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Events of 2021

Kuwaiti women raise placards during a rally to denounce violence against women, outside the National Assembly, in the capital Kuwait City, on April 22, 2021.

© 2021 Photo by Yasser al-Zayyat/AFP via Getty Images

Kuwaiti authorities use provisions in the penal code and the national security and cybercrime laws to restrict free speech and prosecute dissidents, particularly for comments made on social media.

The status of the Bidun, a community of stateless people who claim Kuwaiti nationality, remains in legal limbo while the government suppresses and penalizes peaceful activism by them. 

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the government implemented restrictive measures that had a disproportionate impact on already marginalized migrants and undocumented communities.

Freedom of Expression and Assembly

Authorities prosecuted dissidents using penal code provisions and the cybercrime law that criminalize speech deemed insulting to religion or the emir, or peaceful dissent generally.

On July 5, State Security authorities arrested Jaber al-Sayer, an activist and poet who faces charges including “insulting the emir” and “broadcasting false news.” Authorities reportedly released al-Sayer on July 13.

Authorities harassed activists who advocate for the rights of the Bidun community. The Gulf Centre for Human Rights reported that on March 29 the Ministry of Justice informed prominent human rights defender Hadeel Buqrais that there was a pending case against her on charges of public insults, defamation, and misuse of her mobile telephone in connection with two tweets from early August 2020. In November 2020, the Department to Combat Electronic and Cyber Crime had summoned and interrogated Buqrais about these tweets. In May 2021, the Public Prosecution dismissed the charges and closed the case.

On September 22, authorities released Abdollah Fairouz, who worked on Bidun issues, after serving two-and-half years of a five-year prison term for “insulting the emir.”

Article 12 of the 1979 Public Gatherings Law bars non-Kuwaitis from participating in public gatherings. The Gulf Center for Human Rights reported that on August 11 and 12, the General Department of Criminal Investigation at the Ministry of Interior summoned 19 Bidun activists for questioning after they participated in weekly Saturday evening gatherings in Al-Erada Square. In 2021, the authorities also deported at least two non-Kuwaiti residents for peaceful dissent.

Women’s Rights, Children’s Rights, Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity

Kuwait’s personal status law applies to Sunni Muslims, who make up most Kuwaitis. It discriminates against women in matters of marriage, divorce, and child custody, including a stipulation that women need permission of a male guardian to marry and they can lose their right to financial maintenance from their husbands if they refuse to live with their husband without justification. Women can only apply to the courts for a divorce on limited grounds while men can divorce women without any restrictions. The personal status rules that apply to Shia Muslims also discriminate against women. Kuwaiti women married to non-Kuwaitis cannot pass citizenship to their children or spouses on an equal basis with Kuwaiti men. 

Although a record number of female candidates ran in the December 2020 National Assembly elections, none were elected.

According to the study by the Kuwait Society for Human Rights in May 2021, gender-based violence increased during the Covid-19 pandemic and consequent restrictions. In February, Kuwaiti women activists launched a nationwide online campaign called Lan Asket (“I will not be silent”) to speak out against harassment, discrimination, and violence against women. Dozens of women’s testimonies about being stalked, harassed, or assaulted emerged online.

In April 2021, outrage and protests followed reports that Farah Hamza Akbar had been killed after being kidnapped from her car during the day by a man her family had previously reported to the authorities for harassment. 

Domestic violence continues to remain pervasive. Women and girls who need to flee abuse have nowhere to turn. They can be reported to local police for “absence” if they leave their homes without their family’s or guardian’s permission. Kuwait still has no shelters for survivors of domestic violence, despite Kuwait’s national assembly passing in 2020 a Law on Protection from Domestic Violence, which included a provision that the state provide assistance for survivors including establishing a shelter. Although the law provides penalties to combat domestic violence and assistance for survivors, it falls short of criminalizing domestic violence as such and does not cover people in relationships outside of marriage, including engaged couples or former partners.

Kuwait’s penal code provides reduced sentences for male violence against women. Article 153 allows men who kill their wife, daughter, sister, or mother upon finding them in the act of extra-marital sex to receive a reduced sentenced of a maximum of three years in prison or a fine of 3,000 Kuwaiti dinars (approximately US$9,820). Article 182 also allows an abductor who uses force, threat, or deception with the intention to kill, harm, rape, prostitute or extort the victim to avoid punishment if he marries the victim with the permission of her guardian. 

The penal code also criminalizes sexual relations outside marriage and consensual same-sex relations between men. Transgender people can face one year in prison, a 1,000 Kuwaiti dinar fine ($3,293), or both, under a 2007 penal code provision that prohibits “imitating the opposite sex in any way.” Transgender people have been subjected to arbitrary arrest, degrading treatment, and torture while in police custody. On October 3, a court sentenced Maha al-Mutairi, a transgender woman, to two years in prison and a fine of 1,000 Kuwaiti dinars for “misusing phone communication” by “imitating the opposite sex” online under article 70 of the telecommunication law and article 198 of the penal code.

The criminal code and the Child Rights Act permit corporal punishment of children by their parents or legal caregivers.

Stateless People

The Bidun are a group of between 88,000 and 106,000 stateless people who claim Kuwaiti nationality, dating back to the foundation of the state in 1961. Rejecting their claims to Kuwaiti nationality, the government refers to them as “illegal residents,” resulting in them facing obstacles to obtaining civil documentation, receiving social services, and impairing their rights to health, education, and work.

The Central System for the Remedy of Situations of Illegal Residents, the administrative body in charge of Bidun affairs, has been issuing temporary ID cards since 2011. These ID cards often state that the cardholder possessed Iraqi, Saudi, Iranian, or other citizenship, but it was unclear how the agency determined the individual’s alleged nationality and what due process procedures are available for Bidun to challenge the Central System’s determination. Over the past year there have been at least two reports of Bidun youth committing suicide after what Bidun activists claim was the Central System’s refusal to renew their ID cards or due to their difficult living conditions.

Article 12 of the 1979 Public Gatherings Law bars non-Kuwaitis from participating in public gatherings. The Gulf Centre for Human Rights reported that on August 11 and 12 that the General Department of Criminal Investigation at the Ministry of Interior summoned 19 Bidun activists for questioning after they participated in weekly Saturday evening gatherings in Al-Erada Square.

Migrant Workers

Two-thirds of Kuwait’s population is comprised of migrant workers, who remain vulnerable to abuse, largely due to the kafala (sponsorship) system which ties migrants’ visas to their employers and requires that migrants get their employers’ consent to leave or change jobs. Migrant domestic workers continue to face additional forms of abuse including being forcibly confined in their employers’ homes, and verbal, physical and sexual abuse.

As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, many migrant workers found themselves dismissed without their wages, trapped in the country, unable to leave due to travel restrictions and more expensive flight tickets, or dismissed from their jobs and deported. In April 2021, reported that migrant workers in the food and beverage sector were among those most affected, with many losing jobs, facing denial of wages for months or severe salary deductions.

In 2020, the government said that it seeks to reduce the number of migrant workers from 70 to 30 percent of the population.  In January, the Public Authority for Manpower reportedly began implementing a 2020 administrative decision to prohibit issuing or renewing work permits for migrants aged 60 and above who hold only high school diplomas or below. On July 14, local papers reported that the authorities decided to allow for the renewal of work permits of migrant workers over age 60 but for a high fee of 2,000 Kuwaiti dinar ($6,650) per year. Following citizens and residents taking to social media to oppose the decision critiquing it as extortion of the elderly, in August, local media reported that officials were considering halving the fee to 1,000 Kuwaiti dinar (approximately $3,300).  

Government’s Response to the Covid-19 Pandemic

Since April 2021, in response in the Covid-19 pandemic, Kuwaiti authorities imposed various restrictions, including general lockdowns. Several of these government actions have had a disproportionate impact on already marginalized communities.

In June 2020, Amnesty International reported that the official contact tracing mobile application used in Kuwait to track reported Covid-19 cases uses one of the most invasive centralized approaches, posing a threat to privacy. There are no general data protection laws in the country.

Morbidity rates during Covid have been higher among migrant workers. Reports indicate that migrant workers were not given equal access to Covid-19 vaccines based on the same health criteria as Kuwait citizens.   

The closure of schools and shift to online education in response to Covid-19 affected the education of 800,000 students. Bidun children, who are already socially marginalized, reportedly have more difficulty accessing devices for online education. In September and October, the government started reopening private and public schools.

There have been several reports of Covid-19 outbreaks in Kuwait prisons. According to the US State Department, the authorities released more than 1,000 prisoners and asked several other countries to repatriate any of their nationals who had served more than half of their prison terms and have them serve the remainder of their sentences at home to reduce prison overcrowding during the pandemic.

Climate Change Policies and Impacts

Kuwait, the world’s seventh-largest exporter of crude oil, has the sixth-highest greenhouse gas emissions per capita globally, a considerable portion from air conditioning. As one of the world’s hottest and most water-stressed countries, Kuwait is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The increasing frequency and intensity of heat waves, decreased precipitation, and rising sea levels pose risks to the right to health, life, water, and housing, especially of migrant workers.

Kuwait generates two-thirds of its electricity from burning oil but has no national climate change plan and has yet to submit its second Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), a Paris Agreement-mandated, five-year, national climate change action plan due at the end of 2020. Its first NDC contained no quantitative targets.

Key International Actors

Kuwait has a bilateral defense cooperation agreement with the United States, and the US uses military bases in the country. Kuwait is a member of the Saudi-led coalition conducting military operations in Yemen. Kuwait has not responded to Human Rights Watch inquiries regarding what role, if any, it has played in unlawful attacks in Yemen.