Domestic violence has always been a complex issue in Kuwaiti culture, often tied to norms and beliefs relating to family structures and concepts of guardianship, honour and discipline. As with other forms of abuse within the family, it is also considered a private matter and therefore not addressed publicly.
Despite a lack of up to date figures, the problem is widespread, affecting 53.1% of women in Kuwait according to a 2018 study. But Kuwait’s last submission to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) showed only 447 domestic violence cases had been through the court system in 2016, and only 76 of those resulted in a conviction. Given the known difficulties of reporting abuse and getting a case to court, it is not a stretch to conclude the actual figures of abused women is much higher than this figure given by the Ministry of Justice.
In one recently reported case, a pregnant woman was shot in the head and killed by one of her brothers while she was recovering in the in the intensive care unit of Mubarak Hospital from being shot by her other brother the day before. The reason for such a horrific double attack was she had married without her sibling’s consent, even though her father had accepted the match.
Worryingly, activists and experts claim domestic violence has been rising in Kuwait during COVID-19, in keeping with global trends during lockdowns, and aggravated by the lack of legal resources and shelters for survivors. Highlighting this unfortunate situation, along with worldwide interest in the issue of domestic violence within the current epidemic, did lead to renewed media interest in the issue in Kuwait, and brought the lack of resources available to abuse survivors into the public eye.
And it is this renewed attention – alongside the fact Kuwait is about to enter an election cycle in November – that may well have driven recent governmental and parliamentary moves on the long-awaited family protection law, which recently passed in Kuwait’s national assembly with 38 votes for, one MP abstaining, and another voting against.
But 17 MPs were conspicuously absent from the room, including the Women and Family Committee rapporteur Alhumaidi Alsubaei, known for his human rights activism. This signals how complex the social and political issues associated with domestic violence as, although the official version of the law is yet to be made public, the submitted bill contained 26 articles.
The articles call for the formation of a National Family Protection Committee to draw up plans countering the spread of domestic violence in Kuwait, as well as the review and amendment of existing national laws which may be perpetuating the violence. Other provisions cover mandatory training programs for all government sectors involved in family protection, awareness programmes on detection, reporting and survivor advocacy, and issuing an annual report about domestic violence statistics.
Article 5 specifically calls for activating a domestic violence shelter and offering rehabilitation and advisory services, while Article 13 tackles the punishment of those who try and coerce survivors not to report abuse. These two articles are especially important because, although the Fanar Advisory Service and Domestic Abuse Shelter was formally opened in 2017, it has never actually been functional due to the delay of legislation needed to make it operational. Described as a ’stillborn dream’, the unused building is surrounded by sewage water.
The new family protection law also gives important provision for cooperation with civil society organizations, such as Eithar, Abolish 153, and Soroptomists Kuwait working on this issue. Although Kuwait already has several official bodies meant to be dealing with ending violence against women, in reality it has been these groups effectively dealing with the plight of abuse survivors. With no functional shelters, dedicated hotlines or specialized resources to assist victims, Eithar and Soroptimists Kuwait provide resources and support, while Abolish 153 focuses on filling the hitherto legal vacuum.
The path to getting this law put to a vote has been a long and winding one. Back in 2017, Saleh Ashoor MP submitted the first version of the domestic violence bill when he was heading up the Women and Family Affairs Committee. At that time, the bill was signed by just four other MPs - Safa Al Hashem, Ahmad Al Fadhel, Khalil Al Saleh and Faisal Al Kanderi. But it was the starting point and, several iterations later, it is essentially a version of that proposal which has been voted into law.
Much of the delay over the past three years, both with the legislation and activation of the shelter, has been due to the fact there were many bodies involved, such as the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Social and Labor Affairs, and civil society representatives, all of whom at times had different agendas. But alongside the amendment to the press and publication law which also passed that same historic day in parliament, the family protection law is undoubtedly a major win for all those liberal civil society activists who have lobbied long and hard to change these dangerous and restrictive legislations in Kuwait.