SAUDI ARABIA: Children's rights in the Special Procedures' reports

Summary: This report extracts mentions of children's rights issues in the reports of the UN Special Procedures. This does not include reports of child specific Special Procedures, such as the Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, which are available as separate reports.

Please note that the language may have been edited in places for the purpose of clarity.

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UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women
Yakin Ertürk

Country visit: 4 February – 13 February 2008
Report published: 14 April 2009

International obligations: Saudi Arabia has ratified several of the core human rights instruments, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Saudi Arabia made a general reservation to the latter Convention, whereby "in case of contradiction between any term of the Convention and the norms of Islamic Law, the Kingdom is not under the obligation to observe the contradictory terms of the Convention". The language used in this reservation, which is similar to that made in other treaties, does not clearly define the extent to which Saudi Arabia accepts its international obligations, although I was assured by officials that there was no contradiction in substance between the Convention and Islamic law. (Paragraph 10)

Education: The most noteworthy progress has been in the field of education. Since the opening of schools for girls in 1956,9 women's literacy rates increased dramatically, although a gender gap remains. By 2006, 78.4 per cent of Saudi women aged 15 and above were literate, compared to 88.6 per cent of men, while the literacy rate of youth (15 to 24) is estimated at 95.5 and 97.7 per cent, respectively. (Paragraph 20)

Today, women enjoy free and nearly complete access to primary and secondary education. In 2004, a royal decree made primary education compulsory for all children between the ages of 6 and 15. In remote areas, parents are provided with financial incentives to send their daughters to school and teachers with an additional allowance. There are now more schools for girls than for boys in the Kingdom.11 From kindergarten to twelfth grade, 51.4 per cent of students are girls and 48.6 per cent are boys. In tertiary education, female graduates constitute 56.5 per cent of all students, and male graduates 43.5 per cent. This increase in girls' years of education has had a positive impact on marriage patterns, as shown for instance by an increase in the age of first marriage and a decrease in polygamous practices. (Paragraph 21)

However, concerns have been raised that the overall aim of girls' education which was to prepare them for their "natural roles" as mothers and wives has not changed over the past
 40 years. Although stereotypes that were perpetuated in some textbooks have recently been removed, at secondary and tertiary levels of education, girls specialise in humanities and arts rather than science and engineering courses. They also remain excluded from some fields of study - depending on the particular university - such as engineering, astrology, geology and, until recently, law. From 2000 to 2007, 12 universities opened in the Kingdom. This, coupled with a recent decision by the Higher Education Council to increase studies in physical sciences, may create additional opportunities for girls. (Paragraph 22)

Sex-segregated education adversely impacts on the quality of education as the allocation of resources and access are said to be unequally distributed. Female faculty members have complained that women's branches of universities are less equipped than those for boys and that the highest decision-making positions are occupied by men. (Paragraph 23)

Nonetheless, the achievements in girls' education have been commendable. This however, has not been accompanied by a comparable increase in women's participation in the labour force. (Paragraph 24)

Guardianship system: While some women rationalise the system as necessary for their protection and express pride in being such "pampered Saudi women", others complain that the system is a denial of their intellectual capacities, moral values and legal capacity as adults. Guardianship indeed severely limits women's autonomy, freedom of movement and the exercise of their legal capacity in relation to marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, and property ownership/control, as well as decision-making in family matters, education and employment. In general, the guardianship system renders women's legal position precarious. (Paragraph 34)

The guardianship system, by granting such power to men over women, is said to have condoned or allowed abuse of women and children. Although nothing in the law prevents a woman from going to a police station, a health-care centre or a court to file a complaint, the practice varies. I was told of a number of cases where women were not able to file complaints because police or health-care professionals - or in some cases, the women themselves - believed they had to have an authorisation from their guardian. On other occasions where a woman could not show an ID card or was fully covered, officials would insist on having a guardian present. Clearly, where the guardian or someone close to him is the perpetrator, the possibility of obtaining redress is low, if possible at all. (Paragraph 38)

Violence and rape: In addition, the Human Rights Commission and the NSHR have received complaints relating to abuse of power by husbands or other family members, such as: the denial of education, health or inheritance to wives and children; denying a wife the possibility to see her children; confiscating official documents such as identity cards in order to prevent women from travelling or accessing services; and the abandonment of wives and their children. (Paragraph 43)

There is also anecdotal evidence of neglect, abuse and violence against girls by family members. In 2006, there were around 1,300 girls in institutions for juveniles, many of whom are said to be there because they ran away from domestic abuse. Although the extent of such abuse cannot be determined due to the lack of data, Ayda's story is illustrative:

My father is a retired military man and an alcoholic. He abused me since I was little. My mother died at the hospital because of beatings and burns. When my siblings and I accused our father of her death, he forced us to change our testimony. He hit me with chains and swords and raped me. I ran away from the house and lived on the street, where the hay'at found me and brought me to a shelter. But my father complained to the police I had run away and I spent one week in prison. My complaint about rape was rejected as the case focused on my running away. My father ultimately rejected me, so I could stay in the shelter with two of my sisters. I fear for my younger sister, who remains with our father. (Paragraph 44)

Cases of rapes are not discussed openly and women and girls fear they will be judged by society should they report rape. Only rarely are rape cases brought to public and Government attention. While comprehensive data on rape cases is lacking, health professionals I talked
to - often the first to be in contact with victims of rape - acknowledged that it is an emerging issue that would warrant more attention. (Paragraph 45)

The famous case of "the Qatif girl" highlights some of the difficulties in ensuring that victims of sexual violence receive adequate consideration and protection. In 2006, the 19-year-old girl and her male companion were abducted and she was raped by seven Saudi men. Four of the men were sentenced to one to five-year prison terms and to flogging, ranging from 80 to 1,000 lashes. The rape victim and her companion were sentenced to 90 lashes for the crime of khelwa, an offence under sharia law of being alone in private with an unrelated member of the opposite sex or "illegal mingling". The sentence against the girl was later increased to 200 lashes and a six-month prison term. She was ultimately pardoned by the King, although he did not imply there had been any judicial misconduct. (Paragraph 46)

I would like to address the following recommendations in several areas to the Government of Saudi Arabia:

(a) Women's empowerment and public sphere participation:

Expedite the implementation of the Eighth Development Plan objectives regarding women's employment and education, including developing training services and increasing the enrolment of women and girls in the sciences, and in applied and vocational specialisations in secondary and higher education.

(b) Elimination of violence against women and girls:

Adopt the draft law on domestic violence, with clear guidelines on implementation mechanisms, a monitoring and coordinating body, and sanctions against perpetrators

Adopt a Penal Code clearly defining criminal offences - including rape and the use of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment - and specifying penalties for perpetrators

Adopt guidelines for government agencies and religious leaders aimed at preventing and ending child and forced marriage

Adopt a family law to regulate marriage and divorce, including the prohibition of marriage annulments against the will of both spouses

Adopt guidelines for the police and the judiciary on how to investigate, prosecute and rule on cases of rape and sexual violence

Establish women's units within the police and the General Prosecutor's office

Systematise the gathering of data and statistics on violence against women, 
disaggregated by type of violence and relationship with the aggressor

Enhance the protection and services offered to victims of abuse by social protection committees, including through legal aid and empowerment programmes

Conduct awareness-raising campaigns and training for law enforcement officials, the judiciary, health-care providers, social workers, community leaders and the general public, to increase understanding that all forms of violence against women are grave violations of fundamental rights and incompatible with Islamic values (Paragraph 95)

Child/forced marriages: Although the average age of first marriage has increased,37 and while there is no precise data on the extent of child marriage, there is growing concern about this practice, which varies according to the socio-economic level of the family and local circumstances. Girls may be forced by their guardian to marry older men or men with mental disabilities for monetary or family considerations. Recently, the marriage of an 8-year-old girl to a 58-year-old man by her father, who needed the advance dowry to solve his financial problems, provoked strong reactions among activists and in the national and international media. Her mother's plea for a divorce was rejected by a court in Unayzah on the grounds that the case should wait until the girl reaches puberty. Recent government correspondence indicates that the court has now cancelled the marriage contract. (Paragraph 50)

Forced marriages often place girls at risk of abuse and violence. A woman with whom I met was physically abused as a child by her brother, who forced her to marry a man when she was 14 years old, who also abused her physically. Thanks to the help of a social protection committee, she obtained a divorce after struggling for 10 years. Her four children were granted to her ex-husband. (Paragraph 51)

No law determines the age of marriage and child marriage is not prohibited. The practice is based on sharia precepts, whereby maturity is associated with puberty, which could start as early as 9 for girls. The Grand Mufti Sheikh Abd al-Aziz Al-Sheikh, the head of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, has recently been quoted in the media as saying that a 10 or 12-year-old girl is marriageable. Although the mufti's pronouncements are respected, they are not binding on the Government. Following the debates around the ruling by the Unayzah court, the Human Rights Commission condemned the marriage of minor girls as an "inhumane violation" and called on all government agencies to adopt a clear position on child and forced marriages in order to end the practice, as it has "severe health consequences on the girl child" and her personal development.39 In November 2008, the Shura approved a law officially defining the age of adulthood as 18, although whether this will also apply to the legal age for marriage is unknown. (Paragraph 52)

Fatima and Mansour, who have two children, had been married for several years, with the approval of Fatima's father. In 2005, after the father's death, a court divorced the couple on grounds of "tribal incompatibility" upon the demand of Fatima's half-brothers, who had become her guardians. The couple were arrested in 2006 for living together as an unmarried couple. Fatima was imprisoned for nine months, before being given shelter with her 2-year-old son in a government institution, where I visited her. Fatima refuses to leave the shelter until her family is reunited. Mansour lost his job and lives with the couple's 5-year-old daughter with the help of concerned people. During my visit, I could witness first-hand the desperation of Fatima and Mansour. Although, I was assured by the Human Rights Commission that the couple would be reunited and the case had been submitted to the competent authorities, at the time of submitting the present report the case was still pending. (Paragraph 54)

Standardise the age of majority in the Kingdom at 18 in accordance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and ensure its application to the legal age of marriage. (Paragraph 95)

Trafficking: While most migrant workers come voluntarily to Saudi Arabia, some are allegedly trafficked for the purpose of forced labour or sexual exploitation.41 Upon arrival, all
migrants - contrary to the Council of Ministers' Decision 166 (2000) - have their passport and residency permit taken away from them, and some find themselves in slave-like conditions. Trafficking of children from countries such as Somalia or Chad for the purpose of sexual exploitation or forced labour and begging have also been reported. Government officials report however, that there are initiatives under way to prevent such crimes, and that a law on trafficking had been finalised and was being presented to the Shura Council. (Paragraph 57)

Safety initiatives: One of the most notable initiatives in responding to the problem is the National Programme for Family Safety (NPFS), which is administered within the National Guard Health Affairs, and aims to prevent violence through training, awareness-raising and the provision of services to victims. Since its creation, NPFS has been conducting training for social workers, police, forensic experts, and psychiatrists on the issue of child abuse. Child abuse is said to have provided a more acceptable entry point to discuss openly in society than violence against women. The demand has grown to such extent that NPFS is now on call 24 hours a day throughout the week to respond to complaints of child abuse. (Paragraph 67)

NPFS has recently been expanding its work on domestic violence, offering training, health services, and assistance to women in filing complaints with the police and obtaining the required legal medical report. NPFS has also arranged for emergency shelter, longer-term accommodation in some cases, and foster parents for abused children. (Paragraph 68)

Since January 2008, NPFS and the Ministry of Health have started setting up family protection centres in every hospital in the Kingdom, composed of trained staff to identify and address cases of abuse. At the time of my visit, a directive informing all hospitals about the plan to set up those centres had been sent and staff training had begun. There were also plans to establish a national registry of cases of violence against children and women, and reporting forms were being prepared to that end. (Paragraph 69)

Since 2004, the Ministry for Social Affairs has also run social protection committees in all provinces, in which other relevant ministries are represented. They receive complaints of psychological and physical abuse from women and children, make recommendations to address them, and provide psychosocial and medical assistance. Representatives of the ministry explained that women in need of long-term housing could benefit from the ministry's regular social-welfare programme. (Paragraph 70)

Child custody: Judicial practices pertaining to divorce and child custody also impact on women's ability to escape abusive marriages. According to the State report to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women,55 the law gives a woman the right to apply for separation "on grounds of hurt", the unjustified absence of the husband, his imprisonment or his "refusal to support her adequately". In practice, procedures for women to obtain a divorce are lengthy and may not bring a resolution, since women must thoroughly demonstrate grounds for divorce. A woman may also buy her way out of a marriage, if she can afford it. (Paragraph 79)

Divorce on grounds of domestic violence is also difficult to obtain as judges are said to demand levels of evidence which are difficult, if not impossible, for women to provide. In case of divorce, a Saudi woman may keep her children until they reach the age of 7 for girls and 9 for boys. Custody of children over these ages is generally awarded to the father or, if he is deceased, to his family. In rare cases where women may be granted physical custody, fathers retain legal custody. This means, for instance, that all transactions on behalf of the children require the father's consent. Foreign women married to Saudi nationals also encounter significant discrimination in custody and divorce matters. (Paragraph 81)


UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges & Lawyers
Dato' Param Cumaraswamy

Country visit: 20 October – 27 October 2002
Report published: 14 January 2003

Juvenile justice: Article 13 provides that the investigation and trial of offences committed by juvenile offenders shall be conducted in accordance with the relevant law and regulations. The Special Rapporteur was informed that cases involving juveniles are heard in special juvenile courts and they are entitled to be represented by a lawyer. Individuals between the ages of 12 and 18 are not held in adult detention facilities, either pre- or post-trial, but in special juvenile homes. They are provided with education and offered activities to help them back into society. A juvenile can be visited by his parents twice a week. (Paragraph 70)

The Special Rapporteur was informed that the punishment that can be imposed on juveniles was within the discretion of the judge concerned. They are usually sentenced to periods of several months' imprisonment, but could be given a sentence of flogging of around 20 to 40 lashes, administered in a manner not to harm, or potentially to kill, but the Special Rapporteur was informed that usually the age of the offender was taken into consideration in these situations. (Paragraph 71)

Article 37 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child prohibits the imposition of capital punishment upon a person under the age of 18 years and in this respect the Special Rapporteur is concerned about a judge's discretionary power to impose capital or corporal punishment on such persons. The Special Rapporteur refers to paragraph 33 of the concluding observations of the Committee on the Rights of the Child on this matter (CRC/C/15/Add.148). (Paragraph 104)

 Punishments imposed on individuals under the age of 18 years should not involve capital or corporal punishment. (Paragraph 111 i)


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