Saudi Arabia has passed historic legislation criminalising domestic abuse for the first time, as well as establishing treatment and shelter for victims.
Law enforcement agencies are now accountable for investigating and prosecuting domestic cases. Previously, police treated violence against women and children as a private domestic matter with few legal consequences, according to Saudi Gazette.
Public and private sector employees also are being encouraged to report abuse cases to police or the Ministry of Social Affairs.
“All civilian or military employees and all workers in the private sector who learn of a case of abuse — by virtue of their work — shall report the case to their employers when they know it,” the Cabinet said in a statement.
“The employers shall report the case to the Ministry of Social Affairs or police when they know it.”
However, the penalties for domestic abuse have not yet been publicly revealed.
Some social activists are concerned the legislation will not have teeth.
National Society for Human Rights member Suhaila Zain Al Abideen Al Hammad told the Saudi Gazette she had reservations about the new law because many men had guardianship of their victims and it was not clear whether that would be a defence in court.
“I wish [the law changed] how the Ministry of Social Affairs treats women when it asks them to bring their male guardians when filing domestic abuse complaints,” Al Hammad said.
“They also ask their male guardians to pick them up after the report is done and ask the abusers to sign pledges to never do it again.”
The legislation also provides psychological treatment, health care and shelter for abuse victims.
Domestic violence awareness is a relatively new concept in Saudi Arabia.
The kingdom only published its first advert intended to discourage domestic abuse against women and children in April.
The image features a close-up of a woman wearing a niqab with one of her eyes visibly bruised.
The advertisement’s text reads: “Some things can’t be covered – fighting women’s abuse together.”
Domestic abuse is believed to be common in the kingdom, although not publicly.
A 2009 study of women seeking services as primary health centres in Madinah found 25.7 percent of the 689 women surveyed had been victims of physical domestic abuse but only 36.7 percent of them had notified their doctors, Arab News reported.