Algeria: UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women concludes visit

In her report, Professor Yakin Ertürk, noted that recent surveys reveal that violence against women is a major concern in Algeria in both the home and the public space. However, this serious human rights concern remains largely invisible.
Professor Yakin Ertürk, the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Human Rights Council on Violence against Women, its Causes and Consequences, delivered a statement on 31 January 2007 in Algiers.
“From 21 to 31 January 2007, I conducted a fact-finding mission to Algeria, during which I spoke with Ministers and other authorities, the President of the Advisory Commission on Human Rights, the United Nations Country Team, non-governmental organisations and individual victims of violence against women. I would like to thank the Government of Algeria for its invitation and excellent support throughout the conduct of my mission.

I will present a full report to the United Nations Human Rights Council on my findings regarding violence against women in Algeria, including its causes and consequences, within the next six months. At this point, I would like to share some preliminary observations with you.

The Algerian Constitution provides for non-discrimination between men and women and requires the state to actively ensure equality of rights and duties of all citizens, men and women alike.

Algeria has distinguished itself by realizing the equal access of boys and girls to all levels of education in little more than one generation. Today, girls are numerically overrepresented in secondary schools, colleges and universities. This is most commendable and it will help to eventually eliminate the high levels of female illiteracy inherited from colonial rule

Educated urban women have also achieved impressive levels of representation in key areas of the public sector, especially among judges, medical doctors and teachers. Overall, however, women are particularly underrepresented among decision-makers in the private sector, the administration and politics. Women’s equal access to paid work remains a problem, especially for rural and less educated women. Furthermore, in a resource-rich country like Algeria, poverty is all too visible and it has a distinct female face. Poor women, who are single mothers, deserted or divorced women or girls born out-of-wedlock are particularly burdened and they need more support and protection from the State.

A presidential decree from 2005, confirmed by both chambers of Parliament, has successfully established the equality of men and women under the Nationality Code. Significant reforms of the Family Code of 1984 have also been enacted into law. However, in family matters and access to property women still face discrimination. While the reform has removed some of the critical areas of inequality for women, it falls short of responding to the needs and aspirations of Algerian women. Women’s unequal access to inheritance creates particular vulnerabilities for them. In the event of a divorce, only women with children are entitled to the marital home or equivalent accommodation, which they often lose along with the custody of their children, should they remarry.

The Family Law stipulates the strict separation of property between husband and wife. In case of divorce, however, the major assets acquired during marriage are typically assumed to belong only to the husband leaving divorced women in destitution. These are some major areas of concern that discriminate against women and seem not in line with the Algerian Constitution and they violate Algeria’s international legal obligations. Reforms must continue to ensure women’s autonomy and equal access to housing and sources of livelihood.

Recent surveys reveal that violence against women is a major concern in Algeria in both the home and the public space. However, this serious human rights concern remains largely invisible. The social taboos around violence in the society and the lack of a sufficient institutional response and support for victims of violence silence the victims and perpetuate the violence. During my mission, I also spoke with a number of girls and women, who had experienced violence from their husbands or other family members and had been ejected from their homes. Having to live in the streets, these women encounter multiple forms of violence.

In the work place, women experience sexual harassment by superiors and colleagues. The Government has recently criminalized certain forms of sexual harassment, which is a positive first step towards addressing this problem.

I would like to welcome the National Strategy to Combat Violence against Women, which has been prepared by the Minister-Delegate for Family and the Status of Women in consultation with other stakeholders. Provided that this promising initiative is adopted by the Cabinet, it will mark a first step of a long process that requires close partnership between relevant Ministries, the United Nations and non-governmental associations for women’s rights. Ultimately, the Government will have to be measured against the concrete measures it takes to combat violence and gender inequality it is embedded in.

Women also still suffer from the legacy of the Black Decade of violence, which has seen systematic and widespread rape and sexual enslavement of women. In September 2005, Algeria adopted by way of public referendum a National Charter on Peace and Reconciliation. The National Charter foresees penal and civil amnesty for crimes committed during the decade of violence, including grave human rights violations such as acts of torture and enforced disappearances.

It is positive to note that according to the National Charter, all persons implicated in rape, collective massacres and bombings in public places – serious crimes that affected women disproportionately - have been specifically exempted from enjoying amnesty. At this stage, however, it remains most unclear to what extent the exemption clause has been applied to individual cases.

Moreover, I am also concerned about a provision in the Decree implementing the National Charter, which criminalizes the use or exploitation of the wounds of the national tragedy to harm the state, its institutions, agents or international image. Although it seems that no one has yet been prosecuted under this provision, this ambiguous norm may pose a severe obstacle to the enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression.

Persons with divergent views on how to achieve national reconciliation, including human rights defenders, victims of terrorist violence and families of disappeared persons, must be able to express themselves freely and not be subjected to harassment and threats.

I also applaud that the National Charter makes provision for compensation. However, wives and mothers of disappeared, who have suffered emotional violence during years of uncertainty about the fate of close family members, still report bureaucratic obstacles and delays in attaining such compensation. Questions also remain as to whether and how victims of rape and sexual enslavement during the Black Decade are to receive compensation.

Algerian women have played key roles in the most crucial stages of the history of the Democratic People’s Republic. Women took an active role in the war of liberation from French colonial domination. During the Black Decade, many Algerian women displayed acts of civil courage by defying terrorist intimidation and risking terrorist violence day after day. I would also like to acknowledge the invaluable work undertaken by women today – individually and as members of voluntary associations – for the promotion and protection of women’s rights. Algeria’s women deserve the country’s full support in their struggle to fully achieve their equality and human rights.

I thank you for your attention.”

Prof. Yakin Ertürk has been serving as the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Human Rights Council on Violence against Women, its Causes and Consequences since 2003. She is mandated to seek and receive information on violence against women, its causes and consequences from governmental, international and non-governmental sources and to respond effectively to such information, including through recommendations at the national, regional and international levels.

Ms. Ertürk’s visit to Algeria marks her twelfth official mission. Prior to this visit, she carried out official missions in El Salvador, Guatemala, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Darfur (Sudan), Russia, Iran, Mexico, Afghanistan, Turkey, Sweden and the Netherlands.

Ms. Ertürk is a Professor of Sociology at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey. As an Independent Expert appointed by the United Nations, she does not receive any remuneration for her services to the United Nations.

1 February 2007
For use of the information media; not an official record