International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, held each year on 25 November, is an opportunity to raise awareness on the pervasive human rights violation against women and girls that persists covertly and overtly in most countries of the world.

As the United Nations agency, UN Women, stated ahead of this year’s International Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women: “There has been a significant backlash against women’s rights and attacks against women human rights defenders and activists in recent years. The legal status of women’s rights is increasingly imperiled in many countries, regressive new laws are exacerbating impunity for perpetrators of domestic violence, governments are using force against gender-based violence protests, and women’s rights organizations are increasingly being marginalized.

UN Women, stressed that supporting and investing in strong, autonomous women’s rights organizations and feminist movements is key to ending violence against women and girls (VAWG). The agency pointed out that the push forward with feminist mobilization in the face of a push-back from anti-rights movements, is underscored by the theme for this year’s campaign on VAWG, which is ‘UNITE! Activism to End Violence against Women and Girls’.

Kuwait is marking this year’s International Day to Eliminate Violence Against Women by reiterating its commitment to implement international treaties and agreements on the elimination of all forms of discrimination and violence against women. Speaking on the issue of VAWG, chairperson of the Union of Kuwaiti Women’s Associations, Sheikh Fadya Saad Al-Sabah, slammed violence against women as being one of the most common human rights violations.

Noting that the Kuwaiti constitution and laws safeguard women’s dignity and protect them against psychological and physical violations, she lauded the efforts exerted by Kuwait to protect women’s human rights.

However, she also lamented that violence against women is still a stumbling block to efforts and endeavors to ensure gender equity, development and peace, and stressed that the goal of attaining sustainable development cannot not be achieved without eliminating violence against women and girls.

Despite the principles enshrined in Kuwait’s constitution, its ratification of several international covenants on women’s rights, and protections provided by law against violence on women and girls, the phenomena continues unabated in public as well as in domestic spheres. In recent years there has been a spike in cases of violence against women, with several high-profile incidents garnering media attention and gaining traction in the national psyche.

In September, 2020, Fatima Al-Ajmi, a 34-year old pregnant Kuwaiti woman was shot dead by her brother inside a hospital, after she was hospitalized from gunshot wounds fired at her while at home by the same assailant. The brother apparently did not approve of her marriage. In December of the same year, Shaikha Al-Ajmi, no relative of the earlier-mentioned victim, who worked as a security-guard at the National Assembly was stabbed to death by her brother. This ‘brother’ did not approve of his sister working as a guard in the parliament building.

A dated, but nevertheless relevant report, published in 2018 by Dr. Fatima Al-Salem — back then, an Assistant Professor of Journalism and New Media at Kuwait University, and now the Director-General of Kuwait News Agency (KUNA) —, showed that 53.1 percent of Kuwaiti women had been subjected to some kind of violence in their lives. The results compiled from a community behavior questionnaire on violence against women, including physical, psychological, verbal and sexual abuse, was designed to serve as the basis for an illustrative study showing the extent of violence against women in Kuwaiti society.

The study showed that physical abuse is the most prevalent type of gender-violence (30.7%), followed by psychological abuse (25.3%), and verbal abuse ranking third (24.9%). Additionally, a woman’s husband or fiancé was found to be the most frequent perpetrator of the violence (50.2%), while an ex-partner was implicated in 20.4 percent of cases. Moreover, a father, brother or other close relative was reported to be the main abuser in 13.1 percent of cases.

The survey which also explored perceptions of gender-violence among respondents found that when asked to define violence against women, 51 percent respondents ranked exploitation and extortion as the main violence, followed by physical abuse (44%), psychological abuse (37%) and verbal abuse (35%). Exploitation as the main form of violence may appear surprising, but given the increased use of social media, the misuse of these platforms to threaten and blackmail women has increased significantly in recent years.

The results also show that 67 percent of the participants view violence as something related to culture and tradition, and that it occurs more often to women from cultures that adopt traditional values ​​about the role of women and men, such as male domination. In terms of preventing violence against women in Kuwait, the majority of respondents believe that awareness and education of society is key to eliminating gender-violence.

In August 2020, in order to conform with international covenants on eliminating violence against women, to which Kuwait is an early signatory, and in response to the relentless pressure from activists and women’s rights groups that had been tirelessly campaigning for protection from gender-violence, the National Assembly passed Law 16/2020, or the Law on Protection for Victims of Domestic Violence.

Defining domestic violence as ‘physical, psychological, sexual or financial mistreatment, whether in words or actions, or the threat of such actions, by a family member against one or more other members’, the legislation aims to set minimum standards and legal protection procedures for victims of domestic violence, ‘without threatening the stability of family unity in society’.

The law also includes provisions for legal, medical and rehabilitation services for victims, and calls for the establishment of shelters for survivors of domestic violence, and a hotline to receive complaints of gender violence. Equally importantly, the legislation also paves the way for issuing restraining orders to prevent harassers and abusers from contacting their victims.

However, passing of the law against domestic violence by parliament was evidently not enough to deter perpetrators of violence against women. In April last year, a young Kuwaiti woman, Farah Hamza Akbar was stabbed to death for refusing a marriage proposal from her killer. Horror and outrage sparked by this brutal act of violence led to citizens, activists, and human rights advocates protesting the violence, as well as the continued callousness of authorities towards gender-violence.

Under the overarching banner of ‘Bas Kuwait’ (Enough Kuwait), the protestors gathered at Irada Square in front of the parliament building, and called on lawmakers to implement the ‘Protection for Victims of Domestic Violence’ law that was passed in August 2020, and to enact more stringent punishment for perpetrators of violence against women. Although grassroots activism, with support from civil society organizations and concerned citizens has gained strength in recent years, and added impetus to campaigns aimed at eliminating gender violence, clearly, there is much more work that remains to be done.

Three weeks after the murder of Shaikha Al-Ajmi, the court charged the assailent of a misdemeanor, and imposed a 2-year prison sentence. Under Article 153 of Kuwaiti penal code, the killing of a close female relative, whether a mother, sister, wife or daughter, suspected of committing adultery is considered as an incident of ‘honor-killing’, and legally treated as a ‘misdemeanor’ — a relatively minor crime that entails a maximum sentence of three years in prison, or a maximum fine of KD3,000.

Treating a heinous murder as a misdemeanor is the equivalent of insulting the victim, and all those grieving her loss. If anything, it is the most dishonorable and abominable aggression that anyone can perpetrate. There is and can be no honor in ‘honor-killings’, especially given that the victims in most cases are the own flesh and blood of the perpetrators. For its part, society needs to drop the prefix from these so-called ‘honor-killings and call it by what it really is, a gruesome murder of one human being by another, and institute the fullest punishment under the law for these criminals.

Attributing and condoning this egregious behavior as a cultural or traditional norm, by 67 percent of people, as evidenced by the university survey mentioned above, is highly regrettable. People have to understand that cultures and traditions in a society are not static elements, they evolve over time and under influences. We live in an age of accelerating cultural change brought on by globalization, urbanization and rapid population growth around the world. People who live in a time warp are an anomaly.

Unfortunately, conservative elements in society tend to resist the incessant changes brought on by time, and their sway over people means that laws are enacted that aim to preserve traditional cultural practices and beliefs, and prevent incursion of foreign ideologies or behaviors. Sadly, this retrogressive thinking also gives rise to perverse behaviors among some people who resort to violence in order to maintain their beliefs.

No matter how it is framed, the criminal act of ‘honor-killings’ stems from a distorted perception that women are the repositories of honor and men are its guardians or protectors. It arises from the misguided, misogynistic notion that honor emanates from a woman’s body — how she dresses, behaves, walks, talks, or interacts with others, are all causes of concern to the male regulators of honor.

Although this phenomenon is more widely reported from the Middle-East and from South-East Asia, it occurs in other places as well. It is especially prevalent in societies and communities where men are socially conditioned to think that they are entitled to power and control over women, who are also often considered as ‘inferior’. In these situations, violence becomes a tool to ensure that women are kept in line and do not stray beyond borders delineated by men.

In Kuwait, domestic violence has for too long been considered an internal family matter, in which the law or society has no say. But, as recent incidents indicate, gender-violence is a behavior-pattern that needs professional psycho-therapeutic interventions and social care. The hope is that more stringent laws, better awareness through education, increased media coverage and public outrage over VAWG, as well as a willingness by more women to talk about domestic violence in the open, will bring a respite to the prevalence of gender-violence in this country.

However, elimination of gender-violence also requires an attitudinal change among men, and the promotion of concepts such as gender-equality, freedom of choice, and respect for women. And, this needs to begin at home, and at any early age.

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