Gender equality in Arab world critical for progress and prosperity, UN report warns

7 December 2006

Women in the Arab world are still denied equality of opportunity, although their disempowerment is a critical factor crippling the Arab nations’ quest to return to the first rank of global leaders in commerce, learning and culture, according to a new United Nations-sponsored report released today.

Women in the Arab world are still denied equality of opportunity, although their disempowerment is a critical factor crippling the Arab nations’ quest to return to the first rank of global leaders in commerce, learning and culture, according to a new United Nations-sponsored report released today.

It not only calls for all Arab women to be given equal access to essential health, education and all types of activities outside the family, but also urges temporary adoption of affirmative action to expand such participation, thus allowing centuries-old structures of discrimination to be dismantled.

“Full participation and empowerment of women, as citizens, as producers, as mothers and sisters, will be a source of strength for Arab Nations and will allow the Arab World to reach greater prosperity, greater influence and higher levels of human development,” said UN Development Programme (UNDP) Administrator Kemal Dervis, whose agency sponsored the Arab Human Development Report 2005: Toward the rise of women in the Arab world.

It commends some states for “significant, progressive changes” in tackling fundamental gender biases prevalent in the region, but cites a range of obstacles to equitable development, from cosmetic reforms with little real effect to violent conflict, foreign occupations and terrorism casting a shadow over the tantalizing hints of progress.

The fundamental obstacle to the rise of women remains how to deal with conflicts between the needs of a productive economy and internationally agreed standards on the one hand and traditions and customs on the other, according to the report.

The strongest inhibitors of development for many Arab citizens, women and men, have been foreign occupations and the ‘war on terror,’ with basic rights from the right to life through civil and political rights to economic and social rights continuing to be violated.

This negative environment, together with the spectre of extremist terrorism, which the report condemns in the strongest possible terms, damages the prospects for a broad revival by impeding reform and obstructing opportunities for peaceful and just solutions to the occupation of Arab lands and the restriction of Arab freedoms and rights.

A continued impasse over these matters may push the region further towards extremism and violent protest in the absence of a fair system of governance at the global level that ensures security and prosperity for all, according to the report, the fourth and final part of an annual study of Arab development.

“To embrace the courage and activism of women in the Arab world is to champion the catalysts of human development,” UNDP regional director Amat Al Alim Alsoswa said. “Hard-won gains in women’s rights are the culmination of decades of committed engagement by generations of women’s rights campaigners and their allies in Governments across the region.”

Islamic movements, often characterized in the West as uniformly malevolent have in reality been in many cases at the vanguard of women’s empowerment, with most mainstream movements witnessing notable growth of an enlightened leadership among their relatively younger generations, the report says.

“In the last five decades, the internal dynamics of these movements, their relationship to mainstream society and their positions on vital societal issues, on human rights and on good governance and democracy have undergone significant, progressive changes,” it adds.

But these positive developments have not cancelled out other currents outside mainstream Arab society that could seek to curtail freedom and democracy if they came to power, especially with regard to women.

Among achievements that have been secured, the report cites the presence of at least one woman in most Arab countries’ parliament, cabinet or local council but it warns that political reform, at every level, must go beyond the cosmetic and the symbolic: “In all cases…real decisions in the Arab world are, at all levels, in the hands of men,” it says.

 

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