Kuwait is a constitutional, hereditary emirate ruled by the Al-Sabah family. While there is also a democratically elected parliament, the amir holds ultimate authority over most government decisions. The most recent parliamentary general election, considered generally free and fair, was held on December 5, and members of the opposition won a majority of the seats.
Police have sole responsibility for the enforcement of laws not related to national security, while the Kuwait State Security oversees national security matters. Both report to the Ministry of Interior, as does the Coast Guard. The Kuwait National Guard is an independent body from the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Defense; it reports to the prime minister and the amir. The armed forces are responsible for external security and report to the Ministry of Defense. The Kuwait National Guard is responsible for critical infrastructure protection, support for the Ministries of Interior and Defense, and the maintenance of national readiness. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. There were some allegations that members of the security forces committed abuses.
Significant human rights issues included: reports of torture; political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including censorship, internet site blocking, and criminalization of libel; interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on freedom of movement; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons; and criminalization of consensual adult male same-sex sexual conduct.
The government took significant steps in some cases to prosecute and punish officials who committed abuses, whether in the security services or elsewhere in the government. Impunity was a problem in corruption cases.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
Political Prisoners and Detainees
There were many instances of persons detained for expressing their political views. Throughout the year the government continued to arrest individuals on charges such as insulting the amir, leaders of neighboring countries or the judiciary; organizing public demonstrations amongst the Bidoon; spreading false news; or undermining the state’s efforts to control the spread of COVID-19. Some defendants were acquitted, while others received jail sentences. During the year sentences for organizing public demonstrations amongst the Bidoon, participating in unlicensed or illegal demonstrations against the country’s ruling system, spreading false news, criticizing the amir or other leaders on social media ranged from six months in prison to 10 years plus fines for multiple offenses.
The government actively monitored social media and incarcerated bloggers and political activists for expressing antigovernment opinions and ideas. Media reported between two and four such convictions per month. In February the Criminal Court sentenced another blogger to three years in prison and hard labor for criticizing the amir and posting false news on Twitter. As of November, 35 cases of insulting the amir were registered at the courts. Defendants of five of these 35 cases received final verdicts by the Court of Cassation.
In October authorities extradited three Egyptian opposition figures who called for protests against Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution stipulates the country is a hereditary emirate. The 50 elected members of the National Assembly (plus government-appointed ministers) must, by majority vote conducted by secret ballot, approve the amir’s choice of crown prince. According to the Succession Law, the crown prince must be a male descendant of Sheikh Mubarak Al-Sabah and meet three additional requirements: have attained the age of 30, possess a sound mind, and be a legitimate son of Muslim parents. The National Assembly may remove the amir from power by a two-thirds majority vote if it finds that any of these three conditions is or was not met.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: Observers generally considered the December parliamentary election free and fair, and reported no serious procedural problems. In November the Interior Ministry announced that 34 of the 395 candidates had been disqualified without explanation, although 20 were later reinstated. One of these candidates was elected to the Parliament. The election was characterized by a short campaign period and a ban on in-person events due to COVID-19 health concerns.
Opposition MPs took 24 of the National Assembly’s 50 seats, an increase of 16 seats from the last parliament. Thirty candidates younger than age 45 were elected, while none of the 33 women candidates won seats. There were 13 percent fewer candidates during the year than in the last election in 2016.
Political Parties and Political Participation: The government did not recognize political parties or allow their formation, although no formal law bans political parties. National Assembly candidates must nominate themselves as individuals. Well organized, unofficial blocs operated as political groupings inside the National Assembly, and MPs formed loose alliances. Those convicted of insulting the amir and Islam are banned from running for elected office. In March 2019 the Court of Cassation issued a verdict that banned citizens convicted of calling for or participating in unregistered demonstrations and protest rallies or resisting security operatives from voting or running in public elections. Voters may register to vote every February upon reaching the voting age of 21. Prosecutors and judges from the Ministry of Justice supervise election stations. Women prosecutors served as supervisors for the first time during the 2016 elections. In February reports revealed that the Ministries of Interior and Justice were working together to purge from voter registration lists the names of those convicted of insulting the amir. Cases must reach a final verdict before names can be removed.
Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate in political life. Although women gained the right to vote in 2005, they still faced cultural and social barriers to political participation. For example, some tribal leaders have successfully excluded women from running for office or choosing preliminary candidates by banning them from being considered or attending unofficial tribal primaries. The one appointed woman cabinet member can vote with the country’s 50-seat parliament. Although 33 women candidates ran in the December Parliamentary election, no women were ultimately elected. To explain the results, analysts pointed to widespread public opinion, which does not support women in leadership roles, and an electoral system, which minimizes the likelihood of voters allocating their one vote per slate of 10 district candidates to a female candidate. In July the Public Prosecutor appointed eight female judges for the first time in the country’s history.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape carries a maximum penalty of death, which the courts occasionally imposed for the crime; spousal rape is not a crime under the law. Authorities did not effectively enforce laws against rape. Violence against women continued to be a problem. The law allows a rapist to avoid punishment on the condition that he marry his victim and that her guardian consents that the perpetrator not be punished. There were reports alleging that some police stations did not take seriously reports by both citizens and noncitizens of sexual assault and domestic violence, which service providers stated contributes to a culture of underreporting by survivors.
When reported, police typically arrested perpetrators and investigated allegations of rape and, in a limited number of cases, prosecuted the accused. For example, in January police arrested a Bangladeshi national for kidnapping and raping a foreign resident woman. In February, three men were arrested and referred to the Public Prosecutor after abducting, raping, and holding a teenage girl captive in an apartment. In August a man was arrested after stabbing his aunt several times in her sleep, reportedly with the intent to kill her. In September a woman was killed by her second brother while recovering in the hospital after an initial attempt on her life by another brother over “family disputes.” Press reports indicated the brothers intended to kill their sister because they did not approve of her marriage. Both brothers were detained by police. In December a man was arrested for stabbing his sister to death. He was charged with premeditated murder and his case was referred to the Public Prosecutor.
Although the government does not regularly publish statistics on domestic violence, domestic violence cases against women were regularly reported by local NGOs. Service providers observed that domestic violence was significantly underreported to authorities but press publicized some high profile cases. In July the Court of Cassation upheld a death penalty sentence for a citizen who was charged with killing his pregnant Saudi wife three years ago. In March a man was arrested for murdering his wife and burying her body in the desert.
Women’s rights activists documented numerous stories of citizen and women foreign workers seeking help to leave an abusive situation who faced obstacles because no shelters for victims of domestic violence existed. A woman may petition for divorce based on injury from spousal abuse, but the law does not provide a clear legal standard regarding what constitutes injury. In domestic violence cases, since for any type of physical assault, a woman must produce a report from a government hospital to document her injuries in addition to having at least two male witnesses (or a male witness and two female witnesses) who can attest to the abuse. Advocates reported that women who reach out to police rarely get help because officers were not adequately trained to deal with domestic violence cases. Victims were generally sent back to their male guardians, who in some instances were also their abusers.
In August the National Assembly approved the country’s first-ever domestic violence law. The law criminalizes domestic violence and provides victims with legal, medical, and rehabilitation services. It defines domestic violence as any form of physical, psychological, sexual, or financial mistreatment done by one family member against another. The law also calls for the establishment of a domestic violence shelter, and requires the Ministry of Social Affairs to begin compiling statistics on domestic violence in the country. The Ministry of Social Affairs was expected also to establish special teams to investigate domestic violence claims.
In January press reported that a foreign resident woman had filed rape charges against the Ambassador of her home country for an incident dating back to 2018. Reports indicated police refused to file the charges because the Ambassador maintained diplomatic immunity and the location of the alleged crime–the Ambassador’s residence–was outside their jurisdiction.
In February the Criminal Court sentenced a security officer at Kuwait International Airport to seven years imprisonment for rape in an airport inspection room. He was also ordered to pay compensation.
As of November there were 34 rape cases registered at the courts. Final verdicts were issued in four of these cases. Final and appealable rulings for convicted cases included death penalty and jail terms from five years up to 15 years and life imprisonment.
As of November there were 420 cases of violence against women registered at the courts. Final verdicts were issued in 46 of these cases. Final and appealable rulings for convicted cases included jail terms from five years up to 15 years and life imprisonment.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Officials did not report any so-called honor killings during the year. In February the Criminal Court confirmed that honor killings as described in article 153 of the penal code would henceforth be treated as cases of premeditated murder, rather than as misdemeanors. In February the Criminal Court issued the death penalty against a man who alleged he had killed his daughter because he had suspicions regarding her “honor.” In the ruling, the judge clarified that the honor killing section of the law was not applicable in this case because the father had not caught his daughter “in the act.”
Sexual Harassment: Human rights groups characterized sexual harassment in the workplace as a pervasive and mostly unreported problem. No specific law addresses sexual harassment. The law criminalizes “encroachment on honor,” which encompasses everything from touching a woman against her will to rape, but police inconsistently enforced this law. The government deployed female police officers specifically to combat sexual harassment in shopping malls and other public spaces. Perpetrators of sexual harassment and sexual assault faced fines and imprisonment.
Reproductive Rights: The government restricted some aspects of couples’ and individuals’ rights to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. Laws, criminal penalties, and social and cultural attitudes did not prevent unmarried women from seeking out information on reproductive health, yet some physicians were reluctant to administer certain procedures, such as pap smears, to unmarried women despite there being no law against it. Skilled attendance during prenatal care, essential obstetric care, childbirth, and postpartum care was available free of charge but not without significant penalties for unmarried individuals. Many stateless Bidoon and unmarried women reportedly had difficulty accessing nonemergency care.
Contraceptives were available without prescription regardless of nationality or age, but some doctors were reluctant to provide advice or information on contraceptives to unmarried women. Cultural stigmas discouraged unmarried women from accessing contraceptives.
A mother who gives birth out of wedlock can be imprisoned along with her child. If an unmarried Kuwaiti woman is pregnant, authorities have been known to summon her partner and request a marriage certificate that is backdated nine months in order for the mother and father to avoid arrest. Families are known to pressure unmarried pregnant women to claim falsely they have been raped in order to avoid jail time and the stigma associated with sexual relations prior to marriage.
The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence, but these services were largely inadequate. A large percentage of survivors of sexual violence had little access to health services. Expatriate survivors of sexual violence often had even less access to such services, particularly if they were illegal residents or their employer did not provide adequate medical coverage.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
Discrimination: The law does not provide women the same legal status, rights, and inheritance provisions as men. Women experienced discrimination in most aspects of family law, including divorce and child custody, as well as in the basic rights of citizenship, the workplace, and in certain circumstances, the value of their testimony in court. Sharia (Islamic law) courts have jurisdiction over personal status and family law cases for Sunni and Shia Muslims. As implemented in the country, sharia discriminates against women in judicial proceedings, marriage, child custody, and inheritance. There were no reported cases of official or private sector discrimination in accessing credit, owning or managing a business, or securing housing, but no official government system exists to track this issue.
Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to both citizen and noncitizen women (see section 7.d.). Secular courts allow any person to testify and consider the testimony of men and women equally, but in sharia courts the testimony of a women equals half that of a man. A July study released by the Kuwait Society for Human Rights found that, while the constitution provides for equal rights for women, its implementation often falls short and many laws contradict its equal protection provisions.
Inheritance is also governed by sharia, which varies according to the specific school of Islamic jurisprudence. In the absence of a direct male heir, a Shia woman may inherit all property, while a Sunni woman inherits only a portion, with the balance divided among brothers, uncles, and male cousins of the deceased.
Women do not enjoy equal citizenship rights as men. Female citizens are unable to transmit citizenship to their noncitizen husbands or to children. Failure to provide equal citizenship rights to women subjects their children to statelessness when a woman is married to a stateless Bidoon resident. In exceptional cases some children of widowed or divorced female citizens were granted citizenship by amiri decree, although this was a discretionary act. Individuals can petition the Ministry of Interior to include their name on a list of naturalizations, to be reviewed by the Council of Ministers. If approved, the names go to the amir for signature and are published in the national gazette. Male citizens married to female noncitizens do not face such discrimination, and their children are accorded the full legal protections of citizenship.
In August the General Administration of Residency Affairs rescinded its ban on allowing foreign worker mothers to sponsor their children’s residence visas. The previous rule stated that a foreign worker mother could only sponsor her child if she was divorced or a widow. In July the National Assembly approved an amendment that would allow women to sign off on surgical procedures for family members. Previously, women needed a male guardian’s consent to authorize such procedures, including for their own children.
The law requires segregation by gender of classes at all public universities and secondary schools, although it was not always enforced.