Whitewashing Women’s Rights Violations: The Participation of Bahrain’s Supreme Council for Women in the Gender Equality Forum

The Generation Equality Forum, organized by UN Women, is taking place in Paris between June 30 and July 2, 2021. Working alongside civil society, the Forum is a global gathering focused on discussing and promoting gender equality all over the world. The Supreme Council for Women (SCW) in Bahrain reported on January 30, 2021 that it had accepted its invitation to participate in the Forum in Paris.

The SCW is closely connected to the Bahraini government, which has continuously committed systematic human rights violations, including violations of women’s rights. The structure of the Council relies heavily on royal endorsement. The president of the SCW is the King’s first wife, Princess Sabeeka, and all high positions in the Council are appointed by royal order. By the Council’s own admission, it is founded by and directly affiliated with the King. It also operates on a national strategy based on his vision. Therefore, the structure of the Council does not encourage the objectivity needed to effectively advocate for women’s rights in the country.

In some ways, the Council can be regarded as a mechanism the Government can use to whitewash human rights violations. The mere existence of the Council provides legitimacy to the Government on issues of gender. In the past, it has been referred to as evidence of Bahraini women’s empowerment. For example, although Bahrain retains many reservations on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) the SCW claimed that the Convention had been “put into effect” in July 2016.

Furthermore, when speaking publicly, the Council tends to only focus on promoting Bahrain and highlighting the development of women’s rights, while completely disregarding the many human rights violations happening in the country. On March 20, 2021, the Secretary-General made a statement at an event held on the sidelines of the CSW 65 at the United Nations, where she “highlighted the Kingdom’s strides in empowering women,” while failing to mention the systematic gender discrimination in Bahraini nationality legislation and the reservations that the Government continues to retain on the CEDAW.

The Forum is a global event presided over by UN Women and the Governments of Mexico and France. It includes civil society organisations as well as international and national bodies. The Forum promotes the engagement of all actors in a global dialogue on the need for urgent action and accountability for gender equality. It highlights the empowerment of women’s actions and their activism. The Generation Equality Forum encourages actions from civil society to take steps in youth leadership, women’s rights recognition, and gender equality all over the globe. For that purpose, the event will be broadcast on social media and provide a stage for women’s rights activists and organisations to speak up.

The Forum is part of what President Macron called the “great cause of his mandate,” referring to gender equality. President Macron announced that he was willing to promote this equality in every field of society during his presidency. The Forum follows this feminist policy based on the International Strategy for Gender Equality. During the Forum, governments, members of civil society and feminist actors will be able to announce their commitment to this “great cause.” According to women’s rights defenders and human rights defenders in Bahrain, the Kingdom has failed to provide real evidence of gender equality despite the communications issued by the authorities. Allowing the SCW to attend this Forum provides a platform for the Government to continue its public relations campaign and whitewash its image by promoting a narrative that involves no genuine progress or meaningful reforms in women’s rights.

Bahraini legislation is still discriminatory, and the Council has failed to address the need for reform. In 2015 the government passed new legislation, intending to provide resources for reporting domestic violence. However, the legislation does not provide sufficient protection for all women, as marital rape is not penalized. Since then, reformative legislation to improve women’s situations has not advanced. Furthermore, the Penal Code still allows rapists to escape criminal charges if they marry their victim. Gender discrimination can also be observed within family and nationality laws. Many Bahraini mothers are unable to pass their citizenship to their children, which leaves many children stateless and vulnerable, with no access to their basic rights. Meanwhile, inheritance laws limit women’s ability to inherit. Given the COVID-19 pandemic and the exacerbated violence women suffer, ADHRB is deeply concerned about the SCW’s position on domestic abuse and gender discriminatory legislation, as attempts to properly address these issues have failed to result in meaningful reform.

 Women human rights defenders in Bahrain have testified to being sexually abused by the authorities, a subject on which the SCW has remained notoriously quiet and refused to investigate despite repeated attempts by victims to seek assistance. The Council has been lenient regarding the violations of human rights and most specifically women’s rights. The event should not provide a stage for the Council to promote the positive aspects of Bahrain, while not being truthful regarding  persistent violations.

Civil society organisations are heavily controlled in Bahrain. Any individual or group opposing the regime can be prosecuted under charges of terrorism. Many human rights defenders have been persecuted unfairly under the guise of the ambiguous anti-terror laws. People opposing the regime are arrested, subjected to ill-treatment and torture, and forced to sign confessions. Women journalists face more violent displays of abuse and intimidation than men. For instance, Bahrain’s Office of Public Prosecutions (PPO) announced in mid-March that it “will confront decisively (…) anyone who publishes or participates in the circulation of false news and biased rumors.” Bahrain does not allow a democratic process with opposition to the regime. The authorities repress any expression against the King. However, the SCW is used to promote improvements in civil society and the democratic process without shedding light on the repression.

The SCW and many other oversight bodies in Bahrain are closely tied to the King and royal power. This situation does not allow objectiveness and criticism, even under circumstances of clear violations of human rights. The recent Human Rights Watch Report and the Resolution of the European Parliament from March 2021 underline the continuous deterioration of human rights in the Kingdom. Yet, the SCW and other oversight bodies are not reporting similar situations, but rather promote the excellent work done by the authorities. Women are still discriminated against; their right to inherit, divorce, and transmit nationality are still limited compared to their male counterparts; and the country continues to maintain reservations on articles in the CEDAW.

In conclusion, the Generation Equality Forum is a worldwide stage set to encourage and reinforce the steps taken toward gender equality. Any organisation invited to the Forum should abide by these principles and support an objective and unbiased policy toward gender equality. Giving the Council a seat at the table allows it to perpetuate the good image of Bahrain while oppressing women, women’s rights defenders, and any opponents of the regime. For these reasons, ADHRB objects to the participation of the Supreme Council for Women at the Generation Equality Forum, and calls for its invitation to be rescinded.