Over the past few years, the kingdom has witnessed 90 major human rights reforms, of which women’s empowerment constitutes the largest share
The reforms undertaken by the kingdom to empower women since the launch of Vision 2030 has helped the Saudi economy become more resilient.(REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser/File Photo)
The past year, plagued by the unfortunate COVID-19 pandemic, has undoubtedly been challenging for all economies alike. A sound recovery from the pandemic is possible with women at the frontlines. In line with the International Women’s Day theme this year, Saudi Arabia, too, celebrates women’s tremendous contribution in shaping a more equal future and recovery from the pandemic.
The reforms undertaken by the kingdom to empower women since the launch of Vision 2030 has helped the Saudi economy become more resilient. Led by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and the Crown Prince, Saudi Arabia has witnessed 90 major human rights reforms over the past few years, and women’s empowerment constitutes the largest share of these reforms.
For two years in a row, Saudi Arabia has achieved notable progress in “Women, Business and the Law Report”, a global measure of women legal reforms published by the World Bank. On a scale of 1 to 100, Saudi Arabia scored 80 in WBL 2021, up from 70.6 in WBL 2020. Our scores in the indicators of mobility, workplace, pay, entrepreneurship, and pension put us on par with many advanced economies with long traditions of women legal reforms.
This achievement builds on landmark changes in Saudi Arabia, including empowering women with the right to vote and run as candidates in municipal elections in 2015 and the right to drive in 2017. In 2018, Saudi Arabia criminalised sexual harassment in public and private sector employment. Legal amendments now protect women from discrimination in employment, including job advertisements and hiring, and prohibit employers from dismissing a woman during her pregnancy and maternity leave. Saudi Arabia also equalised the retirement age for women and men at 60 years, extending women’s working lives, earnings, and contributions. And, most recently, the Saudi Ministry of Defence has opened its doors for women to join the armed forces.
The elimination of all restrictions on women’s employment in industrial jobs, such as mining, construction, and manufacturing, has already translated into key changes on the ground. The overall rate of women’s participation in the labour market increased from 22 per cent to nearly 30 per cent in the last two years. The growth in certain sectors has been very impressive. For instance, the proportion of women staff at the Saudi Industrial Development Fund increased from zero to 17 per cent in just three years. Today, the industrial sector offers more than 39,000 job opportunities to women, a rate of 37 per cent of nationalisation of jobs.
In fact, the private sector registered a 130 per cent increase in the number of working Saudi women during the last four years. Today 30 per cent of the total Saudi work force in the private sector is represented by women. This progress will certainly gain more momentum in future. Women represent 58 per cent of university students in Saudi Arabia, with science, technology and engineering being their preferred subjects of choice that they further pursue overseas. The talent pool will add to the intellectual capital of Saudi Arabia.
Reforms tend to have a multiplier effect. Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Justice had earlier approved four landmark decisions in support of women’s rights pertaining to protecting minors, divorcees, women who have custody of their children and law graduates. Those reforms have led to an increase in the number of licenced female lawyers in the Kingdom by 66 per cent in 2020 compared to 2019. The Ministry of Justice has created a women’s department. As thousands of women attend programmes run by the Justice Training Centre, many more will enter the legal workforce.
Women entrepreneurship has also been encouraged by prohibiting gender-based discrimination in accessing financial services. As a result, the number of women-owned companies in the Kingdom increased by 60 per cent in the past two years.
Empowerment is not only about creating job opportunities but also about providing a conducive environment to nurture talent. Our efforts in this direction continue unabated. To keep pace with the need of the digital labour market, two digital colleges have been opened in Riyadh and Jeddah to offer women specialised training programmes in network systems management, Internet of Things, smart cities, robotics technology and artificial intelligence. The Transportation Program for Working Women (Wusool), which provides 80 per cent subsidy, has over 10,000 registered Saudi female employees. The programme not only aims to find solutions to reduce transportation costs for Saudi women working in the private sector but also to improve and develop the environment needed to transport women from and to workplaces, by ensuring high-safety and high-quality transportation service in partnership with private taxi companies using licenced smart apps.
Today, women hold decision-making positions in the public and private sectors, assuming important roles such as deputy minister, ambassador, university director, and chairperson of the board of directors in a number of companies. Women have broken the proverbial glass ceiling across sectors — Saudi Arabia now has its first female professional racing driver, award-winning women film producers and women judges.
We are committed to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) related to women at the global level and strongly support an inclusive approach that empowers women in the economic, social, health, educational, technological, and cultural sectors, among others. The Saudi G20 Presidency worked with the theme of “Realising Opportunities of the 21st Century for All”, and accorded special attention to discussing policies related to women, through engagement groups and various ministerial meetings. The Saudi leadership of G20 ensured the participation of women in decision-making by sharing recommendations of the Women 20 Engagement Group (W20) in the G20 meetings. A number of tailored initiatives such as the “Empowerment and Progression of Women’s Economic Representation” (EMPOWER) have been launched to tackle the challenges facing women.
Women empowerment will continue to be at the heart of our ongoing efforts to realise the Vision 2030 goals and to bring about a prosperous future for all.
The writer is Ambassador to the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in India