The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women today considered the second periodic report of Syria on its implementation of the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
Presenting the reports, Kinda Al-Shammat, Minister of Social Affairs of Syria, said that important progress had been achieved in improving the health and education of women, their employment and political participation. Since the outbreak of the war in March 2011, the situation in the country had drastically changed, with more than six million Syrians internally displaced. Measures were in place to protect women from violence, provide legal and medical assistance, and compensate and assist victims of violence committed by terrorist groups who had a limited view of women and perpetrated all forms of violence against them. It was hard to assess the extent of the sexual violence in the country because many victims remained silent, and also because there were also a number of false accusations made for political reasons. The National Plan on the Role of Syrian Women in Peace and National Reconciliation had been adopted and a group of 15 women were in charge of its implementation.
Committee Experts said the conflict in Syria continued to exact a high human toll and war crimes and crimes against humanity continued and occurred in a pervasive climate of impunity. They stressed the need for a frank dialogue in order to be constructive and improve the situation of women. What action was the Government taking to address the grave violations of human rights committed by its forces, including sexual violence and torture in places of detention, official and unofficial, and why did the Government still refuse to abolish the legal provision that granted immunity from prosecution to State officials? Women in Syria needed the Convention now more than ever, particularly in the light of the use of rape as a weapon of war and the various forms of violence and crimes that they suffered. Experts also raised a number of other issues of concern, including the growing problem of trafficking in persons and early and child marriages, and the access to justice for women and girls, particularly for victims of violence against women.
The delegation of Syria included representatives of the Ministry of Social Affairs, Syrian Commission for Family Affairs, General Women Union, Syrian Women Peace Initiative, Ministry of Justice, Director of Follow-up Office in the Cabinet, and the Permanent Mission of Syria to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
Ms. Al-Shammat, in closing remarks, said that Syria could not provide protection for women without the commitment of everyone to combat terrorism. Syria called on countries in the region and beyond to stop providing money and arms to the terrorists.
Nicole Ameline, Committee Chairperson, in her concluding remarks said that the conflict had tragically exacerbated the situation of women, and stressed that the conflict was not the only explanation for this situation.
The Committee will reconvene on Monday, 7 July at 10 a.m. when it is scheduled to hold a half-day general discussion on girls' and women's right to education. In the afternoon, the Committee will meet in public with non-governmental organizations and national human rights institutions with respect to Georgia, Lithuania, Swaziland and the Central African Republic, whose reports will be considered next week.
The second periodic report of Syria can be read here: CEDAW/C/SYR/2.
Presentation of the Report
KINDA AL-SHAMMAT, Minister of Social Affairs of Syria, introducing the report said that a number of articles in the new Constitution of 2012 guaranteed the protection of women and their equality with men. Important progress had been achieved in improving the health and education of women, their employment and political participation. The report before the Committee covered the period between 2007 and 2011, and focused on what had been implemented by the relevant authorities. Since the outbreak of the war in March 2011, the situation in the country had drastically changed, and over six million Syrians were internally displaced. Syria was carrying out efforts to protect women from violence, particularly in the current context; the armed terrorist groups that operated in Syria had a limited view of women, stripped them of their dignity and perpetrated all forms of violence against them, including rape and abduction. The terrorist groups were connected to Al-Qaeda and enjoyed the support of a number of countries in the region and beyond. Victims of violence against women and girls could seek shelter and assistance in centres run by the Ministry of Social Affairs; compensation had been provided to victims of violence perpetrated by terrorists, together with other forms of assistance such as pensions and income generation activities. A number of measures had been taken to integrate gender in programmes and women had the right to be nominated to all political and public posts: 30 women were members of the National Assembly, three of the Ministers were women, and women held the posts of Vice-President and the head of the Supreme Committee for Relief. The National Plan on the Role of Syrian Women in Peace and National Reconciliation had been adopted and a group of 15 women were in charge of its implementation.
The amendment of the school curricula had been implemented with a view to raise awareness about the rights of women and so change gender stereotypes and stomp out traditional practices. Campaigns to eradicate illiteracy had been put in place and currently seven governorates in Syria were free from illiteracy. Syria intended to progressively repeal the article of the Penal Code related to rape and the authorities were documenting the cases of violence against women perpetrated by terrorists with a view to punish the perpetrators. Victims of sexual violence committed by terrorists who promoted the so-called Jihad sex received shelter and assistance through centres run by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health. It was hard to assess the extent of the sexual violence in the country because many victims remained silent, and also because there were false accusations being made for political reasons. It was expected that the law on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) would be adopted within weeks and would provide NGOs with financial and administrative independence. Civil society played a major role in extending services to citizens, particularly where terrorist groups were present, and they also played a crucial role in monitoring violence against women and children and extending assistance to victims. The unilateral unjust economic sanctions had a negative impact on the lives of women and children in Syria, particularly concerning the eradication of poverty projects, education for girls, and the health sector. The occupation of the Syrian Golan by Israel represented a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law, international human rights law and relevant resolutions of the General Assembly and the United Nations Security Council.
Questions from the Experts
NICOLE AMELINE, Committee Chairperson, recalled that this meeting provided an exceptional occasion for the Committee to lend its voice in support of the many women and children victims of the prolonged armed conflict and violations of human rights. The Committee hoped that this dialogue would be conducted in a frank and constructive spirit and that its outcome would encourage all those who were struggling for peace and the women in Syria who sought protection of their rights and who must be associated with the negotiations.
The destruction, migration and suffering of civilians in Syria went beyond any imagination and this armed conflict must come to an end; humanitarian assistance must be provided to all civilians without any distinction and civilians must enjoy protection. Women must play a prominent role in peace negotiations and national reconciliation processes.
The conflict in Syria continued to exact a high human toll and war crimes and crimes against humanity continued and occurred in a pervasive climate of impunity. If this dialogue was to be constructive and change the situation of women in Syria, as stated by the head of delegation during her opening statement, it also had to be frank. What would be done with the Committee's recommendations and concluding observations that would be issued following this dialogue; would they meet the same fate like those issued by the Human Rights Council, the Committee against Torture and the Universal Periodic Review? The Committee had information from many sources about sexual violence against women and girls committed by Government forces and their associated militias, and sexual violence and torture committed by Syrian security forces in places of detention. What action was the Government taking to address those grave violations of human rights and implement the recommendations by the international Commission of Inquiry? If the Government of Syria was as blameless as stated by the delegation, why then had the Government of Syria continued to reject since 2011 to abolish the law 14/69 and abolish provisions that granted immunity from prosecution to state officials?
Another Expert stressed that the improvement of the situation of women in Syria and the constructive nature of the dialogue today was in the hands of the delegation. Women in Syria needed the Convention now more then ever, particularly in the light of the use of rape as a weapon of war, the use of women in the battlefield and other crimes. What was the current legal force of the Convention in the country and what was the status of the reservations? With regard to the constitutional framework, the Expert asked about the elaboration of the law that would fully prohibit discrimination as defined in Article 1 of the Convention. The Expert agreed that documenting cases of sexual violence was extremely important and asked the delegation to provide further information on the number of cases documented and compensation provided to the victims.
Another Expert asked the delegation about the gender machinery, the plans to upgrade the mandate, authority and resources of the National Commission on Family to address issues concerning women, and the strategy to address the impact of the crisis on women.
In follow-up questions, Experts stressed that there were unofficial places of detention in the country that even the International Committee of the Red Cross was unable to visit. The Committee wanted to know the status of implementation of the Universal Periodic Review recommendations that Syria had accepted, including on torture, sexual violence in places of detention, the situation of human rights defenders and impunity enjoyed by State officials. What was stopping the Government from issuing an order prohibiting sexual violence and holding the perpetrators accountable?
Recalling the General Recommendation N°30 on women in conflict and post-conflict situations, the Committee stressed the responsibility of the Government to fully implement it and protect women from violence from State and non-State actors. What preventive measures were being taken against forced displacement and was Syria willing to accept the international organizations and international non-governmental organizations in the country to assist with durable solutions for the millions of internally displaced persons?
Responses by the Delegation
Syria provided services to all its citizens regardless of whether they supported the Government and it was committed to the active participation of women in peace negotiations. The delegation reiterated the commitment of the Government to incorporate the legitimate popular movement of April 2011, and stressed that since 2012, the situation in the country had changed and the scale of the catastrophe was astounding.
The 2012 Constitution gave the Government a period of three years to bring all the laws in line with its provisions; the Government was currently examining the Ministry of Justice recommendations concerning the removal of discriminatory provisions from the law. In terms of the steps following this dialogue, the Government would continue to work with the Committee and its legal sector would be addressing issues such as rape and violence. The delegation stressed that there were no rapes perpetrated against female prisoners or victims of violence in shelters. The Ministry for Social Welfare was working with the United Nations Development Programme to evaluate the impact of the crisis on women.
On rape carried out by security forces in prisons, the Government had been made aware of several cases; the head of delegation said that she had visited some of the detention centres herself and assured the Committee that there were no women there. A member of the delegation further assured the Committee that women in the detention centres enjoyed adequate health care and that detainees were released if no charges were bought against them. The United Nations worked with groups of women and children in the country, but it was important to say that they expressed only one point of view, stressed the delegation. The Government had set up the Committee of Syrian Women on Peace and Reconciliation which also included members of the opposition groups; it aimed to establish the truth in a transparent manner. Syrian women were represented in all reconciliation committees and the vision was for Syrian women to guide the process towards peace. All those who had committed crimes against the Syrian people should be punished.
International organizations were complaining about obstacles to the delivery of humanitarian assistance in the country, said the head of delegation and stressed that Syria had received only 25 per cent of the funding allocated to it. The head of delegation stressed the selectiveness of some donors and the need to increase humanitarian assistance to the millions of displaced persons, most of whom were women and children. The survey conducted by the Government in the stable areas of the country showed the figure of 6.2 million displaced people last month. Most of the humanitarian assistance convoys had been stolen by the armed gangs.
Syria was committed to criminalizing rape in the ongoing legal amendments and the Ministry of Social Affairs required that rape be defined as a war crime and that there be no impunity. Concerning the alleged cases of detention of women and rape at check-points, the head of delegation said that checkpoints were composed of three of four soldiers and that there were no buildings in which rape could take place.
A movement to lift the reservations to the Convention had been very active before 2011 when the situation changed because of terrorist activities which caused violence and destruction. This had had a great impact on the family and the role of women, who faced instability, many had become heads of families, lost their children, or had been forced to flee. The National Association for Women, a popular movement under the umbrella of the Ministry of Social Affairs, tried to assist women to face this crisis and also to assist the Government to amend the laws.
Cases of violence and crimes against women and children committed in hot spots were being documented, and partnerships within the Government and with international organizations were being formed to combat discrimination against women. An electronic school had been established to ensure access to education for the millions of refugees throughout the region, and mobile educational camps were in place. The General Recommendation N°30 on women in conflict and post-conflict situations had been translated into Arabic.
The recommendations of the Geneva 2 Conference had been translated and were used as guidelines. There was no failure on the part of the Government on protecting the 6.2 million internally displaced persons, who enjoyed all services. In the areas under the control of ISIS and other armed groups, massive violations were taking place and hundreds of girls committed suicide because they had been forced into marriage by those armed elements. Women were adequately addressed in the peace process, said the head of delegation and stressed that the solution to the conflict must be purely Syrian. The Government was protecting the civilians and women were not subjected to rape; specific assistance was provided to women who used to live in areas controlled by armed groups.
Questions from the Experts
An Expert welcomed the 40 per cent representation of women in the Parliament and said that the massive participation of women in peace negotiations might change their course as well. In the light of numerous reports documenting violations of women's rights, what mechanisms were in place to ensure access to justice for women and girls, prevent gender-based violence and ensure adequate training of security forces?
Gender-based violence was an issue of concern in Syria even before the conflict, and in the conflict the situation had worsened, and the delegation was asked about any attempt to document the de facto situation of violence against women in Syria, and to identify the underlying gender stereotypes and negative cultural practices.
Trafficking in persons was a growing phenomenon and it heavily impacted women; Syria had ratified the Palermo Protocol in 2009 and the Committee asked about its implementation and about the prosecution of the perpetrators. Was there a way to protect young Syrian girls in Turkey, Jordan or elsewhere from various forms of exploitation, including early and child marriages or child labour? Early marriages accounted for over 50 per cent of all marriages, and this also had an impact on trafficking.
Responses by the Delegation
Syria had gone through many problems and the issue of communities had been exploited; the war had led to terrible tragedies and solutions could not be reached quickly. Luckily, the war in Syria did not have inter-communal dimensions and this situation must be avoided. The head of delegation said that the fighting was leading to trafficking in persons and said that foreign fighters were promised beautiful Syrian women if they came to fight. Mechanisms had been established to implement the law on trafficking in persons and there were centres to assist the victims.
Concerning marriages, it was the law of the country where marriages took place that prevailed; the Government tried to contact the authorities of those countries and to work with civil society organizations to monitor the situation of women in the camps and protect them. Because of the war, many children remained without the protection of their parents, while children of parents who had committed terrorist acts were sent to centres and the information about those children was secret and confidential.
With regard to access to justice for women and girls, the Government was examining, in cooperation with the United Nations Children's Fund, the possibility of establishing a system for victims of violence against women; training would be provided to judges and magistrates on the provisions of the Convention and decisions of the human rights committees. Concerning honour crimes, the delegation agreed that there was indeed a need to have in place a law to prohibit honour crimes and punish the perpetrators, and stressed that a gradual and step-by-step approach was needed. Syria was moving steadily and progressively towards the elimination of forced labour, early and forced marriages and the recruitment of children into the armed forces and wished to raise the age of marriage to 21 for both women and men.
Questions from the Experts
In a series of follow-up questions, Committee Experts asked why women victims of violence were discouraged from going to shelters, and inquired about the status of the adoption of the law against domestic violence, and the amnesty issued to imprisoned women. They also asked about air raids and the use of barrel bombs by the Government. The Committee Chairperson stressed that women were victims in Syria and underscored the need to come up with an emergency plan to save them; but they were also citizens who could take the destiny of the country in their hands and play a stronger role in peace negotiations.
Responses by the Delegation
Shelters for victims of domestic violence had been created to protect women and integrate them in society, but women preferred to go and stay with relatives rather than go to the shelters, also because they preferred to keep silent to preserve their reputation or avoid honour crimes. Even though some provisions of the Penal Code had been amended, there was still a need for a comprehensive law on domestic violence.
With regard to national research on women, the delegation spoke about a study on the impact of violence perpetrated by armed groups, especially in Homs, which documented over 300 cases and so established criminal responsibilities for those crimes. The media had played a major role in what was happening in Syria and it fabricated the news and enforced stereotypes; facts had been distorted and all this paved the way for the violence and crimes against women and children. A different study found that 90 per cent of the school curriculum was free from gender discrimination and stereotypes and that boys and girls had equal access to education. The national Syrian Army had been exposed to ferocious attacks and stereotyped as the enemy.
Several amnesty decrees covered 35,000 to 40,000 persons in various forms of detention from arrests to serving sentences, and not a single aspect of those decrees referred to amnesty for crimes against women; it was important to say that the majority of persons enjoying amnesty were women.
The head of delegation said that the only reason for which this war had not been settled yet was because the Government did not want to involve civilians and that the presence of women and children in areas of conflict prevented the army from taking decisive action.
The political empowerment of women was an important issue, particularly in the context of the ongoing war which was based on terrorism. It was impossible to talk about war and not talk about involving women in peace-building in different and non-traditional roles, including political ones. Syria recognized the important role of human rights defenders and was open to the return of those who had left the country and were now ready to contribute to their country.
Questions from the Experts
Nationality was a right and a link between a citizen and a State and it was a pre-requisite to the enjoyment of other rights; sectarian laws should not be accepted and this was the right time to demand the right for women to give nationality to their children.
All aspects of life in Syria had been affected by the crisis and especially education so the Committee enquired about measures taken to ensure that education continued and to revise the education system to address the imbalance between the sexes.
Disruption in health care services because of the conflict and the deterioration of the health of women was an issue of the greatest concern, as was the deliberate destruction of the health infrastructure. There were reports that Government forces deliberately restricted access to health institutions to the population living in the areas controlled by the opposition and that access to health care to women in detention was denied. Syria had a highly restrictive law on abortion, allowing it only if it posed a serious threat to a woman's life, which was an issue of concern in the light of persistent rape and sexual violence.
Responses by the Delegation
The delay of the law on nationality was for technical reasons, but it was important to remember that all laws in contravention of the 2012 Constitution would be amended before the end of 2015. Nationality was an issue for children born through sexual jihad, in camps, in hot spot regions, and children of unknown fathers. There must be a legal text that would guarantee equality. Kurds were part and parcel of Syrian society who, like all citizens, had rights and responsibilities, and had the right to identity papers.
Because of the unjust and illegal international sanctions, Syria did not have embassies in all countries, affecting thousands of Syrians abroad who were unable to renew their passports and enjoy the protection of their State. Sanctions were causing the suffering of the population and preventing Syria from returning to normal.
The Government was committed to universal enrolment and had in place measures to enrol children even if they were undocumented, also due to displacement. The E-school initiative would offer schooling to children abroad, while the National Centre for Curriculum Development was examining the curriculum on a regular basis. Further, there was an initiative to enable a certain number of girls who were married off early to pursue their higher studies. More than 3,000 schools had suffered damage and 980 were being used as shelters; in some areas teachers were being threatened by ISIS.
Regardless of the very difficult circumstances on the ground, the destruction of health infrastructure and the movement of health personnel, health care remained free of charge.
Questions from the Experts
Committee Experts asked about the status of the programmes for rural women and noting the disproportionate impact of the conflict on them, asked about additional measures to address their needs.
The delegation was asked to comment on the legal regulation allowing guardians to authorise girls as young as 13 to marry, which legitimized rape under the disguise of marriage. More information was requested on the situation of divorced women in refugee camps, impunity for rape, measures to prohibit honour crimes, and plans to adopt legislation prohibiting harmful traditional practices and early and child marriages.
Responses by the Delegation
Rural development programmes sponsored by the First Lady had been in place before the war, and they targeted women living in 232 of the poorest villages. Those programmes were being revised today as some of the rural areas were hot spots. The programmes aimed to alleviate the economic impact of the war on rural women, some of whom had taken over the breadwinner roles in their families. Abortion had never been criminalized in Syria and no one was forced to undergo abortion, even girls who were pregnant because of jihadist marriages.
KINDA AL-SHAMMAT, Minister of Social Affairs of Syria, said in closing remarks that the comments by the Experts reflected the desire of Syria to better the situation of women in the country. Syria could not provide protection for women without the commitment of everyone to combat terrorism, said Ms. Al-Shammat and called on countries in the region and beyond to stop providing money and arms to terrorists.
NICOLE AMELINE, Committee Chairperson, in her concluding remarks said that the Committee took due note about the commitments the delegation had taken. The conflict had tragically exacerbated the situation of women, but the conflict could not be considered as the only explanation for this situation.
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