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ANSAmed - June 25, 2009 by Cristiana Missori "Access to employment for Arab women is not just a right but a necessity: emancipating women financially means giving them the freedom to choose what is best for them", Dyala Aref, Syrian Minister for Employment and Social Affairs said in Rome during a conference on Arab Women in the 21st century. The meeting was organised by ISIAO, the Italian Institute for Africa and the East, the Italian Foreign Office and the League of Arab States. As the minister emphasised, obtaining a sufficient level of education and literacy is the first step towards giving women more freedom. Not all countries in the Arab League are at the same stage however. In fact, what has been illustrated in the first day of the conference is that progress is moving at very different rates in the various different countries. There is large gap between countries in the Gulf, such as Kuwait and Jordan, where women's literacy rates are much higher, and countries like Yemen, where many fewer women can read or write than men. Arab women tend to get university degrees in humanities subjects rather than in sciences, according to Fatma Al Shamsi, secretary general of the United Arab Emirates University. "Arab women traditionally find more employment in the public sector than in the private sector," she said. The number of women in the work force also changes from country to country: in Morocco women comprise around 30% of the work force, while the average in the Arab world is 20%. The real problems for the economies of the countries in the Arab League are unemployment (which is four times higher than the Arab League's average in Egypt and Morocco), poverty, lower quality jobs, lower pay than men, and far too often the fact that they gain employment in the underground economy, particularly in Palestinian areas and Egypt. The Egyptian Minister for Families, Mushira Khatab, observed that the conflict in the Middle East, "has reduced the resources available, resources which could have been used for development". She did add that many improvements had been made in Egypt recently however: "Since 1961 there have been many more female ministers, there are numerous female ambassadors and the third-largest university in the country is even run by a woman," she said. In any case, cooperation between national, international and supranational organisations is fundamental if development policies to improve gender equality are to be successful. The first step has been taken, said ISIAO's honourary president, Tullia Carettoni Romagnoli, thanks to the Memorandum of Understanding signed between Italy and the Arab League in 2008, which made way for cooperation in various sectors and led to the organisation of the conference. The senator stated that it would be "A permanent focal point, based in Rome, for Arab countries and Italy to meet and discuss the situation of women. Alliances made between women can also make a difference. They can unite, work on ideas and propose initiatives to try to solve problems faced by women across the world. Italian MP Patrizia Paoletti concluded, "We are disappointed and tired and we need you. We haven't got very far, even after sixty years of struggle. You are full of life and energy". This approach led to various concrete proposals being drawn up which will be voted on by participants tomorrow. These include the creation of an ISIAO-Arab League watchdog or permanent commission, the creation of a network for women working in the same sector, training courses for Arab women with degrees in science and the setting-up of a medical project, involving screening for and preventing the Papilloma virus.

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