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Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women examines Saudi Arabia's report

GENEVA (27 February 2018) - The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women today considered the combined third and fourth periodic reports of Saudi Arabia on the implementation of the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Introducing the report, Bandar bin Mohammed Al-Aiban, Chairman of the Saudi Human Rights Commission, said that the country had experienced a period of great prosperity in line with its 2030 Vision, which contained programmes to strengthen women’s rights.  Saudi Arabia had implemented rules, laws and regulations tailored to traditions, religious values and principles that allowed women more independence as they played a key economic role in society.  Laws concerning justice and criminal procedures, child protection, and abuse had been strengthened, and women were allowed greater access to education, health and mobility.  Saudi Arabia had also launched awareness raising campaigns to bring attention to women’s rights.  Women played an important role in the Government: 30 women were on the Sharia Council and they made up 25 per cent of the National Human Rights Council.  Young women could study science and pursue physical education, and women occupied high-ranking financial positions.  In conclusion, Mr. Al-Aiban noted that civil society had proved to be a vital partner in the protection of women’s rights in the country.

During the discussion, Committee Experts congratulated Saudi Arabia for its recently adopted open approach to promoting the rights of women, and remarked that the Vision 2030, bringing about economic and social transformation of the country based on women’s empowerment, was a real opportunity for Saudi women to find their legal emancipation which was absolutely crucial for the full enjoyment of their rights in line with the Convention.  Experts noted the failure to adopt a specific law prohibiting discrimination against women, and the absence of a legal definition of discrimination against women in line with the Convention, which in a country with strong customs and traditions, was a point of concern.  The ‘mahram’ system, or the system of male guardianship, was the key obstacle to women’s participation in society and economy, Experts remarked and asked about concrete steps taken to end this system.

Welcoming the 2030 Vision, they asked if the implementation of measures contained therein was sufficient to open public dialogue on the rights of women through amendment of the Sharia-based provisions.  In addition to lacking a proper legal framework, Saudi Arabia also lacked legal certainty and rigour of laws, Experts said and inquired about the codification of personal status law.  The Committee deplored that the death penalty still existed in Saudi Arabia, and expressed concern that rape was neither defined nor prohibited by law.  They raised the issue of nationality for the Bedouin women and that women still needed permission from a male guardian to obtain a passport.

The delegation of Saudi Arabia included representatives of the Saudi Human Rights Commission, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of the Interior, Public Prosecutor, Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Dawah and Guidance, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Culture and Information, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Labour and Social Development, Ministry of Economy and Planning, General Authority for Statistics, National Family Safety Programme, General Sport Authority, King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre, Supreme Judicial Council, and the Permanent Mission of Saudi Arabia to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The next public meeting of the Committee will be at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 28 February, when it will consider the combined fourth to sixth periodic reports of Suriname (CEDAW/C/SUR/4-6).
Reports

The combined third and fourth periodic reports of Saudi Arabia can be read here: CEDAW/C/SAU/3-4.
Presentation of the Report

BANDAR BIN MOHAMMED AL-AIBAN, Chairman of the Saudi Human Rights Commission, said that women’s rights were an extremely important issue for the Saudi population.  The country had experienced a period of great prosperity in line with the 2030 Vision for the Kingdom, which contained programmes to strengthen women’s rights.  Saudi Arabia had implemented rules, laws and regulations tailored to traditions, religious values and principles that allowed women more independence as they played a key economic role in society.  The Sharia law determined the responsibility to protect women’s rights, and the livelihood of the Saudi women was the base of all governmental thinking; prosperous women made for a prosperous future for the country.  The Kingdom was committed to fighting discrimination against women and it had adopted the best practices according to international obligations under the Convention.  It had strengthened laws concerning justice and criminal procedures, child protection, abuse, and had allowed women greater access to education, health and mobility.  According to a royal decree concerning divorced and separated women’s rights, women no longer needed the permission or accompaniment of a guardian.  Women also received legal aid in cases of abuse.  The Government had launched awareness raising campaigns to bring attention to women’s rights.

Turning to institutional frameworks, Mr. Al-Aiban explained that family councils were mechanisms established to handle family issues.  As for domestic violence, a 24/7 hotline was set up and operated solely by women to help female victims of violence in any context.  Women played an important role in the Government: 30 women were on the Sharia Council and they made up 25 per cent of the Saudi Human Rights Commission.  Women enjoyed the right to vote and could be elected in municipal councils.  The Government had made efforts to improve women’s access to health.  Better pre-natal and post-natal care had resulted in a decrease in infant and maternal mortality rates.  With respect to education, 52 per cent of women received university education, and young women could study science and pursue physical education.  Turning to employment, Mr. Al-Aiban highlighted measures to reduce unemployment and support programmes for the children of working mothers, whereas in 2010 the Government had introduced legislation to demand equal pay for women.  Women also occupied high-ranking financial positions, in banks and other financial institutions.  In conclusion, Mr. Al-Aiban noted that civil society had proved to be a vital partner in the protection of women’s rights in the country.

Questions by Committee Experts

An Expert congratulated Saudi Arabia for its recently adopted open approach to develop and promote the rights of women, including in their greater political participation.  However, a specific law prohibiting discrimination against women had not been adopted, and there was no definition of discrimination against women in line with the Convention in the law.  This was a particularly salient point in a country where customs and traditions had supremacy.  What procedures had the State party adopted to develop a clear legal framework on discrimination against women and to lift reservations to the Convention?

The ‘mahram’ system, or the system of male guardianship, was the key obstacle to women’s participation in society and economy.  What steps were being taken to end this system?  Was the implementation of measures contained in the 2030 Vision, and elsewhere, sufficient to open public dialogue on the rights of women through amendment of the Sharia-based provisions so that Sharia would be commensurate with the reality of women’s rights on the ground?

Another Expert welcomed the reforming vision through Vision 2030 which was bringing about economic and social transformation of the country based on women’s empowerment.  This new approach was a real opportunity for Saudi women to find their legal emancipation which was absolutely crucial for the full enjoyment of women’s rights in line with the Convention.

It was crucial to have a proper legal framework in place and legal certainty, which currently was not the case.  What was being done to codify the laws in particular the personal status law?  The implementation of the laws and royal decrees and ordinances was an issue of concern as well.

What steps were being taken to strengthen legal guarantees and the right to defense, including to strengthen the role of lawyers and fully recognize the rights of minorities?  The Committee deplored that the death penalty still existed in Saudi Arabia.

Civil society organizations of women still felt restricted through the monitoring of their activities.  How did Saudi Arabia ensuring women’s rights during its military involvement in Yemen?

Replies by the Delegation

The delegation noted that all forms of discrimination, including on the grounds of race and disability, were prohibited.  Certain laws provided for stricter punishment when discrimination was directed against a woman.  As for the provisions concerning personal status and labour laws, the authorities had taken all measures to prohibit any discriminatory practices.  They had set up a special council to examine laws and ensure that they were in line with international standards.

In 2017, a law was passed that allowed women access to services without being accompanied by a man.  Those services included health and legal services, the right to divorce, choosing a place of residence, and getting an identification card.
Turning to access to justice, the delegation noted that the Kingdom assured access to justice for all.  Women had been able to submit divorce cases to courts in their place of residence; both the husband and wife received marriage documents; and women had access to legal advice as established by the Ministry of Justice in certain cities.  The authorities were also considering amendments to laws concerning domestic violence.

With regard to training of judges, in 2014 training facilities for judges had opened in line with the international human rights law.  As for civil society organizations, the delegation clarified that numerous legal provisions enhanced their independence.  Requests to create associations required signatures of at least 10 Saudi nationals, as long as they had no criminal record.

On the question of respecting women’s rights in Yemen, the delegation explained that the military operations in Yemen were in accordance with humanitarian and human rights laws, and their main concern was protecting civilians, particularly women and children.

Questions by Committee Experts

Experts inquired about specific legal provisions concerning trafficking in persons. Were there regulations concerning male guardianship in the private sector?  Experts also suggested that a definition of discrimination be included in the State party’s legal arsenal.

Experts observed that there was only one mechanism to ensure the protection of human rights – the Saudi Human Rights Commission.  Was there an arm of the Commission that specialized in women’s rights?  They also noted that discriminatory laws against women needed to be clearly defined, adding that women’s freedom of choice did not exist in Saudi Arabia.

Replies by the Delegation

BANDAR BIN MOHAMMED AL-AIBAN, Chairman of the Saudi Human Rights Commission, said that measures existed to prevent working women from becoming victims of trafficking.  He added that there was indeed a branch of the Saudi Human Rights Commission set up specifically for women’s rights.

The delegation noted that female members of the Saudi Human Rights Commission worked alongside other members of the Commission to combat discrimination.  Women participated in many State councils, as well as religious jurisprudence, and participated in debates and decision-making processes of those institutions.

Saudi women were free to choose professions and education; nothing forced a woman to practice a profession she had not chosen, and nothing forced her to enter into relations with another person.

Questions by Committee Experts

The 2030 vision for Saudi Arabia needed to be underpinned by equality, and women needed to be protagonists for programmes and strategies to move the State forward, Experts observed.  What inclusive institutions did the State party intend to create for the training of civil servants?  How could the State address segregation created by positions set up specifically for women?

An Expert expressed her concern about women’s participation in political life, private sector and academia, particularly at the highest levels.

Replies by the Delegation

The role of women in implementing the Convention was two-fold: they directed the definition of the Convention and supervised its implementation in conjunction with the Saudi Human Rights Commission and civil society organizations.

Concerning training for civil servants, the authorities had organized seminars for judges, lawyers and members of civil society, covering a range of initiatives and projects concerning human rights education, as well as seminars and online meetings that informed the public about women’s rights.

Women were responsible for launching interactive dialogues to bring about strategies to improve their standing in the Saudi society.  They were appointed to specific Government jobs and municipal councils.  There were no legal texts that prevented women from holding public office or participating in elections.

The General Authority for Statistics, which was responsible for collecting data, did not have specific figures on women’s participation in the Saudi educational institutions and workforce.

Questions by Committee Experts

An Expert noted that the existing domestic laws on abuse were a great step forward.  However, there was a concern about how they specifically addressed violence against women.  Statistics were crucial for understanding violence against women, but data were lacking including on the number of cases of domestic violence reported to courts.  How many of the reported cases of violence against women had ended by reconciliation?

Did medical staff understand how to cope with victims of sexual violence and domestic violence and how to report it to the proper authorities?  When it came to awareness programs concerning women’s rights, an Expert observed that Saudi Arabia’s efforts were not as persistent as they could be.

Another Expert expressed concern that economic violence was not addressed in the Saudi law, nor was rape defined nor prohibited by law.  Would the criminalization of rape be enacted in legislation?  What was the progress of the draft bill on harassment?  Experts also expressed concern about how the Government prosecuted cases of violence against women.

Replies by the Delegation

The delegation stressed that violence against women was taken very seriously, and that it all forms of violence against women were criminalized.  Any witness of violence had to immediately report the case to proper authorities, which created a special unit to analyse each case.  Police stations and security agencies were required to rapidly respond and provide assistance to women in their homes when domestic abuse was reported.

Victims of violence received immediate treatment, within 48 hours.  They could report violence through a hotline that received complaints of abuse, and seek accommodation in shelters.  A database of domestic violence cases was kept in certain hospitals, including demographic information.  There was a record of 384 cases of physical abuse against women in 2017, and 65 sexual abuse cases.

The law criminalized human trafficking, whereas marital rape provided reasoning for the termination of marriage.

Questions by Committee Experts

Experts commended the State Party for the adoption of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Offences Law, which defined trafficking in compliance with the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (the Palermo Protocol).  However, they expressed concern about the national on prevention, protection and prosecution.

Saudi Arabia had more than 200 domestic workers, most of whom were women. The decree allowed for nine hours of rest every 24 hours and one month of leave. Were female domestic workers protected under any law?  Did they have access to help and shelters?  What kind of help could they receive in case of abuse?  What kind of protection was granted to persons trafficked illegally into the country?

Replies by the Delegation

The delegation explained that the prosecution of traffickers was included in the national plan of action to combat human trafficking.  Victims of nationalities other than Saudi were transferred back to their country of origin.  Victims of trafficking received legal, medical and social services.  In 2015, the Saudi authorities had received 22 complaints of human trafficking, which indicated a drop in reported complaints from previous years.

Questions by Committee Experts

An Expert noted that none of the statistics on trafficking cited by the delegation concerned domestic workers.

Experts reminded that women who appeared in public without cover risked penalization by the religious police.  They also wanted to know how many of the 472 reported cases of abuse under the 2012 country review had actually been prosecuted.

Responses by the Delegation

The delegation stated that in 2017 1,059 cases of violence against women had been reported to courts, out of which 348 were cases of physical violence, 59 cases of domestic violence, and 65 cases of sexual abuse.

The authorities had taken many measures to enhance the rights of female domestic workers, and had set up mechanisms to monitor recruitment agencies from the beginning of the recruitment process in the country of origin.  All employers were asked to ensure wages and transfer monthly salaries to bank accounts.  If the worker left her employment, the Government covered her expenses if she wished.

Concerning the dress code, the delegation clarified that there was no imposition of a certain dress.  A woman should appear decent in public, but the choice of the hijab was hers and hers alone.

Questions by Committee Experts

One Expert reminded that the law of 2011 enabling Saudi women to vote had not entered into force until 2015.  There were several barriers to women’s participation in elections, including the ability to drive to the election polls, guardian’s permission to partake in the election process, and the possession of an identity card.  In addition, many women had not been informed on how and where to register to vote.  Would a woman would participate in the election process if her male partner did not support her?  Were there any processes to encourage Saudi women to participate in Saudi diplomacy?

Women married to a foreign national did not automatically transmit their Saudi citizenship to their own children.  Would women be given the same rights as men in terms of passing on Saudi citizenship?

Replies by the Delegation

BANDAR BIN MOHAMMED AL-AIBAN, Chairman of the Saudi Human Rights Commission, remarked that both women and men had been duly notified about voter registration for the 2015 elections.  After the royal decree had authorized women to participate in the elections, there was time to prepare society and inform them of the change in voting rights and to inform all sectors of society of the process.  It took four years to set the election mechanism in motion because of all the organization that was required.  Furthermore, women did not need the accord of a male guardian to participate in the election process, and could vote with a family document provided by the State.  Women also enjoyed the right to drive so that did not prevent them from accessing the voting polls.  As for male guardianship, it still existed in the Islamic law.

With respect to citizenship, the delegation explained that foreign husbands of Saudi women could apply for Saudi nationality through regular processes.  The Nationality Law stipulated rules for obtaining or withdrawing nationality and the basic rule was that of blood ties.  Exceptions were made for humanitarian reasons or when the father was unknown; in those cases, the mother could pass her citizenship.  The law stipulated that Saudi women retained their nationality if they married a foreigner or if their foreign husband changed his nationality.

Questions by Committee Experts

The system of male guardianship directly contravenes provisions of the Convention, Expert noted.  Even though the delegation cited cultural and religious reasons, the State Party had to uphold its international conventions regardless.

Another Expert inquired about policies that the State party would enact to enhance female participation in political processes, given that there were only 21 women elected to political positions.

Replies by the Delegation

BANDAR BIN MOHAMMED AL-AIBAN, Chairman of the Saudi Human Rights Commission, asked the Committee Experts to consider the decades of established social norms when reviewing changes in society.  All countries went through development phases and any change would have to be a gradual change.  As for women in political positions, there would be further opportunities for women to gain seats in future elections.

Questions by Committee Experts

One Expert asked whether citizenship could be granted to Bedouin women and whether the procedure of granting their request for citizenship could be simplified.

Replies by the Delegation

BANDAR BIN MOHAMMED AL-AIBAN, Chairman of the Saudi Human Rights Commission, replied that the Bedouins were considered guests. They were given housing, identification cards, and access to health services.  However, to gain citizenship, those foreigners, Bedouin or other, needed to follow regular channels established by the Government.

Questions by Committee Experts

Turning to girls’ education, an Expert inquired about the specifics of school curricula and whether reproductive health part of curricula.  Were there statistics on women holding university positions?  Could women study abroad without the permission of a male guardian?

How would the State party align its policies to give women equal rights in the workplace?  Would the requirement that women cover their face at work be lifted?

An Expert stated that the State had failed to provide adequate information on access to health for all women living in Saudi Arabia.  There was also concern as to whether family planning services existed for the whole of the country and whether contraception was part of that service.  Under what conditions was abortion allowed?  Even though female genital mutilation was outlawed, it was reported to take place in some areas of the country.

Responses by the Delegation

Concerning education, school curricula were constantly under review and thus constantly improved.  The place of women and their role in society were highlighted in school curricula.  The authorities had reduced school dropout rates through teacher workshops, awareness campaigns in rural areas and incentives to encourage girls to stay in school.  Some university campuses and schools were also exclusively available to girls.

On health services and reproductive health, the right to health was ensured for all citizens.  The Government had built hospitals in all of the country to ensure access in urban and rural areas.  Family planning efforts had been made, including relevant awareness raising campaigns in schools and at universities. There were also mechanisms to deal with cases of female genital mutilation, which was not a practice condoned by the State.

With respect to abortion, it was illegal and a flagrant violation of the right to life when without legal justification.  It was authorized only when the pregnancy represented danger to the health of the mother.  There were no instances of women who aborted and then brought to the courts for judicial prosecution.

Questions by Committee Experts

An Expert inquired all women, regardless of their social status, had the same financial rights.  Some banks required the husband’s authorization to access loans.

What was women’s access to physical education and would programmes for women’s participate in sports be sustained over time?

Another Expert asked about female human rights defenders and protection mechanisms available to them.  There were reports of them being arrested as terrorists.

Replies by the Delegation

The delegation explained that there were programmes for rural women across the country, providing training and education.

Addressing sports, obesity and diabetes, the delegation expressed hope that by 2030 the hope that 40 per cent of the population would participate in an exercise programme.  To entice women to participate, the head of the sport authority was a woman.

Questions by Committee Experts

The questions concerning female human rights defenders were not addressed, noted one Expert.  As for male guardianship, the “I am My Own Guardian” campaign had never achieved the intended results according to people on the ground.  Women still needed permission from a male guardian to obtain a passport.  There was still confusion concerning the male guardianship rules in certain aspects of Saudi women’s daily life. How far reaching was the male guardianship restriction?  When would it be lifted in all sectors of society?

Concerning marriage and family relations, the Islamic law was not immutable. There should be provisions for possibilities of change.  Was the State party considering aligning their policies with those established in the Convention?  Saudi women were still excluded in the judiciary.  Which members of the female delegation had to have male authorization to travel to the meeting with the Committee?

Replies by the Delegation

Agencies were asked to eliminate requirements concerning male guardianship for women. Male guardianship was retained in marriage affairs, which had their own ceremonies and procedures, including the presence of a father or brother or the closest male relative.  However, his presence was necessary only to see that the wishes of the female were granted.

The Saudi Human Rights Commission was willing to listen and engage and defend anyone in a human rights situation that had security implications.  Saudis used cyberspace to express themselves freely and that freedom was limited only when it affected national security.

Regarding passports, each family was given a specific number to obtain a passport; the number was placed in the hands of the head of family.

Any woman could make a decision on an equal footing as a man. Several programmes had been created with the aim of making women more autonomous and putting an end to stereotypes.

Concluding remarks

BANDAR BIN MOHAMMED AL-AIBAN, Chairman of the Saudi Human Rights Commission, said he and his staff would take into account all of the comments and recommendations made by the Committee.  He noted that the Committee was a partner and friend working to promote the rights of women, expressing hope that in four years’ time the future for women would be even brighter.  Women would play a very important role in the shaping of the future kingdom.

DALIA LEINARTE, Committee Chairperson, commended the State party for its efforts and asked that the provisions of the Convention be followed and implemented.  The State party was requested to select certain recommendations and submit information on how they would implement those provisions.
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