Sima Bahous: Opening statement at the Regional Consultation on Women’s Participation as a Basis for Development in the Arab Region

04 Apr 2014

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Opening Remarks by Dr. Sima Bahous Assistant Secretary-General,
Assistant Administrator and Director of the Regional Bureau for Arab States, United Nations Development Programme
Regional Consultation on Women’s Participation as a Basis for Development in the Arab Region


Amman – 4 April 2014

Excellencies,

Dear colleagues and friends,

Thank you very much for having kindly responded to our invitation for consultation on a new regional project of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in the Arab region that seeks to achieve equity and equality and the empowerment of Arab women by supporting their full participation in all spheres of public life: political, economic, and social.

This project has been made necessary by the major changes taking place in the Arab region in the current period. Arab women have struggled for freedom, dignity, and justice during the past three years in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria, alongside their brothers, taking in many cases the forefront, with steadfastness and determination, impressing both the near and the distant, but the results of this quest for democracy have not been commensurate with their aspirations and sacrifices. 

Their participation in parliamentary assemblies in the new phase is not up to the desired standard. On the contrary, in some cases the suffering of women worsened because of the lack of security resulting from the confrontation of different types of violence, being caught between exacerbate harassment and intimidation with various means to deter political involvement, and because of the economic downturn, whose consequences affected women more than men. 

Arab women across the region soon realized that the pursuit of democracy not only provided opportunities to gain long repressed and denied rights, but also highlighted deep-rooted discriminatory practices that threatened to regress the status of women.

With this realization, the need for this regional project came to light. The project deals with Arab women not only as a gender that suffers from discrimination and weakness, and therefore still needs special affirmative action measures, but also as an essential component of an Arab society that is reshaping itself and reformulating its basic social contracts to reorganize the relationships between the State and society, and among the various segments of society. 

Despite significant achievements in the Arab region to upgrade the status of women, particularly in the areas of health and education, the World Bank 2013 Report on Gender Equality and Development in the Middle East reminds us that the investments that have been made to bridge the gender gap in the areas of health and education have not been accompanied by a proportionate increase in women’s participation rates in economic and political life. 

Arab women representation in legislatures and in economic life is still the lowest in the world. This situation impedes the progress of the region’s countries and their quest for democracy.

In the Arab region, the commitments made by States are yet to be fulfilled. Being at the threshold of a major set of milestones, we are aware that Arab governments must assess their actions and investments to ensure objective equality between both genders.

During this year and the next, we will be commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the Cairo Conference on Population and Development (September 1994) and the Beijing Conference on Women (September 2005) and we will also reach the end of the specified period for achieving the Millennium Development Goals in 2015.

Excellencies,

Dear colleagues and friends,

We are here today to benefit from your opinions and experiences for the development of a regional project that is at the same time bold and realistic. 

Boldness is needed to face discriminatory attitudes. The recently acquired spaces of freedom have showed the extent of these attitudes in the Arab community. They prompted some newly emerged leaders to call for reducing the gains of Arab Women in terms of rights and freedoms achieved after decades of struggle. Boldness is also needed so that our hope and quest are not reduced to achieving cosmetic changes. We have to aim for comprehensive and sustainable transformations that are equitable towards Arab women and that achieve equality through full participation. 

Realism is necessary to formulate effective strategies and interventions, which build on past successes and failures of previous efforts that sought sincerely to raise the participation of women in public life in the Arab region. 

Before listening with attention to your valuable contributions, let me share with you some of the basic premises of the UNDP approach to this regional project. 

First of all, we, at UNDP, believe that “Women’s participation is key to development”. There can be no peace, no democracy, no prosperity, and no progress without the full and equal participation of women. Therefore, promoting gender equality and empowering women in the Arab region is a legitimate goal in itself, in addition to being an important basis for all development efforts in the region and for achieving all other development goals - the Millennium Development Goals and beyond. 

We also recognize, after a deep review of many past and present projects that have the same goals, that addressing the gap in the representation and participation of women in public life, requires a comprehensive, integrated, and multi-dimensional approach that spans many areas of public life as strategic starting points for change in favour of women and brings together all stakeholders, including non-governmental organizations, women’s rights organizations, trade unions, professional associations, political parties, and parliaments.

Issues are interrelated. Success in improving the rates of representation and participation in one sector is closely linked to many other sectors and also has a positive impact on them. For example, raising the levels of women’s representation and participation in civil society or trade unions requires active participation by parliaments to enact legislation that supports women. This, in turn, is linked to, and more likely to be achieved through adequate representation and participation of women in parliaments.

Furthermore, we believe that the major national transformations taking place in several countries in the region for democratic reform and concurrent constitutional and legislative reform processes, are valuable opportunities that must be seized to broaden support for the promotion of the rights of women and girls, and to enshrine the rights of women in constitutions, laws, and policies, to strengthen the confidence of women in the justice system and to facilitate their access to justice. 

In this regard, we have learned from experiences in other regions of the world that enhancing the chances of bringing women into positions of leadership in all walks of public life and their political participation needs support for special and provisional measures and affirmative action to increase women’s participation, either by election or appointment, as decision makers in public institutions.

This strategy has yielded promising results throughout the world and even in some Arab countries such as Algeria, the only Arab country where the proportion of women in parliament exceeds the threshold of thirty (30) percent, a rate believed to be the critical mass for women to be influential in the legislative area. 

In the economic area, we believe that the participation of women is essential to the vitality of the national economy in any country. A vibrant and innovative economy, capable of achieving sustainable growth and sustainable livelihoods through active and innovative tools, requires the full participation of all members of society, including the participation of women on an equal footing with men.

Increasing women’s economic security and expanding opportunities for their contribution to national development require directed efforts that take into account the unique context of each country, which may include legislative reforms and programmes that address skill deficits, gender-sensitive social protection, and public awareness campaigns to promote women’s economic participation.

In the Arab region, which has had its fair share of conflict, it is important that women participate in peace processes and in the achievement of security in leadership positions on an equal footing with men, whether in the negotiations on peace agreements or in post-conflict transitional governments. Such participation is crucial, not only because it is one of the human rights, but also because experiences have proven that there is a clear link between women’s participation and the success and stability of peace-building efforts and governance reforms.

Before this meeting, I was pleased to participate in the first meeting of the Arab Regional Network on Women, Peace and Security, which discussed an issue closely interrelated with our regional project, that is the issue of gender equality in situations of conflict and emergency, as part of a joint work of UNDP, the League of Arab States, and an outstanding group of Arab non-governmental organizations led by the movement Karama (Dignity), and with the support of the European Union.

In a closely linked development, our regional project will seek to contribute to the elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls, an issue we consider as the responsibility of governments in all Arab countries before being the responsibility of each and every member of the community. Violence against women disintegrates families and local communities and affects the cohesion of society as a whole. 

Nowadays, in the twenty-first century, it is no longer acceptable to invoke cultural heritage, falsely coated with religious clothing, to justify – with bad faith – some forms of violence and harmful practices that limit the freedom and security of women and girls, and stigmatize the victim whose rights are violated more than does the perpetrator. 

There are many way to achieve these goals. First and foremost, it is necessary to support national efforts to harmonize laws and policies with best practices, human rights standards, and international standards to put an end to the various forms of violence against women and girls. It is also necessary to broaden access to justice for women victims of violence and support services for survivors of such violence and their families. It is also necessary to establish partnerships with men and young men, including religious leaders and political and sports figures, in order to eliminate violence against women through campaigns to change behaviours and attitudes. 

Excellencies, 

Dear colleagues and friends, 

Realizing women’s rights and achieving equity and equal participation in all spheres of public life is not the cause of women and girls alone. It is the cause of society as a whole. 

It is the cause of the State, with its executive, legislative, and judiciary branches. It is the cause of civil society, non-governmental organizations, the media, religious men and academics, sports and artistic stars. It is the cause of the private sector, with its banks and businesses. 

It is also our cause as international bodies. In this regard, UNDP is collaborating with all sister organizations and bodies within the United Nations system in full coordination of tasks and roles. We are also working closely with all government agencies, civil society and the private sector. 

Our top priorities at UNDP in the Arab region, is to work with young people and ensure gender equality.

A few days ago in Tunisia, with the participation of the prime minister, youth, and national partners from around the world and from the Arab region, the UNDP Global Youth Strategy was launched. This strategy, entitled “Empowered Youth, Sustainable Future”, focuses on the issue of empowering young people immediately, especially at this moment, as the number of people under twenty-five on the Earth is more than three billion. 

The Arab region is one of the most youthful regions in the world, as fifty-four percent of its population are under twenty-five. One of the main principles of our work with young people is that we do not merely seek to carry out development activities for them, but we treat them as initiators, collaborators, development partners, and main catalysts for our collective progress. 

In the area of women’s empowerment, perhaps our most publicized work is support for the establishment of the Centre of Arab Women for Training and Research, which continues to provide a substantial contribution in this area as an independent organization. In this regard, our first report on Arab Human Development published a decade ago. This report noted that the Arab region suffered from an acute deficit in three areas: knowledge, freedom, and women’s empowerment. A later report was dedicated to each one of these three topics. The fourth report was published in 2005 and dealt with the issue of women’s empowerment in detail. 

The work of UNDP in the area of women is distinguished from the work of other United Nations bodies by relative advantages. These advantages include: The ability to work in partnerships with governments at an official institutional level to enhance legal and political reforms and to eliminate the structural barriers that hinder gender equality; and the technical expertise needed to support the implementation of these reforms through capacity development and evidence-based research. 

I would like to thank you once again for your participation and valuable inputs to guide the formulation of our regional project so that it produces a real and sustainable impact that lays the foundation for the full participation of Arab women in all walks of public, political, economic, and social life to drive the wheels of development and bring prosperity to the Arab region as a whole.