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Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women considers reports of the Cook Islands

Committee on Elimination of Discrimination  
  against Women 

13 July 2018

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women today considered the combined second and third periodic reports of the Cook Islands on its implementation of the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Introducing the report, Tutonga Puapii Picknic Rattle, Speaker of the House, Parliament of the Cook Islands, said that the Cabinet had endorsed the National Policy on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, together with the five-year Strategic Plan of Action 2011-2016.  In order to the effectively implement this plan, taskforces on gender mainstreaming, leadership and decision-making, economic empowerment, climate change, and health and violence against women had been set up.  The Ministry of Health had released the Cook Islands Family Health and Safety Study Report in 2014, according to which nearly one in three partnered women had experienced physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner.  The Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Working Group, comprised of Government and civil society representatives, would provide coordination of services aimed at reducing the incidence and impact of sexual violence.  There was a growing concern about the apparent low level of reporting of sexual crimes and the low prosecution and conviction rates for such offences.

In the ensuing discussion, the Committee Experts commended the Cook Islands for a very robust cooperation with civil society in the preparation of the periodic report.  They noted the absence of the definition of discrimination against women in line with the Convention, and the low level of implementation of the National Policy on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment.  They further inquired about the role of mechanisms to enhance equality between women and men, temporary special measures, fight against stereotypical attitudes towards women, gender-sensitive media reporting, domestic violence, sex work and sex trafficking, women’s participation in the political and public sphere, citizenship, maternity leave, abortion, teenage pregnancies, sex education, access to sexual and reproductive healthcare, the situation of women living in the outer islands, access to employment and education, social welfare benefits, support for female entrepreneurship, recognition of same-sex partnerships, marital property, and the minimum age of marriage.

In her concluding remarks, Ms. Rattle noted that the dialogue was very educational, adding that there were some misunderstandings about the Convention in the country, which required further training.  

Louisa Chalal, Committee Vice-Chairperson, thanked the delegation for its open-mindedness and humility, noting that its replies had allowed the Committee to better understand the situation of women in the Cook Islands.  

The delegation of the Cook Islands consisted of representatives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the Ministry of the Foreign Affairs and Immigration.

All the documents relating to the Committee’s work, including reports submitted by States parties, can be found on the session’s webpage.  The webcast of the Committee’s public meetings will be available via the following link: http://webtv.un.org/meetings-events/.

The Committee will next meet in public on Friday, 20 July, at 4 p.m. to close its seventieth session.  

Report

The Committee is considering the combined second and third periodic reports of the Cook Islands (CEDAW/C/COK/2-3).

Presentation of the Report

TUTONGA PUAPII PICKINIC RATTLE, Speaker of the House, Parliament of the Cook Islands, reminded that in April 2018, following the general elections, a new Government had been formed, with one female minister.  The Cabinet had endorsed the National Policy on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, together with the five-year Strategic Plan of Action 2011-2016.  In order to effectively implement the plan of action, taskforces on gender mainstreaming, leadership and decision-making, economic empowerment, climate change, and health and violence against women had been set up.  The Ministry of Health had released the Cook Islands Family Health and Safety Study Report in 2014, according to which nearly one in three partnered women had experienced physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner.  In light of the above, the Crown Law officials had conducted training for law enforcement officers on the implementation of police safety orders.  Since 2013, the women-focused legal aid programme had been providing legal advice and advocacy for survivors, but it did not extend to bringing claims of discrimination or enforcing their rights to equality.  The authorities recognized that a multi-sectoral approach to ensuring the effectiveness of that programme was essential.  The Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Working Group, comprised of Government and civil society representatives, would provide the coordination of services aimed at reducing the incidence and impact of sexual violence.  There was a growing concern about the apparent low level of reporting of sexual crimes, and the low prosecution and conviction rates for such offences.  

In order to promote the advancement of women and girls with disabilities, the Government had developed the five-year Strategic Plan of Action (2018-2022) of the Cook Islands Women and Girls with the Disabilities Organisation.  A notable progress had been made in the implementation of the Government-paid maternity leave entitlement to protect female employees in the private sector.  In 2015, Parliament had organized the first women’s mock parliament to promote and encourage women, especially young women, to increase their awareness of the Constitution and parliamentary processes.  An additional measure in that area was the recent launch of the Cook Islands Women Parliamentarians Caucus.  The country had seen an increase in women’s representation at the higher ministerial level to 46 per cent.  Turning to challenges, Ms. Rattle referred to the need to increase the participation and representation of women in Parliament and the Government, the participation of women with disabilities, sexual and reproductive health and rights, and accessibility of services to rural women.  

Questions from the Experts

Experts commended the Cook Islands authorities for a very robust cooperation with civil society in the writing of the periodic report.  What were the challenges that prevented the inclusion of the Convention’s definition of discrimination against women into national legislation?  Referring to the Committee’s General Comment No. 9 on statistical data on the situation of women, Experts inquired how the State party would collect such data.

What were the major obstacles to the implementation of the National Policy on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment?  How were the Sustainable Development Goals integrated in the national development plan to further strengthen the rights of women?  Human rights were the responsibility of the Ombudsman’s Office, which was not a human rights specialized agency.  When would the State party establish an A status national human rights institution?

What was the timeline for the adoption of the remaining CEDAW articles?  What was the strategy for involving women in the United Nations Overall Strategy for Women, Peace and Security?

Responses by the Delegation

TUTONGA PUAPII PICKINIC RATTLE, Speaker of the House, Parliament of the Cook Islands, explained that the United Nations conventions did not have the force of law in the Cook Islands, unless they were incorporated into the national legislation, and added that, nevertheless, national courts referred to the United Nations conventions even before their ratification.  At the moment, there was no directive to amend the Constitution to include the articles of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, she said, adding that the Crimes Bill and the Marriage Act were currently being rewieved.  

One of the major obstacles to the implementation of the National Policy on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment was staff turnover and the lack of understanding among ministries on integrating gender issues.

The National Sustainable Development Plan was a reflection of the improvement of the country’s planning and policies, which also encouraged the collection of disaggregated data.  The Sustainable Development Goal No. 5 on gender equality and empowerment of women and girls was a wide goal to advance human rights in the Cook Islands.  The authorities gathered six disaggregated types of data, and most ministries collected their own data and carried out relevant analysis.

The Ombudsman’s Office still received complaints submitted by women, but relevant statistics were not available.  The authorities had conducted a study in 2017 on the establishment of a national human rights institution.  A branch of the Ombudsman’s Office would be set up to specifically deal with human rights by the end of 2018.

Questions by the Experts

The Cook Islands had not ratified a surprising number of international human rights conventions, including the two International Covenants.  What were the reasons behind that?  Were there plans to extend legal aid to claims of discrimination and inequality?  Was legal aid available for appeals relating to property disputes?  

Was there a plan to amend the Constitution to guarantee economic, social and cultural rights?  

Replies by the Delegation

The process of signing and ratifying international conventions took a long time because the Government wanted to do it properly, the delegation noted.  Every time a convention was signed, it took several years to examine all national laws and to conduct consultations with traditional leaders.  

At the moment, there was no directive to change the Constitution because it recognized human rights of individuals in any area, explained the head of the delegation.  However, any amendments to individual laws would include relevant rights in line with the Convention.  

Questions by the Experts

An Expert commended the State party’s initiatives to set up a number of mechanisms and the machinery to enhance equality between women and men, non-discrimination on the basis of sex, and to prevent and eradicate violence as a manifestation of gender inequality and discrimination.  Did the Social Policy and Services Division have the structure, authority and resources to be effective; and what was its decision-making capacity in the Government structure?  Could the delegation explain the role of the Senior Advisor for Gender Development and the Gender and Programme Research Officer?  

Was the staff sufficiently equipped to undertake a gender analysis of the various Government and non-government sectors in order to prescribe the most effective programmes for implementation and improvement?  What were the functions of the National Steering Committee and the National Council of Women?

Why was the implementation of the National Policy on Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women so low and slow?  What were the four areas that had not been advanced?  What was the Government’s assessment of its partnership with civil society to implement the National Policy?  How was media involved to promote strategies of the National Policy?  

Replies by the Delegation

The Ministry of Internal Affairs was currently responsible for women’s affairs, youth and social welfare policies, the delegation explained, adding that for a country as small as the Cook Islands, it was difficult to have separate ministries for each of those portfolios.  There was A low turnover in the department of women’s affairs at the Ministry of Internal Affairs.  Due to the size of the country, public servants were not specialized in many of the areas.

The Government supported civil society financially and in terms of capacity-building.  Family and community held very strong values in the Cook Islands, and thus public servants also took ownership of community initiatives.  

The National Policy on Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women contained many plans and 17 actions.  However, many of them could not be implemented due to staff turnover.  The authorities were now identifying areas that were most immediate priorities, said a delegate, noting that the Government tried to identify key non-government organizations in order to implement the National Policy.  The biggest challenge was to train newly arrived ministry and support staff, and to identify focal points in each ministry.  The National Steering Committee’s role was to be the voice of women’s organizations.  Health, climate change, leadership and decision-making, and violence against women were the four areas of the National Policy had not been advanced.  As the Government had 13 heads of ministries, it was not practical for them to hold separate meetings on each area.

Questions by the Experts

Experts observed that it seemed that the Cook Islands viewed temporary special measures only in relation to political participation, and that there were currently no such measures to advance women’s rights and opportunities.  Would the State party use temporary special measures to bridge the gap between academic success of women and girls and their much lower situation in employment?  

Were there other fields in which temporary special measures could accelerate the reaching of substantive equality between women and men, for example in the field of health or economic development, or in overcoming the difficulties women in the outer islands faced?

One Expert observed that some of the measures cited by the State party with respect to healthcare could not be considered as temporary special measures; they were rather long-term measures.  An example of a temporary special measure would be hiring a gender statistician.  

Replies by the Delegation 

TUTONGA PUAPII PICKINIC RATTLE, Speaker of the House, Parliament of the Cook Islands, said that the Government probably did not understand temporary special measures properly.  Boys were lagging behind girls in terms of education.  In terms of healthcare, the authorities provided mammography examination to all women, and there were special nurses on each island taking care of households.  Specialist doctors also visited islands to provide free-of-charge services.  

Questions by the Experts

Committee Experts asked the delegation to provide detailed information on specific strategies to fight stereotypical attitudes that were discriminatory against women.  Turning to sexist views in the media industry, they inquired about the training on gender-sensitive reporting and developing of a gender-sensitive code of conduct for the media.  What was the composition of the Media Council, did it consider gender-related issues, and was it independent?  Did the State party plan to promote the engagement of men and boys in raising awareness of the extent of violence against women?

Turning to violence against women, Experts noted that domestic violence was still considered a private affair in the Cook Islands.  Reporting was low for domestic violence, and even lower for sexual violence.  How did the State party intend to approach that problem and would it consider adopting a standalone law on gender-based violence?  The Family Protection and Support Act in itself was not gender-specific.  What was the number of shelters for victims and what were their conditions?  Had any cases of gender-based violence been considered by courts?  

The Crimes Act of 1969 criminalized sex work and running of brothels.  Would sex work be decriminalized?  There was a lack of information on sex tourism and sex trafficking.  Did the State party see a value in implementing measures to prevent sex tourism?  Did the authorities receive complaints from women in the sex industry who faced violence and exploitation?  Would any exit programmes be implemented for women in prostitution?  

Replies by the Delegation

Responding to Experts’ question about gender-sensitive media reporting, the delegation said that the Government worked with the media to promote women’s health issues and awareness of domestic violence.  The Media Council was made up of a judicial representative and of representatives of the media outlets in the country.

With respect to domestic violence, women tended not to report such violence because of the small size of their communities.  There were no established shelters for women victims of violence in the Cook Islands.  Non-governmental organizations took on the role of service providers to such women.  The Working Group on Sexual and Gender-Based Violence was working on coming up with a comprehensive strategy to address gender-based violence, whereas sexual gender-based violence and female genital mutilation were criminalized in the Crimes Act Bill of 2017.

The Family Protection and Support Act addressed the low reporting of cases of violence against women by instituting complaints that women could submit without going through a lawyer.  Community activities in churches gathered women and men where they could discuss how to treat each other with dignity and respect.  

No data were available on sex trafficking.  The authorities were aware that, with increasing tourism, the demands for sex tourism would also increase.

TUTONGA PUAPII PICKINIC RATTLE, Speaker of the House, Parliament of the Cook Islands, appreciated the opportunity to learn from the Experts, noting that the authorities in the Cook Islands sometimes did not properly understand the provisions of the Convention.  People in the country were showing signs of changing mentalities, for example, with respect to domestic violence.  Establishing shelters for women victims of violence had been discussed for years.  As for a standalone law on gender-based violence, Ms. Rattle said that various avenues could be explored to seek the support of Parliament.  

Questions by the Experts 

Turning to women’s participation in the political and public sphere, Expert noticed stark under-representation and the low number of elected women.  What was the current representation of women in the Parliament and the current coalition Government?  What measures had the State party taken to increase women’s representation in the outer islands and in senior management positions?  How did the State party intend to increase women’s representation in the judiciary?  

Would the authorities take measures to ensure gender balance in the selection of members in Government boards, and in the recruitment of senior management positions in the Government?  What measures had been taken by the electoral management body to ensure that principles of gender equality were part of the civic engagement messages?

The New Zealand Citizenship Act, which applied in the Cook Islands, conferred equal rights to women and men.  Was that also true in the transmission of nationality?  Could migrant women obtain the nationality with the same ease and rights as men?  

Replies by the Delegation

TUTONGA PUAPII PICKINIC RATTLE, Speaker of the House, Parliament of the Cook Islands, explained that the outer islands had their own Government Act, which did not mention any quota for women or men.  Review of the Electoral Act was in the pipeline.  There were four female members of Parliament, including the Speaker, who was an appointed position.  The term of office was four years, said the Speaker, noting that this represented enough time to look at the use of temporary special measures to increase women’s representation in the Government.  

Many women had stood independently, for the first time, in the recent general elections, but not many had been elected.  Many women who stood for the elections had participated in the mock parliamentary exercise.  There were currently three women in the opposition, and one woman in the main party, who was in charge of important portfolios of the Minister of Health, the Minister of Parliamentary Services, and the Minister of Justice.  The system of traditional chieftainship, the House of Ariki, the Speaker said, was dominated by women, and it should have influenced the formal politics of the country, in Parliament and leadership in politics, but that had not happened.
 
New Zealand and the Cook Islands had a common citizenship and a common currency.  All Cook Islanders were New Zealanders, but not all New Zealanders were Cook Islanders due to the notion of blood and the Mâori ancestry.  Only Cook Islanders had the right to land.  The attribution and transmission of the Cook Island nationality did not discriminate between women and men.  

Questions by the Experts

Had the State party made plans to strengthen data collection and analysis of trends in terms of access to education?  How many children and adolescents benefited from the inclusive education policy, and how many were not able to access inclusive education?  How did the authorities ensure a State policy on sexuality education?  Experts further inquired about the success of the policies that prevented school dropout due to teenage pregnancies.  Were there any specific career paths in science and technology open to girls?

Referring to the review of the law to increase the paid maternity leave from six to twelve weeks in both the private and public sector, Experts urged the State party to move that process expeditiously.  Who were constituencies that resisted the extension of the maternity leave and how did the Government engage with them?  Did the State party consider moving towards a generalized certification of pregnancy?

In the current law there was no reference to breastfeeding breaks.  Did the authorities consider including those references, in line with the standards of the International Labour Organization, as well as increasing paternity leave?  What was access to affordable child care?  Had the State party considered the impact of women’s unpaid work on pensions and how the corporate sector was integrated in the pension schemes?  The delegation was further asked about the action taken to reduce the gender pay gap, the number of complaints of sexual harassment at workplace, and the situation of female migrant workers.

LOUISA CHALAL, Committee Vice-Chairperson, inquired about access to sexual and reproductive healthcare, and, noting with concern that ten to 15 per cent of girls under 19 fell pregnant, inquired after measures in place in schools to address sexual education of adolescents.  Would the Cook Islands remove the parental consent to access to contraceptives for adolescents?  

What were the intentions concerning the financing of the programmes to extend access to sexual and reproductive health service to all women across the country, and to decriminalize abortion?

Replies by the Delegation

The delegation explained that the National Sustainable Development Plan aimed at providing quality education for all, increasing of early education enrolment, improving secondary school achievement, and reducing illiteracy.  All schools had teachers and principals that had received training on that curriculum.  Learning programmes for sexual education reflected the Cook Islands culture, identity and needs, the delegate said.  Some schools had only 15 students, which meant that they did not have a wide choice of study programmes.  Under the Education Act of 2015, there was no exclusion of girls from schools, and teenage pregnancies did not lead to school dropout.

The Disability Policy provided for an inclusive education of children with disabilities and no such child fell through the cracks due to the small size of their communities.  Retention results had shown that girls remained in school a lot longer than boys.  Many girls educated abroad had returned to the Cook Islands.  Nevertheless, there were also those who decided to work in New Zealand because of higher salaries.

The slow process of the review of the law to increase the paid maternity leave was due to capacity constraints as the Cook Islands was currently focused on ratifying various conventions of the International Labour Organization.  While there was no legal reference to breastfeeding, it was not unusual for mothers to come to work a little bit later and to leave earlier, and taking a breastfeeding break was not illegal.  Working environment was very family-friendly.  Childcare was very expensive in the Cook Islands so most people would rely on their families.  

Turning to the recruitment policies, the private sector had not included consideration of gender issues, while the public sector had, the delegation informed.  Sexual harassment at workplace was criminalized.  The Cook Islands had seen an exponential rise in the number of migrant workers due to the booming tourism industry.  They mostly worked in low-paid jobs and were neglected.  The new legislation on immigration would, thus, consider the issue of fairness.

TUTONGA PUAPII PICKINIC RATTLE, Speaker of the House, Parliament of the Cook Islands, said that non-governmental organizations conducted education on contraceptives and ran a clinic which offered sexual and reproductive health services.  At schools, sex education was integrated in physical education classes.  Unplanned pregnancies were taken care of within the family environment.  Women in the outer islands could access specialized nurses.  

Abortion was currently illegal in the Cook Islands, but the draft Crimes Bill would decriminalize abortion up to 12 weeks and upon consultation with medical specialists.  The Crimes Bill would be adopted once it passed consultation with northern islands, which should be by the end of 2018.  

Suicide was of a great concern.  In 2017, the Parliament had engaged with the community to openly discuss mental health problems, including suicide.  Cook Islanders also had access to the New Zealand healthcare, and as the travel from the Cook Islands to New Zealand was cheaper than the travel within the Cook Islands, many patients went to New Zealand to receive health services.

Follow-up Questions by the Experts

What was not functioning well in education, in particular when it came to sex education and managing stereotypes?

Was women’s unpaid care work accounted for in the country’s economic policies?  Had the State party looked at the shared responsibility of men and women in the upbringing of children?  What was the situation of parental leave of parents who lived in a de facto union?

LOUISA CHALAL, Committee Vice-Chairperson, asked whether the State party considered prohibiting sterilization of women with disabilities without their prior consent.

Replies by the Delegation

Speaking of the country’s challenges in the education system, the delegation cited absenteeism.  Many foreigners worked as domestic workers, offering thus a childcare option for working mothers.  The National Council of Women had called for the extension of the maternity leave from six to twelve weeks.  The Government had committed to ratifying eight fundamental conventions of the International Labour Organization as a start.

The Family Protection and Support Act recognized de facto relationships, which meant that paternal leave for such couples was also recognized.  In addition, women with disabilities were entitled to give their consent to sterilization.

Questions by the Experts  

Experts inquired about the sustainability of family benefits, and about support for female entrepreneurship.  However, the latter was only provided by civil society.  Would the State party enact policies to help women living in the outer islands access entrepreneurial support?  Who was tasked to promote the participation in sport by women?

Women living in the outer islands had limited access to public services.  Transportation to and from islands was very difficult and expensive.  What specific measures was the Government planning to improve the fundamental services for them, including access to water?  

Turning to women with disabilities, Experts inquired about their access to education and employment opportunities.  Were women actively involved in the design of action plans on climate change and disaster risk management?

Replies by the Delegation

The new Government supported the current generous social welfare benefits for parents and the elderly, and planned to increase them.  It was currently assessing the sustainability of the social welfare system.

Funding from the New Zealand Government intended to encourage both girls and boys into netball and rugby.  There were multiple sport events and opportunities throughout the year.  The State had committed to providing transport subsidies to encourage movement to and from the outer islands.  

The consultative process for the Second Joint National Action Plan on Climate Change was very wide and aimed to include everyone in view of the vulnerability of some islands.  One of the programmes was devoted to women and girls in farming and agriculture.

Persons with disabilities were included in events such as annual sub-regional sport events and the bi-annual youth conferences.  Specialized centres on the islands provided persons with disabilities with practical life skills, while various services were provided by several non-governmental organizations.

As for the support for women in the outer islands, the Government had signed a memorandum of understanding with the National Council of Women to buy off the handicraft products of women from the outer islands and sell them on the main island.  Another memorandum of understanding addressed domestic violence.  As for the access to water in the outer islands, each household had a water tank.  

The Chamber of Commerce had organized mentoring programmes for any person wishing to develop entrepreneurship skills.

Questions by the Experts

Turning to family matters, Experts inquired about the minimum age of marriage, full consent of the individual to marry, dissolution of marriage and de facto relationships, marital property after divorce, child care after divorce, and same-sex partnerships.  

What were the next steps to accelerate full enforcement of the Family Protection and Support Act?  What happened to customary lands and titles after divorce?  When would the Marriage Amendment Bill be adopted?  What was the role of religious leaders?  

Was discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity criminalized?  

Replies by the Delegation

TUTONGA PUAPII PICKINIC RATTLE, Speaker of the House, Parliament of the Cook Islands, reiterated that the Government was currently not ready to amend the Constitution to incorporate all articles of the Convention, but it was ready to include those articles in separate laws.  The age of marriage was 18 for boys and 16 for girls, but the Government was currently reviewing relevant legislation.  

As for the full implementation of the Family Protection and Support Act, the delegation explained that the funding was limited.  Customary land and titles could only belong to Cook Islanders, and there was absolute equality of women and men in that regard.  

Same-sex partnerships and homosexuality were still illegal in the Cook Islands according to the Crimes Act, even though civil society was working in relaxing the law.  It was a very sensitive topic, but the Government would continue raising awareness about it.  Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons were not discriminated against.  The Marriage Amendment Bill had not come to the Parliament.  

Concluding Remarks

TUTONGA PUAPII PICKINIC RATTLE, Speaker of the House, Parliament of the Cook Islands, noted that the dialogue was very educational, adding that there were some misunderstandings about the Convention in the country, which required further training.  Ms. Rattle said that the delegation would transmit the content of the dialogue to the Government and the prime minister.

LOUISA CHALAL, Committee Vice-Chairperson, thanked the delegation for its open-mindedness and humility, noting that its replies allowed the Committee to better understand the situation of women in the Cook Islands.  Ms. Chalal reminded that the Committee would select a number of recommendations for immediate follow-up.
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