From protection to prevention, how Saudi Arabia’s stance on violence against women has changed

DJEDDAH: To commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, let’s explore how Saudi Arabia is making progress in strengthening laws on violence against women and preserving their rights.

In 1979, the UN adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, also known as the International Bill of Women’s Rights, addressing comprehensively what constitutes the rights of women. women.

In 1999, the United Nations General Assembly officially designated November 25 the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. On this occasion, governments, international organizations and non-governmental organizations are working to raise public awareness of the issue.

Since 1991, 187 countries have endorsed CEDAW, adopting it as a legally binding international treaty that requires them to abolish discrimination against women by offering them the same access and opportunities as their male counterparts.

According to UN figures, less than 40 percent of abused women seek help of any kind. One third of women aged 15 and over worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner, a non-partner, or both at least once in their life.

There is still a long way to go to change these numbers. To date, only two-thirds of the world’s countries have banned domestic violence, while 37 countries around the world still exempt rapists from prosecution if they are married or possibly marry the victim; 49 countries currently have no laws protecting women from domestic violence.

Over the past two decades, Saudi Arabia has made tremendous efforts to empower women through various initiatives that address issues of concern. In 2005, and by royal decree, the National Family Safety Program was set up. The program laid the foundation for a conscious and safe community, protecting and defending individual rights and helping victims of domestic violence.

The program has come a long way since its inception. Dr Maha Almuneef, founder and executive director of the NFSP, told Arab News that the program has gone through several stages since its launch, and that each stage has played a central role in paving the way for legislation and an effort to deep collaboration between civil society. , businesses and government agencies in the Kingdom.

“The first step I would like to call the recognition step, where we recognize the problem, which was considered taboo, and recognize it as a major public health problem and not just a family dispute. This period lasted for around 10 years, during which we focused on awareness raising, advocacy, shifting the mindset from a family and taboo dispute to a public health issue that affects the health and well-being of people. women, ”said Dr Almuneef.

The next step was the legislative step. After recognizing the problem and finding ways to deal with the taboo subject, in 2013 the Protection Against Abuse Law was published with 17 articles dealt with.

“There is a political will to fix the problem after doing all the necessary research. The law that was enacted to criminalize domestic violence and is one of the strongest in the Middle East, with fines and jail time. If and when the offense is repeated, the penalty is doubled in accordance with Article 13, ”said Dr Almuneef.

In 2016, the program moved to the prevention stage through various laws on empowering women that raised their status politically, socially and economically.

These changes, according to the director, are the first steps not only to protect women, but also to prevent the occurrence of abuse against them through empowerment.

The Kingdom has shifted its efforts from protecting women to preventing the act by achieving the fifth United Nations Sustainable Development Goal: “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”.

Last November, the Saudi prosecution service imposed new sanctions for abuse against women, including jail terms and heavy fines for any physical, psychological or sexual assault against women in the Kingdom. Laws on violence against women are among the strictest in the region, with the prosecution imposing a minimum prison sentence of at least one month and up to five years.

Fines for assault and harassment can reach 300,000 SR ($ 80,000).

Lawyer Waleed bin Naif told Arab News: “Laws and regulations published in the Kingdom guaranteeing women’s rights are constantly evolving. The silence of a woman on the claim of her rights does not mean the deprivation of her rights if she demands it.

“A case I recently handled involved a woman physically assaulted by her husband, where the court found the accused guilty and jailed him for a month.”

He added: “That being said, the Saudi justice system today guarantees the right of women to represent themselves in criminal cases of abuse and violent assault, without the need to bring in a legal representative. Mahram (legal guardian). Only his presence is required to lodge the complaint before it is referred to the prosecution, where the author is summoned for questioning.

One of the ways Saudi Arabia is empowering women is by educating them about new protection laws, providing clear channels for complaints, and moving from complex bureaucratic procedures to streamlined and confidential bureaucratic procedures.

Saudi efforts to end violence against women include preparing civilian workers with the tools and training to coordinate with relevant authorities when supporting victims of abuse.

With the support of the program and various initiatives aimed at empowering women, Saudi women have benefited greatly from economic legal reforms, training initiatives and programs. They were given the tools not only to protect themselves, but also to enable them to come out unscathed due to the large number of entities and agencies that support women, especially the most vulnerable.

Dr Almuneef believes these achievements are significant and have further protected women against discrimination and abuse, but there is still a long way to go.

The NFSP has partnered with the United Nations Development Program and has made significant achievements in capacity building programs to promote mental and physical health and social well-being. It also provides practitioners with essential knowledge and various skills to deal with cases of domestic violence.

This initiative enhanced the training programs of the NFSP to attract and support professionals qualified to deal with cases of domestic violence.

“Since its creation in 2005, we have been in close contact with international agencies, be it UNDP, UNICEF, UN Women or the World Health Organization. Recently, there has been major collaboration between UNDP and NFSP in terms of capacity building and training of professions on how to empower women, support them and deal with cases of violence against women. women, ”said Dr Almuneef.

“We could see a continued increase in abuse cases over the next five to ten years. In Saudi Arabia, the expected increase will not be attributed to the worsening of the situation, on the contrary, it will be due to the fact that women raise the issue with the relevant authorities, better documentation, faster responses and interventions. Dr Almuneef said, adding that women now have a better understanding of their rights thanks to laws that empower and support them.

Thanks to the continuous collaborative effort between the relevant authorities, any complaint on the NSFP hotline receives an immediate response from law enforcement, the Ministry of Health and others to ensure that the case is handled according to its seriousness.

According to the WHO, lockdowns induced by COVID-19 have increased the risk of violence against women. In a report, he said: “Stress, disruption of social and protective networks, loss of income and reduced access to services can all exacerbate the risk of violence for women.”

Last year, official statistics revealed that adult abuse cases made up the vast majority of recorded cases, where 2,318 cases of abuse against women were recorded in Saudi Arabia.

Of these, 77 percent were physical abuse, 12.7 percent were psychological abuse, 7.8 percent of cases involved neglect, and 2.4 percent were sexual assault. To learn more about the updated rules and regulations, visit the official website of the Department of Justice.

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