COMMITTEE ON THE ELIMINATION OF DISCRIMINATION AGAINST WOMEN CONSIDERS REPORT OF THE COMOROS
10 October 2012
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women today considered the combined initial to fourth periodic report of the Comoros on how that country is implementing the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
Introducing the report, Sultan Chouzour, Permanent Representative of the Comoros to the United Nations Office at Geneva, apologised that the high-level Ministerial delegation was unable to attend today’s meeting and explained that as he had been asked to represent his country at short notice he had not had adequate time to prepare. However, he looked forward to relaying the Committee’s recommendations back to his Government. Mr. Chouzour described the cultural and religious history of the Comoros, which as a Bantu society was originally a matriarchal society but also strongly influenced by Islamic mysticism and the patriarchal context of Islam, as well as over a century of French colonial rule. Comorian society had a truly exceptional flexibility and was able to achieve osmosis between cultures. As 90 per cent of the population lived in rural areas women were strongly involved in agricultural activity and trade. Poverty was less present in households where women managed the finances. The Convention was important in a society that was making slow progress because it was so closed.
During the discussion Committee Experts asked the Permanent Representative questions about the legal standing and awareness of the Convention, the role of civil society, and women’s participation in public life. Gender-based violence, including rape and domestic violence, as well as impunity for perpetrators were discussed, as was the role of the First Lady of the Comoros in promoting women’s issues. The high rates of school drop-out for girls, particularly before they reached the secondary education level, were another concern, as was the high maternal mortality rate and lack of family planning services. The right of women to inherit land but not property was considered, as well as the appearance of inequality in the right to divorce and issues of child custody. Women’s representation in public life and poverty reduction were also discussed, in particular access to entrepreneurship, health services and finance.
In concluding remarks, Mr. Chouzour apologized that the delegation had not been able to attend and had not provided precise answers, though he had tried to give a framework to place the answers sought. He added that as he was now aware of the Committee’s concerns he would pass on the information as it was important to engage as there were important values that had to be respected as a member of common society. He recognized that the ideas raised could bring justice to his society and asked for patience in the delay in responses as there was a lack of expertise in providing replies and there were other issues to be dealt with. He also reinforced that women were not dormant in society and their interventions could in fact be very effective.
The delegation of the Comoros consisted of the Permanent Representative of the Comoros to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
The next public meeting of the Committee will be at 10 a.m. on Thursday, 11 October when it will consider the combined third and fourth periodic report of Turkmenistan (CEDAW/C/TKM/3-4).
The combined initial, second, third and fourth periodic report of the Comoros can be read via the following link: CEDAW/C/COM/1-4.
Presentation of the Report
SULTAN CHOUZOUR, Permanent Representative of the Comoros to the United Nations Office at Geneva, thanked the Committee for forgiving the circumstances that prevented a high-level Ministerial delegation from attending today’s meeting and asked them to forgive his lack of expertise on the topics at hand, because he had not had time to prepare as he would have liked to. It was his duty to attend the meeting today and respect the agenda, and at least the meeting would be an opportunity to take on the Committee’s concerns and recommendations, which would help the Comoros better prepare in coming years.
Uniquely, the Comoros was a Muslim country with Sufi rituals very influenced by Islamic mysticism developed by Muslim brotherhoods which, unlike in other countries, did not play a political or economic role. The native culture of the Comoros was another heavy influence on a society which culturally belonged to the Bantu world. The language, traditions and morals reflected that reality. That led to a vast number of difficulties because Islam was born in a patriarchal social context but the Comoros, as a Bantu society, were originally a matriarchal society. Since the end of the nineteenth century the country had been subjected to Western influence, primarily from France which colonized the Comoros in 1856. That caused strong cultural opposition because laws changed deeply depending on their origin. International culture had an increasing influence on the Comoros, particularly French culture which had a quasi-monopoly on the media.
Turning to the role of women, the Permanent Representative said that under Muslim law a boy inherited twice as much as a girl. In the Comoros today all property, land and goods could only be inherited by women. In the Comoros parents traditionally had to build a house for their daughter so that her new husband could move to live with her. That was an unusual situation but one that gave women a lot of freedom: a woman was often the head of the household, and a man had to follow her rules, for example the husband could not come home late or he would find himself locked out. Although some people complained that customary law opposed God’s law, Islamic rule had had to bend around the customary laws and adapt. In the view of one of the greatest ideologists of Islamic law the customary element was recognized as one that should have an impact on Islamic law, which meant that the Comoros society had a truly exceptional flexibility and was able to achieve osmosis between cultures.
The image of Muslim countries as places where women were locked away and deprived of activity was false, and perhaps mainly an image of an urban woman, as in the Comoros 90 per cent of the population lived in rural areas. Women were involved in agricultural activity – in fact trade was monopolized by women and women were becoming increasingly wealthy from trade. Poverty was less present in households where women managed the finances. Thanks to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women the Comoros now had another control that was taken into account. In a society that was making slow progress, because of economics and because it was a very closed society, the Convention was important. The Permanent Representative said he would faithfully relay the Committee’s words to his Government back home.
Questions from the Experts
An Expert said the Comoros ratified the Convention in 1994 without any reservations, and welcomed the State party to the start of the constructive dialogue today. She noted the long delay in the submission of the initial report and asked for information on the reasons for the delay. Regarding the ideological flexibility referred to by the Permanent Representative, how did the Convention stand legally in the Comoros, and how was it disseminated? During its Universal Periodic Review examination the Comoros committed itself to ratifying the Optional Protocol to the Convention; could the Permanent Representative give a timeframe for that ratification, as well as for other human rights treaties it had promised to adhere to.
The Committee did not want to simply share its concerns with a delegation but also its satisfaction, an Expert said, commending them for a number of promising examples of progress in the report in terms of eliminating discrimination against women. In 2007 the State party carried out a study on the harmonization of legislation and the elimination of discriminatory laws and prejudices: how was that process proceeding today? The lack of disaggregated data was raised, and an Expert also asked about complaint mechanisms: was a National Commission for Human Rights still planned? What about the role of civil society in the Comoros?
Response by the Delegation
The Permanent Representative stated that he had lived outside of the country since 2001 so he had not closely followed the development of new groups and harmonization on the ground. However, he could compare the progress made in the situation of Comorian women over the past 30 years. Thirty years ago French law applied in many areas: Islamic law was only applied for personal circumstances. Unfortunately the traditional law was one where the preservation of the dignity of the victim of an attack, or domestic violence came secondary to the victim’s parents’ need for honour. Today that was changing and women were increasingly able to speak for themselves. The Permanent Representative said that reading the report he was stunned to hear about the level of importance attached to tackling domestic violence, which was actually only a marginal phenomenon in the Comoros.
The Permanent Representative was uncertain how much importance was attached to the Convention but was unconvinced that at the legal level the Convention was systematically referred to. Generally speaking, women were increasingly active in guiding laws and had some influence on the direction laws took. Today the Comoros faced a phenomenon of young people who had been trained outside of the country in a different, albeit Islamic tradition. They would return, supported by the country where they had studied, wanting to impose certain rules and ways of behaviour that were alien to the Comoros. It was fair to say that the Comoros was threatened by that: the Permanent Representative said he did not want to discriminate against fundamentalists, but today there were young, literate graduates who considered that the mystic nature of Islam had no place and was a deviation from Islam.
The Permanent Representative said he thought that the importance of attending today’s meeting had not fully been understood. He explained how he had spoken with the First Lady of the Comoros, who was very involved in women’s issues, and was in New York, and she understood how important the meeting was but was unable to attend herself. However, he could share with the Committee the news that a law had just been passed by the Parliament to establish a National Human Rights Commission.
Unfortunately there was no teaching of the Convention at any level, school or otherwise, or any public awareness in general of it, the Permanent Representative said. As to the influence of the Convention on the legal system, it was implicit. He said he was unsure that lawyers referred systematically to the Convention but it was acknowledged that international law – the various Conventions signed and ratified by the Comoros – had to be adhered to.
Turning to civil society, it did play a significant role in the Comoros, especially in the economic area. There were an increasing number of women’s organizations in various sectors which had resources, and in some cases could become a force for change. For example, those groups had pushed to have women appointed to higher-level State posts, which had been acknowledged by the Government and to a certain extent reflected in the Constitution. The spokesperson for the Government was currently a woman – that was a very important role because to the public, the person who represented the Government was in fact the Government. Furthermore, the First Lady of the Comoros was influential and very active in working with civil society organizations. Women’s community groups principally invested in three areas: building structures where they could make money and maintaining those buildings; in healthcare; and in schooling.
The Comoros was trying to gather disaggregated data so it could gain a real viewpoint of the situation of women, and more importantly, the gaps where action was needed.
Questions by the Experts
An Expert referred to the Permanent Representative’s comments that he felt the Convention was not very well known in the Comoros, which was very disappointing, especially after such a long gap between ratification of it (in 1994) and today’s presentation of the initial report. Turning to gender-based violence, she asked about a recent study held in the Comoros which interviewed women and girls who spoke about physical, mental and economic violence suffered at the hands of their partners. The majority of victims also spoke about violence suffered by women in their homes.
The Expert noted that the World Health Organization was also looking at the issue of violence against women in the Comoros. She also noted that the preamble of the State party’s Constitution contained provisions to protect women and children from all forms of violence, which was rare and welcomed. However, did the Comorian Government plan to adopt a specific law on violence against women? Furthermore, what support and guidance services were provided to victims?
Spousal and domestic violence against women was also raised, as was the climate of silence and impunity around such cases, especially rape, which normally ended in a situation of forgiveness when the rapist paid financial compensation to the victim’s family. She also referred to cases of violence against women perpetuated by her husband’s family and relatives, particularly towards women involved in public affairs. What was being done to ensure effective prosecution and sanctioning of those guilty of committing violence against women? The report mentioned that United Nations organizations including the United Nations Population Fund were helping with awareness-raising and implementation of new programmes to protect victims of gender-based violence, but was a national strategy envisaged, particularly one that included education for school-aged children on gender equality and respect? The issue of child trafficking for forced labour and prostitution was also raised.
An Expert asked about the statement that the Comoros was a matriarchal society in which parents and family were significant. Furthermore, the importance of the First Lady, who even travelled to the United States to represent women in the Comoros, was welcomed, and although the spouse of the President could not replace practical action in areas such as education and political representation, it would be a good thing if the First Lady could become even more involved in supporting women as she could generate a lot of publicity.
Response by the Delegation
The Permanent Representative said he had some knowledge of education, as in 1997 he had drafted a United Nations Children’s Fund report on children’s education in the Comoros. At present, in some secondary school classrooms, more girls than boys could be found. Girls did much better in exams than boys, and at universities some departments even had a majority of girls. To understand the progress made the Committee had to know that 30 years ago very few girls had the chance to attend secondary level education. At one point movements and associations in the country fought for the schooling of girls. Today’s statistics needed to be viewed from that historic standpoint. Schooling was one of the successes of the Comoros, school fees were almost negligible if not non-existent. Today, the trend was that equality between girls and boys in the education system was very quickly being achieved.
Turning to women’s representation in politics, the Permanent Representative recalled that in the late 90s there was a woman candidate in the legislative elections, but a very powerful political lobby campaigned against women being candidates, and convinced the public. However, since then a woman had been elected, but political parties were rarely tempted to put women candidates forward. That said, there were female judges and lawyers who worked without any gender discrimination, and there were also many women officials within the civil service. Those were very recent, and very positive, developments. Although they were not enough, and there was still not a single woman Minister or Deputy Minister, it was progress in the right direction. Specific measures needed to be taken to fight the handicaps that held women back.
Concerning gender-based violence, the Permanent Representative said that if it seemed there had been an increase in such cases it was because more women were courageously reporting attacks. Their reports gave hope, and undoubtedly would have a knock-on effect in helping preventing cases of violence against women taking place. Comorian culture did not believe that violence should be used to restrict women, rather it was a shameful situation for a man. Women had campaigned for stricter sentences for men found guilty of gender-based violence, and recently a court overturned a sentence given to a man guilty of such an attack in favour of a heavier punishment. A few years ago, that would have been unthinkable. Meanwhile the Government worked to ensure that laws were implemented to prevent impunity.
Prostitution was a highly marginal phenomenon and found almost exclusively in urban areas, the Permanent Representative confirmed. His concern lay with the clear poverty among the population which was linked to the daily economic crisis and the changing geography of the population, namely the increasing rural exodus, which could increase the phenomenon of prostitution. An organization in the capital existed that discreetly and informally helped prostitutes, in particular with medical check-ups and advice. Overall prostitution was barely visible, which made it difficult to effectively tackle.
Regarding child trafficking for forced labour and prostitution, the Permanent Representative said he was not aware of any report on the topic, but thought that if that phenomenon did indeed take place it would be marginal and very surprising. Given the place of children within the family, he would be very surprised if any child was handed over for prostitution. In his work on children’s issues he had never encountered any child prostitution or forced labour. However, it was clear from a recent study that minors from poor rural families were being sent to live with their urban family in the hope that they would receive a proper education and some training. Often, in some families, those children became used for carrying out household tasks. That was a very worrying phenomenon, highlighted by a very popular song by one of the Comoros’ best-known singers about those children. The song helped many people to realise that those children were being exploited, and consequently many children left the urban families.
The Permanent Representative said it may seem surprising that a popular song could have such a great effect, but in fact the Comoros was an oral culture and the spoken word could be very effective. That was something international organizations should note, particularly those fighting violence against women using images, as an oral message was much stronger than a picture.
Questions by the Experts
Turning to education, an Expert said a 2008 study cited in the report found that 31 per cent of children in the 6 to 14 year age group, who had the right to education, were not in school, and more than half of that group were girls. For girls in school, the attrition of them from the system was a major concern; every level showed a lower enrolment of girls than men. The report showed that female drop-out was “alarming”, in particular in the secondary level. In light of the critical economic situation faced by the Comoros, as by many other small island States, what could be done to address the disproportionate over-representation of girls who did not attend schools? What were the barriers preventing girls attending school? What was being done to address the cultural norms that undervalued education for girls and kept them out of school and in the domestic sphere? The very high school drop-out rate for girls led to a high illiteracy rate for women, as illiteracy only served to reproduce and perpetuate a life of poverty for women.
Regarding employment, an Expert said it was difficult to get a clear idea of the labour market in the Comoros from the report, and asked, for example, whether fishing was included in agriculture or whether it was a separate sector. It did seem that women were discriminated against in the employment field. The Comoros was a member of the International Labour Organization but material from that organization indicated a clear lack of reporting: had the State party sought any help from the International Labour Organization in terms of developing its labour market?
Legislation stated there was a right to work, but what did that mean in practice? Was there a social security system? What about protection from sexual harassment in the workplace? Legislation also pledged equal pay for equal work, but how was that implemented on the ground? Given that a large percentage of women worked in the informal sector, how did the Government promote and support women’s self-employment and small enterprises? What about women’s access to credit and capital?
Response by the Delegation
Answering the question on education, the Permanent Representative agreed that there were two very troublesome issues: the number of children aged six to 14 who did not attend school, and also the drop-out rate. Clearly those figures were very worrying, but they perhaps did not reflect the progress that had been made. When the Comoros became independent in 1975 less than 30 per cent of children went to school. Today around 75 to 80 per cent of children were in school. That progress, particularly in the context of an economic crisis that was exacerbated in the 1980s and 1990s with the structural adjustment programme, was an encouraging sign.
The drop-out between primary and secondary level was a great loss, and deplored by the Government. The reasons were cultural and financial. They could include the fact that a child was not educated enough at the end of the primary level to keep-up with the secondary level teaching. Another problem was that the primary school teachers were often not qualified, because the salaries were very low, so even the children who did attend school were not necessarily provided with the education that they needed. Children could not always attend school for geographical reasons, public transport was unreliable, and while boys could just be told to travel alone, girls could not, and so were discriminated against. However, in 1991 there were six secondary schools across the entire archipelago, but today every island had 30 secondary schools. The delegate also mentioned a growth in private schools in the Comoros, which were popular with families that could afford the fees.
Regarding illiteracy, all children in the Comoros attended a Qur'anic school, so they could only use an Arabic script. They could read the Qur'an, although they may not understand it of course. They could use Arabic script in the context of the Qur'an, which was a form of literacy. So the society was not illiterate in the sense that people could not read or write, but could not necessarily translate Arabic text into Comorian characters. For example, a recent micro-credit system had to be translated into the Arabic script so people could understand it.
The use of Qur'anic schools was the best democratic education system available; every tiny village at least had a Qur'anic school where girls and boys were taught in the same classroom, which may be a paradox given the differences between girls and boys. The teachers at those small village schools were usually women. Children were asked to bring in a small amount of money on Thursdays – perhaps 10 cents – but if the family could not pay it would in no way lead to the exclusion of the pupil. Once they were older, around 14 years, children would help the Master of the School, perhaps by working his land for half a day a week, as a way of paying. The Master considered that to be a religious task for children learning about Islam. The consequence was that children also learnt about food hygiene. One of the problems with Qur'anic schools was that they did not teach calculus, and did not open up potential career paths or lead into any profession. However, the children did learn to read and write the Qur'an. Mainstream public schools were better thought of than Qur'anic schools because of the opportunities they gave to children and parents often preferred them, although that led to a loss of values as the public schools did not teach ethics or religion. That loss of values was replaced by television and possibly led to an increase in violence, as people were not being taught ethics.
Fishing was a different sector to agriculture, overseen by the Ministry of Fisheries, the delegate confirmed. Some fishermen were involved in very low-productivity fishing and may also work as farmers in order to make ends meet. There was a clear division of labour, as men always went fishing but women dealt with the commercial side. A woman was usually head of the household, and was in charge of selling produce on the market. Training was increasingly being made available for women, as was the provision of micro-credits.
Four or five years ago a system of mutual insurance was launched in the villages, which served as a sort of social security. The problem was that people did not understand: they paid into the system for a year, but at the end of the year when they had not been sick, they could not understand why they did not get their money refunded.
Questions from the Experts
An Expert expressed concern about the lack of healthcare for women and the lack of a comprehensive healthcare system in general. The maternal mortality rate was high and there did not seem to be any family planning services. What was being done to address women’s health issues, particularly reproductive health? Did the State party receive any international support in the field; either funding or technical help to build infrastructure? Was there any information on how HIV/AIDS affected women, including mother to child transfer?
Another Expert noted difficulties in movement and political issues but said that since it was the Government’s responsibility to provide women with adequate healthcare, had it noted previous recommendations for improvement and data collection and management? Attitude changing and awareness-raising on topics such as sexually transmitted disease was also important. The Expert further asked about the status of the HIV/AIDS bill that had been under preparation.
An Expert asked about social welfare, seeking clarification about health insurance costs and the availability and access to small loans and credit for women. How were programmes designed for women? What positive results had they produced? With regard to national disaster planning, how were women encouraged to take part?
On Article 14 on rural women an Expert said access to basic services for the 72 per cent of women living in rural areas was a great challenge for women. It was to be commended that women were being given their place in the political and decision making process, but what was their participation? How were they involved in poverty reduction strategies? The report had explained issues in land policy. What legal protections existed in relation to women’s land rights? Without land registration what steps were taken to recognize women’s rights for any future process? Could any future reports include more data on these specific issues?
Response from the Delegation
On healthcare, the Permanent Representative regretted he could not provide any up-to-date statistics, but said that since the 1980s there had been an awareness of the importance of family planning for women. Today there were problems with respect to communicating and informing women, but the women who were informed could probably find family planning assistance, perhaps from non-governmental organizations who were extremely active in that field. Maternal mortality rates were explained by the problems of access to healthcare centres, the shortage of hospitals and so on. Women were acutely aware of the problem.
On the problem of HIV/AIDS, the Permanent Representative said prevalence was low compared to other countries in the region but clearly the country was not protected from upsurges in epidemics and so awareness-raising had taken place. His concerns were instead in relation to the way the population perceived the illness. How was it possible to get the country to accept the disease? Measures were in place for women to be tested free-of-charge for HIV in pregnancy and in case of a positive result care was offered to avoid transmission. Free distribution of condoms was also important and now widely accepted. Sex workers were also targeted.
He also discussed the island of Mayotte, which remained a French territory and offered high quality healthcare, prompting women to travel there to give birth. This created issues as people often lost their lives making precarious boat journeys between the islands.
The Permanent Representative replied that problems stemmed from record-keeping among doctors and the shift towards medics working towards a more private system. There were shortcomings in statistical data and the United Nations Population Fund was working on improving the situation.
Further on healthcare, a new policy being laid out made primary care free, which would benefit all of the population. However, at the current time families were often unable to pay for healthcare and how this would prejudice women needed to be considered. He would look into the status of the HIV law but he could confirm that healthcare for HIV positive citizens was free-of-charge.
Social security did not offer a safety net in his country, said the Permanent Representative. However work-based schemes saw employees and employers contribute to a fund that offered compensation following an accident and a small pension. However, this covered only a small portion of the population and other schemes such as mutual health insurance schemes based on individual, group or community healthcare were in ongoing development and implementation.
At the state level a commission of doctors could support the care of injured persons and transfer to French territory hospitals was also possible. In this healthcare was not a right, but the issue was not ignored. On the topic of loans they had previously not been available to persons without stable employment but now mutual funds were available where people, often women, could access cash having made only small deposits.
Natural disasters were not as common in the Comoros as their neighbours, though recently an island volcano had erupted causing damage to some villages. Earthquakes were also related to this geography and seismic activity was monitored. It was difficult to convince people to avoid building in risk areas. Through the support of international organizations and agencies some provision for disaster planning had been put in place in the last five years, such as shelters.
Concerning land policies and legal protections in relation to women’s land rights, the Permanent Representative replied that the situation varied from one island to another and there was no problem on the larger islands. However in Anjouan colonial effects were still felt and land title had been lost altogether. On poverty an increasing awareness was being seen about the need for a minimum income level, below which it was impossible to survive. Caring for older persons was thought to be important in society and it was unthinkable that elderly persons would be abandoned.
Questions by the Experts
The next set of questions considered the reform of the work of the family court and early marriage. Taking into account the high levels of illiteracy of women, an Expert asked how details of the family court were distributed. It was also mentioned that provisions in marriage and divorce law were unequal, significantly disadvantaging women. Did the State party have a dialogue with women’s groups and religious leaders on reform?
Agreeing with her colleague, another Expert asked about inheritance and parental rights. Also, traditional customs and law seemed to put women under pressure. Were these laws to be reconsidered? Noting the current exclusive use of Islamic marriage, was a form of civil marriage possible in the future? Finally, was a woman’s only possibility for no-fault divorce to make a payment? On provisions following the death of a partner, did women have equal property rights?
Response by the Delegation
The Permanent Representative said that laws made by the country needed to consider that a lack of structure at the rural level meant there would be differences in implementation. He also explained that during colonial times all things related to child custody and marriage were outside the French system and since independence this situation had not really changed – meaning that most things personal were administrated through Islamic law. Conflicts between customary and Islamic law were also to be considered.
Furthermore civil administration was not a reflex, and people rarely thought beyond religious involvement when considering marriage registration. On the topic of polygamy he mentioned that the country’s constitution was inspired by and guided by Islamic law and so a ban on the practice would simply not be recognized. Historic changes and changes in mentality would therefore be far more effective than signing documents at the international level. On pressure to marry, he said the socio-cultural consideration was more towards security than romance, and there was a social status achieved by being married. However, women did now have the chance to refuse marriage and education was important in fuelling women’s ability to impose their will.
He noted there was discrimination in divorce law where men could refuse, though this was a concern for the community itself and families and religious leaders could intervene to find a solution. Regarding child custody, women would rather keep their children with no support than hand them over to their husbands, and this was closely connected to the tradition of giving women a house as a marriage gift. On inheritance, he said only housing and building land could be handed down to women. Women did not get goods or property which, following a death would pass to male family members who would provide for a widow and her children.
SULTAN CHOUZOUR, Permanent Representative of the Comoros to the United Nations Office at Geneva, apologized that the delegation had not been able to attend and had not provided precise answers, though he had tried to give a framework to place the answers sought. He added that as he was now aware of the Committee’s concerns he would pass on the information as it was important to engage as there were important values that had to be respected as a member of common society. He recognized that the ideas raised could bring justice to his society and asked for patience in the delay in responses as there was a lack of expertise in providing replies and there were other issues to be dealt with. He also reinforced that women were not dormant in society and their interventions could in fact be very effective.
For use of the information media; not an official record