By Andy Sambidge
Human Rights Watch praises Olympics talks but says more still needs to be done for women
Announcements that Saudi Arabia is likely to send women to participate in the 2012 London Olympics for the first time are a positive step toward ending the country’s discrimination against women in sport, Human Rights Watch has said.
However it added that Saudi Arabia is still in violation of the Olympic Charter due to its systemic violations of the right for women to participate meaningfully in sport in the kingdom.
HRW said in a statement that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) should use its leverage to help affect lasting change for Saudi women.
“Sending women to the London Olympics does not change the fact on the ground in Saudi Arabia that girls and women are effectively excluded from taking part in sport,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
“This is no moment for the IOC to celebrate, when girls remain barred from physical education in Saudi government schools as a matter of policy.”
Saudi Arabia is one of only three countries never to have sent a female athlete to the Olympics.
The other two, Qatar and Brunei, do not bar women from competitive sports, and both governments have said that they will send women athletes to the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Saudi Crown Prince Nayef bin Abd al-Aziz has approved the participation of female athletes in London as long as they “meet the standards of women’s decency and don’t contradict Islamic laws", local media have reported.
The IOC indicated in a statement on March 19 that it held a “very constructive meeting in Lausanne with the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee,” following which “the IOC is confident that Saudi Arabia is working to include women athletes and officials at the Olympic Games in London in accordance with the International Federation’s rules.”
Human Rights Watch said urgent steps are needed for meaningful reform include introducing physical education for girls in Saudi schools, opening women’s sections in male-only sports clubs, and allocating funds to women’s sport in the Saudi youth ministry, the National Olympic Committee, and sports federations.
“We share the high hopes for Saudi women to participate in the Olympics, but now is the time for the IOC to press the Saudi government to comply with the Olympic Charter and start systemic change in access to sport for women and girls,” Whitson said.
Human Rights Watch said the IOC needs to put Saudi Arabia’s lack of compliance with the IOC Charter’s ban on gender discrimination on the agenda at its next executive board meeting on May 23 in Quebec, Canada.
“The movement toward ending discrimination against women and girls in Saudi Arabia is like a relay race, and participation of female Saudi athletes in the Olympics would amount to winning the first leg of the race,” said Whitson.
“For this race to be a true victory, the Saudi government needs to make genuine and immediate strides toward ending discrimination against women in sport.”