COMMITTEE ON THE ELIMINATION OF DISCRIMINATION AGAINST WOMEN CONSIDERS REPORT OF BENIN
3 October 2013
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women today considered the fourth periodic report of Benin on its implementation of the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
Presenting the report, Marie-Laurence Sranon Sossou, Minister of Family, Social Affairs, National Solidarity, Persons with Disabilities and Older People of Benin, said that although Benin had ratified the Convention, some women were not sufficiently aware of their status as ‘full citizens’ and were restrained by the yolk of cultural and traditional stereotypes. Benin had made many legislative advances, including criminalizing female genital mutilation, violence against women and forced marriage, raising the age of marriage to 18, establishing dowry as a symbolic practice only, and ensuring inheritance rights for women. Other reforms included free primary and secondary education, improved healthcare including family planning, support and land-ownership rights for rural women, and measures to put women in decision-making positions.
Committee Members paid tribute to the very high-level delegation that featured two Ministers, and commended Benin’s many political reforms, ratification of strong legal instruments, and brave measures, for instance in adopting a law condemning various forms of violence against women. The Committee asked questions about women’s political representation, access to maternity healthcare and abortion, eradication of traditional stereotypes, customary practices and trafficking in persons, and the practice of vidomegon that often led to the domestic servitude of children. The education of girls, teenage pregnancy, rural women and inheritance rights were also discussed.
In concluding remarks, Nicole Ameline, Committee Chairperson, encouraged Benin to take the same measures on the ground as it had in setting up its legal framework, to enable a new generation of girls to be educated and make considerable improvement to the country.
Ms. Sranon Sossou, in concluding remarks, said the Government was focusing on shared prosperity to enhance women’s empowerment, and on educating school-aged girls who were vulnerable to having a teenage, or younger, pregnancy.
The delegation of Benin included the Minister of Family, Social Affairs, National Solidarity, Persons with Disabilities and Older People and the Minister of Justice, and representatives of the National Institute for Women, the Directorate of Human Rights, the Directorate for Judicial Protection of Children and Youth, and the Permanent Mission of Benin to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
The Committee will reconvene on Friday, 4 October, at 10 a.m. when it will start its review of the fourth periodic report of Andorra.
The fourth periodic report of Benin can be read via the link: (CEDAW/C/BEN/4).
Presentation of the Report
MARIE-LAURENCE SRANON SOSSOU, Minister of Family, Social Affairs, National Solidarity, Persons with Disabilities and Older People of Benin, introduced the multidisciplinary delegation, which included two Ministers, and noted that the report was drafted in consultation with civil society and covered the period 2005 to 2008. The 1990 Constitution enshrined the principle of equality between all citizens with no distinction as to gender, race, religion or other factors, which was a fundamental principle of democracy. Benin ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women on 12 March 1992, but still some women of Benin were not sufficiently aware of their status as ‘full citizens’ and were restrained by the yolk of cultural and traditional stereotypes.
Highlighting some of the legislative advances, the Minister said the 2004 law on individuals and families made various changes including establishing the age of marriage as 18, outlawing forced marriage, and stating that dowry should be a symbolic practise only; the law also established parental and inheritance rights for women, and the full legal capacity of each spouse. A National Policy for the Promotion of Gender Equality was launched in 2009, focusing on a long-term aim of having parity and fairness between men and women by 2025. To reduce poverty among women a micro finance programme was launched in 2006, while development programmes at local authority levels were gendered.
In 2012 a law was passed to prevent and repress violence against women, and the same year the President launched a campaign to disseminate it. In 2009 the National Institute for the Promotion of Women was established by the President; it undertook policies and programmes to promote and protect women’s rights, such as a programme to fight forced marriage, awareness-raising against female genital mutilation, and capacity building to increase the number of women candidates in elections and in high-level political positions. In the fields of education and health, measures had been taken to raise school attendance rates among girls, to train midwives in the provision of maternal and reproductive healthcare, and to strengthen the knowledge of the judiciary and police on handling cases of violence against women. Guidelines had been issued to the judiciary. The President recently declared that secondary schooling was free for girls, in addition to primary level.
The major reforms outlined, and others, were carried out with wide support from members of the international community. The Minister also emphasized the Government’s gratitude to its non-governmental organization partners, who provided such valuable assistance. The Minister concluded by saying that Benin was committed to continuing large-scale reforms to eliminate discrimination against women, carrying them out with efficiency and accuracy and close attention, and benefitting from the the advice and recommendations of the Committee.
Questions by the Experts
NICOLE AMELINE, Committee Chairperson, paid tribute to the very high-level delegation that featured two Ministers; a rarity in a delegation that spoke volumes about Benin’s political will to implement the Convention. She also commended the many political reforms aimed at improving the human rights of women, Benin’s ratification of several strong legal instruments, and its brave measures in recently adopting a law against violence against women, and amending the Family Code and Criminal Code. Furthermore, there were pending draft bills, such as the bill for political representation, which were positive moves.
However, the Chairperson said the definition of discrimination was still not included in the Constitution. The visibility of the Convention was still inadequate, as it was in many countries. The Expert emphasized the importance of making the Convention better known. While the legal reforms were very good, the vast majority of the population were entirely ignorant of most of the laws of Benin. The boldness and courage shown by the Government was countered by the lack of knowledge of the population. The Expert paid tribute to non-governmental organizations and the valuable work they did in awareness-raising, despite the barriers.
Regarding the law, the Chairperson said access to legal aid, and physical access to courts themselves, were another problem. Non-governmental organizations had to be able to institute legal proceedings and be party to them. Magistrates, and indeed the judiciary as a whole, must set women’s rights as a priority. For example, in France the country had had to take legal measures to force courts to prioritize cases of violence against women, otherwise they could have waited years for things to change. The State party had established a national human rights institution: could the delegation please give information on its budget, mandate, and more.
Response by the Delegation
In response to these questions and comments and others, the delegation said that Benin, like other African countries that had signed conventions on equality and human rights, had established legal frameworks to uphold them. The National Human Rights Institution had been established in accordance with the Paris Principles. It was staffed by a judge, two parliamentarians, some academics, previous members of the former commission for human rights, and non-governmental organization representatives.
The Government machinery for women’s issues went from the grass roots all the way to the top of Government, a delegate said. Two reports had been undertaken by the Ministry for the Family in 2012 to study the work of mechanisms, bodies and services working for women’s rights, in order to analyse how effective they were and how they cooperated, a summary of which had been published.
Regarding legal provisions, a delegate said judicial representatives were posted to each municipality; their job was to listen to women’s needs and carry out the work that needed to be done. The increased awareness-raising in some regions meant there had been an increase in visits to the judicial representatives and other services; as women were learning about their rights, they were starting to complain about violations of them. Statistically it looked as though violence against women was higher in those regions, but in fact it was down to an increase in reporting, as women reported cases of violence against them to the authorities. All stakeholders: the prosecution, the police and the judiciary, were given training on dealing with cases of violence against women.
Questions by the Experts
An Expert congratulated Benin on all of the progress it had made with regard to the rights of women, including laws prohibiting female genital mutilation, and on violence against women and family rights. Nevertheless, preconceived ideas and gender stereotypes negatively affected the position of women. Most religions supported the equality of women, but erroneous interpretations of religion, and related customary practices, led to further discrimination against women. However, the report did not seem especially concerned about tackling the direct impact of gender stereotypes, only mentioning them in two brief paragraphs. There was reference to tackling stereotypes in school textbooks, but that was not sufficient. An overall plan of action was needed.
Violence against women was a direct consequence of gender stereotypes. The statistics of domestic violence cases were alarming. The Government had commendably adopted a law against violence against women that included a road map identifying the different forms of violence in all areas, and the Committee congratulated it on that. The Expert asked what operational measures had been taken to implement that law.
Concerning abortion, an Expert asked whether the Government considered abortion to be a form of violence against women. She also asked about statistics and figures on the implementation of the 2005 law criminalizing female genital mutilation, and whether there had been any prosecutions of perpetrators. She hoped Benin would take measures that could be an example to all countries on the African continent.
Trafficking in persons was a form of organized crime. It was a human rights violation, a violation against society and individuals, and a violation against all of humanity, but particularly against women and children. Benin had ratified the Palermo Protocol, an Expert said, adding that a draft bill prohibiting the trafficking of women was in the pipeline. Could the delegation please inform the Committee about that, and explain what protection was proposed for victims of trafficking. What practical measures were being taken to protect women and girls from being trafficked? Would the Government consider establishing a database on trafficking in persons, which was essential to properly tackle the problem? The underlying reasons for trafficking were poverty, exploitation through prostitution, the lack of safe housing and more.
High numbers of refugees came to Benin, for example from Togo, who ran a real risk of being trafficked. During Benin’s Universal Periodic Review at the Human Rights Council it accepted the recommendation to prosecute the persecutors of trafficking crimes; how many prosecutions had taken place?
An Expert raised the issue of the domestic servitude of children placed with families by their impoverished birth families, known as the practice of vidomegon? Those children became domestic servants that were tantamount to slaves. Could the delegation say how many children were affected by vidomegon, and how victims were identified?
Response by the Delegation
An action plan was in place to tackle violence against women, including female genital mutilation. To give an impression of active cases, 2012 data showed there were 4,000 plus cases of domestic violence, over 1,000 cases of violence from third parties, 300 cases of abduction, 337 cases of extortion of children, 433 cases of forced marriage, and 1,500 cases of sexual harassment. Forced abortion, without a woman’s consent, was considered an act of violence by law.
The 2003 law criminalized female genital mutilation, and was followed by another law on women’s reproductive health. Non-governmental organizations working at grassroots levels sought to persuade women to put themselves forwards as candidates in elections. Women were trained to be activists themselves for the empowerment of women. People who carried out female genital mutilation often simply moved across the border, for instance to Nigeria, to carry out the operation. A delegate explained that during Benin’s Universal Periodic Review it raised the question of cooperation with neighbouring countries to tackle that problem.
The law that prohibited sexual harassment and protected women from violence had been implemented throughout the country and was being translated into the various languages of Benin, which was essential to get the message through as not everybody in the country spoke French. A Ministerial Law of 2003 prosecuted perpetrators of sexual crimes in schools, the delegate added.
Regarding religion, in Benin there were certain religions that did not support the legislative decisions of the Government. Some groups of women did not attend Government-led awareness-raising meetings as they feared repercussions when they returned home. The Government continued to fight for the rights of those women and it would be incorrect to say religious overtones affected that work. Non-governmental organizations did a great deal of work in that way, to inform women that they were equal to men and could have responsibilities in society, including by holding posts occupied by men.
Vidomegon was a cultural tradition; when parents could not afford to send their children to school, they sent them away to receive an education and care by a wealthier family. However, as the Committee knew, it did not always work like that and sometimes the child ended up in domestic servitude, so the practice of using vidomegon had been prohibited. Considerable work was being done to prevent children being kept in domestic servitude, the issue had been publicised on television, and people who tried to sell their children at markets were arrested, and their children sent to school. Any parent who mistreated a vidomegon child was sanctioned. However, not all children raised in families were vidomegon; a delegate emphasized, as there was an African tradition of raising a nephew or a niece – all families should not be tarnished with the same brush.
The bill on trafficking had not yet been adopted, a delegate said. He recalled that at its Universal Periodic Review Benin had accepted recommendations on trafficking in persons and working in partnership with non-governmental organizations; the government was currently in the process of adopting the bill.
Questions from the Experts
With upcoming elections, would the State party consider introducing political quotas for women candidates, especially given there was only one female mayor in the country, an Expert asked, enquiring whether it could be an idea to give incentives to or sanction political parties if they did not put forward women candidates, in order to really emphasize that they were not just window dressing. Otherwise it was hard to see how things would change, said the Expert.
Response from the Delegation
A bill on political quotas for women was being considered by parliament, and together with non-governmental organizations the Government was working at the grass roots to ensure political leaders and parties were informed about the importance of having women candidates. It was true that there was only one woman mayor. The Government had published a handbook titled ‘Women in Politics: What Strategy’ that explained to women what options were open to them, and to encourage women to join political parties, become activists, go to the party meetings, follow political activity in the media, and put themselves forward as candidates. The handbook also informed them on what paperwork and certification they needed to be a candidate, how to formally apply, and how to put a campaign team together. Women were mobilized in every region of Benin, but results were not being seen yet so the Government needed to make sure that its handbook really reached every woman.
While the idea of sanctioning political parties for not putting forward women candidates had not yet been broached, there was incentive and awareness-raising work being done with the parties. If a party did not put forward women candidates it was deemed not credible, and there was a growing trend of them seeking women candidates.
Previous Governments had fostered women’s participation in the very important sector that was the diplomatic service. There were very well qualified and trained women working in that sector. The former Foreign Advisor was now the President’s Special Diplomatic Advisor, and was a woman. There were four women Ambassadors.
Questions by the Experts
Regarding education, an Expert asked whether the enrolment figures had been amalgamated. It was important to have disaggregated data by the level of education available, because girls were more likely to drop out of school the higher up the educational ladder they went. According to the State party’s report, in 2006, gross enrolment of female students stood at 86 per cent. However in Benin’s Universal Periodic Review the same gross enrolment of female students in 2006 was said to be 25 per cent. That was a huge different and must be explained. The report also said that 34 per cent of those enrolled in school did not complete their education, which suggested that girls drop-out rate was much higher than the 11 per cent stated.
In the Universal Periodic Review it was noted that very few females were enrolled in higher education, just 22 per cent, said an Expert. Further, girls were underrepresented in scientific and technical subjects in higher education. What was the Government doing to keep girls in school at the lower levels of education in order for them to go on to higher education, as well as measures to increase girls’ participation in science and technical subjects? Such measures would increase the very low literacy rate of women, which was 37 per cent, and a major factor in the high poverty levels of women. The cycle went as thus: girls dropped out of school, were not fully educated, were unable to find a job and then became impoverished. It was vital that the State party took action on that.
Pregnant teenage girls were very likely to drop out of school. What was being done to support schoolgirls who became pregnant in completing their education, an Expert asked, as the report did not mention them? What was done to prosecute cases of sexual harassment and sexual assault in schools, either by teachers or other pupils? The Committee on the Rights of the Child had previously expressed concern about the lack of trained teachers in Benin. Was age-appropriate sexual and reproductive health education given to girls and boys, to teach them about responsible sexual behaviour, particularly in light of the high teenage pregnancy rate?
Concerning women in the workplace, how was the Government addressing corporate responsibility and transparency in that regard? What was the pay gap between men and women in both the public and private sector? Was the principle of equal pay for equal work of equal value taken into account? That was very important as women’s cycle of poverty could not be broken until they were paid the same as men, and it also led to occupational segregation. Women’s employment was primarily concentrated within a narrow range of sectors, and even with those women were clustered at the lower echelon.
Response by the Delegation
Education was free, and therefore the existing facilities were not good enough. Just last week Government officials carried out visits to local facilities to see for themselves. Many teachers struggled to even find enough chairs for their pupils to sit on. In 2012 the President launched an initiative that aimed to help local authorities provide infrastructure and facilities and to build new schools. Classrooms needed to be built to accommodate the children; increasingly local communities were getting involved in providing land, sand, water, labour and other materials to build new schools.
There was a problem in data collection, a delegate agreed, but there had been significant progress in school attendance by girls, and today boy and girl enrolment figures were almost 50-50. The Government was working to make school statistics more data friendly and open to analysis. He confirmed that the school drop-out figures had been amalgamated.
The problem of school drop-out as a result of pregnancy was worst at secondary level as girls then were more likely to become pregnant. The problem was most acute in one particular region of Benin but the Government was taking measures countrywide. A UNICEF-sponsored programme called ‘All Girls In School’ had been very positive. Girls were no longer expelled from school for becoming pregnant, even from private schools. They were given some time off to give birth, and could return to school as soon as they could. Work to support girls who dropped out of school included taking them on and giving them vocational work and training, such as in sewing or hairdressing, and even helped them to start their own business, in collaboration with other girls in the same situation. Furthermore a media campaign asked pregnant school girls to get in touch with the authorities in order to get support, although they were frequently too embarrassed to do that.
Sexual harassment in schools had been a problem, but it was improving, especially as people learned they could go to jail for the offence. Recently a teacher was given a five-year custodial sentence for that crime. Parents supported their children in reporting such cases. Sexual and reproductive education was given, a delegate confirmed. The ABPF Family Planning Association focused on teaching girls and women at locations throughout the country. Girls were taught how to avoid unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.
The gender pay gap was not such a huge problem in Benin, a delegate said. Everybody was paid the same wage upon recruitment; there was no gap between the pay of men and women. There were 200 magistrates, of whom 31 were women, and a further seven judges were women, while 23 women and 140 men were Court Clerks. There were even two women Police Commissioners.
Youth unemployment was a big problem in Benin, so a special project to find them work in agriculture – rather than the industrial sector – was in place. Much had been done to help young people get together with their local authority, be given training and land, and then finally the Government would buy their produce.
Follow-Up Questions by the Experts
NICOLE AMELINE, Chairperson of the Committee, intervened to say that, with the utmost respect, there was a gender pay gap in every country in the world. Even countries where equal pay was enshrined in law had a different reality. Every country had barriers to women being paid for equal work of equal value.
An Expert urged the Government to diversify the subjects it offered to girls who dropped out of school from just sewing and hairdressing, as those traditional areas for women just perpetuated the cycle of low paying sectors with poor security. Information technology, perhaps, could be a good alternative to teach.
Response by the Delegation
A delegate agreed that new technologies needed to be taught to girls, but to boys as well. New technologies were not being used in schools, and needed to be rooted in education. The delegate also assured the Committee that it would duly change its data gathering methods and include the statistics requested in its next report.
There were high-level women entrepreneurs who grouped together in order to assist other women, particularly those just starting out with a new business. In fact the Government had recently made reforms to enable people to more quickly set up their own business, which often benefitted women working in the informal sector, by bringing them into the formal sector. Tax rates were originally high for businesses, but tax breaks were being offered to small businesses in the informal sector to help them grow. There were women representatives in the Chamber of Commerce who made key decisions in that regard. For example, the Government was trying to stop women who sold bio-oil fuel by the roadside illegally, in order to move them into the formal sector.
Questions from the Experts
A Committee Expert commended the State party for its very strict birth registration process, conducted by the Civil Registry Organization, but asked if people faced practical problems in registering their children. Approximately 70 per cent of births took place in hospitals in Benin, could the hospitals themselves register the births? One country in the region had taken a very practical initiative, of the hospital itself sending SMS text messages to announce and register every birth.
An Expert raised the high maternal mortality rate, which the report attributed to early and late pregnancies, multiple pregnancies, pregnancies too closely spaced, and clandestine abortions. What was the State party doing to address those issues and identify the causes? The Committee understood that even when contraception was freely available, such as that provided by the United Nations Population Fund, some women refused to use it due to misconceptions that it caused infertility. Further, a woman still required her husband’s permission to obtain contraceptives and family planning services. There were reports of impoverished families abandoning their pregnant relations to their death. The strategy to reduce the high maternal mortality rate was clearly not working. What was being done to implement the Committee’s 2005 recommendation to address the lack of healthcare for women and girls, especially in rural areas?
Abortion was permitted in cases of rape, incest, malformation of the foetus and danger to the life of the woman, and forced abortion was illegal, an Expert reiterated. However, the Committee was concerned that women needed a court’s permission to access a legal abortion, and some women were not aware of their rights with regard to access to abortion. The lengthy court process could endanger women’s lives. What was being done to reduce the feminization of HIV AIDS and women’s increasing vulnerability to the disease, an Expert asked.
An Expert commended the State party’s efforts to improve the situation of rural women, particularly its laws on land tenure and on women’s right to inherit from parents and spouses. Nevertheless, landlessness remained more acute for women than men and a key obstacle to women’s empowerment, the Expert regretted, adding that women should not only be the beneficiaries of development policies but also the designers of the solutions. The Expert also asked about the care of elderly women. Referring to traditional practices, an Expert asked about the “Oros” and “Zangbeto” groups, about which the Committee had heard reports of discrimination against women.
Response by the Delegation
Many births took place in hospitals, and the birth registration procedure was as follows: within 10 days of the birth a parent took a form from the hospital to the Mayor’s Office. Sometimes a parent lost the paperwork, and a child turned up at school unregistered.
The division on maternal and child health came under the Ministry of Health and provided those services, coordinated the family planning service, and led the fight against female genital mutilation, malaria and HIV AIDS, and to reduce infant and maternal mortality. The National Agency for Health Insurance promoted free caesarean sections, in view of the high maternal mortality. It was true that a woman needed a court permission to have an abortion and that needed to be looked at. A delegate agreed with the Committee that the number of midwives needed to be doubled, but at the same time Benin had fiscal restrictions and should not exceed 37 per cent of its budget being spent on staff; it had already exceeded that figure to over 40 per cent and could not employ any more staff.
At school there was no specific education on the biology side of sex education, but it was needed, as really girls were becoming pregnant at very young ages, 12 years old. There was also family planning education later on in secondary school, but there was generally a taboo around the programme of sexual and reproductive health education. Children needed regular lessons to educate them, children around the age of 12 years had no notion of sexuality, but were becoming pregnant all the same.
The “Oros” and “Zangbeto” groups were a secret society of Beninese men, but the times had changed, an Expert said, and it was no longer was a threat or discrimination against women. Historically an ‘Oros group’ would appear at the market place or the fields, and women would have to rush away to their homes, as if a woman – or any uninitiated man – looked at them they would be killed. Today it was very different, the Oros only came out at night, and warning was given of their approach.
The statistics on healthcare, gender equality and education given in the report were out of date, a delegate said. The delegation would provide the Committee with more updated figures that showed progress made.
Unemployment was a big worry, given that 70 per cent of the population were of working age. The Government made big efforts in terms of youth employment through multi-sectoral programmes in agriculture, trade, small and medium sized businesses and the informal sector. The Government was seeking to take some jobs from the informal sector, the largest in Benin, and move them to the formal sector.
Regarding rural women, many of whom worked in agriculture, a delegate said that they were not necessarily being exploited by male employers, but were working for themselves. Elderly women were cared for by their family; the practice of putting the elderly into a care home did not exist in Benin.
NICOLE AMELINE, Chairperson of the Committee, thanked the delegation for the constructive dialogue. She encouraged Benin to take the same measures on the ground as it had in setting up its progressive legal framework, to enable a new generation of girls to be educated and make considerable improvement to the country.
MARIE-LAURENCE SRANON SOSSOU, Minister of Family, Social Affairs, National Solidarity, Persons with Disabilities and Older People, said the Committee’s advice had much improved the situation of Benin women. Now, the Government was focusing on shared prosperity to enhance women’s empowerment. Benin would send updated statistics to the Committee to show the full extent of the progressive work it was doing to better the lives of women and girls. A priority area was educating school-aged girls who were vulnerable to having a teenage, or younger, pregnancy. Benin remained fully committed to achieving full implementation of the Convention.
The Committee’s concluding observations will be made available at http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/treatybodyexternal/SessionDetails1.aspx?SessionID=812&Lang=en on Monday 21 October.
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