women living there.

“There is ever-increasing evidence that Governments had amended laws or enacted programmes based on dialogue in the Committee,” Ms. Abaka said. At the end of each session, the Committee issued its comments, which focused on positive aspects, but also highlighted serious concerns and recommendations. Those comments were readily available and the women civil society representatives that had participated in the session could take them and follow implementation efforts in their home countries. Those recommendations also served as an “eye opener” for those women who often had no idea their rights were being violated. “This is a wonderful way to help women all over the world,” she added.

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