The Relationship between Development and Gender Equality: in search of new perspectives on sustainable development through the lens of the 1959 Kuwaiti Nationality Law.

Author:Williamson, Myra E.J.B.
Position:Gender and Development

The Kuwaiti Government has honoured all international obligations toward women. Sheikha Latifa Al-Fahad Al-Salem Al-Sabah (1)


This article addresses several overlapping issues: sustainable development, gender justice, human rights, nationality and the links between these concepts (Kuwait Times, 2017). (2) The article begins by considering whether Kuwait is a 'developed' or 'developing' state and then it provides a brief overview of gender and development in Kuwait. Next, it examines the Kuwait Nationality Law 1959 to ascertain the connection between gender equality and sustainable development. The central argument is that equal rights to citizenship between male and female citizens is the most fundamental human right which should be prioritised to achieve all other sustainable development goals. Gender equality in citizenship laws will not guarantee the realisation of all development goals, but it is a necessary step. The article draws on empirical research conducted by the author. This research revealed that when asked about their citizenship rights, many educated Kuwaiti women do not feel entitled to, and do not even seek to aspire to, traditional notions of gender equality. This article tries to articulate the survey respondents' perspectives and explain this phenomenon. However, the article does not attempt to address other areas concerning women's rights and development, such as domestic workers' rights. It does not go so far as to argue that foreign domestic workers in Kuwait should be granted citizenship as a means of protecting their human rights, an argument made elsewhere. (3) Recently, laws have been passed which are aimed at improving the lot of foreign domestic workers but the effectiveness (or otherwise) of those laws is beyond the scope of this article. (4)

Kuwait: developing or developed?

Law and development has traditionally been concerned with the relationship between legal systems and 'development' (the social, political and economic changes) in Third World countries. The term 'Third World' has fallen out of favour and has been replaced with 'developing countries', 'developing economies' and the 'global South'. The exact meaning of these terms is somewhat unclear. The group of countries that fit the usual description of 'Third World', 'developing' or 'Global South' include the low per-capita income counties of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the South Pacific. Kuwait is not part of the 'First World', since it was not a capitalist, developed, industrialised country aligned with the US either during or after World War II. (5) It was not part of the Eastern Bloc and therefore it does not fit into the 'Second World'. (6) Therefore, Kuwait must have been part of the Third World. Third World countries are now usually referred to as 'developing countries' but Kuwait is not always included in lists of them (IUGG, 2016). According to the World Bank, Kuwait is a 'high-income' country (World Bank, 2017) and the Human Development Index (HDI) classifies Kuwait as one of the 49 countries that enjoy very high human development. (7) Therefore, the data confirms Kuwait is a high-income developing country (UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2018). This seems reasonable if we include social, political and economic development. Kuwait is obviously doing very well on the economic measure. (8) It is somewhat less 'developed' in terms of social and political measures, as will be discussed below.

Gender equality and development in Kuwait: an overview

Kuwait is the oldest democracy of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. It became independent from the United Kingdom in 1961 and promulgated its constitution in 1962. However, Kuwaiti women only obtained the right to vote and stand for election in 2005. (9) The first four women to be elected to the National Assembly took office in 2009 (Worth, 2009). Women still have a very limited political role. In the 2016 general elections, only one woman was elected to the 50-member National Assembly. (10) Only two women serve in the fifteen-member Executive. (11) Even countries that have low levels of economic development gave women basic political rights much earlier than Kuwait. The United Nation's list of 'Least Developed Countries' (See UNCTD, 2016) shows that economic and political development do not necessarily correlate: performing well on the former does not necessarily mean performing well on the latter. Most of the 'Least Developed Countries' easily out-perform Kuwait in terms of women's political empowerment. Rwanda, for example, is one of the Least Developed Countries, but women make up 64 percent of its parliament compared with two percent of Kuwait's National Assembly (World Bank, 2018). Zambia is also on the list of Least Developed Countries but Zambian women got the right to vote in 1962. (12) Out of the 48 Least Developed Countries only two of them perform worse than Kuwait regarding women's representation in parliament. (13) Thus, when political and social (and not just economic) measures are taken into account, Kuwait fits into the 'developing' category. In 2003, Kuwait's Ministry of Planning stated: '[d]espite its affluence, Kuwait is also classified as a developing country. As such it is expected to report on progress achieved in realizing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)' (Ministry of Planning, 2003). Kuwait reportedly achieved most of the MDGs by 2003. That year, Kuwait stated that it had already achieved goal 1 (eradicating extreme poverty and hunger for all its citizens) (14) and it had achieved goal 2 (achieving universal primary education) 13 years ahead of target. (15) Achieving goal 3, promoting gender equality and empowerment of women, proved to be more difficult. Target 3.3 (which called on states to increase the proportion of seats in parliament held by women) was especially problematic, given that Kuwaiti women were not allowed to vote or stand for election to the legislature at that time. (16) Yet even in 2018--thirteen years after the right to vote and stand for public office was granted--there is only one woman in the National Assembly and two women in the Cabinet. Achieving gender equality remains a challenge. To meet the SDGs' gender equality targets new solutions will need to be explored, and there will need to be an acknowledgement that the government has not already achieved all of its goals for women (See Kuwait Times, 2017).

The SDGs, gender equality and citizenship

The MDGs 'expired' in 2015 and were immediately replaced by the SDGs. The 17 SDGs, and their 169 targets, are supposed to 'build on' the MDGs and 'complete what [the MDGs] did not achieve' (UN General Assembly, 2015). Gender equality is even more prominent in the SDGs so for the next 15 years, gender equality should be front-and-centre of the UN's development agenda. (17)

The SDG goals are 'indivisible and integrated'. (18) The word 'integrated' is used repeatedly (UN General Assembly, 2015). (19) Thus, failing to achieve goal 5 (gender equality) will impact a state's ability to achieve the other SDGs. Gender equality is a theme that is prominent throughout the whole General Assembly resolution that adopted the SDGs. (20) Achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls is a fundamental part of achieving the SDGs in their entirety. (21) Goal 5 states that:

The achievement of full human potential and of sustainable development is not possible if one half of humanity continues to be denied its full human rights and opportunities (...) All forms of discrimination and violence against women and girls will be eliminated, including through the engagement of men and boys. The systematic mainstreaming of a gender perspective in the implementation of the Agenda is crucial (UN General Assembly, 2015: 20, emphasis added). Unlike the gender equality goal in the MDGs, which had just one target, (22) goal 5 in the SDGs has nine targets (UN General Assembly, 2015). Each country must objectively assess how well it is performing in relation to those nine targets. Kuwait is generally performing well, but it is argued here that the current nationality laws will cause Kuwait to fall short of attaining the SDG targets 5.1 and 5.c. (23) The following two sections respectively set out Kuwait's limitations on women in terms of transmitting their citizenship, followed by a summary of the author's research into student attitudes towards the law and a theoretical analysis of those responses.

Nationality law and gender in Kuwait

Men around the world experience few limitations on their ability to pass their nationality/citizenship to their non-citizen wife and children. (24) Kuwait is one of twenty-seven countries that currently place limits on a woman's ability to transmit her citizenship. The Pew Research Center suggests that historically (around 60 years ago) many countries had laws that restricted women's ability to transmit their citizenship. Those laws have been gradually phased out with much progress occurring in the past five years, especially in relation to nations' obligations under the UN Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Nevertheless, one in seven countries still has gender discrimination incorporated into its citizenship laws:

These restrictions are most prevalent in the Middle East and North Africa, where 12 out of 20 countries have such laws (...) Eight countries in Sub-Saharan Africa include nationality laws or policies that limit women's ability to pass citizenship to their children (.) Five countries in the Asia-Pacific region and two in the Americas also have [such] laws or policies... (Theodorou, 2014). Kuwait's citizenship criteria is set out in the law which may be referred to in English as Amiri Decree No 15 for the year 1959 Regarding the Law of Kuwaiti Nationality ('the Nationality Law'). It predates the Kuwaiti Constitution of 1962 and thus is one of the earliest and most...

To continue reading