Gender bias still widespread in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 December, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 December, 1998, 12:00am

Many people who live in Hong Kong will tell you that women are a pampered and powerful breed here.

Primetime sitcoms show wives holding the purse-strings of the family. Anson Chan, Rita Fan, and others from the so-called 'handbag brigade' occupy top posts in the Government and are quoted daily in the press. Hong Kong women seem liberated in many ways. But how true is this perception? The Hong Kong Government would say that it is close to accurate, that sex discrimination is not a problem in the workplace. In its initial report of the United Nations' Convention on the Elimination Of All Forms Of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Government states: 'From the employers' perspective, there appears little economic rationale to deliberately turn away prospective job applicants just for the sake of sex discrimination, as this will only limit their source of manpower supply.

Furthermore, through years of public education and promotion, most employers have now built up the attitude and concept of according the same employment opportunities for both men and women.' The CEDAW was extended to Hong Kong in 1996. Including China, 162 nations have signed on, thereby promising equal opportunities and certain inalienable rights to women. Each state which must submit an initial report to the UN within one year of signing the convention, and every four years thereafter.

The Hong Kong Government's initial report (published in August of this year) outlines some recently enacted ordinances against sex discrimination. However, this report neglects many areas in which gender bias is still pervasive. Statistics for the first half of 1998 show, for example, that men occupy about 70 per cent of all professional, managerial, and high administrative posts. They comprise 67 per cent of the civil service.

Moreover, working class women, new immigrants, and poor housewives are most susceptible to economic instability and social barriers.

Records show, for instance, that 64 per cent of battered women seeking shelter are recent immigrants; 82 per cent of participants in the Employee Retraining Scheme are women, many of whom never managed to acquire the skills needed to make the transition from manufacturing to service-oriented jobs in the 1990s. These women often have inadequate resources to pay for childcare, health services and general education programmes.

These problems are known to many social organisations already. Yet in numerous sections, the initial report seems unaware of such problems. The Government needs to recognise the difficulties women face in Hong Kong and it must tackle these problems. It is also important for social groups to comment on the initial report to the Legislative Council, or even directly to the UN. Their submissions will play an important international supervisory role for the UN, which has limited access to information about Hong Kong. Commenting on UN CEDAW Committee's review process of country reports, UN representative Dr Carmel Shilav said, 'Often, it is a place very far away, and all we see are words on paper.' Last weekend, Dr Shilav attended a CEDAW Seminar organised by the Hong Kong University's Centre for Comparative and Public Law. Social, academic, legislative, and governmental representatives gathered to discuss dilemmas facing Hong Kong women. Participants included Legislative Councillor Christine Loh, Equal Opportunities Commission chairperson Fanny Cheung, Consumer Council chairperson Anna Wu, and Secretary for Justice Elsie Leung. Interestingly, the event received little media coverage.

Nevertheless, the dialogue between governmental and social groups is crucial to monitoring certain human rights. The non-governmental organisations that have contributed their ideas include the Hong Kong Federation of Women's Centres, Action for Reach Out, Society for Community Organisation, Hong Kong Women Workers' Association, and Harmony House.

On December 7, Legco will hold its third panel hearing on the CEDAW Report. On the agenda are presentations by social organisations and written deputations from political parties. The UN CEDAW Committee will meet from January 19 to February 5, next year.

DONNA SITU Citizens Party