Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women meets with civil society representatives

Committee on Elimination of Discrimination
against Women

26 October 2015

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women this afternoon met with representatives of non-governmental organizations to hear information on the situation of women in the Russian Federation, Portugal, Liberia and Slovenia, whose reports will be considered during the first week of the session. It also met with a representative of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in the Russian Federation.

Representatives of non-governmental organizations in the Russian Federation addressed the issues of the criminalization of sex work, access of sex workers and drug users to HIV-prevention programmes, violation of women’s rights in the occupied Crimea, extreme patriarchal social norms in the Northern Caucasus and the controversial “foreign agents law”.

Portuguese non-governmental organizations spoke about the disproportionate effect of austerity measures on women, political underrepresentation of women, recent restrictions introduced to the legislation on abortion, and medical treatment of intersex persons.

In Liberia, non-governmental organizations said the effects of the Ebola epidemic on women were particularly heavy. The undergoing changes of the Constitution were rarely gender sensitive, while the Gender Equity Act was not being appropriately implemented.

Speakers from civil society in Slovenia informed how the austerity measures had disproportionately affected the most vulnerable categories, including single mothers and elderly women, and claimed that the training of social workers helping women victims of violence was still inadequate.

Non-governmental organizations from the Russian Federation included Non-Commercial Partnership “E.V.A.”, Sex Workers Movement “Silver Rose”, Union of Independent LGBT Activists of Russia, ADC Memorial, Centre for Civil Liberties, Russian Justice Initiative and the Centre for Reproductive Rights. Representatives of the Portuguese civil sector were Portuguese Platform for the Rights of Women, Association for Research, Cooperation and Development, Portuguese Association for Women’s Rights in Pregnancy and Childbirth and Intervencao Lesbica, Gay, Bisexual e Transgenero. From Liberia, the non-governmental organizations Women NGO Secretariat of Liberia and the Voices of the Voiceless addressed the Committee. The Slovenian non-governmental organizations Women’s Lobby of Slovenia and Association SOS Helpline for Women Victims of Violence also spoke.

The Committee will reconvene in public on Tuesday, 27 October at 10 a.m., to begin its consideration of the eighth periodic report of the Russian Federation (CEDAW/C/RUS/8).

Statements by Non-governmental Organizations

Russian Federation

A representative of the Non-Commercial Partnership “E.V.A.”, Sex Workers Movement “Silver Rose” and the Union of Independent LGBT Activists of Russia said that drug dependence was a sole statutory reason for deprivation of parental rights. There was an urgent need for the Russian Federation to introduce and scale up drug harm reduction programmes. There were three million women sex workers in Russia, where sex work was illegal. The Committee was asked to recommend to the State party to decriminalize sex work. Wide-spread cases of homophobic hate crimes and hate speech were not investigated effectively.

ADC Memorial called for stopping discrimination of women in the labour sphere, where the list of prohibited occupations should be revoked, and asked that the State party adopt the law on State guarantees of equal rights for men and women. A law clearly prohibiting the detention of pregnant women should be adopted, while the political persecution of women activists of democratic movements should be ended.

A speaker for the Centre for Civil Liberties stated that in Crimea, occupation by the Russian Federation had led to a clear violation of women rights. Programmes protecting women against domestic violence had to come to a halt. Crimean Tatar women, HIV-positive women and those belonging to congregations other than the Russian Orthodox Church were all discriminated against. The Russian Federation used the tactic of “live shields of women and children”.

Russian Justice Initiative informed that women in the North Caucasus lived under extremely patriarchal norms, and were sometimes victims of honour killings. Forced marriages remained common, and polygamy, while illegal, was still present. In Dagestan, female genital mutilation was promoted by popular publications.

A representative for the Centre for Reproductive Rights highlighted that almost 100 non-governmental organizations had had to cease operations following the adoption of the “foreign agents law”. High level State officials repeatedly promoted what they called “traditional values”, advocating stereotypical gender roles for women and men. Recently, policy measures had been adopted that sought to restrict women’s ability to access legal abortions. Many women were prevented from accessing modern contraceptives.


Portuguese Platform for the Rights of Women stated that human rights had become more and more subordinated to fiscal discipline, which had affected women more than men: one in four women in Portugal lived below the poverty line. Full economic independence of women was still not a reality in Portugal, while the employment rate among Roma women was worrisomely low.

A speaker from the Association for Research, Cooperation and Development said that the number of women Members of Parliament stood at only one-third. Separate judicial prosecution of marital rape from domestic violence crimes was not usual. There were still gaps for some types of sexual crimes against women, such as sexual violence on the Internet and sexual harassment.

Portuguese Association for Women’s Rights in Pregnancy and Childbirth said that sexual education, while compulsory in Portugal since 2009, was not comprehensive and the cultural change was not promoted. Pregnant women reported facing forms of persuasion, manipulation and coercion from health professionals and a lack of respect for their birth preferences and wishes. Alterations in the law on the voluntary termination of pregnancy represented a major setback in women’s right to choose.

A representative of Intervencao Lesbica, Gay, Bisexual e Transgenero said that there was an absolute void of medical guidance on procedures regarding intersex people. The Portuguese Medical Association held a gatekeeping role in analysing each trans person’s eligibility to access genital surgeries, in clear contravention of existing international guidelines in that area.


Women NGO Secretariat of Liberia stated that many gains had been made in enhancing women’s empowerment and political rights since 2006. The Ebola epidemic in 2014 had led to an increase in maternal mortality, and many female survivors continued to lack access to healthcare services and suffered from various medical conditions. The State party should be asked to explain clearly how it was dealing with the Ebola epidemic and its consequences on women.

A speaker from Voice of the Voiceless said that the Liberian 1986 Constitution was currently undergoing a review process, but out of the 23 recurring views, only six were gender-specific. The age of marriage for girls ought to be 18, and customary and religious reasons should not be used to lower that age of consent. The Constitution should also guarantee the inheritance rights of women. The State party should be recommended to ensure the speedy enactment of the Domestic Violence Act. The Committee was asked to request the State party to present its plan or timelines for the enactment of the Gender Equity Act.


Women’s Lobby of Slovenia explained that its shadow report had been jointly prepared by seven non-governmental organizations, one institute and two working groups’ reports. A complete lack of understanding of the concept and importance of equality between women and men was persistent in political and public authorities. The austerity measures were mostly gender blind but not gender neutral; single mothers and elderly women were particularly affected. The State party should be requested to implement targeted measures to improve the lives of the most vulnerable groups.

A representative of the Association SOS Helpline for Women Victims of Violence stated that in Slovenia there was poor access to different kinds of support to victims. There were no regulations on who could provide psychosocial support and how. The State did not financially support prevention programmes. The training of professional workers was still insufficient, in spite of the Committee’s 2008 recommendations. The Committee was asked to request the State party to provide systematic education to all employees dealing with victims of violence.

Questions by Committee Experts

Regarding Portugal, an Expert asked about the ways that civil society had participated in the preparation of the State party’s report. Another Expert inquired about the economic and other rights of women living in same-sex relationships in Portugal. A question was also asked about changes in child-custody rules. Had the policy of austerity affected the area of education, another Expert inquired. More information was sought on the discrimination of women of African descent. Another Expert asked what the most appropriate age would be for various levels of sex education.

On Slovenia, an Expert asked the civil society representatives to elaborate on the difference between “gender blindness” and “gender neutrality”. What was expected for the coming years when it came to the austerity policies? What could be done to influence the policies of the Government and the Parliament?

An Expert inquired if there had been consultations between the State and non-governmental organizations regarding the post-Ebola recovery plan in Liberia. Any clarification on the legal-aid system in Liberia would also be welcome.

Turning to the situation in the Crimea, could the non-governmental organization provide more information on the teachers who had reportedly been pushed out?

Regarding the Russian Federation, a clarification was sought regarding access to HIV-preventive measures for drug users and sex workers. After a number of non-governmental organizations had lost cases in Russian courts over the “foreign agents law”, had any of those cases been taken further to the European Court of Human Rights?

Replies by the Non-governmental Organizations

It was explained that after the annexation of Crimea, there had been a drastic shortage of teachers of the Ukrainian language and literature, whose hours had been cut. Many of them had had to switch to being teachers of Russian instead.

All HIV-prevention programmes in the Russian Federation were currently being implemented only with the help of international organizations. Drug users were clearly discriminated against in that regard. More than 30 organizations classified as foreign agents had brought their cases to the European Court of Human Rights, a civil sector representative informed. They had never managed to win a case within the Russian Federation.

On Portugal, it was clarified that the State party’s report had been prepared by the Human Rights Commission, which had held a meeting with a number of non-governmental organizations. There was a feeling that the overall process had been somewhat unclear. Absolutely no financial support had been provided to the non-governmental organizations for preparing a shadow report. Education at all levels had been heavily affected by the austerity measures; in some places, pupils from different classes had been placed into a class with the same teacher; some university students had had to drop out because they could not afford continuing their studies.

Progressive policies in Portugal had suffered due to the austerity measures, and there was fear that this trend would continue. Abortion was now available only for a fee. The National Strategy for Roma Inclusion dated back to 2013 and had not yet been assessed. The Strategy did not have a gender perspective. The International Labour Organization Convention on Domestic Work had been ratified, but was not included in the domestic legislation. In Portugal, people had access to justice even if they could not afford a lawyer; however, women often did not know their rights. Domestic violence was not considered as an element when deciding who was responsible for children.

A representative of a Liberian non-governmental organization explained that there were two organizations in Monrovia that provided very limited legal aid services to rape survivors. Sometimes it was particularly difficult for the victims of rape living away from the capital to prove that they had indeed been raped, as they were asked to present their clothes stained with blood or sperm. Prior to the Ebola Recovery Plan, several non-governmental organizations had been consulted, but none since the Plan had been implemented. The issue of assessing treatments in the early stages of the outbreak had sometimes exposed women to sexual violence.

In Slovenia, there was a special law promoting the employment of more men and women under 30. Parental leave was not taken into consideration when the State provided private employers with subsidy for employing young people, which was why two-thirds of those positions had been offered to men. The austerity measures seemed set to continue. Already in September, civil society representatives had alerted the Government about the treatment of women asylum seekers at Slovenia’s borders. Women and children now had the priority in registration procedures, but more could be done.

Statement by the High Commissioner for Human Rights in the Russian Federation

A representative of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in the Russian Federation said that the Commissioner possessed the widest powers to protect human rights, including the protection of the rights of women. There had been no complaints lodged on discrimination or violence against women and the Commissioner defined the issue as heavily underreported. The Commissioner’s staff was trained to identify and investigate cases of discrimination and violence against women. The High Commissioner frequently held meetings with representatives of non-governmental organizations specializing in women’s rights protection, including the protection of women belonging to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. The Commissioner’s and regional ombudspersons’ staff would be trained on women’s rights, in cooperation with the Council of Europe and the United Nations.

Questions by Committee Experts

An Expert asked what the High Commissioner had done to push the State to adopt the laws on domestic violence and gender equality.

Did the High Commissioner see itself as having a pro-active role in implementing the Committee’s concluding observations?

How were the cases of multiple and intersectional discrimination addressed?

Replies by the High Commissioner for Human Rights in the Russian Federation

The representative of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in the Russian Federation said that pushing and promoting a progressive agenda was within the Commissioner’s mandate.

He explained that this was the first engagement of the Commissioner with a United Nations treaty body. As an ombudsperson, the Commissioner had received 54,000 complaints, but none had referred to violence against women, which was why the Commissioner believed the issue was under-reported.

To deal with multiple discrimination, the Commissioner in some cases went to the Constitutional Court, sometimes quite successfully.