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05/01/2013

Saudi Arabia's first domestic violence campaign

 KKFABUSEAD1

The slogan is "some things can’t be covered" and the campaign is called "No More Abuse."

This is Saudi Arabia’s unusually frank effort to combat domestic violence. The shocking photograph above of a woman with a black eye is rare in a society where confronting social issues head on is very much frowned upon. Saudis prefer to do things quietly, by stealth, if at all. Admitting social shortcomings in front of a global audience is even more remarkable. The advertising campaign is being run by the King Khalid Foundation charity so it has approvals at the highest levels of government. 

I recently spoke to Mona al Abdat, who manages a counselling centre in Jeddah.  She told me that her staff of three could not keep up with the demand for help from victims of domestic violence. 

"Some of them we refer to psychiatrists because they need medication. People who are sexually abused, beaten by a father, beaten by a husband,” she told me.  “Really I am scared now because it is becoming more and more. The counselors we have at the centre really sometimes they don’t have any spots. There are waiting lists."

On the positive side, she said the waiting lists were a sign of progress that people were willing to reach out and perhaps the stigmas were fading.  

There are no reliable statistics on domestic violence - the federal authorities in 2009 said there were 257 cases, but some of these were abuse against men. This must be a huge understatement in a country with a population of about 28 million.

Under Saudi Arabia's harsh interpretation of Sharia law, females must receive permission from male guardians to have an education, work or travel. Obviously this leaves women in an extremely vulnerable position. 

There is no law that criminalizes violence against women, either. This is something women's activists have been pushing for with no luck, along with a law to outlaw child abuse particularly after the horrific rape and murder of a 5-year-old girl at the hands of her father.  

The "No More Abuse" campaign comes after several other steps towards women's emancipation carried out under the rule of King Abdullah.  In the 2015, elections women will have the right to stand for local office. 

This year women were given 30 positions on the previously all-male shura council. Although the 150-member body has no real political power, it only proposes laws for the king who rules with absolute authority, it was a development. Women can now ride bikes in restricted areas.  Under previous rulings women were banned from doing so because it was considered too sexually explicit.  

But the king has a long way to go before his female subjects reach any kind of equality. Saudi Arabia placed 131 in the World Economic Forum's ranking of 135 countries in last year’s gender gap report which measured economic, political, social disparities between men and women. 

Hamida Ghafour is a foreign affairs reporter at the Star. She has lived and worked in the Middle East and Asia for more than 10 years and is the author of a book on Afghanistan. Follow her on Twitter @HamidaGhafour

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