DEFINING the status of women in Hong Kong has always been difficult. On the one hand, domestic violence and discrimination against women in the workplace appear widespread, even if they are often unreported. On the other hand, as the Government frequently points out, Hong Kong's most senior civil servant, the Chief Secretary, is a woman. The issue of women's status in Hong Kong was highlighted recently when non-government women's organisations met with the Legislative Council to discuss a report which the Government had compiled on the subject for September's UN Conference on Women in Beijing. The women's groups say the report failed to mention serious and widespread incidents of discrimination and inequality, and glossed over deep-rooted social and cultural problems. The Government has consistently refused to release the report for discussion, although a draft report was given limited circulation at a preparatory conference in Jakarta last June. The South China Morning Post has obtained a copy of the draft report, which appears to bear out criticisms made by the Coalition for Beijing - an association of 14 women's groups who have prepared their own 'alternative' report for the Beijing conference. The Assistant Principal Secretary for Home Affairs Susie Ho Suk-yee told the Home Affairs panel of Legco that the draft report had not been altered before it was submitted to the United Nations Office in New York in preparation for the conference. The report claims there is extensive consultation between the Government and women's groups: 'A network of government advisory boards and committees are in place. This enables the Government to obtain through consultation with interested groups in the community, the best possible advice on policy matters.' But, says coalition spokesperson Linda Wong Sau-yung, not only did the Government refuse to release its report, it didn't consult non-government organisations (NGOs) either. A spokesperson for the Hong Kong Association of Women Workers said issues such as discrimination against women in the workplace and in their professional careers are ignored in the Government's report. The report says: 'Generally women in Hong Kong enjoy the same rights as men to participate in the labour force or job of their choice.' However, it goes on to admit: 'There are some protective laws which limit, for example, the working hours, overtime and employment in shift work and prohibit women from employment in underground work and dangerous trades.' Legislator Anna Wu Hung-yuk says this 'protective' claim is a fallacy and there is no logical reason why women cannot do these jobs. She sees it as active discrimination disguised as concern for women's welfare. The spokesperson for the Women Workers' Association said the Government's total failure to mention the high unemployment rate of women over 30 is a serious omission. The coalition report highlights the effect that the recent relocation of manufacturing industries to China has had on women employed in these areas and the competition with imported (and cheaper) labour. Figures included in the coalition report show 83 per cent of women aged between 20 and 24 participate in the workforce, but the numbers drop to just 58 per cent participation for the 30 to 39 age group. 'It reveals how women are affected by child-bearing and family roles,' the spokesperson said. The Government's report claims that 'women comprise 37 per cent of the labour force and the participation rate is 46.4 per cent compared to 78 per cent for men'. THE coalition also claims that employment figures in the Government's report do not include housewives as part of the potential workforce, which makes it appear that women have a higher proportional participation rate than they actually do. The Women Workers' Association spokesperson said this is indicative of the attitude towards housework and child-rearing held by Hong Kong society, which regards them as unimportant. Some of the employment figures included in the Government's report do imply a degree of discrimination against women achieving higher positions in their profession. 'In terms of occupational areas, women account for a smaller proportion of those occupying managerial and professional positions. In 1991, about one-quarter of the managers and administrators were women. On the other hand, about 68.6 per cent of the clerks were women,' the government report states. The Government's report also concedes that: 'At present there is no legislation on sex discrimination or equal pay in Hong Kong.' But it insists: 'The Hong Kong Government is examining the introduction of such legislation in the light of responses to the Green Paper exercise.' It further says that the Government will 'shortly take a decision on strategy to promote gender equality'. One possible measure is to extend the International Covenant for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) to Hong Kong. But the coalition views this promise with some scepticism. The Government's report was written at least one year ago and there have been no developments. Ms Ho said the Government is still discussing the issue with the British Government and they have some 'reservations' about the effect of CEDAW which still need to be assessed. She would not disclose what the reservations were as they are still under discussion, but it is understood that one of the main concerns is the 'small house policy' - a system where males in the New Territories can apply for a small plot of land to build a house. This scheme is not available to women. The coalition is particularly angry that the Government's report fails to mention any of the discriminatory policies against women which remain in force in the New Territories, under the guise of 'cultural traditions'. Under these policies, voting rights in village elections are allocated on the basis of household, not individuals. The high proportion of women, especially single mothers on welfare is presented by the Government as women 'benefitting' from the welfare system. 'Through the fee assistance scheme, low-income families with a social need are helped to meet the cost of day-care for children. Families which are unable to provide adequate care for their children during the day as a result of parents going out to work, or single-parent families, or families with an aged or disabled member who need special care will be eligible to receive assistance. In many cases, women are the main beneficiaries of this assistance scheme.' According to the coalition, the official report is woefully inadequate and it is frustrated by the Government's refusal to consult others. Hence their decision to publish their own report, which they will submit at the NGO conference on women, also running in Beijing in September. Coalition spokesperson Linda Wong said the role of women in Chinese culture needs to be examined and greater consideration given to the limitations imposed by child-rearing and household responsibility. 'We want to reflect the unique problems in the status of women in Hong Kong,' she said. 'The Government's report falls short of reflecting the actual situation.' Ms Ho said the aim of the report was really for preparation work leading up to the conference and not for discussion at the main conference. She said as the report had already been passed on to the United Nations the Government would now listen to the NGOs and take the NGOs' views to the conference.