CEDAW 52nd Session Country Reports: New Zealand and Samoa

By Mel O’Brien

I thought I would put NZ and Samoa in the same blog post, as they are two Pacific island countries, and so it is a useful comparison. The two states are in completely different situations, however, in many ways, with regards to advancement and equality of women.

The issue of women in politics continues to be a pressing issue for the Committee, and they have pushed this topic with every state whose report(s) has(ve) been considered. There was no love lost with either NZ or Samoa, however. In the case of NZ, there was, we repeatedly heard, "no appetite" for special measures like quotas to increase the number of women in parliament. NZ does have a relatively high percentage of women in parliament, at 32%, however this is down from previous governments, and in general the trend towards women’s advancement is decreasing in NZ. As a consequence, the Committee pushed for NZ to consider implementing temporary special measures, although the NZ delegation did not take to this idea.

In Samoa, there is a quota, however it is a very low bar of 10%, which is only 5 women. The Committee were particularly concerned with regards to bars prohibiting Samoan women’s participation in politics, a right granted under CEDAW. To run for election in Samoa, a person must have the rank of Matai (Chief). There are approximately 300 villages/towns in Samoa, 10 of which have bylaws which do not allow women to obtain the rank of Matai. Therefore, women in these villages are unable to run for office. The Samoan delegation simply did not see this as a problem or issue, and reiterated that it was their culture and way of life. It is clear that the Committee’s recommendations will be for the Samoan government to make changes to legislation in order to remove such barriers for women.

Another issue that was contentious for both states was abortion. In NZ, a woman requires the certification of two doctors (neither of whom can be the woman’s doctor) that the pregnancy will result in psychological or physical harm to the woman. The Committee came down heavily on this, pointing out that this puts the pregnancy choice most often in the hands of men (as more doctors are). The Committee’s Swiss expert eloquently pointed out: "If New Zealand can have a female governor-general, then surely every woman can choose whether or not to continue her pregnancy!" However, again the phrase "no appetite" was uttered. That is, there is "no appetite" in NZ to change the law on abortion. It is also an issue that, if a member introduced a bill/amendment before the parliament, members would not vote along party lines but rather personal votes (that is, their own personal opinion).

The Committee’s reaction was even stronger to Samoan law, where abortion is currently illegal, even in cases of medical emergency, and a woman can even be imprisoned for undergoing abortion. There is currently law reform on the books to legalise abortion in cases of medical emergency (which, as stated, will also allow for termination in cases of rape or incest), however it remains to be seen how long it will take for these laws to be passed.

For both countries, the Committee was concerned about low legal age for marriage, and suggested raising it to the age of 18. There was also discussion for both states about the issue of rural women and services provided, particularly healthcare services, and training and educational facilities. Domestic violence was again an issue, with the Committee concerned about NZ’s use of gender-neutral language and the impact that may have on women as the majority victims of domestic violence. Another concern in both countries was the issue of teenage pregnancy, in general in Samoa, and amongst Maori girls in NZ. Difficulties of discrimination against pregnant girls and girls with babies mean that those girls often do not return to school, so the discussion centred on both sexual and reproductive health in general (sexual education and availability of contraception), and measures for ensuring non-discrimination and return to school of the girls.

There were many other issues brought up by the Committee, as they went through the articles of the Convention, but the above were the rights about which the Committee was most concerned in relation to NZ and Samoa.

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