By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Mar 2 (IPS/TerraViva) Against the backdrop of a two-week U.N. meeting on gender empowerment, the London-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has blasted the government of Saudi Arabia for its feudal system of justice where women continue to be victimised because of their gender.
A Saudi court has sentenced a woman, Sawsan Salim, to 300 lashes and 18 months in prison for filing harassment complaints without the required accompaniment by a male guardian.
While her husband was in prison, Salim sought the help of a local judge to gain the spouse’s release.
The verdict, says HRW, reflects the discriminatory system of male guardianship in Saudi Arabia, in which women are prohibited from many acts without the presence of a male guardian.
“Women’s rights in Saudi Arabia are somewhat worse than in other countries in the region because of the male guardianship system,” Nadya Khalife, HRW’s women’s rights researcher for the Middle East, told IPS.
She said the existing system prohibits women from making day-to-day decisions about their lives, including work, education or travel.
“In Saudi Arabia, being a woman going about her legitimate business without a man’s protection is apparently a crime,” Khalife said.
At the current session of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), which concludes Mar. 12, one of the key issues under discussion is legislation that discriminates against women.
The Beijing Platform for Action adopted at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women held in the Chinese capital urged all member states to remove discriminatory legislation from their statute books.
But few have complied, while most have not.
In a report to the CSW, Taina Bien-Aime, head of the New York-based human rights group, Equality Now, says that more than 25 countries (out of 192), including India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Mexico, Lesotho, Kuwait, Turkey, Romania, Serbia, Peru, France and Switzerland, have either repealed or amended laws that were clearly discriminatory against women.
The United Nations says that in spite of advances, discrimination against women persists in law and in practice.
“The effective implementation and enforcement of these laws remains an issue. Many women suffer numerous forms of discrimination and limited access to rights, resources and opportunities,” it notes.
A draft resolution adopted Monday by the CSW calls on the U.N. system, international and regional organisations, as well as all women and men, “to fully commit themselves and to intensify their contributions to the implementation” of the Beijing Platform for Action.
Aminata Toure, chief of the Gender, Human Rights and Culture Branch of the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), told IPS that by adopting the resolution, the international community has unanimously reaffirmed that women’s rights are central to human advancement.
The CSW declaration, she pointed out, “should be followed by concrete actions, including sufficient fundings for gender equality programmes, enactment, implementation of gender equality laws and affirmative actions to achieve equality between men and women in both the private and public spheres.”
Meanwhile, in a statement released Monday, HRW said the Saudi government needs to free Sawsan Salim and keep its promise to end its discriminatory system of justice.
In June 2009, during a review of the country’s human rights record, Saudi Arabia accepted a recommendation by the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council to abolish the legal guardianship system.
However, said HRW, the government has taken no steps to carry out its promise.
Khalife told IPS that one topic on which Human Rights Watch has done extensive research is the issue of live-in domestic workers in Saudi Arabia.
She said Saudi Arabia is host to more than 1.5 million women migrant domestic workers from countries such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, and the Philippines.
“Our research has found that the strong restrictions on these women’s freedom of movement, while a problem in many countries, are particularly pronounced in Saudi Arabia,” she said.
She said these domestic workers are often confined to their employer’s house and their isolation in these private homes makes them at risk of physical and sexual abuse.
Saudi Arabia’s government has been extremely poor in its response to such cases.
For example, in one case the charges were dropped despite the fact that the employer had confessed to beating a domestic worker severely – she required some of her fingers and toes to be amputated – and where the authorities had extensive physical evidence.
“Domestic workers who suffer abuse have a hard time getting their employers prosecuted, and instead may face counter allegations of adultery, witchcraft, and theft,” Khalife added.
Asked what role international institutions can play to help rectify these abuses, she said the United Nations can hold governments accountable for not fulfilling their international obligations.
Most countries in the Middle East have signed on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), but unfortunately most have placed reservations rendering some of the core provisions in the Convention obsolete, she added.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) is currently considering a new treaty on domestic work, and creating strong protections in this treaty would be extremely useful for countries to bring their national laws in line with international standards.
The ILO should also provide technical advice to governments to make important labour and immigration reforms on the issue of migrant labour.
The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) does a lot of anti-trafficking work and should make more explicit connections between the types of discrimination taking place in labour laws and immigration regulations and the risk of trafficking into forced labour, she declared.