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The Report on the Status of Women in the Americas, based on the study conducted by Special Rapporteur Dean Claudio Grossman, was approved by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (hereinafter "the Commission") in March of 1998, and published in its Annual Report for 1997 (OEA/Ser.L/V/II.98, Doc. 7 rev., April 13, 1998). In February of 1999, the Commission initiated a new series of thematic papers with the issuance of the report as a separate publication (OEA/Ser.L/V/II.100, Doc. 17, Oct. 13, 1998), aimed at ensuring its widespread dissemination. In the course of this year, the Rapporteur will be reporting on compliance with the recommendations made to the member states in that report, as well as advancing with the Commission’s work in promoting and protecting the ability of women to freely and fully exercise the rights established within the inter-American human rights system, focusing in particular on the right of women to live free from violence.

The Report on the Status of Women in the Americas analyzes the compliance of OAS member states with the international obligations set forth in the regional human rights treaties and declarations as these apply to the rights of women. The information upon which this analysis is based was obtained through the use of a questionnaire, approved by the Commission, which was sent to OAS member states and nongovernmental organizations, requesting information on the application of international rights from a gender perspective. The questionnaire was the result of a process of consultation with experts, gender advocates, and government representatives.

The information received showed an encouraging movement within states to place women’s rights on the social agenda and to institute reforms aimed at advancing the legal, social, political, and economic status of women. This process reflects the strength of women’s organizations and human rights groups, the strength and depth of the democratic movements of the region, and the conviction that democracy and its triumph in the region ultimately require full compliance with the rights to which women are entitled. Notwithstanding the advances taking place in the region, however, the Commission reported that serious problems remain. De jure discrimination continues to exist in a number of countries, especially with respect to family matters, administration of property, and the penal system. Even when no de jure discrimination is present, actual practices in many parts of the region reveal that the ability of women to freely and fully exercise their rights is often denied. Poverty and armed conflict have a disproportionate negative effect on women, and women belonging to indigenous groups and racial and ethnic minorities are the subject of further grave violations resulting from their specific situation.

In its report, the Commission adopted recommendations directed to the member states of the OAS, as well as with respect to its own role in the promotion and protection of the human rights of women. The main thrust of the Commission’s recommendations is to bring domestic laws into compliance with international human rights obligations with respect to gender equality. The Commission calls upon all member states to take all steps required to stop de jure discrimination immediately, and at the same time to continue to develop and strengthen legislation and processes designed to eliminate all forms of de facto gender discrimination and to achieve full equality.

The recommendations to the member states draw, first, from the broad principles of non-discrimination and equal protection underlying the system:

1. The States are urged, in accordance with the international obligations they have freely assumed, to take such steps forthwith as are necessary to fulfill their commitment to abolish all laws that discriminate against women, so that by the year 2000 at the latest such inequality will be eliminated and the full capacity of women in all areas of life will be recognized. The Commission proposes that the continent of the Americas commence the twenty-first century "Without Discrimination Against Women", this being understood to mean:

any distinction, exclusion, or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.

(Article 1 of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women). To this end, the Commission urges the States to undertake a broad review of their legislation in order to identify provisions establishing distinctions, exclusions, or restrictions on the basis of sex, that have the purpose or effect of preventing recognition or exercise of human rights by women, and to amend such laws or abolish them.

2. The OAS member States that have not yet done so should ratify the regional human rights instruments, and in particular, the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence Against Women as a demonstration of their commitment to observing and protecting the human rights of women who are the victims of violence.

With respect to specific rights protected under the norms of the Inter-American human rights system, the Commission recommended that:

1. The States need to fulfill Articles 1, 3, and 24 of the American Convention, and Articles 2 and 17 of the American Declaration, which establish the right to equality before the law and recognition of juridical personality and civil rights of women. This includes recognizing equal rights for women in and outside of marriage, their right to dispose of their own assets and equality in parental authority.

Furthermore, in accordance with Articles 20 and 24 of the American Declaration and Article 23 of the American Convention, the Commission urges the States to continue and expand measures to encourage participation by women in decision-making in the public sphere, including positive measures. As well, the Commission urges that they assure that women have appropriate representation at all levels of government, at the local, provincial, state and national levels; develop strategies to increase the integration of women in political parties; and take further steps to fully incorporate the sectors of civil society, including those that represent the interests of women, in the process of developing and implementing policies and programs.

2. The States must eliminate the serious restrictions placed on women as a result of the conferral of conjugal representation or head of household status on the husband, and the limitation of the role of women to the domestic sphere. These restrictions include: the authority of the husband to prevent his wife from exercising a profession or trade, or operating a business, when that is considered to be harmful to the interests and care of the children and other domestic obligations; the designation of the husband as administrator of conjugal assets; and the conferral of parental authority upon the husband/father. Moreover, the duty to recognize children born outside of marriage must be binding for a man as well as for a woman.

3. The Commission urges the States, in accordance with Articles 1 and 11 of the American Declaration, Articles 4 and 5 of the American Convention, and Article 7 of the Convention of Belém do Pará, to adopt suitable legislation on violence against women, ensuring that violence, intrafamilial or domestic violence, or that is either caused or tolerated by agents of the State, is duly investigated, tried before a court, and punished. The response capacity of the public and private sectors in training law enforcement and judicial personnel needs to be strengthened in order to provide proper treatment for the causes and effects of violence. Lastly, the States need to fully implement the programs and laws on domestic violence that already exist, which for lack of sufficient resources frequently have yet to be initiated or are only partially implemented.

4. Recognizing the right to health of women, the States need to adopt measures to keep proper statistical data and to have the necessary resources in order to ensure plans and programs that allow women to fully exercise this important right.

Recognizing the growing participation by women in the labor market and in national economies, and that disparities in the remuneration levels of men and women for the same work persist, the Commission urges the States to take such additional steps as are necessary to correct the disparities in income between men and women possessing equal qualifications and performing the same tasks; to ensure equal employment opportunities for women and men; to review legislation and judicial resources to ensure that the reproductive functions of women are not transformed into a cause for discrimination in the hiring, placement, promotion, or firing of women; and to prevent, punish, and eradicate sexual harassment in the work place.

5. The Commission urges the States to amend criminal codes that declare rapists who marry their victims free of any responsibility or penalty; to ensure that women who are detained are treated with respect for their dignity, that their cases are processed swiftly before a judicial authority and subject to judicial supervision, that they have quick access to legal assistance and medical care, and that inspections of women detained are conducted with the proper guarantees and care; that sexual crimes classified until now as crimes against decency and good morals be classified as crimes against personal integrity, liberty and privacy. It is further recommended that conduct not covered in certain criminal codes, such as incest, be defined as a crime; that the definition of rape be broadened to include situations not traditionally considered as such, that because of new modalities are by their nature a violation of personal integrity and the freedom and privacy of women; and that any mention of the concept of decency, honor, and related notions, be eliminated as extenuating circumstances. The Commission urges the States to ensure that those women most vulnerable, campesinas, young girls, and indigenous women have due access to the mechanisms afforded by the legal system.

The Commission endorses General Recommendation 19 of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) adopted in 1992 through which it is affirmed that violence against women constitutes a violation of human rights, stressing that the States may be liable for private acts if they fail to act with due diligence to prevent violations of rights, or to investigate and punish acts of violence, or fail to provide measures of reparation or compensation (E/CN.4/1996/53, 5 February 1996, Commission on Human Rights, p. 10, paragraph 34). In keeping with the criterion set out by the CEDAW, the Commission recommends that the States revise and amend domestic legislation for the purpose of reflecting the progress achieved in international law with respect to the rights of women, punishing conduct that has not yet been defined as a crime such as sexual harassment, amending procedures in the investigation stage that are discriminatory and/or prejudicial because the victim is a woman engaging in "immoral conduct," and to investigate and punish cases of domestic violence with due diligence through prompt and simple judicial remedies.

The Commission also made certain recommendations in its Report with respect to its own work in this sphere, indicating, first, that the Rapporteurship should be transformed into a Working Group on the Rights of Women, coordinated by a Commissioner and comprising experts appointed by the Commission. Additionally, the Commission will establish a Voluntary Fund on Women's Rights to augment the material resources available for the discharge of its mandate in this area. Further, the Commission will ensure that the situation of the rights of women will be appropriately covered in its special country reports; will encourage governments and nongovernmental organizations to participate, as amicii curiae, in specific cases before the Commission and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to enrich the decision-making processes of these bodies; and look for new ways to cooperate with other bodies, entities, and instances of coordination concerned with the progress of women's rights

In closing this update, the Commission and its Special Rapporteur encourage the member states to redouble efforts underway to modify laws and practices that impede women from exercising their human rights. In order to evaluate compliance with the Commission’s recommendations, later this year, the Special Rapporteur will be reporting on the status of legislative and other advances in the region. He will be requesting information from member states and other actors in civil society to facilitate this evaluation.

The Commission thanks the member states, nongovernmental and intergovernmental organizations, and actors within civil society who have contributed information and expertise to the work of the Rapporteurship. In particular, the Commission notes the resolution of the Twenty-Ninth Assembly of Delegates of the Inter-American Commission of Women, offering continued collaboration with the Special Rapporteur as he follows up on and implements the recommendations in the Report on the Status of Women in the Americas. The Commission looks forward to further collaboration with all these actors in pursuing the shared objective of enhancing the ability of women to freely and fully exercise their human rights.

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