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Women are making gains, but still not realizing full potential in contributing to prosperity and strength of Arab States: Report

Source: United Nations Development Programme


Report cites partial progress toward gender equality, calls for wider and deeper change


Women in the Arab world are not realizing their full potential and are still denied equality of opportunity, says the Arab Human Development Report 2005: Towards the rise of women in the Arab world, arguing that this represents not just a problem for women, but a barrier to progress and prosperity in Arab societies as a whole.


The Report commends some Arab states for “significant, progressive changes” in addressing the fundamental gender biases prevalent in the region. Yet the authors cite a range of obstacles to equitable development, from cosmetic reforms with little real effect to violent conflict, foreign occupations and terrorism, which cast a shadow over the tantalizing hints of progress glimpsed in the Report’s pages.


In 2002, the first Arab Human Development Report identified women’s disempowerment 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. Now, four years later, the unequivocal necessity of securing for Arab women a fair chance to thrive has reached primacy as a precondition 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. 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 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Administrator Kemal Dervis. UNDP sponsored the Report.


This final report in the four-part series examines the situation of women in the region, with a special emphasis on health, education, and political participation. The 2005 Report also assesses the advancement of women by analysing Arab society’s desire for such progress, and the kinds of social action that are needed to achieve the goal of gender equality in the Arab states.


“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 region,” said Amat Al Alim Alsoswa, UN Assistant Secretary-General and Director of UNDP’s Regional Bureau 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, and their priceless contributions to their families and society, many are not encouraged to develop and use their capabilities on an equal footing with men. In public life, cultural, legal, social, economic and political factors impede women’s equal access to education, health, job opportunities, citizens’ rights and representation, the Report contends. In private life, the Report says, traditional patterns of upbringing and discriminatory family and personal-status laws perpetuate inequality and subordination.


At the level of culture, the Report maintains, the fundamental obstacle to the rise of women remains how to deal with certain conflicts between the requirement of a productive economy and internationally agreed standards on the one hand and traditions and customs on the other.


The Report contends that the strongest inhibitors of development for many Arab citizens, women and men, have been foreign occupations and the ‘war on terror.’ “Women have endured a double portion of suffering under foreign occupation,” the Report says, and in many cases, the basic rights and freedoms of Arab citizens, extending from the right to life through civil and political rights to economic and social rights, have continued to be violated.


This negative environment—in conjunction with the spectre of extremist terrorism, which the Report condemns in the strongest possible terms—damages the prospects for a broad revival in the Arab world 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, the Report argues, 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.


However, the Report affirms, some achievements have been secured; most Arab countries now have a parliament, a cabinet or a local council in whose assigned tasks at least one woman participates effectively. Still, the Report 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.”


Islamic movements, often characterized in the West as uniformly malevolent forces, have, the Report contends, 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.


Most of the mainstream Islamic movements, according to the AHDR, are witnessing notable growth of an enlightened leadership among their relatively younger generations. In addition, there is a growing grass-roots mandate for greater internal democracy, the Report says. However, these positive developments have not canceled 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.


Another reason for optimism can be found in the results of the public-opinion polls commissioned for the Report. The polls reveal a broad desire for a level of gender equality higher than that found today, and certainly higher that that which will result if societal obstacles to the rise of Arab women remain in place.


The Report affirms that a transformation is taking place in the Arab world, as women’s issues are increasingly permeating intellectual and cultural discourse: “Contemporary media forms 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 that they could not have entered through the conventional print media.”


Still, the modern Arab women’s movement is too often misconstrued as an import from the West; in reality, the concept of gender equality has deep roots in the region. Egypt’s first “women’s educational society” was founded in 1881, with raising public awareness of women’s rights as a key objective. The 1940s, under colonialism, saw a surge in women’s organizations, most of which dedicated themselves to issues like polygamy and women’s right to education.


The Arab Human Development Report 2005 concludes that the rise of women in the Arab world requires, first, that all Arab women be afforded full opportunities to acquire essential health, and knowledge on an equal footing with male counterparts. Second, “full opportunities must be given to Arab women to participate as they see fit in all types of human activity outside the family on an equal footing with men.”


In line with the calls in previous reports for comprehensive, rights-based societal reforms, the AHDR asserts that the rise of Arab women entails:

- Total respect for the rights of citizenship of all Arab women.

- The protection of women’s rights in the area of personal affairs and family relations.

- Guarantees of total respect for women’s personal rights and freedoms.


In addition, the Report calls for the temporary adoption of affirmative action in expanding the participation of Arab women to all fields of human activity. This will allow the dismantling of the centuries-old structures of discrimination against women.


The Report maintains that the rise of women requires a wide and effective movement in Arab civil society aimed at achieving human development for all. Such a movement, the Report asserts, will be the means by which Arab women may empower themselves and their male supporters. It will have two levels. The first is national and will involve all levels of society in every country. The second is regional and will be founded on trans-border networks for co-ordination and support of regional efforts to empower women.


For more AHDR information please visit


ABOUT UNDP: UNDP is the UN's global development network. We are on the ground in 166 countries, working as a trusted partner with governments, civil society and the private sector to help them build their own solutions to global and national development challenges. Further information can be found at


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