7th APRIL 2015 - Vol.XXXVIII No.018
Local News

'Reform laws to protect women'

A HUMAN rights activist has called for an overhaul of Bahrain's laws to protect women from discrimination.

Bahrain Human Rights Society (BHRS) president Dr Sabeeka Al Najjar made the recommendation in a report published by Washington-based Freedom House.

The report was part of a survey called Women's Rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Citizenship

and Justice.

Dr Al Najjar was among researchers selected from 17 countries who contributed to the report.

In her recommendations, she said the Supreme Judiciary Council should reform Bahrain's legal system so that women do not face discrimination from judges and other court officers - particularly in Sharia courts.

She also called on the Supreme Council for Women to help Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) conduct media and public outreach programmes, which inform women of their legal rights.

In addition, Dr Al Najjar said the government should remove all reservations it has expressed to United Nations (UN) Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and take steps to implement it.

"The government of Bahrain ratified the convention in 2002, but with reservations on articles concerning family law, equality, freedom of movement, and residence," she said.

Dr Al Najjar urged the government to enact family laws that are non-discriminatory and expand women's rights.

"It should criminalise domestic violence and adopt procedures to allow women - including foreign women and domestic workers - to report violence," she said.

Her report also recommends that the government, the Supreme Council for Women and independent NGOs should monitor women's working conditions in both the public and private sectors.

In particular, she says that female labour inspectors should be appointed.

"Despite the recent attention directed toward women's rights, the government has failed to adopt any viable policies that would positively affect women's status in Bahrain," she said.

The current law obliges women's NGOs in Bahrain to obtain permission before organising national-level meetings on critical issues regarding women's rights, explained Dr Al Najjar.

She said women still encounter many social and legal obstacles such as arbitrary divorce, gender-based violence and discrimination in the workplace.

One cause for concern is the Nationality Law, which establishes the right of Bahraini men to pass on their nationality to foreign-born wives and their children.

"On the other hand, the law forbids Bahraini women to transfer their nationality to their children or foreign-born husbands," said Dr Al Najjar.

"However, in April last year parliament agreed to allow Bahraini women to sponsor their foreign spouses and children - enabling adult children and husbands to work in the country without an employment sponsor."

She said that Bahrain's judicial system and its constitution stipulate that both men and women should have equal access to justice and the right to a fair trial, but this was not the case in practice.

"In reality, practical guarantees against gender discrimination do not exist and it is not uncommon for judges to demonstrate prejudice against women in court," said Dr Al Najjar.

Women are said to face most obstacles in Sharia court proceedings, which are male dominated and extremely complex.

"Lengthy court procedures, particularly in cases of divorce, are just one example of the hardships placed on women seeking justice," added Dr Al Najjar.

"Men are free to divorce their wives at any time, but women are required to appeal to Sharia courts in order to be granted a divorce."

Dr Al Najjar acknowledged that the status of women had improved since the ratification of CEDAW in areas such as political rights and increased representation in the Shura Council.

"However, the government of Bahrain has made almost no effort to review and amend the existing national laws and policies to bring them into conformity with CEDAW standards," she continued.


Now Dr Al Najjar wants Bahrain to sign the Optional Protocol on CEDAW, which allows women to register complaints with the CEDAW committee if they cannot achieve justice in their own country.

She criticised NGOs for doing little to push for changes to existing legislation that negatively impacts women's lives.

"While there are no direct legal restrictions on women's freedom of movement, women's rights may be limited by socially imposed restrictions - such as requiring a woman to request permission from the head of the household in order to travel abroad," said Dr Al Najjar.

She explained that Islamic fundamentalists in Bahrain support this practice because they consider it to be a part of a woman's religious obligation.

"In some cases, women are obliged to request permission to leave their residence to visit friends or family," she said.

Meanwhile, Dr Al Najjar blamed religious leaders in Bahrain for delays in drawing up a family law that would protect women.

"Despite efforts by the government and women's NGOs, the family law agenda is frequently sidelined - often as a result of opposition from religious leaders," she said.

Some legislators are calling for a unified law, while others prefer two Islamic codes for both the Sunni and the Shi'ite populations.

"The absence of a family law has rendered women vulnerable to individual, patriarchal and often contradictory interpretations of Sharia by Bahrain's all-male judges," said Dr Al Najjar.

She went on to criticise Bahrain for a lack of anti-trafficking laws and for not fully complying with international standards on the elimination of trafficking in persons.

She said foreigners, mostly from South Asia and other Arab countries, constitute approximately 38 per cent of Bahrain's total population.

"Many female domestic workers and expatriates in Bahrain are victims of trafficking and indentured servitude," she said.

"Some female domestic workers and women employees of restaurants and hotels reportedly experience practices such as forced 12 to 16-hour workdays, rape, sexual harassment and forced prostitution."

Dr Al Najjar said some of these problems could be linked to the sponsorship system, which places expatriate workers under the control of their employers.

Focusing on the private sector, she said statistics on the number of Bahraini businesses owned by women had demonstrated a noticeable increase recently - from 24.30pc in 2001 to 30.60pc in 2002.

"The number of female members of the Bahrain Chamber of Commerce and Industry reached 1,785 in 2003," said Dr Al Najjar.

However, although some women administer their own businesses, men are still said to manage the majority of female-owned firms.

"This is partly due to the time required to administer a business, as well as the fact that Bahraini men often want to circumvent the law that prohibits employees in the public sector from owning private businesses," said Dr Al Najjar.

She went on to explain that men who work in the public sector often register private businesses under the name of a female relative, but manage it themselves.

"Bahraini female employees are also subject to unequal wages for equal work," said Dr Al Najjar.

"Female workers often fail to receive equal job training opportunities and are trained in marginal skills that are not in demand in the labour market."

She said that this inequality can be exemplified in the industrial sector, where only one woman holds a decision-making position and just three women fill supervisory roles.

"Women are also absent in senior management positions in the academic field - even though they comprise the majority of teachers," said Dr Al Najjar.

On women's contribution to the decision-making process, Dr Al Najjar said that since the 2001 reforms, women have participated overtly in a variety of demonstrations and political, cultural and social activities.

She said that women's participation in political societies varies from 9pc to 50pc, but only seven out of 13 political societies have elected women to their executive boards.

"Despite women's active participation in Bahrain's political societies, women's issues do not feature prominently in the agendas of these groups," said Dr Al Najjar.

"In reality, the majority of women in Bahrain are not aware of their political rights as they lack access to information."

She said that information sources on women's human rights were scarce and not always available in public libraries or in native languages.

"NGOs that educate women on their rights also fail to reach a large majority of Bahrain's local and rural women," said Dr Al Najjar.

Social traditions, customs and the domination of conservative concepts are also said to hinder women's advocacy.

"Advocacy for gender equality is sometimes viewed as a western concept and many women's rights groups have been accused by extremist elements of working against Islam," said Dr Al Najjar.

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