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Conditions of Women

Kuwait has made more progress than most Gulf nations toward improving the status of women and ensuring gender equality. Women have comparatively high rates of participation in the workforce and enjoy substantial protections against discrimination. The central cause of international concern is the lack of voting rights for Kuwaiti women.

Women comprise two-thirds of university-level students. Over 67% of Kuwait University graduates are women. In 1996, Islamists in the National Assembly passed legislation requiring all university classes in Kuwait to be segregated by gender, reversing a government decree integrating classes in 1990. Women constituted 31.8 per cent of Kuwait's labor force in 2001, the highest proportion in the Gulf region. The vast majority of Kuwaiti women are employed in the public sector. Women generally receive equal pay for equal work in public and private sector jobs.

Kuwaiti women’s presence in the labor market has increased steadily over the last decade and should continue in the future, although most women are prohibited by law from working at night from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. The law, unanimously passed by the Kuwaiti parliament on June 11, 2007, exempts the medical sector and permits the minister of social affairs and labor to exempt other sectors. The law also prohibits employing women in jobs that are dangerous, hard or harmful to health. In addition, the law prevents employing women in immoral occupations based on exploiting their bodies. Finally, the law bans employing women in institutions and businesses that provide services only to men. Islamist and conservative deputies who wrote down the text of this new law said that it preserves women's human dignity and nature, in addition to providing an appropriate work environment for women.

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Law of Personal Status

Women still face some degree of legal inequality in the nation, largely in relation to personal status law. The personal status law dictates that women’s testimony is given less value in court proceedings. The father determines a child’s nationality under Kuwaiti Islamic law. Women also face discrimination in divorce and inheritance decisions, but these rules vary based on Shi’a and Sunni doctrine.

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Gender Reforms

The Kuwaiti parliament approved an amendment to the Municipal Council Law on May 16, 2005, that gives Kuwaiti women full political rights including electoral rights. On February 13, 2006 Jinan Boushahry became the first Kuwaiti woman to declare her intent to run in municipal council elections, which came up as a municipal council seat that had been vacated by a member who was appointed as minister of municipal affairs. Kuwaiti law stipulates that partial elections be held within 60 days of any vacancy. Subsidiary elections to fill the vacant seat took place on April 4, 2006. Mrs. Boushahry ran against a male candidate who had tribal support. Mrs. Boushahry was defeated by her male opponent, who received 5436 votes to her 1807 votes. A second female candidate received only 79 votes. Women's participation rate was low: it stood at 28.7% of eligible female voters. Despite Mrs. Boushahry's loss local observers believed that women would have a real weight in upcoming legislative elections of 2007. Kuwait had already received international attention on the issue of female suffrage in October 2003, when the cabinet approved draft legislation granting women full rights to vote and run as candidates in elections. The measure did not receive parliamentary approval, however, given the predominance of Islamists and social conservatives in the legislature. Similarly, by a close 32-30 vote, the parliament had blocked a decree issued in May 1999 by Emir Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah granting women the right to vote and run for office in the 2003 parliamentary elections. The Islamic and traditional opposition to suffrage argues that women’s exposure to public life by voting will lead to their moral decline.

Women hold many positions in government. Most recently they achieved new advances at the top levels of leadership. For the first time in Kuwait's history a woman, Dr. Ma'ssoumah al-Mubarak was appointed on June 12, 2005 as minister of planning and administrative development. She was then appointed as minister of Health in the cabinet that was formed on March 25, 2007. A second female, Mrs. Nouria Al-Subaih, was appointed as minister of Education and Higher Studies in the same cabinet. Two other women were appointed on June 5, 2005 to the 16-member municipal council. A woman currently serves as undersecretary of education and several ambassadors are women. The president of Kuwait University is also a woman.

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Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)

Kuwait ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1994, with a reservation for conflicts with Islamic law. Kuwait also refused to accept the authority of the international dispute resolution mechanisms created by the CEDAW. The Kuwaiti constitution prohibits gender discrimination and these provisions are generally enforced.

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Social Forces

Two of the largest women’s groups in Kuwait are the Federation of Kuwaiti Women’s Associations and the Women’s Cultural and Social Society. The Federation is supported and tightly regulated by the Kuwaiti government. It is the only women’s group allowed to represent Kuwait internationally. The Women’s Cultural and Social Society was initially a charity organization, but has become an active advocate for women’s rights. Many of the organizations such as the Women Affairs Committee, Kuwait's Union of Women Societies and other predominantly female organizations, have organized campaigns and conferences to protest the exclusion of women in the political arena. Women hold many positions in government. Most recently they achieved new advances at the top levels of leadership. For the first time in Kuwait's history a woman, Dr. Ma'ssoumah al-Mubarak was appointed on June 12, 2005 as minister of planning and administrative development. Two other women were appointed on June 5, 2005 to the 16-member municipal council. A woman currently serves as undersecretary of education and several ambassadors are women. The president of Kuwait University is also a woman.

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