Exact figures on domestic violence are hard to come by. The State Department’s most recent human rights report cites estimates that 16 to 50 percent of Saudi wives suffer some kind of spousal abuse. Saudi law does not criminalize domestic violence or spousal rape, and social repercussions can make reporting violence of any kind difficult. Both rape and domestic violence “may be seriously underreported,” according to the State Department report.
The Saudi government has begun to address the problem, at least in name. In 2008, a prime ministerial decree ordered the expansion of “social protection units,” its version of women’s shelters, in several large cities, and ordered the government to draft a national strategy to deal with domestic violence, according to the United Nations. Several royal foundations, including the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue and the King Khalid Foundation, have also led education and awareness efforts.
None of this changes the fact, of course, that Saudi Arabia remains an often difficult place to be a woman. The World Economic Forum ranks the country 131st out of 135 for its record on women’s rights, citing a total lack of political and economic empowerment.
The country has a strong record on women’s health and education, however: On metrics such as enrollment in higher education, Saudi Arabia actually scores well above the global average.
Some of those well-educated women are leading the fight against domestic violence now. Maha Almuneef, a pediatrician, directs the National Family Safety Program, an anti-violence effort that has also benefited from the patronage of Saudi Arabia’s Princess Adela.
“Reporting violence and abuse should be compulsory, and there should be a witness protection program,” Adela said at a 2009 conference on ending the country’s domestic abuse.