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UN has key role in empowering women in post-revolutionary Middle East, experts say

Senior Adviser at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Azza Karam.
UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras
Senior Adviser at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Azza Karam.

UN has key role in empowering women in post-revolutionary Middle East, experts say

Amid the reverberations from popular uprisings known as the “Arab Spring,” the United Nations has a key role to play in supporting women in the Middle East by convening disparate voices and identifying new modes of cooperation, experts on women’s rights said during a “Classroom Conversation” with university students from around the world.

“What the revolutions that have been unfolding since 2011 have forced us to realize is that we have to look at the partners again,” said Azza Karam, Senior Adviser at the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), noting the vital roles of women, youth and civil society in the overthrow of standing regimes in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen.

“What we need to do is identify new voices, convene and re-evaluate our partnerships and lastly, identify new ways of working together. Which may force us to reconsider how we do development as a United Nations system,” she added.

Ms. Karam spoke alongside author and Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Isobel Coleman, on a panel organized by the UN Academic Impact on Monday on the ways that women are transforming the wider Middle East region in the wake of the Arab reawakening. The audience of more than 100 at the UN Headquarters included students from universities in the New York area and others via webcast.

Noting that women joined men in the front lines of protests, the speakers said that they were now asserting themselves in areas such as higher education, along with their higher literacy rates and increased participation in the workforce. As the revolutions transitioned to political struggles, the roles and status of women continue to evolve.

“We are experiencing an arc of history that will take a long time to play itself out. Overthrowing dictatorships is easy. Building something new in its place – creating – is the hard part,” Ms. Coleman said.

In her book, ‘Paradise Beneath Her Feet,” Ms. Coleman explores how activists in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are working within the tenets of Islam to create economic, political and educational opportunities for women.

Those activists often use the same religious writings used by conservatives to challenge women’s rights as the “ticket to empowerment” and push for more equal treatment, Ms. Coleman said.

“It’s not about America or Al Qaida. It’s about freedom and economic opportunity,” she told the students.

In his speech at the Herzliya Conference in Israel on 2 February 2012, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised young people and women for their role in sparking and fuelling the region’s democratic reforms.

“Young people have been in the vanguard, as have women – standing for their rights against those who would deny them… We should welcome this inevitable evolution of history. We should not perpetuate the fallacy that the Arab world is somehow not ready for democracy.”

Turning to the role of youth and social media in the movements, Ms. Coleman cautioned against ascribing too much importance to Twitter and Facebook which she described as “a means but not an end.”

She retold a story from Saudi Arabia where she said social media is giving a voice to a generation which is not necessarily recognized in political parties or organizations, but “you can tell the world what you think and get a few million followers on Facebook and Twitter, and people notice.”

Ms. Coleman added that government responses range to the awakening among people, particularly women and youth: “Some countries are reacting to that in a way that they can absorb it and others are not. You see that gap result in civil war, tremendous political gridlock, you see other countries are navigating their ways through it. How it will turn out, none of us know for sure.”

Ms. Karam agreed that the role of social media in the emerging consciousness articulated in the Arab region is important but should not be overstated, “If you look in the context of Syria, it’s not social media that is fighting the war. It is people dying and their blood being spilled.”

With over half the world population under 25 years of age, according to UN figures, Ms. Karam noted the importance of youth, particularly young women, in agenda setting and allocation of resources calling them “critical agents of change.”

“It’s not about working for youth but about being informed by and working with youth on what needs to happen,” she stressed.

She said that youth must be integrally involved in setting the development agenda for the future, after the 2015 deadline for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is reached. Of the eight anti-poverty goals, one focuses on universal education and one on promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women, which she said was not adequate.

“Human rights, gender equality and culture are so completely subsumed at best in the MDGs,” Ms. Karam said. “Where are the human rights that are being asked for in the Beijing Conference? Where is the desire for freedom that people are spilling their blood over? It wasn’t an MDG.”

In addition, culture needs to play a bigger role in the development goals and priorities, including in relations to religion, Ms. Karam said, “We’ve been doing secular development all these years. In fact, many people are aspiring to religious identities. Can we afford to ignore that as inconsequential to human development?”

Particularly relevant for the Middle East, the speakers said, is the Arab Human Development Report series, published by the UN Development Programme (UNDP).

The first series of reports in 2002 identified three critical development deficits in the Arab world: the acquisition of knowledge, political freedoms and women’s empowerment.

Ms. Coleman recalled that the reports were highly controversial when they were first published, “There was criticism for echoing simply a Western line, but the UN held firm saying, “No, this is a report written by Arabs for an Arab audience and we’re not going to back away from it.”

“I think that report had a very big influence on people saying let’s look at this, let’s look at some of the statistics in it about the lack of knowledge or the lack of women’s rights. I think it was a useful mechanism for bringing the big issues up front,” she added.

The UN, Ms. Coleman said, continues to support the awakening of women in the Middle East through its research mechanisms and by doing advocacy along with dissemination of the findings, Ms. Coleman said, as well as by convening leaders to focus on a specific set of issues that often do not receive enough attention.

Ms. Coleman and Ms. Karam spoke as part of an ongoing series organized by the UN Department of Public Information’s Academic Impact initiative, which brings together experts from leading think tanks and academic institutions in the New York area to exchange ideas with senior UN officials.