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(New York) – Saudi Arabia should allow all girls in the kingdom, including public school students, to play sports in school. The government should formally clarify its position on sports for girls in government-funded schools and announce a national strategy to promote sports for girls at all levels of education.

The official Saudi Press Agency announced on May 4, 2013, that female students enrolled in private girls’ schools could take part in sports so long as they wear “decent clothing” and are supervised by female Saudi instructors within the tight regulations of the country’s Education Ministry.

“All of Saudi Arabia’s women and girls should be able to enjoy the social, educational, and health benefits of taking part in sports,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch. “If the government can take down this barrier for private schools, it should give girls and women in publicly funded schools the same benefit.”

Although two women competed for Saudi Arabia at the Olympics in 2012 for the first time, women and girls are still not free to practice sports in the kingdom. The government should follow its announcement about private schools with a removal of public school barriers and an announcement of a strategy to make it happen, Human Rights Watch said.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that still effectively bars girls from taking part in sport in government schools. There is no state sports infrastructure for women, with all designated buildings, sports clubs, courses, expert trainers, and referees limited to men. Discrimination against girls and women in sport still takes place at multiple levels in the kingdom, including:

·      The denial of girls’ physical education in state schools;

·      The refusal to license women’s gyms and sports clubs;

·      Discriminatory practices by the General Presidency for Youth Welfare, a youth and sports ministry responsible for promoting sport among Saudi youth and overseeing youth sports leagues, such as denying women’s participation in official sports clubs;

·      The denial of women’s representation on national sports bodies, resulting in the absence of competitive sports events for Saudi women athletes in the kingdom; and

·      The absence of government financial support for Saudi sportswomen in national, regional, or international competitions.

The two female athletes who represented Saudi Arabia in the 2012 London Olympics were Wujdan Shahrkhani, in judo, and Sarah Attar, in track and field. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) hailed the change, with the president, Jacques Rogge, announcing: “For the first time in Olympic history, all the participating teams will have female athletes. This is a major boost for gender equality.”

The Education Ministry has previously given indications that it might approve sports programs for girls in private schools. In December 2011, the Deputy Minister for Girls’ Affairs, Nora al-Fayez, wrote to Human Rights Watch:

[T]he ministry has issued no regulatory bylaws or rules that punish schools for female students practicing physical education; in fact there are sports activities in some private girls’ schools as part of their school curriculum and as extra-curricular activities.

The issue of girls' physical education is under serious consideration as one of the priorities of the ministry’s leadership that regards physical education in schools as one of the necessities helping male and female students to stay healthy. The ministry is currently working on a comprehensive educational curriculum, starting with laying the infrastructure for the project and finishing with health and nutritional education, all within the national strategy for girls’ and boys’ physical education.

The Saudi authorities should extend the health and educational benefits that the Education Ministry cited to girls in public schools as well as private schools, Human Rights Watch said.

The government has carried out encouraging recent modest reforms for women, Human Rights Watch said, including on combatting domestic violence and licensing a female lawyer trainee. But as Human Rights Watch has documented in the report “Perpetual Minors,” the “guardianship” system and strict gender segregation limit women’s ability to take part in public life. Under this discriminatory system, girls and women are forbidden from traveling, conducting official business, or undergoing certain medical procedures without permission from their male guardians. All women remain banned from driving in Saudi Arabia.

Human Rights Watch has long urged the International Olympic Committee to use its leverage with Saudi Arabia to press its sports leaders to conform to the values and principles of the Olympic Movement by adopting policies that will benefit all Saudi women and girls. These include establishing a timeline and benchmarksfor introducing physical education as a subject for girls in public and private schools.

“The world cheered when Saudi women shared the Olympic spotlight, but millions of women and girls in Saudi Arabia are still stuck on the sidelines,” Worden said. ”This is a moment for the global sporting community to press Saudi Arabia to allow sports for women and girls, once and for all.”

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