Saudi Arabia to chair UN women’s rights forum News
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Saudi Arabia to chair UN women’s rights forum

Saudi Arabia was elected chair of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) by “acclamation” on Wednesday after an unopposed bid for leadership with no dissent, despite outcry from human rights organizations ahead of the vote. Saudi Ambassador to the UN Abdulaziz Alwasil will assume the position.

The CSW is dedicated to promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women. The appointment of Saudi Arabia was met with outcry from human rights groups such as Amnesty International, citing Saudi Arabia’s widely condemned record on women’s rights and raising questions about the compatibility of the kingdom’s policies with CSW’s mandate. UN director at Human Rights Watch (HRW) Louis Charbonneau, also stated on X (formerly Twitter), “A country that jails women simply because they advocate for their rights has no business being the face of the UN’s top forum for women’s rights and gender equality.”

Since 2017, Saudi Arabia has adopted a series of legal reforms aimed at enhancing women’s rights and freedoms as part of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s (MbS) Vision 30 project, which seeks to reinvent Saudi Arabia as an open and inviting modern nation. The requirements of permission from a male guardian for access to government services such as healthcare and education, registering for divorce, or travelling abroad have all been dropped as a part of the project. The longstanding ban on women driving was also lifted in 2017, and legislation prohibiting wage discrimination was introduced in 2018.

In 2022, the Personal Status Law was introduced, which provided women the freedom to independently decide whom they will marry—although women still have to obtain a male guardian’s permission to marry. It also reiterated that women are legally entitled to financial support from their husbands; however, refusal to have sex, live in the marital home or travel with him without a “legitimate excuse” can justify the withdrawal of financial support. According to Amnesty International, the Personal status Law failed to adequately protect women and codifies discrimination and male guardianship.

Saudi Arabia still has multiple women’s rights imprisoned and detained for advocating for women’s rights. Recently, a group of civil society organizations signed a letter highlighting how “prominent women human rights defenders who have long advocated for women’s rights continue to face heavy restrictions since being released from prison, frequently in the form of travel bans that prevent them from leaving the country.” The groups then called upon Saudi Arabia to release the detained activists.