Women empowerment in the Middle east

The Commission on the Status of Women. World Summit on Sustainable Development. Problems of Education for Women. Education’s Effects on Reproductive Choice. The interaction between the region’s economic structure and its conservative culture in the USA.

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Язык английский
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According to Dr. Jamal A. Badawin «the status which women reached during the present era was not achieved due to the kindness of men or due to natural progress. It was rather achieved through a long struggle and sacrifice on woman's part and only when society needed her contribution and work, more especial!; during the two world wars, and due to the escalation of technological change.»

Despite many international agreements affirming their human rights, women in the Middle East region are still much more likely than men to be poor and illiterate. They usually have less access than men to medical care, property ownership, credit, training and employment. They are far less likely than men to be politically active and far more likely to be victims of domestic violence.

Poor health can force many households into poverty and destitution, and the growing AIDS pandemic has only exacerbated the situation. Women are disproportionately affected by health problems, both directly - from exposure to pollutants, household wastes, unsafe sex and gender-based violence - and indirectly as caregivers.

Caring for ailing family members adds an additional burden to women's already heavy workload inside and outside the household. There is a strong link between women's underemployment and low returns on labor, especially since most employed women are part of the informal economy. This exposes poor women to greater financial risks, lower standards of human development and limited access to resources from social institutions. Latest studies have shown that women in Middle East countries face many of the same constraints as their rural counterparts. They are affected by low socio-economic status, lack of property rights, environmental degradation and limited health and educational resources. Rapid urbanization also leads to increased unemployment and underemployment in urban areas, expanding the informal sector and intensifying the shortage of urban social services, which can no longer meet the needs of a growing population.

We know that now the roles that men and women play in society are not biologically determined - they are socially determined, changing and changeable. Although they may be justified as being required by culture or religion, these roles vary widely by locality and change over time.

In the subsequent decades women's rights again became an important issue in the English speaking world. By the 1960s the movement was called «feminism» or «women's liberation.» Reformers wanted the same pay as men, equal rights in law, and the freedom to plan their families or not have children at all. Their efforts were met with mixed results.

Anyway, problem of women empowerment needs to be studied, and first of all, we need to find out the present international status of woman.

1. United Nation's view

1.1 The Commission on the Status of Women

United Nations commitments to the advancement of women began with the signing of the UN Charter in San Francisco in 1945. Of the 160 signatories, only four were women - Minerva Bernardino (Dominican Republic), Virginia Gildersleeve (United States), Bertha Lutz (Brazil) and Wu Yi-Fang (China) - but they succeeded in inscribing women's rights in the founding document of the United Nations, which reaffirms in its preamble «faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of Nations large and small».

The Commission on the Status of Women first met at Lake Success, New York, in February 1947. At that session, all of the 15 government representatives were women - giving the Commission the unique character it was going to maintain throughout its history by gathering a majority of women delegates. From its inception, the Commission also forged a close relationship with nongovernmental organizations. Several international women's organizations addressed the Commission at the first session, and from then on, non-governmental organizations in consultative status with ECOSOC were invited to participate as observers.

From the beginning the Commission members also built close working relationships with the international human rights treaty bodies, the Commission on Human Rights, the Social Commission and the Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, and specialized agencies such as UNESCO and UNICEF.

During the period 1946-1962, the Commission focused its attention on promoting women's rights and equality by setting standards and formulating international conventions aiming at changing discriminatory legislation and fostering global awareness of women's issues. However, the codification of the legal rights of women needed to be supported by data and analysis of the extent to which discrimination against women existed, not only in law but also in practice.

The Commission made women's political rights a high priority in the early years of its work. In 1945, only 25 of the original 51 United Nations Member States allowed women equal voting rights with men. In his 1950 report to the Commission on discrimination against women in the field of political rights, the Secretary General noted that in 22 countries women still did not have equal rights to vote or hold political office, and that in some countries where women held such rights, these were not put into practice. After an extensive debate, the Convention on the Political Rights of Women, drafted by the Commission, was adopted by the General Assembly on 20 December 1952. It was the first international law instrument to recognize and protect the political rights of women everywhere by spelling out that women, on an equal basis with men, were entitled to vote in any election, run for election to any office, and hold any public office or exercise any public function under national law.

Throughout the 1950's the Commission turned its attention on the issue of discrimination in marriage. UN reports revealed that discrimination against women was frequently due to differences between national laws on family residence, marriage and divorce. The Commission embraced this problem by drafting the Convention on the Nationality of Married Women (adopted on 29 January 1957), followed by the Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages (adopted on 7 November 1962), and the Recommendation on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages (adopted on 1 November 1965). Together these measures represent the first international agreements on women's rights in relation to marriage that were adopted by the UN.

During the same period, the Commission worked with UNESCO to develop programs and advocate for increasing women's literacy and equality in access to education. It also undertook work on women's economic rights: a study launched in collaboration with the International Labor Organization (ILO) led to the 1951 Convention on Equal Remuneration for Men and Women Workers for Work of Equal Value, which enshrined the principle of equal pay for work of equal value.

In the early 1950s, the Commission also began focusing on the issue of traditional practices harmful to women and girls. Thanks to the Commission's efforts, resolutions were adopted by the ECOSOC in 1952 and the General Assembly in 1954 urging Member States to take measures to abolish practices that violated the physical integrity and human rights of women. However, traditional practices remained a sensitive issue and it would not be until the mid-1980s that female genital mutilation/cutting, for instance, would be recognized as a form of violence against women.

Since 1975 the UN has held a series of world conferences on women's issues, starting with the World Conference of the International Women's Year in Mexico City. These conferences created an international forum for women's rights, but also illustrated divisions between women of different cultures and the difficulties of attempting to apply principles universally.

Four World Conferences have been held, the first in Mexico City (International Women's Year, 1975), the second in Copenhagen (1980) and the third in Nairobi (1985). At the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing (1995), The Platform for Action was signed. This included a commitment to achieve «gender equality and the empowerment of women».

Since 1995, the Commission on the Status of Women has also developed its catalytic role in support of gender mainstreaming. The schedule for consideration by the Commission of the 12 critical areas of concern of the Platform for Action took into account follow-up reviews of other international development conferences, which increased the potential for gender mainstreaming in these processes. The Commission has also made available the outcome of its work to other functional commissions-such as the Commission on Sustainable Development in 1997 and the Commission on Human Rights in 1998. For the

World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in 2002 in Johannesburg, the Commission forwarded its agreed conclusions on environmental management and the mitigation of natural disasters. In 2003, it provided its agreed conclusions on participation in and access of women to the media, and information and communication technologies and their impact on and use as an instrument for the advancement and empowerment of women to the World Summit on the Information Society, held in Geneva.

Throughout its sixty years of existence and its fifty sessions, the Commission on the Status of Women has consistently promoted the advancement of women. It has been instrumental in expanding the recognition of women's rights, in documenting the reality of women's lives throughout the world, in shaping global policies on gender equality and empowerment of women and in ensuring that the work of the UN is all areas incorporates a gender perspective. It continues to play a critical role by bringing together Governments, UN entities, NGOs, and other international and regional organizations to promote women's rights and advance gender equality.

1.2 The U.N. Millennium Summit

One of the greatest steps was the U.N. Millennium Summit, held in September 2000, produced a set of eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) covering a range of development issues, including reducing child mortality, fighting various infectious diseases, eradicating illiteracy, and empowering women. The MDGs and their associated targets and indicators were designed as benchmarks for monitoring progress in developing countries and to provide a framework for sustaining development and eliminating poverty. The international community recognizes that unless girls' education improves, few of the MDGs will be achieved. Two of the goals deal specifically with female education and women's empowerment.

Goal 2: Achieve universal primary education. Target: Ensure that, by 2015, all children, boys and girls alike, will have access to a full course of primary education. Indicators for this goal: the net enrollment ratio in primary education; the proportion of pupils starting grade 1 who reach grade 5;

Goal 3: Promote gender equality and empower women. Target: Eliminate gender disparities in primary and secondary education, preferably by 2005, and at all levels of education no later than 2015. Indicators for this goal: the ratio of girls to boys in primary, secondary, and tertiary education; the ratio of literate females to males among 15-to-24-year-olds; the share of women in wage employment in the nonagricultural sector; and the proportion of seats in national parliament held by women. In addition, the benefits of female education for women's empowerment and gender equality are broadly recognized:

As female education rises, fertility, population growth, and infant and child mortality fall and family health improves.

Increases in girls' secondary school enrollment are associated with increases in women's participation in the labor force and their contributions to household and national income.

Women's increased earning capacity, in turn, has a positive effect on child nutrition.

Children-especially daughters-of educated mothers are more likely to be enrolled in school and to have higher levels of educational attainment.

Educated women are more politically active and better informed about their legal rights and how to exercise them.

2. Problems of Education for Women

Education is a key part of strategies to improve individuals' well-being and societies' economic and social development. In the Middle East region access to education has improved dramatically over the past few decades, and there have been a number of encouraging trends in girls' and women's education. Primary school enrollment is high or universal here, and gender gaps in secondary school enrollment have already disappeared in several countries. And of course women here are also more likely to enroll in universities than they were in the past.

But great challenges remain. Many people-especially girls-are still excluded from education, and many more are enrolled in school but learning too little to prepare them for 21st-century job markets. In some of these countries, access to the secondary and higher education that helps create a skilled and knowledgeable labor force continues to be limited; even where access is not a problem, the quality of the education provided is often low. It must be improved and also it should be more widely available. Many experts say that education systems may split into two tiers, with high-quality private education available only to the wealthy minority and low-quality public education the sole option for most citizens. Such a trend would turn education into a «means of perpetuating social stratification and poverty» rather than a means of increasing social equality. Gender sensitivity is a key aspect of the quality of education.

Educational systems should be sensitive to the specific needs of girls and women. Yet the curricula and teaching materials-and the media, which has a powerful role in shaping people's knowledge and opinions-in the Middle East region often reinforce traditional roles that may deny women opportunities for full and equal participation in society. As radio, television, and the Internet reach more people in the region, it becomes even more important that students learn to analyze and judge the media's messages for themselves.

However, many people still don't understand that education is a key strategy for reducing poverty, which is also the problem of Middle East countries. But still these countries generally have lower levels of women's education and labor force participation than other regions with similar income levels. Efforts to improve female education in these countries need to go beyond rhetoric and should involve policies and programs with measurable results. Governments need to make an extra effort to ensure that education is more accessible to low-income families and rural populations, with special attention to the quality of the education provided and the need for girls to complete school. Richer countries both inside and outside the region are encouraged to help resource-poor countries improve their educational systems and collect data on their progress. Improving access to and the quality of education is the most rewarding investment a country can make. Investing in female education will accelerate this region's economic and social development by enhancing human capital, slowing population growth, and alleviating poverty.

3. Education's Effects on Reproductive Choice

Education helps women take advantage of opportunities that could benefit them and their families, preparing women for the labor force and helping them understand their legal and reproductive rights. Educated women generally want smaller families and make better use of reproductive health and family planning information and services in achieving their desired family size. Most women in the Middle East region know something about modern contraception, but more-educated women tend to know about a wider range of available methods and where to get them. Women with more education are also more likely to discuss family planning issues with their husbands. Women's ability to choose the number and timing of their births is key to empowering women as individuals, mothers, and citizens, but women's rights go beyond those dealing with their reproductive roles. Women should be able to fulfill their aspirations outside the home, to the benefit of themselves, their families, and their countries. Opening economic opportunities to women has far reaching effects, but those benefits can be reaped only if women receive at least a basic education.

The ability of women to control their own fertility is absolutely fundamental to women's empowerment and equality. When a woman can plan her family, she can plan the rest of her life. When she is healthy, she can be more productive. And when her reproductive rights-including the right to decide the number, timing and spacing of her children, and to make decisions regarding reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence-are promoted and protected, she has freedom to participate more fully and equally in society.

The education of parents is linked to their children's educational attainment, and the mother's education is usually more influential than the father's. An educated mother's greater influence in household negotiations may allow her to secure more resources for her children.

Educated mothers are more likely to be in the labor force, allowing them to pay some of the costs of schooling, and may be more aware of returns to schooling. And educated mothers, averaging fewer children, can concentrate more attention on each child. Besides having fewer children, mothers with schooling are less likely to have mistimed or unintended births. This has implications for schooling, because poor parents often must choose which of their children to educate.

4. Education and Economic

commission women summit education

Nowadays, the interaction between the region's economic structure and its conservative culture, in which traditional gender roles are strongly enforced, is largely responsible. Women's employment options have been limited to a small number of socially acceptable occupations and professions, such as teaching and medicine. In many countries in the region, women must obtain permission from a male relative, usually a husband or father, before seeking employment, requesting a loan, starting a business, or traveling. Such laws often grant women a smaller share of inherited family wealth.

As the result, families tend to make greater investments in education for boys than for girls. As women's educational attainment in Middle East countries has increased, more women have moved into the job market. But women's participation in the labor force is still low: Only 20 percent of women ages 15 and older in Middle East countries are in the labor force-the lowest level of any world region. But economic activities are not the only vehicle for helping women escape from poverty and advancing gender equality and empowerment. There needs to be a combination of activities in various spheres of a woman's life that address the dynamic and relational nature of poverty. Economic empowerment can, however, provide incentives to change the patterns of traditional behavior to which a woman is bound as a dependent member of the household. In short, gainful employment empowers impoverished women in various spheres of their lives, influencing sexual and reproductive health choices, education and healthy behavior.

5. Women Employment

In nearly every country, women work longer hours than men, but are usually paid less and are more likely to live in poverty. In subsistence economies, women spend much of the day performing tasks to maintain the household, such as carrying water and collecting fuel wood.

Women who live in countries with a large agricultural sector, tend to work mainly in that sector, although some others Middle East countries have been more successful in getting women into nonagricultural occupations. Turkey, for example, has been able to engage women in the countries' export-manufacturing sectors. Most of the women who work outside the agricultural sector are college-educated professionals employed mainly in government. A smaller share of women work in factories, but many lack the educational qualifications of factory workers in countries such as China, Vietnam, and the nations of the former Soviet bloc.

Unpaid domestic work - from food preparation to caregiving - directly affects the health and overall well being and quality of life of children and other household members. The need for women's unpaid labour often increases with economic shocks, such as those associated with the AIDS pandemic or economic restructuring. Yet women's voices and lived experiences - whether as workers (paid and unpaid), citizens, or consumers - are still largely missing from debates on finance and development. Poor women do more unpaid work, work longer hours and may accept degrading working conditions during times of crisis, just to ensure that their families survive.

6. Intergenerational gender gaps

The differences in the work patterns of men and women, and the 'invisibility' of work that is not included in national accounts, lead to lower entitlements to women than to men. Women's lower access to resources and the lack of attention to gender in macroeconomic policy adds to the inequity, which, in turn, perpetuates gender gaps. For example, when girls reach adolescence they are typically expected to spend more time in household activities, while boys spend more time on farming or wage work. By the time girls and boys become adults; females generally work longer hours than males, have less experience in the labor force, earn less income and have less leisure, recreation or rest time.

Women in Middle East countries are twice as likely to be illiterate as men are and make up two-thirds of the region's illiterate adults. The gender gaps in education vary greatly across countries in the region but are generally wider in countries where overall literacy and school enrollment are lower. Gender gaps in literacy and school enrollment generally persist regardless of rural or urban location. Closing gender gaps in education would benefit countries' economies.

Closing the gender gap in education is a development priority. The 1994 Cairo Consensus recognized education, especially for women, as a force for social and economic development. Universal completion of primary education was set as a 20-year goal, as was wider access to secondary and higher education among girls and women. Closing the gender gap in education by 2015 is also one of the benchmarks for the Millennium Development Goals.


Women have come a long way. They have made their positions clear in many more complicated spheres of life than what they themselves could imagine of. And the world has long before been savoring the fruits of women's virtues. And now they are on a level playing field of all imaginable odds and opportunities and they stand poised to stake indisputable claims for their due pounds.

Ultimately, what turns out to be those signs of change in our present day society is more of the result of these claims than of the so-called revolutions that other social organs like parties and pressure groups, both political and non-political, claim to have brought about over their efforts.

When it comes to women and their representation in the society, what surfaces most visibly is their positions in the political circles or in the circles of some power. It is a fact that not many changes have come up in the society by way of women holding such positions. So long as they remain not proportionally represented, the ones who get set and go with their male counterparts end up nowhere and they come back to square one. So, it is better not to press for their flesh in the electorate. But there is a strong stake when it is a matter of running the government.

To successfully empower women, both gender and empowerment concerns should be integrated into every service provision area. Moreover, they should be incorporated in the economic, political and social spheres as well as at the individual, household and community levels in order to overcome gender inequality. Women's empowerment, no matter where it takes part, here in the Middle East region or somewhere else, is not an easy outcome to measure. The International Labor Organization sees a strong link between the vulnerability of impoverished women to underemployment and low returns on labor, especially since most employed women are part of the informal economy. Economic empowerment projects usually focus on income-generating activities, which allow women to independently acquire their income. Income-generating activities encompass a wide range of areas, such as small business promotion, cooperatives, job creation schemes, sewing circles and credit and savings groups. One of the most popular forms of economic empowerment for women is microfinance, which provides credit for impoverished women who are usually excluded from formal credit institutions. Microfinance enables poor women to become economic agents of change by increasing their income and productivity, access to markets and information, and decision-making power. Offering women a source of credit has been found to be a very successful strategy for alleviating poverty because it enhances the productivity of their own small enterprises and the income-generating activities in which they invest.

Economic empowerment provides incentives to change the patterns of traditional behavior to which a woman is bound as a dependent member of the household. More and more programming has taken an integrated approach, involving other aspects of development into microfinance projects in order to increase a women's income and create a positive change in her perception of health and education.

The overall results show an impressive common denominator: the female and male voices in the study are cosmopolitan, confident and hugely optimistic about gender equity. They are ambitious and look forward to an interesting work life and raising smaller families. Family is paramount, religion is treasured and tradition is respected though not perpetuated by all.

Yet further analysis reveals potential dark clouds. Women have much fewer job preparedness skills than their male colleagues, making their struggle both ideologically and pragmatically harder than for men to achieve employment. Women's access to the job market is a thorny issue, but still one of the biggest and most pressing challenges confronting Saudi Arabia's segregated society. 78% of the female Saudi students consider a successful career as part of their life plan - in the context of a society operating on rigid perceptions and allocation of roles - this is a small revolution. The high unemployment is, however, a serious problem and inauspicious, not only regarding the participation of women, it is a risk factor in respect to the country's inner stability. Only 54% of the Saudi respondents expect to find a job after graduation. Within only a few decades, the Emirates have made the leap from living in desert tents to the glistening glass skyscrapers of their new metropolises. Seventy percent of the total respondents - both men and women - no longer link power with gender-based privilege, but rather with education. Do the educated youth find that much has already been achieved? Do men think «enough is enough»? Just above 50% of women find unrestrainedly, that «more women should strive for leadership.» Oppositely, half as many men, 25%, encourage this. Careers present a high degree of attractiveness, and the dream of a super-career is gender neutral. In Jordan young women expect a great deal of female leaders. About 40% of the female respondents whole-heartedly believed that more women should strive for leadership, only 25% of their male counterparts agreed.

The project also provides a practical solution to the known shortfall between the number of highly educated women and the low number of engaged women in public life by creating a tailored «This is Me!» special fairs program for personal and professional positioning in the careers market for young female graduates in the Middle East as a direct application of the «Bridging the Gap» research.

The aim was to coach the graduates into pro-active, articulate, critical thinkers with a focus on pragmatic job seeking etiquette and exploring and generating opportunities for the market. Arab women are on the move - in a top down and bottom up revolution. The dramatic boom in women's education will certainly change the face of the Middle East contributing to the advancement of a professional middle class much needed in the region.

Gender equality and women's empowerment are human rights that lie at the heart of development and the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. Despite the progress that has been made, six out of ten of world's poorest people are still women and girls, less than 16 percent of the world's parliamentarians are women, two thirds of all children shut outside the school gates are girls and, both in times of armed conflict and behind closed doors at home, women are still systematically subjected to violence.


1. Akinsanmi, A. 2005. `Working Under Constraint: Women, Poverty and Productivity'. Women and Environments International 66/67: 17-18.

2. Chant, S. 2003. `Female Household Headship and the Feminisation of Poverty: Facts, Fiction and Forward Strategies'. Gender Institute, London School of Economics.

3. Cheston, S. and L. Kuhn. 2002. `Empowering Women Through Microfinance'. Unpublished. Available at: www.opportunity.org

4. Daisy Dwyer and Judith Bruce, eds., A Home Divided: Women and Income in the Third World (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988)

5. General Assembly's resolutions 640, 1040, 1763, 2018

6. Khan, M. 1999. `Microfinance, Wage Employment and Housework: A Gender Analysis'. Development in Practice

7. Satterthwaite, D. 2003. `The Links Between Poverty and the Environment in Urban Areas in Africa, Asia and Latin America'.

8. United Nations, «About the Goals» (www.developmentgoals.org/About_the_goals.htm, accessed April 1, 2003)

9. United Nations, The World's Women 2000: Trends and Statistics, accessed online at http://unstats.un.org/unsd/ demographic/ww2000/table5d.htm, on March 27, 2003

10. Valentine M. Moghadam, Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East, 2d ed. (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2003)

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