GENEVA (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia must create laws to protect women from violence and also allow them to play a bigger role in society and the workplace, the United Nations said on Thursday.
"The lack of written laws governing private life constitutes a major obstacle to women's access to justice," said Yakin Erturk, the U.N.'s human rights expert on violence against women.
In a statement she called on Saudi Arabia to create a legal framework based on international human rights standards, including a law criminalizing violence against women.
That would also include a family law on marriage, divorce and minimum age for marriage, said the Turkish sociology professor at the end of a 10-day visit to Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally and the world's top oil exporter.
"The need to address women's rights will grow increasingly urgent as the voices of women in Saudi society are heard," she said.
The treatment of women has become an increasing embarrassment for Saudi Arabia. The country drew international criticism after its Supreme Judicial Council condemned a 19-year-old woman to 200 lashes and six months in jail for having been with a man she was not related to when she was attacked and raped by seven other men in 2006.
King Abdullah pardoned the gang-rape victim in December.
Erturk said Saudi Arabia's system of male guardianship for women limits women's freedom of movement and ability to act in a whole range of family and social areas, from marriage, divorce and child custody to inheritance, education and employment.
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are forbidden to drive. And a Saudi woman faces harassment from religious police if they are not accompanied in public by a male relative acting as her chaperone.
Earlier this month the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women called on Saudi Arabia to end the male guardianship system immediately.
Many migrants working as maids in Saudi Arabia are also subject to violence and abuse, Erturk said.
Erturk said access to education had improved for women but their employment opportunities remain restricted and sex segregation operates in the workplace.
Saudi Arabia must also provide training for police, health care providers, community leaders and others to show them that violence against women is both a violation of basic rights and incompatible with Muslim values, she said.
Thu Feb 14, 2008 © Reuters 2008 All rights reserved