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ARAB DEVELOPMENT AND WOMEN'S ROLE

Al-Hayat - February 6, 2007 by Samih Massoud The fourth Arab Human Development Report is part of a series of reports issued by the United Nations Development Programme and the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development since 2002. The two organizations were joined by the Arab Gulf Programme for United Nations Development Organizations since the third issue of the report series, which have been compiled and researched by independent Arab authors and advisors with diverse intellectual and cultural affiliations. According to the UNDP regional manger, this means that the reports are genuinely Arab in terms of aspirations, compilation, and ownership. Each of these reports dealt with a specific humanitarian development issue. The first report consisted of comprehensive and elemental treatments for the Arab humanitarian development, while the second focused on examining obstacles to the acquirement of knowledge, and the third consisted of an in-depth study of the phenomenon of the lack of freedom and good governance, seen as among the most critical and controversial topics in Arab States. Opinions expressed in the first three reports were seen as bold, highly conducive to constructive self-criticism, and able to outline the needed reform bearings to overcome today's challenges and obstacles to human development in Arab States, as well as the advancement of human development in all fields with the aim of broadening the choices available to the Arab individual, and promoting freedom in social, economic and political arenas. Completing the abovementioned reports, the fourth report was issued last December about 'Women Empowerment in the Arab World', after being postponed more than once for a whole year for reasons that so far remain unannounced. And while this report upheld the same principles seen in its predecessors in terms of candid and critical research, and the spirit of independence, it, nevertheless, received far less attention compared to the previous reports. The fourth report also did not cause as much controversy or receive the same degree of attention by Arab and international media, and has scarcely been referred to since its release. Apart from that, the latest report was of great importance, as it delved further into the depths of the pivotal issue of empowering women and harnessing their potential within a framework of equality and fairness. The report also researched and analyzed a variety of political, economic, social, and legal aspects affecting Arab women, and all the negative, as well as the positive, developments that have impacted them. It also outlined political and intellectual trends, as well as the legal and societal requirements for the renaissance and the empowerment of Arab women to play their expected role and emerge as equal partners with men in all fields. There are countless reasons that justify the need to focus on Arab women issues, since despite the marked achievements accomplished by Arab women so far in the field of literature, sciences, politics, and numerous other fields; Arab women still fall behind in the active involvement in other humanitarian undertakings. For example, women's share of the total Arab work force remains low. Gender discrimination could also be seen in many venues of pubic life, where Arab women lag considerably in assuming public posts, and involvement in the decision-making process, even though a majority of Arab States have granted women their voting rights decades ago, and even though some have taken ministerial positions. In this context, the report established several numerical images, which, for example, reveal that the percentage of women contributing to the economy does not exceed 33% of the female population, and that Arab women are 10% less represented in Arab parliaments compared to international figures. The report also reveals that the percentage of girls enrolled in secondary school education does not exceed 80% with the exception of only four Arab States, while illiteracy affects as many as half the population of Arab women compared to a third of the male population, and which is among the highest female illiteracy figures worldwide. In terms of health, the report reveals that Arab women, particularly those in the less developed States are subject to an unacceptably high risk of diseases, and register high mortality rates during pregnancy or labor. Furthermore, puerperal deaths occur in 270 cases per 100,000 cases of normal births, and jump to 1000 in Mauritania and Somalia, the Arab World's poorest nations, compared to 14 deaths per 100,000 normal births in the United States. At the same time, the report also focused on gender discrimination and the marginalization of women, showing that many are still victims of legalized discrimination, societal subjection, and male domination, even as the constitutions of a majority of Arab States upholds the principles of gender equality in all humanitarian fields. In general, the report attributes inferior living standards of women to the male dominated Arab culture that consolidates discrimination against women, and influences religious interpretations. Therefore, the report also called for the need for modernizing religious interpretations and jurisprudence, and more readily adopting enlightened interpretations. The report also called for the revision of the Arab legislative structure and for the elimination of all forms of legal discrimination against women. It proposed a number of legal reforms to safeguard the political, civil and economic rights of women, saying that realizing such proposals requires the complete compatibility between national legislations from one side and the international agreement on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and international labor agreements on the other. The realization of such aspirations does not only call for raising awareness among Arab decision-makers and the consolidation of their convictions on the feasibility of these reforms, but also for further empowerment of the Arab civil society and the creation of an active political and social momentum within the civil society to advance the process of modernization in Arab States; improve the standing of Arab women and their ability to carry out their roles and duties as expected; and affirm their full partnership in the State and society. Therefore, what the Human Development Report is actually calling for is a historical shift in Arab States at the level of the Arab society as a whole that aims at safeguarding citizenship rights to all Arabs, women and men alike. It is a call that deserves support and affirmation, since it aims at building the capabilities of all Arab citizens and not wasting half of these capabilities by women because of neglect. * Mr. Samih Massoud is an Economic Expert with the Canadian Center for Middle East Studies





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