The new nation of East Timor left its first U.N. women's rights inspection with a long to-do list. Lowering the world's highest fertility rate and raising the lowest rate of birth control access are tall orders in the strongly Catholic culture.
(WOMENSENEWS)--The tiny new nation of East Timor came to the United Nations last month for its first women's rights checkup and picked up a few kudos.
Among them: Speedy ratification of the U.N.'s women's rights treaty--the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW--without any reservations and creating the cabinet-level post of Secretary of State for the Promotion of Equality.
Yet, the United Nations Population Fund ranks the new nation as having the world's highest fertility rate and the least access to birth control, and East Timor's representatives left the meeting with plenty of homework ahead.
Among the actions the CEDAW Monitoring Committee requested before the country's second report, which is due within the next four years, are the passage of a domestic violence law, the criminalization of marital rape and increased access to birth control.
Newly independent East Timor, recognized by the United Nations in 2002, was one of only two countries--the other was Tuvalu--that presented initial reports at the 44th CEDAW review process, begun in 1983.
Seven Children on Average
On average, East Timorese women have seven children each and only 30 percent of women have access to birth control.
Illiteracy among women is 25 percent, 22 percent among men. In Dili, the country's capital, 10 percent of the women are literate, while 55 percent men are able to read.
Also in East Timor, traditional dowries, or "bride prices," remain common.
Women have the legal right to divorce, but it is rarely invoked in this overwhelmingly Catholic nation.
Government statistical data indicate a high rate of violence against women and girls, but national statistics are scarce and thought to be unreliable. Women interviewed on the topic commonly refer questioners to their husbands.
In this predominantly rural, half-island nation, women often live a two-hour walk from the nearest doctor or clinic. Government figures indicate that 90 percent of children are born at home, not in clinics or hospitals, which is contributing to one of the world's highest maternal mortality rates, at 800 per 100,000 live births.
Abortion is currently illegal, without exception for the health of the mother or in cases of rape or incest. While the new penal code will allow exceptions if a woman's life is in jeopardy, it will not include exceptions in cases of rape or incest. In the face of that, the committee asked the country to open a national dialogue on the topic of abortion.
Securing Equal Status
The head of East Timor's delegation, Secretary of State for the Promotion of Equality Idelta Maria Rodriguez, said the new nation is struggling to secure the equal status of women as it leaves behind a 24-year occupation by Indonesia and a 400-year period of colonization by Portugal that ended in 1975.
The government and nongovernmental groups have launched awareness campaigns at all levels of society.
In 2002 the nation ratified CEDAW and in 2004 it hosted the second regional Women's Congress. In the years since those two pivotal events, the government has disseminated gender-parity publications throughout the ranks of government, law enforcement, educational institutions and the courts.
On the domestic violence front, East Timor joins many other nations in conducting a national campaign annually in November, called 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence. The nation has attempted to raise awareness with themes such as "Our Children Are Watching" and "Women's Rights are Human Rights." The Pacific Rim nation's delegation said it expects its parliament to pass a law outlawing domestic violence this year. Such a bill has not yet been introduced.
Delegates also noted that women's political representation is expanding, with women constituting 26 percent of Parliament.
Sections 16 and 17 of the country's constitution guarantee the equal rights of all citizens, but the document says nothing specifically about women. The CEDAW committee asked that such a provision be added before the next review.
Regina Varolli is a freelance writer and editor based in Manhattan, and the owner of Words by Regina Varolli and Co. She blogs at Culinary Sagacity and Political Sagacity.
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44th Session of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women
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