Glimmers of hope for Arab women
Beirut - Significant gaps between women and men in much of the Arab world remain in many fields, including education, access to health and economic and political empowerment — conditions that are highly influenced by deep-rooted and diverse patriarchal attitudes and gender stereotypes.
At the same time, new ground was broken in Saudi Arabia, which welcomed its first female members in municipal councils in landmark elections that saw women voting for the first time in the Muslim conservative kingdom.
However, a 2015 UN report underlining interlinks between gender equality and sustainable development, observed that progress in the Arab region has been curtailed by discrimination against women. It said growth in the Arab region has not benefited women overall and in some countries women have been affected by conflict, occupation and the implications of rampant religious fundamentalism.
“In some places the progress is slow, while in others the progress is very good,” noted Mehrinaz Elawady, director of the Centre for Women at the UN Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA).
“We have lately seen progress in areas where it did not happen before, such as changes in constitutions and amendments in laws related to violence against women that were not there ten years ago.”
In addition to the landmark Saudi women’s vote, women’s participation in political life saw a leap in Egypt with 20% membership in the new parliament.
“This never happened in contemporary Egypt. In three other contexts, including Algeria and Sudan, women’s participation in parliament has passed global average,” Elawady said.
Still women’s share in senior management positions, such as legislators, senior officials and managers, remains at around 10% in most Arab countries, compared to 25% globally, according to the UN report on women’s rights and gender equality.
For Lina Abirafeh, director of the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World at the Lebanese American University, enacting anti-discriminatory laws is not enough. “It is wonderful to have very nice legislation in place but, for it to be meaningful, it should be transferred and interpreted and have an impact,” Abirafeh said. “It will take generations for them (laws) to translate in the local community, in view of socio-cultural obstacles.”
Lack of awareness about rights, the refugee crises and increasing poverty have taken their biggest toll on women and girls. “Women in the region are already vulnerable but the multiple conflicts and violence has rendered them even more vulnerable. In emergency situations, women and girls suffer most,” Abirafeh said.
According to the report, poverty remains a major factor affecting access to education for women in the least developed countries, while conflicts and crises in contexts, such as Iraq, Libya, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Yemen, have a significant effect on education in general.
While the region has been “doing well” in terms of education, disparities remain at the tertiary education level, according to the ESCWA report.
Countries with limited national wealth have significantly more men in tertiary education than women, unlike wealthier countries of the region, including Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations. There women’s enrollment in tertiary education, according to the Gender Parity Index, which presents its data as a ratio of girls to boys, is 1.58, compared to 1.22 in Arab Maghreb countries and 0.43 in least developed Arab countries, the report said.
However, higher access to education does not necessarily reflect more women’s employment.
Participation of women in the labour market in the Arab region was the lowest in the world in 2011 at 27%, according to the report. It indicated that women hold less than 20% of paid jobs outside the agricultural sector, compared to double that rate in the global markets. Those who find paid employment are, on average, paid less than men for the same work. Women’s wages in manufacturing as a share of men’s wages in Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian territories and Syria are 66%, 68%, 50% and 79%, respectively.
“Progress in women’s education was not translated into more engagement in the labour market because the skills provided by education are not the ones required in the market, and also the social dynamics and stereotype, notably the perception that women should be working at home and that men are the breadwinner,” Elawady noted.
The situation of women in refugee camps, especially those holding Syrian refugees, represents a dramatic setback against discrimination and violence against women. Various reports have surfaced of cases of rape, early marriage, violence and an increase in the number of households whose livelihoods depend on single women, the report said.
On health, the report indicates that in some Arab countries women’s health is affected by the lack of access to, or the poor quality of, health care. Access to post-natal care differs between the richest and poorest countries but the regional maternal mortality ratio decreased 27% between 1990 and 2010. Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Arab Maghreb countries registered a 60% decline in maternal mortality while GCC countries reached 15 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2010, which is lower than the average in developed regions.
For Elawady overall progress in Arab women status is evident “though it is slow in some countries”. “There is a positive side that fills half of the cup,” she said. “Prosperity for progress is there but there are still factors that are pulling us back.”