Saudi Arabia Easing Male Guardianship: But More is Needed

By Suad Abu-Dayyeh
AMMAN, Jordan, Aug 5 2019 – It comes as welcome news that authorities in Saudi Arabia have taken important steps towards dismantling the repressive male guardianship system, which treats women in the country as minors.

Women will no longer require permission from a male guardian to travel abroad and can apply for a passport without authorisation. They have also been granted the right to register births, marriage, and divorce, giving them greater control over family matters. The law also now stipulates that the breadwinner of the family can be either the father or the mother in relation to minors in the application of this system.

Other changes announced relate to employment regulations that extend work opportunities for women, who represent a big proportion of unemployed Saudis. Under the new ruling, all citizens now have the right to work without discrimination based on gender, disability or age.

Another welcome amendment is that employers cannot fire a woman or give notice to fire her while she is pregnant or on maternity leave.

Changes to the law were announced on Friday by royal decrees and published in the Kingdom’s official weekly Um al-Qura gazette.

Although these important advances in removing long-standing social restrictions are to be applauded, much still remains to be done to protect and promote the rights of women and girls in this deeply conservative Arab state.

Saudi Arabia was ranked 141 out of 149 countries in the 2018 Global Gender Gap, an annual index released by the World Economic Forum that measures how women in countries around the world fare in economic and political participation, education and health.

Women in the Kingdom still require male consent to marry, live on their own, and leave prison or a domestic abuse shelter. In addition, women are barred from passing Saudi citizenship onto their children, nor can they provide consent for their children to marry.

The male guardianship system is extremely repressive, treating adult women as minors under the legal control of their guardians, who could be a husband, brother, uncle, or even a son.

Women require permission from a male family member to do many things including enroll in school, file a lawsuit, open a bank account, and access some medical procedures. Women and girls are also subject to strict dress codes and gender segregation.

This creates an oppressive society, both inside the family environment and within the country as a whole. Such wide ranging restrictions have curtailed the human rights of women, depriving them of the freedom to make essential decisions in their daily lives and preventing them from participating fully in society. Treated as second class citizens, every Saudi woman and girl is impacted from birth to death.

The new laws announced by the Saudi government have been a long time coming and it is unclear when the order will take effect. It is vital that these advances are implemented in a way that complies with the international conventions that the country has committed itself to.

Saudi Arabia is a member of the UN Human Rights Council and has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). As such, it is obliged to uphold the highest standards for the promotion and protection of human rights and to take action that ends discrimination against women in all its forms.

Despite this, Saudi Arabia continues to detain women’s rights defenders who have advocated for an end to the discriminatory male guardianship system, and for changes to the deeply patriarchal society including the right for women to drive, which was finally granted in June 2018 with some restrictions to their access to the driving schools and the fees which are triple the price for by women.

Numerous activists have been imprisoned since mid-2018 solely for peacefully campaigning for the protection and promotion of human rights, including women’s rights, in the Kingdom. This has been accompanied by horrifying reports of torture, sexual assault and other ill-treatment perpetrated by the authorities against those who have been detained.

Whilst some campaigners were temporarily released on bail earlier in the year and are still awaiting trial, others remain in prison. This includes Loujain AlHathloul, the prominent campaigner who this week spent her 30th birthday languishing in a Saudi jail.

In April 2016, Saudi Arabia announced its ambitious ‘Vision 2030’ plan to diversify the country’s economy, reduce dependence on oil, and develop its public service sectors. This included programs to promote and strengthen women’s rights.

However, the arrests of women’s rights defenders by the government have created a toxic environment where many have effectively been silenced by fears that if they express views that could be construed as critical of the state, they could face reprisals by the authorities.

Saudi Arabia’s citizens should be free to exercise their civil rights in their own country including advocating for gender equality without the threat of intimidation, arrest or torture. Calling for greater women’s rights should never be treated as a crime!

This week’s sweeping reforms denote a tangible advance in the dismantling of Saudi Arabia’s deep-rooted system of male domination and are a significant testament to the positive impact that brave activists within the country are having, often at huge personal risk and sacrifice.

The world’s gaze is firmly fixed on the Saudi authorities to ensure that the promised repeal of discriminatory legal provisions translate into tangible improvements for women and girls on the ground, and that all women’s right’s defenders who have been charged and imprisoned are immediately and unconditionally released, all charges dropped, and they face no further persecution.

A Call for Healthy, Blue Oceans in Asia and the Pacific

By Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana
BANGKOK, Thailand, Aug 5 2019 – Leaders at the Group of 20 summit last month agreed on the “Osaka Blue Ocean Vision,” which aims to reduce additional pollution by marine plastic litter to zero by 2050. The UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) stands ready to support Japan and other countries in the region to ensure healthy and sustainable oceans.

Approximately 8 million tons of plastic leaks out of the global economy and into the oceans each year. Asia and the Pacific is responsible for about 60 percent of the increase in global plastic production.

Without action, the world’s oceans will contain nearly 250 million tons of plastic by 2025, further endangering our marine environment with a wide range of toxins and ultimately putting our own food sources at risk.

The commitment of G20 leaders, led by Japan, to tackle the proliferation of plastic litter through the Osaka Blue Ocean Vision aligns with the first target of United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14 (Life Below Water), which is to prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution, by 2025.

G20 leaders also reiterated that measures to address marine litter need to be taken nationally and internationally by all countries in partnership with relevant stakeholders. In the Asia-Pacific region, several countries have already adopted plans to combat marine plastic debris by banning single-use plastics and enacting new recycling laws.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s launch of the “MARINE Initiative” (focusing on management of wastes, recovery of marine litter, innovation and empowerment) at the G20 summit to support developing countries’ efforts, including their capacity building and infrastructure development, in waste management is a good demonstration of the kind of regional cooperation on trans-boundary issues where ESCAP can play a key role.

ESCAP’s next annual meeting, in May 2020, will feature the theme “Promoting economic, social and environmental cooperation on oceans for sustainable development.” One possible outcome of our deliberations is the creation of a voluntary “coalition of the willing” to reduce plastic marine pollution.

In a region already under stress from climate change, resource exploitation and population growth, healthy oceans mean jobs, food, identity and resilience for millions, especially the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.

The coalition would be a regional multi-stakeholder platform that would provide technical assistance and capacity building support. In line with the G20 approach, governments would be joined in this coalition by the private sector, civil society organizations, research and academic institutions, and representatives of the informal sector. These actors can all play a catalytic role for creative solutions.

Indeed, Japanese innovation can be applied to municipal recycling and composting. State-of-the-art solid waste management systems are being developed, underpinned by strong cooperation between national and local governments.

Even the organizing committee of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games has gotten into the act: It has a comprehensive sustainability plan inspired by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and includes such measures as extracting materials from discarded smartphones and other small electronic devices to make the Olympic medals.

Japan also is supporting the development of marine litter monitoring technology in cooperation with other Asian countries. Its authorities are working with producers to eliminate single-use plastics and promote biodegradable polymers.

The goal is to reduce the detrimental effects on marine and costal ecosystems on which many livelihoods depend, crucial in a region where 200 million people are reliant on fisheries alone.

Japanese innovation and technology can contribute much to the region’s solutions to eliminate plastics from our oceans. Through ESCAP, we can scale these efforts across the continent, working closely with our countries and partners to build a collective response to stop marine pollution in Asia and the Pacific and reclaim our “blue oceans.”