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UAE: Greater Progress Needed on Women's Rights

Significant Discrimination Against Women, Girls in Law and Practice

(Beirut) – The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has made important women’s rights reforms in recent years, such as passing new domestic violence protections, but significant discrimination against women and girls remains, Human Rights Watch said today. Laws still provide male guardian authority over women and loopholes allow reduced sentences for men for killing a female relative. 

A foreign domestic worker with a child under a billboard in the United Arab Emirates. © 2006 Abbas/Magnum Photos

On February 26, 2021, Human Rights Watch submitted a report to the United Nations committee reviewing the UAE’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The committee has scheduled a session sometime during the first week in March to identify a list of issues and inquiries it will make to UAE authorities ahead of its review of the UAE’s record.

“The UAE’s recent women’s rights reforms are a step in the right direction, but in truth they do not go far enough to dismantle the deep discrimination against women in law and practice,” said Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Women’s rights in the UAE have recently come under heightened scrutiny following the emergence of new videos of Sheikha Latifa, daughter of the Dubai ruler, in which she describes the conditions of her forced confinement following her abduction and forcible return to the UAE in 2018. She also pleaded for an investigation into her sister Sheikha Shamsa’s abduction and forcible return to the UAE from the UK in 2000.

The CEDAW Committee made several recommendations to the UAE on steps needed to guarantee women’s equality during its 2015 review. They included calls “to repeal as a matter of priority all legal provisions which continue to discriminate against women, including those contained in the Penal Code and the Personal Status Law.”

The UAE has carried out some reforms, such as prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex and gender in the country’s anti-discrimination law and revoking legal provisions that had obliged women to “obey” their husbands, explicitly affirmed a man’s legal right to discipline his wife and children, and punished consensual extramarital sex.

In March 2020, a new domestic violence law came into effect that included provisions enabling women to obtain restraining orders against abusers. However, the law’s definition of domestic violence reinforces male guardians’ ability to discipline their wives, female relatives, and children to an extent that authorities find acceptable. The law also does not criminalize marital rape.

In 2019 and 2020, UAE authorities introduced minor amendments to the personal status law, but a woman in the UAE can still lose her right to financial maintenance from her husband if she refuses to have sexual relations with him without a “lawful excuse.”

A judge can also deem a woman in breach of her spousal obligations if she leaves the house or takes a job deemed outside “the law, custom, or necessity,” or if the judge considers it against the family’s interests. This change was made gender neutral but prevailing social norms mean judges are more likely to consider it unnecessary for a woman to work than a man, resulting in discrimination against women.

“The UAE should uproot all forms of discrimination, especially misogynistic laws subjecting women to male guardian authority,” Begum said.

In November 2020, the UAE also repealed an article in the penal code that allowed men to receive lighter sentences for killing a female relative if they found them in the act of extramarital sex. However, families of the murder victim can waive their right to see the person punished in return for compensation (blood money) or choose to freely pardon them.

In such cases, the accused can be subject to a minimum sentence of seven years in prison instead of life. When family members kill a woman, including in so-called “honor” killings, the victim’s family is also the family of the murderer and is likely to allow men to receive lighter sentences.

Also in November 2020, the UAE amended the penal code to remove language that has been used to punish consensual sexual relations outside marriage. This provision disproportionately affected women as pregnancy could be used as evidence of extramarital sex.

Despite the change in the law, it is unclear if health policies that required a marriage certificate to obtain prenatal and postnatal care are still being implemented. Marriage certificates still appear to be required to obtain birth certificates. These policies disproportionately affect migrant women and can leave their babies undocumented, unable to obtain identification documents or travel.

The UAE’s labor law continues to exclude domestic workers, the vast majority of whom are women. A 2017 domestic worker law extended protections like a weekly day of rest and paid vacation, but has fewer and weaker protections than the main labor law and falls short of international standards.

Many low-paid migrant domestic workers are at acute risk of labor abuses, forced labor, and human trafficking because of the kafala (visa sponsorship) system in the UAE, which ties migrant workers’ visas to their employers. Foreign nationals account for about 90 percent of the UAE population, according to the World Bank.

Despite the UAE’s February announcement that it will extend citizenship opportunities to select foreign nationals, the country’s citizenship law still leaves out other groups, including children born to Emirati women and foreign fathers, and stateless people.

“The UAE has spent considerable time and money portraying itself as a champion of women’s rights and empowerment,” Begum said. “Now it needs to turn rhetoric into reality.”

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