59th Session of the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women
Oral Statement by Ms Su-Mei Thompson, Board Member, Equal Opportunities Commission
Chairperson, Vice-Chairpersons and Committee Members and friends from Hong Kong, Macau and Mainland China
Thank you for allowing me to present the views of the Equal Opportunities Commission of Hong Kong on the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) by the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, China. Some of my remarks echo what you have already heard in the NGO submissions.
I am a Member of the Board of the Equal Opportunities Commission, Hong Kong. The EOC is the statutory body responsible for implementing the anti-discrimination ordinances in Hong Kong. Our vision is to create a pluralistic and inclusive society free of discrimination where there is no barrier to equal opportunities.
At the EOC, we have recently completed studies on discrimination in the workplace, sexual harassment in the service industries and the education sector, and discrimination encountered by ethnic minorities in Hong Kong. We also recently held a symposium comparing LGBTI rights in Hong Kong and Europe. Drawing on these initiatives, the main areas of our oral statement today concern firstly, the safety of women in Hong Kong; secondly, the barriers that continue to hold women back from becoming more economically self-reliant and from advancing in the workplace; and thirdly, the discrimination encountered by marginalized communities of women. We believe the Government could do more in all these areas to afford women in Hong Kong stronger protections and enhanced prospects.
Looking first at the security of women in Hong Kong, the UN’s 2006 report on Hong Kong’s compliance with CEDAW highlighted the issue of domestic violence and raised concerns about the relatively low rate of prosecution for domestic violence cases and inadequate support for victims seeking legal protection. The impact of domestic violence on victims and communities in Hong Kong is gradually being recognized although much remains to be done. At the EOC, we are equally concerned about the harassment of women outside the home. For example, we are concerned about reports that female participants in the recent Occupy Central demonstrations were sexually assaulted and verbally abused, apparently by counter-demonstrators. We urge the Government and leaders of all factions involved in the current civil action to send a clear message to their supporters and to the broader community that all forms of harassment against women are reprehensible and are not condoned. At the EOC, we are also concerned about harassment in Hong Kong’s schools and universities as well as in the workplace, particularly in the services sector including the airline, catering and retail industries. In this connection, the EOC calls on the Government to introduce the concept of employer liability within the Sex Discrimination Ordinance which will make employers liable for sexual harassment of employees by customers in certain circumstances. We also call on the Government to continue to work with the EOC in encouraging and assisting the 50% or so of primary and secondary schools in Hong Kong that do not have a sexual harassment policy to introduce such a policy as a matter of urgency. And we strongly believe it is important to tackle the root causes not just the symptoms so we hope the Government will invest in research to determine for example the correlation between media images which objectify women and portray women as sexual prey and the continuing perpetration of violence and harassment against women in Hong Kong.
Secondly, I would like to address the barriers that continue to hold women back from becoming more economically self-reliant and from advancing in the workplace. Even in a modern and developed society like Hong Kong, one in five Hong Kongers is living at the official poverty line and there are many more women than men living in poverty. This is partly due to the fact that women make up the bulk of the workforce in the low paying 4C’s – catering, caring, cashiering and cleaning – and also because women still earn less than their male counterparts, which is true both for more menial occupations and white collar jobs. We urge the Government when it next reviews Hong Kong’s current welfare and poverty alleviation schemes including the Comprehensive Social Security Assurance Scheme and the Minimum Wage to pay particular regard to the needs of women living at the poverty line. We also hope the Government will expedite its review of the small house policy whereby only male indigenous persons in the New Territories of Hong Kong are entitled to apply for the right to build a village style house. To address the gender wage gap, the Government should urge employers to pay employees according to their skills and experience rather than based on gender considerations.
Unfortunately, while women are over-represented among casual, part-time and low status full-time workers, they are also under-represented in decision-making positions, top status jobs and high earning fields. At the EOC, we believe that issues of gender bias, gender insensitive workplace policies and a lack of accessible and affordable care services and parental leave options must be tackled to redress the imbalance. Hong Kong’s paid maternity leave entitlement is among the lowest in the world at just 10 weeks, compared with Mainland China at 14 weeks which is in line with the International Labour Organisation’s recommended minimum. At the same time, the need for elderly dependent care is growing with Hong Kong’s elderly population set to soar over the next 20 years. This will acutely affect women’s economic participation and employment opportunities since the burden of caring for elderly relatives is largely shouldered by women in Hong Kong.
In terms of childcare and elderly care, the EOC believes the Government can do more to align the situation in Hong Kong with the Beijing Platform for Action Outcome Document’s requirements on affordable support services. We urge the Government to align the maternity leave position with international standards and to introduce statutory paternity leave. We also call on the Government to review Government spending on care and education for children aged six and under, so that more childcare support can be provided for working mothers and fathers. We also urge the Government to ensure women have a central role in the design, planning and delivery of care services for the elderly.
The third issue I want to address today concerns the rights of marginalized minority communities of women in Hong Kong, notably ethnic minority women, women with disabilities, foreign domestic workers, sex workers and the LGBTI community. Ethnic minority women are generally considered as one of the most vulnerable groups in Hong Kong due to their different cultural background and language limitations. The EOC urges the Government to take appropriate measures to facilitate their integration into the local community and to ensure that female ethnic minority students have equal opportunities when it comes to education. We hope the Government will do more to alleviate the challenges facing women with disabilities including intellectual, cognitive and psycho-social disabilities and carers with disabilities who are more vulnerable to violence and abuse. In addition, the EOC calls on the Government to review the protections afforded to foreign domestic workers who are vulnerable to abuse and harassment. We also believe the Government should do more to protect sex workers from sexual abuse and assault. And finally, turning to the LGBTI community, Hong Kong currently does not have laws which prohibit discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation or gender identity. Therefore, lesbian and bisexual women, as well as transgender and intersex persons, who encounter discrimination currently have no legal recourse. The EOC believes the Government should conduct a public consultation on legislating against discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status as soon as possible.
In closing, this is a pivotal time for Hong Kong as we stand at the crossroads of democracy - the form of which remains to be defined, as we determine Hong Kong’s continuing role as a global financial centre, as we grapple with a rapidly ageing population and growing income inequality, as we look to build transport links and cultural facilities to serve a Pearl River Delta population of 60 million people, as we look to recover our entrepreneurial spirit and re-engineer our education system. Now more than ever it is imperative that women have a voice in the critical business, economic and social issues affecting Hong Kong. For this to happen, we believe a more balanced gender composition is needed among law-makers and within the administration to enable the views and concerns of both genders to be fully reflected in the Government’s policy formulation and implementation processes. We hope the Government will take appropriate measures to increase women’s participation in public life and to encourage women to aspire to policy-formulating and decision-making roles. We urge the Government to review and reinforce its existing gender mainstreaming and other initiatives, policies and programmes including building on the work of, and developing, the Women’s Commission, so that it is resolutely addressing the remaining gender gaps in society. This will ensure a brighter future for women and girls, men and boys, from all walks of life in Hong Kong.