An independent United Nations expert today hailed progress in Saudi Arabia on advancing the status of women but urged more action to prevent gender-based violence and raise their profile in public life.
“Women of Saudi Arabia, in full respect of their societal values, appear ready to embark on a new stage of engagement in contributing to the advancement of their society and that of the coming generations of women and men,” the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, its Causes and Consequences, Yakin Ertürk, said in a statement after visiting the country from 4 to 13 February.
“Supporting them on their endeavour requires vision, courage, leadership and a firm commitment from the highest levels of the state and the involvement of all sectors of government in consultation with civil society actors.”
The expert stressed the variety of experiences among Saudi women. “There were those who have expressed contentment and satisfaction with their lives. Others have raised concerns of serious levels of discriminatory practices against women that compromise their rights and dignity as full human beings and undermine the true values of their society. And still others shared with me the domestic abuse they systematically encounter with little prospects for redress.”
She noted a number of positive developments, particularly improvements in women’s access to education, but said this has not been met with a comparable increase in their labour force participation. “Women are particularly excluded from decision making positions,” she observed, while adding that the private sector, on the other hand, “appears to offer women potential for greater autonomous space for self actualization.”
Some professional women and officials said the policy of sex segregation at the work-place constrains them, while others argued that the creation of private sections for women in public space fosters greater participation.
“Whatever the preferred modality may be, the infrastructure for women's equal participation in all government institutions and private businesses needs to be set in place and women’s participation in decision making processes needs to be ensured,” Ms. Ertürk said.
She hailed the recent demystification of the taboo around violence against women, praising a number of State initiatives to address the problem and promote awareness raising, referral, and care and protection for victims of violence, including access to shelters.
At the same time, the Special Rapporteur said women are prevented from escaping abusive environments because of their lack of autonomy and economic independence, practices surrounding divorce and child custody, the absence of a law criminalizing violence against women, and inconsistencies in the application of laws and procedures.
The lack of written laws governing private life “constitutes a major obstacle to women’s access to justice,” she said.
Women’s freedom is also restricted by misconceptions and ambiguities with respect to the system of male guardianship the country, which has an impact on marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, property ownership and decision-making in family matters, education and employment, she added.
Members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice “reportedly often act independently and are accountable only to the governor.” As a result, they are “said to be responsible for serious human rights abuses in harassing, threatening and arresting women who ‘deviate from accepted norms.’”
The expert recommended the adoption of a legal framework based on international human rights standards, the establishment of robust and independent institutions, and measures to foster women’s empowerment through participation in all spheres of society.
She also called for training and awareness-raising measures aimed at law enforcement officials, the judiciary, health-care providers, social workers, community leaders and the general public, “to increase the understanding that all forms of violence against women are not only grave violations of fundamental rights but are also totally incompatible with the values cherished by the Muslim society.”
Her visit, at the invitation of the Government, included stops in Riyadh, Buridah, Jeddah and Dammam. She met with Government officials, the head of the Shura Council and representatives of various segments of the society, including academia, human rights organizations, family protection centres, women’s groups, victims of violence, and women at a prison, as well as representatives of the diplomatic community.
She voiced appreciation for the Governments’ cooperation and assistance and said she would submit a full report to the Human Rights Council.