TWN Info Service on Health Issues (December 06/10)

18 December 2006

UNDP: Arab women face double portion of suffering

Despite their equal status, Arab women are not realising their full potential and are denied equality of opportunities, while many are not encouraged to develop their capacities on an equal footing with men. This was revealed in the UNDPís Arab Human Development Report 2005 launched recently in Yemen. The following article discusses the main points raised in the UNDP Report and is reproduced with the permission of South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) # 6160, 12 December 2006.

With best wishes
Evelyne Hong

Development: Arab women face double portion of suffering, says UNDP
By Nabil Sultan, IPS, Sana'a, 8 December 2006

Women in the Arab world are not realising their full potential and are still denied equality of opportunities, says the UNDP's Arab Human Development Report, pointing to obstacles ranging from certain cultural aspects to armed conflict and terrorism.

Entitled "Towards the rise of women in the Arab world", the report was launched in a ceremony in Sana'a on Thursday, sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in cooperation with the Yemeni government.

The report argues that the negative situation of women represents not just a problem for that half of the population, but is a barrier to progress and prosperity in Arab societies as a whole. It commends some Arab states for "significant, progressive changes" in addressing the fundamental gender biases prevalent in the region. Yet it cites a range of obstacles to equivalent development, from merely cosmetic reforms with little real effect, to violent conflict, foreign occupations and terrorism.

In 2002, the first Arab Human Development Report identified women's disappointment as one of three critical deficits crippling Arab nations in their quest to return to the first rank of world leaders of commerce, learning and culture. Today, the unequivocal necessity of securing for Arab women a fair chance to thrive has reached primacy as a pre-condition for development.

"Human development requires more than economic growth alone. The fight against poverty is not a campaign of charity - it is a mission of empowerment. This is especially true as regards women, given that, of the world's one billion poorest people, three-fifths are women and girls", said UNDP administrator Kemal Dervis.

"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 Dervis.

"To embrace the courage and activism of women in the Arab world is to champion the catalysts of human development. 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 nation," said Amat al-Alim al-Soswa, UN Assistant Secretary-General and UNDP regional director for Arab states.

The report asserts that despite Arab women's equal status under international law, their demonstrated talents and achievements in different spheres of human activity, many are not encouraged to develop and use their capacities on an equal footing with men.

"In public life, cultural, legal, social, economic and political factors impede women's access to education, health, job opportunities, citizen's rights and representation," the report contends.

The text argues that "foreign occupations" and the "war on terror" have been the strongest inhibitors for many Arab citizens, women and men.

"Women have endured a double portion of suffering under foreign occupations," the report says. "In many cases, the basic rights and freedoms of Arab citizens have continued to be violated."

The report hints that such a constant impasse in the region due to an unsafe environment, which terrorism and foreign occupations have created, 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.

Although the UNDP document affirms that some achievements have been secured in most Arab countries, it still 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."

The report says that the Islamic movements have in reality been in many cases at the vanguard of women's empowerment.

"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," the report explains. However, such positive developments have not cancelled out other currents outside the mainstream Arab society that could seek to curtail freedom and democracy if they came to power, especially with regard to women, according to the text.

The report affirms that a transformation is occurring in the Arab world, as women's issues increasingly are permeating intellectual and cultural discourse.

"Contemporary media such as the internet, chat rooms, satellite television channels and their specialised programmes are based on the power of open public dialogue, quick communication and accessible communities of thought and practice. For women, they open up a new avenue of liberation that allows them to occupy spaces they couldn't have entered via conventional print media."

In its chapter on women's political participation, the report says that the political process in Arab nations is still far from representative of women and their needs and concerns. But it praises the social pressure for women's rights as it has made some positive changes.

"The nature of women's participation in government has generally been symbolic, limited to smaller portfolios and conditional," the report says.

The report contends that some Arab governments resist empowering women because of fears that expanding the participation of women in politics will disperse power more widely throughout society, reducing the dominant current leaders. It recommends that quotas for female representation in political institutions, successfully adopted by some countries like Iraq, Morocco, Jordan and Tunisia, as it says, should be widely used throughout the Arab world as a first step toward broader equality.

The UNDP's Arab Human Development Report 2005, the fourth and said to be the final one after three reports - for the years 2002, 2003 and 2004 - maintains that the rise of women requires a broad and effective movement in Arab civil society aimed at achieving human development for all.

"This movement will have two levels: the first is national and will involve all levels of society in every nation, while the second is regional and will be founded on trans-border networks for coordination and support of regional efforts to empower women," the report asserts.