CEDAW Review Shows Limits of Saudi Arabia’s Gender Policies

15 March 2018 – On Friday 9 March, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) released its concluding observations on Saudi Arabia’s third and fourth periodic review. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) welcomes the findings of CEDAW in regards to Saudi Arabia. While acknowledging that Saudi Arabia has taken several nominally positive steps to address gender inequality, ADHRB remains concerned over the retention of the guardianship system, the war in Yemen’s effect on women, the kingdom’s treatment of female migrant domestic workers, and lack of aggressive enforcement of current laws already in existence that are supposed to protect women. ADHRB strongly urges Saudi Arabia to address these issues by immediately implementing the recommendations of CEDAW and amending its national legislation so as to bring the kingdom into compliance with CEDAW treaty body obligations.

In its written report, throughout its presentation before the Committee’s members, and during the question-and-answer session, Saudi Arabia’s delegation spoke about a number of reforms the kingdom has taken to promote and protect women’s rights. In particular, the delegation noted the promulgation of a series of laws criminalizing abuse and domestic violence, as well as laws ensuring women have access to legal counsel, have the right to vote and stand as candidates in municipal elections, and have the power of divorce.

However, during the question-and-answer session with CEDAW’s rapporteurs and despite the rosy tone of the Saudi delegation, the Committee adopted a skeptical tone and asked numerous, specific questions for the delegation, including concerning the extent to which Saudi Arabia had actually reformed its gender policies. This skeptical tone is channeled in the Committee’s concluding remarks and the numerous recommendations the Committee made for the kingdom on a variety of gender-based issues.

            The Guardianship system

In its report, CEDAW noted the continued functioning of the guardianship system, which requires women to have a male guardian who is empowered to determine and approve of important decisions. The Committee noted that the kingdom had made some positive changes including the implementation of Supreme Order No. 33322, which allows women to access government services without a male guardian’s permission. The Committee also welcomed the 2012 ministerial decree allowing women to seek employment without the approval of a guardian. However, CEDAW criticized the continued use of the guardianship system, as it limits women’s access to the majority of rights and guarantees provided by the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women. For example, authorization from a male guardian is still expected in a number of areas, including travelling internationally, accessing health care services, choosing residency, marriage, filing complaints in the justice system, leaving state-run shelters for abused women, and for leaving detention centers.

In response to numerous questions about the guardianship system, Saudi Arabia stated that the system is legal through Islamic law. However, CEDAW noted that there is a wide range of opinions and jurisprudence in regards to Islamic law and that the kingdom should be open to a national dialogue on women’s rights in relation to Islamic law, while also clearly separating law derived from Islam over laws based on tradition or customs.

This review, stated the Committee, should be followed by more serious efforts to make Saudi domestic law compatible with the rights of the Convention, in particular by removing legal provisions that require a male guardian’s approval for women to access the rights of Articles 1 and 2 in the Convention. CEDAW also recommended the kingdom aggressively implement and enforce Supreme Order 33322 while expanding it to abolish all guardianship practices, as well as implementing the Supreme Order allowing women to drive. CEDAW also recommended that claims of disobedience by guardians not be used as justification to arbitrarily detain women.

            Effects of the war in Yemen on women’s rights

CEDAW also drew attention to the devastating effects of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen on women’s rights. Women and girls have been killed by indiscriminate airstrikes that have struck internally displaced persons camps and civilian areas. Survivors of these airstrikes face threats of malnutrition and disease owing to Saudi Arabia’s blockade and the restrictions on access to humanitarian aid, women and girls in particular. CEDAW recommended the immediate cessation of hostilities in Yemen and called on Saudi Arabia to follow international humanitarian law and allow unimpeded access of humanitarian aid, as well as prohibiting attacks on civilians or civilian targets. Furthermore, CEDAW recommended that Saudi Arabia allow and encourage the creation of an international body that can investigate human rights abuses in Yemen, ensure women have access to justice/redress, and include women in the peace process.

            Female Migrant Domestic Workers

CEDAW also highlighted the plight of female migrant domestic workers, who are at heightened risk of abuse, but who have received some new nominal protections in recent years. The Committee noted the 2013 Regulations concerning Domestic Workers and a 2015 amendment to the labor law that have increased some protections. However, these new regulations remain limited in their effect and abuse, and exploitation remains rampant. Female domestic workers continue to face numerous legal and practical limitations including passport confiscation and the kafala system’s continued restrictive prevalence. These problems shackle migrant domestic workers to an employer, no matter how abusive or exploitative. The situation is compounded by the lack of effective enforcement. Legal inspections of the working conditions migrant workers face are rare, current monitoring systems for employee contracts are poorly enforced, and fear of deportation or detention encourages female migrant workers to remain silent in the face of abuse.

CEDAW highlighted the laws that are in place, but that the kingdom does not enforce, and recommended that Saudi Arabia enforce existing protections and regulations. In particular, CEDAW recommended that the government enforce the prohibition on passport confiscations, as well as undertake regular labor inspections. It also recommended that the government expand the Labor Code to include domestic workers, as well as establish adequate punishments for employers found to be engaging in abusive practices. Equally important, the Committee recommended that women migrant domestic workers be made aware of the relevant legal protections to help remove the fear of speaking out against abusive employers.

Broadly speaking, CEDAW noted the concerning lack of serious enforcement of laws and regulations already in place that are meant to protect women. The question-and-answer session and report both expressed serious concern that gender-based violence directed towards women often goes underreported, while prosecution and conviction rates are extraordinarily low. When action is taken, punishments for perpetrators are lenient. Outside physical acts of violence against women, officials rarely and poorly enforce other laws and regulations.

Husain Abdulla, Executive Director of ADHRB: “We appreciate and support the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women’s complex and insightful questions about Saudi Arabia’s gender policies. It is clear to us from the Committee’s questions and report that Saudi Arabia has not only failed to adequately address the paucity of gender equality, but worked to whitewash continued gender inequality behind ineffective and unimplemented laws. Saudi Arabia must take the Committee’s recommendations seriously and work to implement them both in language and in spirit. Until the government does, the kingdom will continue to sanction gender inequality and women will remain second class citizens.”

Despite some changes in the past few years, Saudi Arabia remains woefully inadequate in its attempts to promote and protect women’s rights and gender equality. Women including Saudi nationals, Yemeni citizens, and migrant workers all continually face abuse and exploitation due to the kingdom’s halfhearted reforms. ADHRB calls on Saudi Arabia to implement CEDAW’s recommendations and thereby demonstrate to the international community that it is serious about improving the status of women and brining greater gender equality to Saudi Arabia.