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PSHW's opening statement at United Nations hearing on CEDAW

The following is the opening statement by the Permanent Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food (Health and Welfare), Ms Sandra Lee, at the United Nations CEDAW Committee hearing on Hong Kong Special Administrative Region's second report under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in New York today (August 10, New York time):

Madam Chair, distinguished Members,

Good Morning.

I am honoured to have this opportunity to speak on the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government's (HKSARG's) implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in the HKSAR, China.  On behalf of the Hong Kong SAR Government, I thank you for your interest and observations on our Government's Second Report submitted in 2004 and our response to your subsequent questions submitted in May this year.  May I also take this opportunity to thank Madam Huang Qingyi for her leadership of the China delegation which for the first time, includes the two Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau.

Madam Chair and Members, I want to assure you that the HKSAR Government is fully committed to removing all forms of discrimination against women in the Hong Kong SAR.

Equality is an important fundamental under the Hong Kong Basic Law, our constitutional document.  That all Hong Kong residents shall be equal before our law is guaranteed under the Basic Law. Hong Kong's Bill of Rights also guarantees that all women and men shall have an equal right to the enjoyment of civil and political rights. Since reunification in 1997, international human rights treaties applicable to Hong Kong including CEDAW have remained firmly in place, and we will continue to ensure that CEDAW is faithfully implemented in HKSAR pursuant to the Basic Law and the principle of 'One Country, Two Systems'.

I would like to address four specific issues which I believe are of concerns to Madam Chair and Members.

Women's Commission

First, on our Women's Commission.  I am glad to report that the HKSAR Government responded positively to CEDAW's concluding remarks in 1999 and set up the Women's Commission in January 2001. Our Women's Commission is a high-level central mechanism to advise and assist the Government on women's issues and to champion for women's interests.  Appointed by the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong SAR, the Commission is tasked to take a strategic overview on women issues; develop a long-term vision and strategy for the development and advancement of women; and advise the Government on policies and initiatives which are of concern to women.  It is chaired by a non-official, supported by a dedicated secretariat and provided with a budget.  The Government has allocated US$16 million for the Commission since its establishment in 2001. Members of the Commission are appointed on merits and they come from different sectors: women's groups, ethnic minority groups, district representatives, social workers, teachers and other professionals.  The Women's Commission has in the past five years made substantial progress in its work.
The Women's Commission has assisted the Government to review five major pieces of legislation of significant impact on the well-being of women, including the Domestic Violence Ordinance and the Crime Ordinance related to marital rape.

The Commission has worked with the Government on the appointment of women to advisory boards and committees.  The initial target of 25% has been met and further efforts will be made to enhance women's participation in the public decision making process.  

The Women's Commission considers gender mainstreaming one of the key strategies in achieving women's advancement and gender equality and has been promoting its application in Government policy formulation.  So far, the Commission has worked with the Government to review 19 policy areas of importance to women agenda.  They include the Health Care Reform, Design of Facilities in Public Buildings and Secondary School Places Allocation. Gender mainstreaming is still a relatively new concept in Hong Kong.  For it to succeed and become an integral part of the policy making and service delivery process, we will continue to promote better understanding and awareness of the concept in our community.

On education, one notable success of the Commission is an innovative Capacity Building Mileage Programme it organised with the Open University of Hong Kong, a radio station and 78 women's groups and NGOs which benefited over 10,000 women including the less privileged.

The Commission works intimately with local women groups in taking forward its initiatives and also participates actively in international events.  The Commission attended 16 major meetings overseas in the past five years including the annual meeting of the UN Commission on Status of Women.

Combating Domestic Violence

I would now turn to the issue of combating domestic violence. Madam Chair, I wish to emphasise that the HKSAR Government takes a serious view of domestic violence and spare no efforts in dealing with it.  Violent acts are liable to criminal charges under our law. Whether they happen in a domestic context or other situations, they receive the same serious attention from our law enforcement agencies.  In addition to seeking help from the criminal justice system, the domestic violence victims may also seek civil redress from the Domestic Violence Ordinance.  This legislation provides protection to victims facing physical, psychological and sexual abuse.  Following a review of the Ordinance, the Government now proposes further improvements in three areas, namely, extending the scope of coverage to include formal spousal or co-habitation relationship; extending the criteria for attachment of a power of arrest to an injunction order to psychological harm; and an increase to the duration of the injunction order.  We are consulting the public on their views on these proposals.

Besides legal protection, a continuum of preventive, supportive and specialised services are provided to victims of domestic violence and families in need.  In the current financial year, more than US$170 million has been allocated for counseling, shelter, child care, clinical psychology, emergency financial support and compassionate re-housing services for victims.  In March 2006, we introduced two pilot projects of Batterer Intervention Programme.  A new 24-hour service for victims of sexual violence is being introduced by the Government.  

We have allocated US$4 million to start new services to facilitate early identification of families in need. We have strengthened training and coordination for social workers, police officers and related professionals.  Volunteers also assist in the outreach programme.

Madam Chair, I can assure you that the HKSAR Government has zero tolerance for domestic violence and will continue to explore effective means to assist these victims.

Trafficking in women

Now I would like to address the question about trafficking in women and exploitation of prostitution.  We have provided a written response earlier.  I would like to supplement that cases of trafficking recorded are small in Hong Kong íV only two and three suspected trafficking cases were recorded in 2004 and 2005 respectively.  Debriefing from sex workers from outside Hong Kong reveals that they entered Hong Kong to practise prostitution of their own volition.  Notwithstanding that the number of trafficking cases is small, our law enforcement agencies have remained vigilant and maintained their efforts in combating trafficking activities on all fronts.

Prostitution itself is not a crime in Hong Kong but it is a criminal offence to organise and exploit prostitution. The Hong Kong Police Force enforces the law vigilantly and will continue to do so. There has been allegation of individual police officer abusing his power in undercover operations against vice activities.  I wish to emphasise that Police undercover operations against vice activities are subject to rules and procedures clearly stated in internal guidelines. Police officers involved are carefully selected and are required to comply strictly with the guidelines.  There are established mechanisms to complain against the Police.  

Finally, on the question relating to employment, I would like to supplement that women in Hong Kong enjoy the same rights and opportunities in terms of employment and choices of career as their male counterparts.  The Employment Ordinance affords employees with protection of their labour rights, such as entitlement to payment of wages and statutory holidays.  Foreign domestic helpers enjoy the same rights and benefits provided under the labour law as local workers. They are further protected by a standard employment contract and minimum allowable wage.  At US$436 per month, this level compares favourably with wages offered to foreign domestic helpers among Asian economies.  We also have an effective mechanism for foreign domestic helpers to seek redress if their statutory rights are infringed.  In case they suffer maltreatment or abuse by their employers, the worker may terminate the contract without notice or payment in lieu and may lodge a complaint to the Labour Department or report the case to the Police. We will investigate these complaints promptly and thoroughly, and prosecute the employers if there is sufficient evidence.

The Sex Discrimination Ordinance prohibits discrimination against a female employee on grounds of sex, pregnancy or marital status.  The Ordinance also ensures equal opportunities for both sexes in employment and equal access to opportunities for promotion, transfer, training, benefits, facilities or services.  In addition, the principle of equal pay for work of equal value has been incorporated in the Code of Practice on Employment promulgated under the Sex Discrimination Ordinance, and the Code is applicable to all enterprises, including those of small and medium sizes.  Further study into the issue is being conducted by the Equal Opportunities Commission using Government funds.  


In conclusion, Madam Chair and Members, I wish to re-affirm the Hong Kong SAR Government's commitment to discharge our obligations under CEDAW.  Let me thank you again for your interests in our efforts to eliminate discrimination against women in the Hong Kong SAR.

Ends/Friday, August 11, 2006
Issued at HKT 08:08