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Preliminary observations and recommendations by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. Magdalena Sepulveda, Visit to Guinea-Bissau from 23 February to 1 March 2014

Members of the press, ladies and gentlemen,

I am addressing you today in relation to my official visit to Guinea-Bissau from 23 February to 1 March 2014, which I am undertaking at the invitation of the Government.  My objective during this visit is to evaluate the situation of those living in poverty in the country, and the following statement contains my preliminary findings and recommendations.  I would like to emphasize that today’s statement covers above all urgent issues which I hope will be addressed by the State as a matter of priority.  I will present my final report to the 25th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in June 2014.  The final report will include my more detailed recommendations to assist the Government in improving the lives of persons living in poverty.   

Given the immediacy of some of the issues raised with me by various stakeholders, I feel compelled to address them here today, and not to wait for consideration of the issues in my final country mission report for June 2014.  While I recognize that much more could be said on a range of issues, including encouraging Government policies and programmes, this is a deliberate choice. As such, the following comments are – and should be reported as – a work in progress.


During my stay, I met with various Government authorities, including the Transitional President, Serifo Nhamadjo; the Transitional Prime Minister, Rui Duarte de Barros; the Minister of Justice, Mamadú Saido Baldé; the Minister of Economy and Regional Integration, Soares Sambú; the Minister of Agriculture, Nicolau dos Santos; the Minister for Women, Family and Social Solidarity, Gabriela, Alfredo Fenandes; the Minister of Education, Youth, Culture and Sports, Alfredo Gomes Júnior; the Secretary of State for Food Security, Bilony Nhama Nantamba Nhasse; the President of the Human Rights Commission, Injai Fernandes; and the Commission for Strategic Planning.  I also met with representatives of international organizations, the donor community, international financial institutions and a range of civil society organizations.

In addition, I met with communities living in poverty in the Biombo, Quinhamel, Mansoa, Bissorã, Mansaba and Nhacra regions.  I visited several health care facilities such as Mansoa Hospital and the Bandium Health Project in Quinhamel region (Bucumul village).  

I would like to thank the Government of Guinea-Bissau for its excellent cooperation during my visit. I very much appreciate the spirit of openness in which I was able to engage in dialogue with the authorities.

I met with the Special Representative of the Secretary General Jose Manuel Ramos Horta, the deputy SRSG and Resident coordinator, Gana Fofang and other representatives of the United Nations Country team.  I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to the Human Rights Section of the United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Guinea-Bissau (UNIOGBIS) for their excellent collaboration and assistance with the mission.

I am indebted to everyone who took the time to meet with me as their contributions have been invaluable to the success of my visit.  I was particularly struck by the vibrant and active engagement by civil society working on human rights and poverty issues during the mission.  I am especially grateful to all those who shared their personal, and sometimes very troubling, experiences of struggling with extreme poverty and social exclusion.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Since the end of its decade-long conflict for independence in 1973, Guinea-Bissau has experienced near-constant political instability, culminating in the 1998-1999 civil war, which displaced a quarter of the population.  The conflict caused severe disruptions to the economy and massive destruction of public infrastructure, an impact from which the country is still reeling.  Since the time of its independence, not a single government of Guinea-Bissau has completed its mandated term of office.  Guinea-Bissau has faced continuous instability, characterised by recurrent high level political assassinations, coups d’état, political persecutions and forced resignation from office by officials, with the latest presidential elections interrupted by a military coup on 12 April 2012.  This instability has resulted in corresponding declines in development levels, with the complex interlinking of poverty, tradition and culture reinforcing harmful social norms and limiting communities’ and households’ access to basic services. 

The proportion of the population living in monetary poverty increased markedly between 2002 and 2010.  For people living on less than US$2 per day, the increase was four percentage points, to 69% (DENARP II, 2011, p.7).  The increase in extreme poverty (less than US$1 per day) was even greater, from 21% to 33%.  The large disparity between the capital and the rest of the country also widened between 2002 and 2010: extreme poverty increased from 25% to 40% in the regions, compared with an increase from 9% to 13% in Bissau.

Levels of absolute and extreme poverty are extremely high outside of the capital.  Between one-third and half of the population live on less than US$1 a day in the seven poorest regions, and absolute poverty is pervasive throughout the countryside.  Even in the best performing region, Bolama/Bijagós, almost half the population lives on less than US$2 a day, and in Gabú absolute poverty is close to universal, affecting 84% of the population. Widespread poverty underscores the vulnerability of the population: an extreme lack of financial resources constrains the ability of communities to provide their children with health care, education and a protective environment.

This cycle of instability and corresponding social declines are most recently illustrated by the coup d’état in April 2012. Guinea-Bissau was and remains heavily dependent on overseas development assistance, which represents up to 15% of its GDP.  In 2010, overseas assistance amounted to approximately 57 per cent of total government revenue and funded over 50 per cent of Guinea-Bissau’s total expenditures.  Although the early part of this decade witnessed some improvements in social indicators, information gathered in the last year has shown a decrease across a range of measures following the coup and the resulting suspension of many overseas development aid programs. Guinea-Bissau will be unable to meet any of the Millennium Development Goals by 2015.

Recognising the limited resources of this relatively young country, a compounding problem has been that the consistent decline of investment in critical social services such as health and education, dramatically impairing the chances of further development and dragging the country backward.  As a result of the limited budget for overall government expenses (22 percent of GDP according to estimates—IMF report of May 2010), the share allocated to basic social services is among the lowest in the sub region.  In 2006, for example, less than 4 percent of government spending was allocated to education (US$10 per capita) as opposed to 6.7 percent (US$14) in Niger.  In 2007, public expenditure on health was estimated at US$4 in Guinea-Bissau, compared with an average of US$11 for low-income countries and US$34 for the African region (World health statistics, WHO 2010).  In 2011, the budget allocated to education and health is a mere 20.7 percent of the total, as opposed to the international recommendation of 40 percent.

I have noted that Guinea-Bissau is committed to strengthening its legal remedies and in recent years has adopted important legislation and international treaties.  Guinea Bissau’s signing of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) on a communications procedure, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its optional protocol, all in 2013, and the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in 2009, have provided important progress toward a number of areas related to my mandate, but I strongly urge the Government to complete the ratification process for these instruments. 

Guinea Bissau has actively engaged with human rights monitoring bodies by participating in the Universal Periodic Review process, engaging with review by the United Nations Treaty Bodies, and extending a standing invitation to all Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council.  In accordance with the recommendations of the UPR, CRC Committee and CEDAW Committee, and with technical and financial support from UNIOGBIS and UNCT partners, the Government has made some progress in establishing legislative and policy frameworks. 

In 2011, the Government adopted the Law to Prevent, Fight and Suppress Female Genital Mutilation (Law No. 14/2011), and the Law to Prevent and Combat the Traffic of Persons, Particularly Women and Children (Law 12/2011).  The Government has also finalized the National Policy on Gender Equality and Equity (PNIEG), a framework for promoting, coordinating, and following up on equity on all sectors.  Collaboration with the specialized Parliamentary Committee on Women and Children resulted in a Law Against Domestic Violence being adopted by the National Assembly in July 2013, though it still has not been officially promulgated by the President.  Recently, the Transitional Government approved the National Plan to End Gender-Based Violence (2014-2016), following wide-ranging dialogue with women’s organizations, human rights defenders, civil society organizations and UN partners.

However, further steps are required to fully incorporate legal and international norms into national policy and implementation.  Often legislation does not translate into enforceable rights for many Bissau Guineans. There are severe implementation gaps in the implementation of the law, including the promulgation of the law against domestic violence.

I take note of the efforts made to ensure that GB has a national human rights institution that is truly independent and with the financial and human resources to act.   In this sense, I call on the State to ensure that the new Statute of the National Human Rights Commission is fully in accordance with the Paris Principles.  Significant investment of human and financial resources is also needed, particularly through the decentralization of services so that they are accessible to communities. 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

During my visit I have identified several segments of Guinea-Bissaun society that are particularly vulnerable to poverty and social exclusion, including women, children and youth, persons with disabilities, and persons living with HIV/AIDS.  While my final report will address the specific human rights issues and deprivations affecting different groups in more detail, I would like to take this opportunity to voice particular concerns about the situation of women and children.

Women and girls

Gender inequality and discrimination are among the main drivers of poverty and vulnerability, particularly in rural areas.  This is an extremely patriarchal society which has historically been indifferent to women’s rights and needs. Visiting rural communities I have been struck by the extent to which the wellbeing and the economy of the community and the households rely entirely on women. 

Women and girls are solely responsible for unpaid domestic work, such as collecting water and firewood, cooking and caring for children and the sick, and they are also the main providers of food and income. Still they have little control over domestic resources or family planning. Although they are the main users of the land as farmers and producers, they do not have secure land tenure. Rather, they are restricted to secondary land rights, whereby their rights to use the land are gained only through their husbands or other male family members.

The high poverty rate among widows is often related to discrimination in legal and customary law: after a husband’s death, the widow does not inherit his land and resources, but rather becomes her husband’s family’s responsibility. Despite being the primary workers of the land, producing food and resources from it, single, widowed or abandoned women have less access to land and economic opportunities.  Without secure rights and access to land and productive resources, rural women can easily fall into even deeper poverty, and face huge challenges to working their way back to even subsistence levels for their families.

Disparities and lack of opportunities for women can be seen in all areas and sectors.  Women and girls are carrying the burden of caring and providing for their families in situations of extreme poverty, and their reward for a life of indefatigable effort is the complete denial of their rights, such as their rights to education, health and physical integrity.

Compared with men, women suffer from worse access to health services, higher incidence of HIV/AIDS, lower levels of school enrolment and literacy, reduced incomes, higher rates of unemployment, and greater difficulties of overcoming poverty.

Compounding their situation further, there is a widespread prevalence of sexual and gender-based violence in the country, and a high level of impunity.  All around the country, women are victims of these abuses, without having access to protection, justice or remedies. Physical, psychological and sexual violence against women is widespread, but remains underreported. Domestic violence is rarely brought to the attention of legal authorities. Cultural norms and taboos, lack of law enforcement officials, and lack of economic resources often deny them any possibility of seeking redress and justice for those responsible.

Female genital mutilation (FGM), which is an assault on women and girls’ physical integrity and often violates their right to health, is also widespread in certain communities.  In Guinea Bissau the prevalence of this practice is also linked to poverty. The prevalence and the increased number of reported cases may reflect an unacceptable retrogression in women’s rights.  While I commend the measures taken in recent years, such as the Law to Prevent, Fight and Suppress Female Genital Mutilation (Law 14/2011), the Declaration adopted by imams after the 2012 International Islamic Conference for the Abandonment of Female Genital Mutilation, as well as the symbolic signing of a fatwa condemning FGM, all necessary resources must be put in place to ensure that FGM is eradicated in practice.

Women can never be equal or enjoy their rights where gender-based violence is so prevalent. While I commend the adoption of the Law against Domestic Violence, and the Law against FGM, additional efforts must be made to ensure the full implementation of the laws.  People in communities across Guinea-Bissau must be sensitized to the existence laws and must be able enforce the law when the need arises.  Sensitive outreach and education will also be necessary to change discriminatory and abusive cultural norms, stereotypes and practices, in line with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women. In Guinea-Bissau, such damaging gender stereotypes are at the root of much of the violence, poverty and rights deprivation that women experience – but these stereotypes are not inevitable or static. Through concerted action and education, they can and must be changed.

The extremely high level of maternal mortality in the country also presents a dire situation. Maternal mortality rates rank 8th highest in the world, with an estimated 790 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births.  It is deplorable that in 2014, two women per day die while giving birth. Nationally, six women out of ten do not have access to a skilled attendant while giving birth, one of the most important factors in helping women survive complications during and after delivery. Unsanitary and run-down facilities, a critical shortage of health personnel, an inadequate supply system for medications, geographic barriers and the unaffordable cost stand as major obstacles for women’s access to care.

Other factors impacting the right to health and education of women are the prevalence of early pregnancy and early marriage.  In 2011, 31 per cent of women aged 20-24 had given birth before reaching 18 years of age, with the adolescent birth rate measured at 137 births per 1,000 adolescent girls aged 15-19 (UNICEF State of The World’s Children, 2013). The early pregnancy rate is slightly higher than the rate of early marriage.  Seven per cent of women aged 20-24 years were first married before they were 15 years old, with 22 per cent first married before they were 18 years old (UNICEF State of The World’s Children, 2013).  Much more needs to be done to sensitise some ethnic groups on the negative impact of these traditional practice on women’s wellbeing.  State authorities, health care personnel, and law enforcement officials must demonstrate the strongest commitment to end all forms of harmful traditional practices.

HIV/AIDS remains a significant problem for Guinea-Bissau and is another issue with a disproportional impact on women. With conservative estimates putting the national prevalence rate among adults at 5.3%, women suffer disproportionately compared to men: 6.9% compared to 2.4%.  These rates are higher than the HIV prevalence in the West and Central African region.  The suspension of the Global Fund programme had a major impact in 2013 as the country suffered a lack of anti-retroviral treatments, test kits, and treatment programs to prevent mother to child transmission.  Due to the lack of data collection in the last year and the corresponding drop in programs addressing HIV/AIDS, the current estimated rates likely represent an underestimation of the true scope of the problem.  Additional measures must be taken to ensure that the population has a comprehensive and correct knowledge of HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, and that all possible preventive measures are taken.

Despite being the pillar of Guinean Society, women in Guinea-Bissau continue to be under-represented in decision-making positions, placing the country among the weakest-performing states in the ECOWAS Region in this respect.  The current Transitional Government includes just two women (compared with 28 men), accounting for 7.4 per cent of total members in a country where women are 51.5 per cent of the total population.  This severe underrepresentation is reflected at the local, community and household levels, where women are largely unable to participate meaningfully in decision-making processes.   

The country cannot progress in crucial areas such as poverty reduction, sustainable development or human rights enjoyment without significant measures to ensure the equal status of women in society. This is not only a matter of basic justice and human rights, but is also an essential prerequisite for improving the lives of all in Guinea Bissau. Experiences in many countries have shown that empowerment of women is a key factor in economic growth and development. This effort must begin now, without any delay. Today, I will give some non-exhaustive recommendations for priority actions in this regard.

In order to make progress on combating maternal mortality and fulfilling women’s right to the highest attainable standard of health, women must be ensured access to reproductive services and antenatal and post-natal health care. Both physical and financial access must be carefully provided for, for example by eliminating user fees and providing health care services closer to communities, especially in rural areas.

Women’s political participation at all levels must be improved and supported without delay. Although women’s equal presence in decision-making bodies is but a first step towards gender equality, it is a necessary one, to ensure women’s voices are able to be heard in all matters that affect them. Critical measures must be taken before the upcoming elections as a matter of priority, otherwise women’s disempowerment will be perpetuated. Despite the short timeframe, a legal framework for gender equality in elections must be adopted and supported by all political parties and by the Transitional Government.  Both the opportunity and the outcome are crucial: the proportion of women should not only be increased in the list of candidates, but also in those who are elected.  To this end, it seems unavoidable that the government and the political parties implement quotas as a mean of fast-tracking women’s access to decision-making positions.

Nevertheless, while quotas may ensure that women have a presence in parliament, there is no guarantee that women will be able to use their power effectively. Considering the limited history of women's mobilization and women's integration in political life in the country, immediate actions must be taken to provide education, leadership and skills training and other strategies to boost the empowerment of women.  Given the consistent political instability, this should include engaging women and girls in conflict prevention and resolution in line with UN Security Council resolution 1325.  It will be particularly important to provide the necessary support (financial and otherwise) to women's networks and civil society organizations to ensure that efforts are made from the grass roots upwards.  In addition, women’s unpaid domestic workload must be shared and alleviated if they are to be able to participate in decision-making forums, from community groups to the national parliament.

There are numerous examples of other developing countries, including post-conflict countries that have managed to increase the political participation of women exponentially in a short time-frame. I suggest that Guinea Bissau learn from such efforts in addressing its own challenges, although of course its own measures must be carefully chosen and informed by the social, political and cultural context.

After the elections, the new Government must make it a priority to ensure equality of women in all spheres of life and consolidate a legal framework in which their role in all levels of decision-making bodies, from the electoral commissions to the local governments, is increased, facilitated and supported. Revising the laws on inheritance, land tenure and ownership will also be an absolutely essential and urgent task for the new government as it seeks to put into place women’s equal rights to land and productive resources, which is a prerequisite for their economic empowerment and escape from poverty.


Mortality rates for children under five in Guinea-Bissau are the 7th highest in the world, with 161 child deaths per 1,000 live births in 2011.  Tragically, one in ten children dies before their first birthday, while one in six children dies before reaching five years of age.  The main causes of child mortality are neonatal complications, malaria, acute respiratory infections and diarrhoea – all highly preventable. Furthermore, malnutrition, which has always been a major public health problem in Guinea Bissau, continues to be one of the main underlying causes of infant mortality and morbidity: 27.4 per cent of under-five children suffered chronic malnutrition, while 6.5 per cent suffered acute malnutrition.  In 2013, the situation further deteriorated, in part because of food insecurity, affecting mostly children aged 6-59 months. Despite a significant improvement in breast-feeding prevalence (from 38% to 67% between 2010 and 2012), infant feeding practices are one of the causes for this situation, especially for infants and young children.

Child labour is prevalent - in 2010, 57 per cent of children 5-14 years old were engaged in child labour (UNDP Human Development Report 2013).  This reflects the desperate economic need of many families in Guinea-Bissau, but unfortunately child labour only perpetuates poverty in the medium and long-term, as the children do not have the opportunity to receive an adequate education.  Substantial studies must be undertaken to assess the feasibility of progressively implementing some form of social protection, at least for the most vulnerable members of society.  While these steps would significantly reduce the incentives for child labour, they would also be critical in ensuring food security and promoting social inclusion.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Guinea Bissau is an exceptionally young country, with 65% of the population under 25 years of age.  Therefore, the country must look to enhance the wellbeing of younger generations, who are the future of the country.  Measures to fulfil the right to education for all children and young people are particularly essential.  As a matter of priority, the State must ensure that all children in all regions of the country are able to enjoy their absolute right to free and compulsory primary education, through high-quality schools that are safely accessible and without indirect costs. Proactive measures to progressively achieve this end must be taken as a matter of urgency.  The country must give priority to its children and restructuring the education system is a necessary condition for development.  The health of children and mothers must also be addressed as a matter of priority.   During my visit, I met doctors, nurses and teachers that work tirelessly for their people despite not receiving a salary for months at a time.  I commend their efforts but call on the State to ensure that those working on critical sectors such as health and education consistently receive their salaries as a matter of priority.   

All State authorities must act with the vision to ensure that children, young adults, and future generations to come will have a better life.  Short-term, short-sighted decisions that pursue self-interest over nation-building and the enjoyment of universal opportunities and rights will severely threaten the future of the country and will not provide the political stability and equitable, sustainable development that the Guinean people deserve.

Ladies and gentlemen

The country has an opportunity to progress. However, it depends on agreeing on a common vision, a vision which moves the country’s politics away from short-term power struggles and opportunistic alliances, instead towards working for the well-being of all members of society - in particular the majority of the population that live in abject poverty.

To ensure the sustainable development of the country, it is essential to fight impunity and make all authorities truly accountable.  In order to ensure effective measures of justice, remedy and reconciliation in the society, Guinea-Bissau should seriously consider the establishment of an international commission of inquiry supported by the United Nations.  Social cohesion, peace and stability also depend on the extent to which there is rule of law, independence of the judiciary and a modernised military which is under civilian oversight.

States policies must aim to provide for those who live in poverty, who are the majority of the population of Guinea Bissau, and give them the necessary tools to improve their lives.  This means that social investments in areas such as health and education can no longer be neglected. The proportion of the (albeit limited) State budget that is allocated to health and education spending must be increased considerably for the country to have any chance of meaningful development progress.  This can be achieved by taking from lower priority sectors such as military expenditure, which are not as essential to rights enjoyment.  Such a balance of expenditures is the State’s legal obligation under several human rights treaties such as the ICESCR and the CRC.

Guinea-Bissau must spend the ‘maximum available resources’ on the realization of economic and social rights, such as health and education.  Ultimately, the country cannot develop without making some investment in its most vital asset: its population.  

Particular attention must also be paid to the major economic sector of agriculture, on which the majority of the population depend for their livelihood.

There is still an extremely low level of productivity in agriculture and a dependency on one crop (the cashew nut), which creates a major risk of food insecurity and even famine if the crop fails or market prices drop.  Despite the size of the agricultural sector, local food production is insufficient to meet national requirements due to various factors, including poor transport infrastructure, underdeveloped marketing systems, lack of access to credit and a lack of agricultural inputs and irrigation facilities.  To overcome the high levels of food insecurity and vulnerability in the country, and the accompanying scourge of malnutrition, it is critical to address these challenges and the reliance on cashew nut crops.

The State must enhance investment in agriculture and the rural economy to increase productivity. This sector can be a motor of sustained economic growth, but it cannot happen without enhanced development of agricultural and rural infrastructure, which will also have the benefit of increasing the productive capacity, boosting livelihoods and elevating food security.

While development of infrastructure is essential, environmentally sustainable development must be the goal.  In Guinea Bissau, forests and fisheries are at risk of depletion.  Greater measures must be taken to ensure the preservation of natural resources for future generations and to address the degradation of the environment.  Furthermore, the authorities must act urgently to avoid the systematic depletion of the forests and fisheries through acts of corruption, currently occurring with impunity.  Such acts must be prevented and prosecuted at all levels.  The country’s natural resources rightfully belong to all the people of Guinea Bissau, and must provide food and livelihoods for them for many generations to come.  Those who are illegally depleting these common goods for their own profit and to the detriment of the country’s future must be held accountable as matter of priority.

Ladies and gentlemen

I would like to take this opportunity to issue a strong call to the international community to continue and strengthen international assistance and cooperation for the benefit of the people of Guinea-Bissau.  Given the grave situation of poverty in Guinea-Bissau, all States that are in a position to assist should endeavour to do so, through financial and technical assistance and capacity-building.  The recent political situation has understandably put this in jeopardy, but the international community should strengthen their efforts to ensure that the people of Guinea-Bissau, who are so much in need, are not further penalised for the actions of the political and military elites.

Strong efforts should be made to ensure that in parallel with the support provided to build the capacity of State’s institutions, civil society organisations continue to receive the assistance that they need.  Supporting and enabling vibrant civil society organisations in the country is a way to ensure citizens’ oversight and effective channelling of resources to the poorest segments of the population. Despite all obstacles, many civil society organisations very effective in assisting in building the livelihoods and capacities of those they are able to reach, often with innovative projects.  Additional resources are needed to allow them to increase their impact, coverage and support, and transition from small micro projects to a wider coverage.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Ultimately, I believe the recommendations I have made today will not only help to reduce poverty and spur sustainable development and more effective enjoyment of human rights in Guinea-Bissau, but will also considerably diminish the potential of future tensions and conflict. If poverty and gender inequality are not addressed as a matter of priority, and systematic impunity is not tackled, the opportunities for meaningful development and social cohesion will be threatened.

If authorities, including the military and political elites, do not choose nation-building and human rights fulfilment over personal gain, there will inevitably develop an increasing resentment by the majority of the population, impeding the consolidation of political stability and development. 

I will finish by reiterating my commitment to continuing the dialogue initiated during this visit.  I would like to thank once again the Government of Guinea-Bissau for its excellent cooperation during my visit. I look forward to working with the Government in a spirit of collaboration on the implementation of my recommendations.