“Women’s sexual and reproductive health is related to multiple human rights, including the right to life, the right to be free from torture, the right to health, the right to privacy, the right to education, and the prohibition of discrimination.”
Women’s sexual and reproductive rights are among the most taboo subjects in many Arab and other conservative societies around the world.
Complications from unsafe abortions lead to the deaths of 47,000 pregnant women every year, and more than 14 million teenage girls give birth each year, mainly as a result of rape and unwanted pregnancy.
Oman is one of the few countries in the world where heterosexual sex outside marriage is criminalised, under Article 259 of the 2018 Omani Penal Code.
Unfortunately in Arab societies a woman’s worth is often measured by her marital status and childbearing capacity, and women who achieve professional success are less highly regarded for it than their male counterparts.
The United Nations says violations of women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights take many forms, including
- denial of access to services that only women require;
- poor quality services;
- subjecting women’s access to services to third party authorisation;
- forced sterilisation, forced virginity examinations and forced abortions without women’s prior consent;
- female genital mutilation; and
- early marriage.
Although Oman has signed up to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), Article 10 (concerning equal rights in matters of education) and Article 16 (relating to marriage and family relations) continue to be violated, as decision-making in these areas is generally left to husbands and fathers. Many women sacrifice their academic or professional careers for marriage or pregnancy.
In a survey carried out by the Omani Centre for Human Rights (OCHR), several women in Oman said that on matters of childbearing, completion of their education or having a career, the final decision generally rested with their male guardian, be it father, brother or husband.
Twenty-seven of the 35 women surveyed said they never progressed in their careers, whether in the public or private sector, because of having so much time off work dealing with family emergencies or having babies!
Likewise, the decision whether or not to have children is usually taken by the man, not the woman, in blatant violation of CEDAW Recommendation 16.
The lack of a right to abortion, meanwhile, is a major difficulty for women in Oman, where abortion is illegal in all circumstances, and punishable under the 2018 Omani Penal Code (Articles 315-316) by jail terms of up to three years for both the woman and the person carrying out the procedure.
The punishment is reduced, however, to between 10 days and three months if the woman has an abortion “out of shame”, that is, if she was raped.
An older (1974) version of the Penal Code included a clause, in Article 243, that allowed abortion “in the case of necessity where the doctor believes that abortion is the only means to save the mother’s life”, but this exemption does not appear in the current legislation.
The OCHR survey found that all of the participants would be afraid to opt for an abortion, either for religious reasons of for fear of the legal repercussions.
Yet the UNFPA, the lead UN agency working to improve reproductive and maternal health, has clearly stated:
“Everyone has the right to make their own choices about their sexual and reproductive health.”