In a landmark decision, the Cabinet on Monday passed a law making it a crime to commit domestic abuse . The law also provides treatment and shelter to victims of violence.
For the first time, public and private sector workers have been encouraged to report abuse cases to law enforcement authorities or the Ministry of Social Affairs.
The legislation now holds law enforcement agencies accountable for investigating and prosecuting domestic cases. Previously, police treated violence against women and children as a private domestic matter with few legal consequences.
Abuse victims also will have access to psychological treatment, health care and shelter. “All civilian or military employees and all workers in the private sector who learn of a case of abuse — by virtue of their work — shall report the case to their employers when they know it,” the Cabinet said in a statement. “The employers shall report the case to the Ministry of Social Affairs or police when they know it.”
The Cabinet did not provide specifics of penalties for convictions of domestic violence .
Suhaila Zain Al-Abideen Al-Hammad, a social activist and member of the National Society for Human Rights, said she has reservations about the new law because it doesn’t resolve the male guardianship issue. Many abusers are the guardians of the victims, she said.
“I wish this will change how the Ministry of Social Affairs treats women when it asks them to bring their male guardians when filing domestic abuse complaints,” Al-Hammad said. “They also ask their male guardians to pick them up after the report is done and ask the abusers to sign pledges to never do it again.”
Walaa Mohammed is a 55-year-old stay-at-home mother who divorced her abusive husband. She said the police were powerless to help her.
“My husband used to drink late at night and attack me,” she said. “One day, he locked me in the house and left to meet with his friends and I couldn’t leave the house for days. I called the police who informed me that they cannot come inside if my male guardian was not here.”
Mohammed Al-Harbi, general manager of Social Protection at the Ministry of Social Affairs, said urgent domestic violence cases now can be handled quickly.
“Urgent investigations will be launched and action will be taken in the cases where the abusers are under the influence of drugs or alcohol and those who suffer from psychological conditions,” Al-Harbi said.
Domestic violence awareness is a relatively new concept in Saudi Arabia. Only recently have studies been carried out to examine the issue.
In a 2009 study of women seeking services as primary health centers in Madinah, 25.7 percent of the 689 women surveyed said they were victims of physical abuse. Only 36.7 percent of the abused women in the study notified their doctors.