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Saudi Arabia to recognise domestic abuse

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By Tomi Ajayi
Freelance jounalist

As Saudi Arabia’s first-ever accredited domestic violence training scheme launches this month, human rights campaigners continue to call on the kingdom to increase its efforts to curb violence against women.

Domestic abuse has never been criminalised in Saudi Arabia, despite calls from human rights activists in the Islamic nation and beyond.

Although statistical data is not widely available, the number of people subject to domestic abuse is said to be growing, according to the country’s National Society of Human Rights (NHSR).

The NHSR received a ‘high rate of [domestic abuse] cases’ in 2007 and saw a ‘noticeable increase in instances of abuse’ in 2009. By late 2010, it reported yet another rise in the number of cases it received.

The NHSR and other rights activists in Saudi Arabia have for some time been urging the Saudi Government – led by King Abdullah – to criminalise domestic violence and impose ‘severe punishment’ on offenders.

Global civil liberties organisation Human Rights Watch has also voiced concern that ‘King Abdullah and his government have taken few concrete measures over the past four years to address the problems of domestic violence’.

However, the campaign against domestic violence is now taking a crucial step forward, as Saudi professionals begin training this month on a landmark course: ‘Fundamental Skills of Management of Domestic Violence Cases.’

The training will be delivered in Arabic to 15 social workers in the capital city, Riyadh, during April, and then every three to four months in different provinces across the country. It will teach them how to respond to cases of abuse.

This scheme is funded by the British Embassy in Riyadh and a Saudi-backed agency, the National Family Safety Programme (NFSP).

It has been created in partnership with one of the UK’s largest women and children’s refuges, The Haven Wolverhampton.

“We hope that the training will raise awareness of domestic violence and help professionals to improve support and services for those that experience domestic violence in Saudi Arabia,” the CEO of The Haven, Kath Rees, said.

The plight of Saudi women was highlighted a fortnight ago when the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office published an annual report that cites Saudi Arabia as one of 26 nations with ‘the most serious wide-ranging human rights concerns’.

“The treatment of women in Saudi Arabia remained a very serious concern in 2010,” stated the Foreign Office paper, which then pinpointed the country’s Saudi “guardianship system” as being the “root of the problem”.

Under the ‘guardianship system’, a Saudi man has authority over every woman in his family; women need permission from their ‘guardian’ in order to travel, work and study.

This traditional system is hampering efforts to fight domestic abuse, says the Middle East and North Africa Division researcher at Human Rights Watch, Christoph Wilcke.

He explained: “The problem is that women cannot really report domestic violence, because when she calls the police and the police come to the door – if they come at all – then the husband, who we assume is the abuser,  or some other male member of the family, will answer the door.

“The police will say ‘we’ve got a complaint’. And the man replies: ‘From who? Not me’.

“And if a man is not there, police are not even able to enter the house.

“If the woman were to hire a driver – because she can’t drive – and go to the police station, sometimes the police will not receive her without her male guardian: i.e. her brothers, son, husband, father. A woman cannot speak for herself towards any person of authority. That’s one of the big problems.”

The extent of the domestic abuse issue in Saudi Arabia is difficult to determine, due to the absence of any reporting.

“We know that there are lots of domestic violence problems going around in Saudi Arabia – but we’re unable to say it’s “more than X or less than Y”,” Mr Wilcke said.

Although the issue is now being discussed more openly in Saudi society, Human Rights Watch sees ‘no evidence of change’ in the way that officials respond to reports of violence.

Also problematic is the lack of understanding as to what constitutes abuse.

“Many aspects of domestic violence do not register with Saudis,” said Mr Wilcke. “Verbal abuse just doesn’t register. Locking a woman in the house all day doesn’t register.”

So what, in his view, must be done about this?

“[We need to] make sure the law enforcement agents are available; that there are shelters that aren’t prisons; that they take complaints seriously; that they have procedures to isolate the suspected perpetrator from the victim; and that they take the victim’s statement in confidence and offer some alternative arrangements when the process is ongoing.”

“And then we need some high-profile court cases to send the message that ‘This is indeed a crime, it’s not okay, and you will be sent to prison’,” he added.

One area of progress is the work of the NFSP, established by royal decree in 2005 to develop new services for victims of domestic abuse in Saudi Arabia.

The agency runs shelters, maintains a register of victims, operates special abuse units in hospitals and raises awareness of the issue.

The NFSP is overseeing the delivery of the new course, which broadly mirrors the structure of The Haven refuge’s domestic violence training programme, and is accredited by the National Open College Network.

A version of this story first appeared on the Lapido Media website.

  1. I guess we should be hopeful that this is progress. But we will never have any hope of change while ‘women need permission from their ‘guardian’ in order to travel, work and study’. Women are not even given ‘permission’ to drive a car.

    On another note, I dislike the term ‘Kingdom’, even the country has been given a male reference/gender. I also dislike the term domestic violence. Abuse is what it is, in or out of the home, known or unknown offender, it’s abuse and it harms many women each year, even to the point of death. There’s nothing domestic about that.

    Many years ago I read Jean Sasson’s books about the Saudi princesses. Those books give many people an insight and window in to what is an unbelieveable world.

    I wish this campaign every success.

  2. Thanks to Celicia for sending me this info. This program is certainly a move in the right direction. As someone who lived in Riyadh for 12 years, and who worked in the royal hospital there, domestic violence was a huge issue. Apparently, little has changed. But even the physicians and staff at the hospital could do little because the police said that the women belonged to the man of the house and no man had a right to enter into another man’s business. I have friends living in other Arab countries whose neighbors are Saudi and they often write or call me in utter despairt, telling me the most chilling tales of hearing through apartment walls the Saudi husband viciously beating the wife and sometimes, even the daughters of the house. When I wrote the story of Sarah’s friend who was put in the woman’s room until she perished, (PRINCESS) I had so many people say they could not believe that story. But actually, locking a woman in a room is an accepted method of punishing a “wayward” woman. Thankfully, few leave the women until they die. The imprisonment is generally for a set period of a year, or a few months, etc. Even today, I hear westerners who lived in Saudi comment that, “Oh, its not so bad for the women.” Those westerners are simply ignorant of what can happen behind closed doors. Yes, Saudi women are being educated, and yes, some Saudi men are changing, treating the women of the house with respect. Yet, until there are legal moves to protect all women, so many will continue being victimized. My heart feels a bit light after reading this article as I believe it is the first of many steps to move the country in the right direction when it comes to the treatment of women.

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