|Bringing Equality Home - Implementing the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women (UNIFEM, 1998, 45 p.)|
|III. NATIONAL LAWS|
Human rights activism intensified in Hong Kong in the late 1980s, following the events in Beijing's Tiananmen Square and in anticipation of the 1997 transfer of Hong Kong from British to Chinese rule. The transfer agreement between the British and Chinese Governments provided that China would respect existing Hong Kong legislation, and activists started to focus their attention on the passage of domestic human rights laws.
The 1991 Bill of Rights Ordinance, based on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, failed to provide significant protection for women's human rights. But the women's NGOs that came together for the first time around this ordinance continued their work, formally becoming the Coalition of Women's Organisations. The Coalition began lobbying for the ratification of CEDAW, the passage of anti-discrimination legislation, and the creation of a Women's Commission.
The first direct elections were held for seats in the Legislative Council in 1991, making that branch of the Hong Kong Government democratically accountable for the first time. During the first election, women's NGOs questioned candidates about their views on women's rights, and made sure that women's issues had a high profile in the campaign. Many of the legislators came to recognise the importance of the women's vote; several legislators became real advocates; and broad support developed in the Council for women's issues. An Ad-hoc Group was formed in the Council to study women's issues, and the motion it introduced on CEDAW ratification was passed unanimously.
The Hong Kong Government was convinced to give its Agreement in Principle that the Women's Convention should be extended to Hong Kong and its agreement to seek approval for the extension from the Chinese Government. Advocacy efforts also persuaded the Hong Kong Government that it had to pass a domestic sex discrimination law to respect the obligations it would be taking on under CEDAW. Several draft bills for this law came to the legislative council. The first was introduced by a legislator who was an advocate for women's rights. It was powerful and comprehensive, and it stated explicitly that the courts were to use the Convention when interpreting the law. The Government then introduced its own sex discrimination bill in order to pre-empt this proposal.
It was the Government's bill that was ultimately passed into law, in 1995, but not in its original form. The Legislative Council called for it to be strengthened. Critics argued that without changes the legislation would fall short of what the Convention required, putting the Government in the position of already failing to meet its commitments the moment CEDAW was extended to Hong Kong. The bill's scope was broadened in several important ways. The prohibition against marital status discrimination was extended past employment and education (article 1 of CEDAW does not restrict it to these areas). The concept of the 'hostile environment' was added to the sexual harassment provision (CEDAW's General Recommendation 19). As well, the bill provided that special measures taken to ameliorate past discrimination would not be considered discriminatory (CEDAW, article 4).