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Sat 23 Jul 2016 12:14 AM

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Saudi Arabia urged to free women from guardianship 'shackles'

New Human Rights Watch report says guardianship system is holding back 'limited reforms' in Gulf kingdom

Saudi Arabia urged to free women from guardianship 'shackles'
(Getty Images)

Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system remains the most significant impediment to women’s rights in the country despite limited reforms over the last decade, Human Rights Watch has said in a new report.

Adult women must obtain permission from a male guardian to travel abroad, marry, or be released from prison, and may be required to provide guardian consent to work or get healthcare. These restrictions last from birth until death, as women are, in the view of the Saudi state, permanent legal minors, according to the 79-page report.

“The fact that Saudi women are still forced to get a male guardian’s permission to travel, work, or do anything else is a long-standing rights violation and a barrier to the government’s plans to improve the economy,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director.

“The government should do itself a favour and finally listen to the demands of half its population to be freed from the shackles of the guardianship system.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 61 Saudi women and men for the report and analysed Saudi laws, policies, and official documents.

Every Saudi woman must have a male guardian, normally a father or husband, but in some cases a brother or even a son, who has the power to make a range of critical decisions on her behalf.

Women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia have repeatedly called on the government to abolish the male guardianship system.

Human Rights Watch said in 2009, and again in 2013, Saudi Arabia agreed after its universal periodic review at the United Nations Human Rights Council.

It added that since making these promises, Saudi Arabia has taken steps to lessen guardians’ control over women, including no longer requiring permission for women to work and passing a law criminalizing domestic abuse. In 2013, then-King Abdullah appointed 30 women to the Shura Council, his highest advisory body, and, in 2015, women voted and ran as candidates in municipal council elections for the first time.

But Human Rights Watch cautioned that despite these limited steps, the male guardianship system remains largely in place, hindering and in some cases nullifying the reforms.

The report said women face tremendous obstacles when trying to seek help or flee abuse by violent guardians. For example, a husband retains guardianship control even during divorce proceedings.

Human Rights Watch said it spoke with women who felt their only safe option was to leave the country after male family members abused and threatened them, but who were unable to convince their guardians, in some cases the abusers, to allow them to travel.

In April, Saudi Arabia announced Vision 2030, the country’s “vision for the future,” which declared the government will “continue to develop [women’s] talents, invest in their productive capabilities and enable them to… contribute to the development of our society and economy".

By maintaining the male guardianship system, Saudi Arabia is undermining women’s most basic rights and its ability to achieve its own vision for the future, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch added that it consulted Saudi women’s rights activists to develop specific recommendations for immediate government steps that would greatly improve women’s lives.

“Saudi women have been told for decades achieving their rights will just take time,” Whitson said. “Saudi women shouldn’t have to wait a moment longer to be treated as equal members of Saudi society.”

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