Remarks by Henry L. Mac-Donald, JD on behalf of the Minister of Home Affairs at the Thirty Fifth Meeting of the Presiding Officers of the Regional Conference on Women in Latin America and the Caribbean, Havana, Cuba, April 28-29, 2003.

Thank you very much for offering me the floor, Madam Secretary-General.

Let me first of all express my pleasure of being here in this beautiful country, and also thank the Cuban Government and People for the warm hospitality I have been entreated to so far.

My name is Henry Mac-Donald; I am a human rights lawyer and Second Secretary (Alternate Representative) at the Embassy and Permanent Mission of the Republic of Suriname to the OAS in Washington DC. I am also the Interim Representative of my country to the Inter-American Commission of Women at the Organization of American States.

Allow me also to use this opportunity to express the profound regret of Her Excellency Urmilla Joella - Sewnundun, Minister of Home Affairs, and responsible for the implementation of gender policies in Suriname, for not being present here today. Minister Joella - Sewnundun was fully prepared to participate at this meeting, but due to an extremely heavy workload, she was forced to cancel her visit to Havana at the last minute. She asked me to convey to you and all the participants her best wishes in taking this meeting to a successful conclusion.

I will now continue my remarks by sharing some official facts with you regarding the general situation of women in Suriname. Secondly I will present two specific proposals which my delegation would prefer to see being dealt with at the Ninth Session of the Regional Conference of Women in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Protection of Women on an Equal Basis with Men

The Constitution of Suriname enshrines that no one may be discriminated against, because of his or her sex. However our domestic law does not provide for a special institution for women, to which they can turn for specific protection in case of discrimination on the basis of gender. A national institute for the promotion and protection of fundamental human rights was founded in the eighties. This institute has an advisory role and has also the authority to investigate complaints with regard to human rights violations. Anyone who considers herself or himself a victim of a violation of fundamental rights and freedoms may submit complaints.

The National Gender Bureau was established within the Ministry of Home Affairs, which is responsible for the formulation and implementation of the governmental policy on gender.

There are nation wide approximately 50 Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO); volunteer and professional organizations specialized in the field of women's rights and gender mainstreaming.
Recently the government has increased its involvement in women's and gender affairs, due also with the cooperation of two Dutch speaking Caribbean countries, namely the Curacao and Aruba. Since then noteworthy improvements has been made in many fundamental areas, for instance:

  • The government has created and is now in the process of implementing an Integral Gender Action Plan;
  • The Ministry of Home affairs is currently enforcing a gender mainstreaming management system;
  • the media has been trained to be more sensitive for women's rights and the rights of children;
  • particular programs on women's rights and rights for children had been produced and broadcast;
  • a training on "law and legislative skills" was organized for the members of the Parliament and young women on the ballot list of political parties that participated in the elections of 2000;
  • Establishment of the Governmental Commission on gender policies in order to enact and reform specific legislation at the national level.

Women in Political Life

According to the Constitution women as well as men can participate in general, free and secret elections. The law allows women to hold any public office and function at all levels of government. However the fact that legislation forms no impediment, does not guarantee proportional representation of women in de different political bodies. In fact women are hardly visible in the leadership of many political parties. There are a relatively small number of women present in the main governing bodies of political parties; the great majority is mainly active in supporting structures, such as administrative personnel and, propagandists. Contrary to the low participation of women in leadership positions within political parties, it is assumed that the number of female members is relatively high, based on the visibility of women during the political campaigns and at Election Day.

According to a study carried out in 1996, the reasons for the low representation of women in leadership positions were among others:

  • Political parties are of the opinion that the main restrictive factor is the unwillingness of women to participate in political activities;
  • According to women who take up high positions in political parties, the main impediments is that men are not willing to relinquish positions they have attained within the state bodies, and party structures (mainly dominated by men) are not willing to nominate women at influential positions.
  • Many women believe that they do not receive enough encouragement within their own circles (party and personal networks) to nominate themselves, because of traditional responsibilities related to motherhood;
  • Psychological and cultural factors are major obstacles;
  • Women hesitate and are not sufficiently motivated to undertake public and political functions;
  • Public life is considered to be a man's world.

In a nutshell, the traditional female role patterns are still the most important obstacles for women to fully participate in political life.

Violence against Women

On March 8, last year (International Women's Day), Suriname ratified the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women.

According to our Constitution everyone has the right to physical, psychological and moral integrity, and no one may be subjected to torture, humiliating or inhumane treatment.

Results of a study in 1993 showed that 94% of police reports concern maltreatment, particularly of women abused by their husband or partner. CAFRA Suriname, a well-known NGO commissioned a very unique study on domestic violence against women in conjugal relationships. This study was done in 1994 and demonstrated that 69% of the interviewed women was found to have been a victim of this horrible "macho" behavior.
Married women turned out to be less victimized than women living in concubine relationships or women in a visitor relationship. The last group however was victimized less often than women living in concubine relationships.

The Ministries of "Justice and Police", "Home Affairs", "Social Affair and Housing" play a major role in combating violence against women. The Ministry of Home Affairs, through its National Gender Bureau, facilitates the activities aimed at care, counseling, training etc. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Housing provides material support for victims in need, in the form of social services such as: financial aid and medical assistance.

The Government has the scourge of violence against women high on its agenda. Its is therefore working in close collaboration with civil society organizations in order to create awareness of this problem and to sensitize professionals such as police officers and health workers, in order to better detect signs of abuse and violence. It has also particularly trained members of parliament to produce legislation regarding women's rights in general and violence against women in particular. Citizen's awareness building is also being supported by the creation, publication and broadcasting of particular programs true the mass media.

Education

The state recognizes and guarantees the right to education of all citizens and offers them equal opportunities for schooling. Education at all levels is virtually completely State funded and in principle free of charge for everyone. It is noteworthy to stress however that this situation will possibly be changed as a result of the current economic crises. There are no current data available on amounts of drop-outs, but a thesis based on a study conducted in 1996, showed that only 50% of students enrolled in the education system attained a positive result. The bad achievements of boys were in particular worrisome.

Girls who drop out of school at young age are often victims of teenage pregnancies. Females, who abandon school at very young age because of pregnancy, have the option to participate in a project for student-mothers, which mainly aims:

  • at encouraging teenage mothers to complete their education;
  • to help them develop a positive self-image;
  • to prevent other unwanted pregnancies.

The Student-Mothers project was initiated in 1989 by the Government and later passed into the hands of an NGO in 1992.

Health

The State is responsible for the guarantee and promotion of general health care to all citizens. Suriname has always had a reasonably developed public health system, with an extensive network of intramural and extramural services. Unfortunately since the early nineties a reduction could be noticed in the access to certain medical facilities and the availability of certain medical services has become threatened. The government has managed however to yearly execute an effective vaccination campaign, in order to prevent the most common child diseases.

With respect to reproductive health the penal code stipulates that abortion is a punishable act. Punishable are among others, women who intentionally cause the abortion or death of their fetus, and the persons who intentionally causes the abortion or death of a woman's fetus, with or without her consent. A blind eye is actually turned to abortion, which is generally performed safely and by official medical practitioners.

Poverty

Poverty reduction is one of the most important objectives of the current government. The government is aiming at the creation of jobs true the development of several governmental projects. In collaboration with different national and international civil society organizations considerable funds have become available. These funds are invested in community based projects in which women and children are specifically targeted.
The European Union, the Inter American Agency for Development and Cooperation, the UNDP and the Inter- American development Bank are among the mayor players in this respect.

Madam Secretary General

One of the most pressing phenomenon, which we are facing nowadays, is de problem regarding women in crisis situations. Domestic Violence is still a serious problem in Suriname and in many parts of this hemisphere. Women living in these terrible circumstances are extremely vulnerable, because of their economic and financial dependency and a shortage of adequate housing facilities.

Secondly, the situation of indigenous women and women living in rural areas is of great concern in the Western Hemisphere. The advancement of these women did not keep the pace of which women in for example the urban areas have been making improvements.

It is for these reasons that my delegation would like to list both matters as priority issues to be dealt with at the Ninth Session of the Regional Conference on Women in Latin-America and the Caribbean.

In closing, although my country's resources are limited and the diversion of extra financial resources to improve the situation of women is proving extremely challenging, the Government of Suriname is nonetheless determined to working tirelessly and assiduously to implement the commitments undertaken by our governments regionally and globally.

Thank you very much.

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