By Dr Mona S AlMunajjed
As we mark International Women's Day, this region has a lot to be proud of in the advancement of women's rights
The decade that saw the first celebration of women’s day (1909) coincided with the invention of the first electric labour saving appliances, the “Thor” washing machine and “Puffing Billy” vacuum cleaner. While these inventions were cause for celebration for millions of women, making housework easier and quicker, the real empowerment and liberation of women depends on something more than some oddly named household appliances.
Today, we celebrate women’s emancipation and our role not only as mothers and housewives, but also as active agents in society and the labour market. We honour the arduous journeys and achievements of courageous women who work towards their countries’ progress and strive to improve the lives of their people. Women are raising their voices to get equal opportunity in society and end all forms of discrimination and violence against them.
The success of society depends on how it invests in all of its members, both men and women. Women are a valuable potential resource in the development of their countries. Equal access to opportunities will allow them to emerge as social and economic actors. Enabling them to express their full potential will pave their way to participating in decision making and influencing and sharing in policymaking. It will also help them to use their legal rights and increase their access to and control over economic resources.
Knowledge is power, and education is one of the most important tools for the advancement of women. Investment in education for girls will give high returns, especially when the focus is on the quality and currency of that education and on the life-long provision of training to women.
GCC governments, in particular the UAE and Saudi Arabia, have been investing heavily in education, and progress has been made in promoting gender equality. As a result, women in those countries have advanced considerably over the past 20 years with improved levels of education and employment.
Women’s empowerment is a major goal in the UAE’s national vision 2021. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2017, the UAE is one of the region’s best-performing countries in closing the gender gap. The female literacy rate reached 91.5 percent in 2017, above men’s 89.5 percent, and female enrolment in primary education was 93 percent, almost equal to boys’ (93.8 percent). Emirati women account for over 70 percent of university graduates, mostly graduating in business, administration and law (38.6 percent), education (12.6 percent) and social sciences, journalism and information (11 percent). Today, 83 percent of Emirati women use the internet and 66 percent hold an account at a financial institution.
The UAE has been a regional frontrunner in endorsing women’s key role in economic development. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), women’s participation rate in the labour force reached 41 percent in 2017, compared to 29 percent in 1990. There are more than 23,000 Emirati businesswomen, and women hold 15 percent of positions on the boards of Chambers of Commerce and Industry.
Furthermore, the UAE is a leader in empowering women politically and fostering their contribution to national decision-making. Emirati women received the right to vote in 2006 and now hold more than 66 percent of government jobs and 30 percent of leadership roles and make up 20 percent of the UAE diplomatic corps. With the appointment of nine female ministers, women make up 31 percent of the UAE’s current cabinet. Women’s representation in the Federal National Council reached 22.5 percent and the first woman to lead a national assembly in the Arab region was appointed as FNC Speaker in 2015.
In Saudi Arabia, women’s empowerment is a key priority for Vision 2030. Rapid social and economic reforms are taking place, acknowledging the untapped potential of women and the vital role they play in national development. Women’s programmes are prioritised in national strategies, and educated women are encouraged to assume leadership positions.
According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2017, Saudi Arabia achieved the region’s largest improvement in gender gap closure over the past decade, and is the fifth-most improved country globally in educational attainment. The female literacy rate reached 91 percent in 2017 (men 96.5 percent). In primary education, girls’ enrolment at 98.5 percent overtook that of boys (97 percent). Female enrolment reached 78.6 percent in secondary education and 62 percent in tertiary education.
Saudi women constitute 60 percent of university graduates, mainly graduating in arts and humanities (32 percent), education (18 percent), business administration and law (15 percent) in 2017. Today, 60 percent of Saudi women use the internet and 61 percent hold an account at a financial institution.
Women’s economic participation in Saudi Arabia has greatly improved. The female labour force participation rate (15+) reached 22 percent in 2017 from 14 percent in 1990 (ILO, 2017), and Vision 2030 aims to increase that to 30 percent. And female employment rate (15+) reached 67.3 percent (General Authority for Statistics (GAS) third quarter 2017).
In the public sector, Saudi women constitute 40 percent of civil service employees (GAS, third quarter, 2017) and the Ministry of Labour and Social Development has announced the imminent opening of 80,000 female job opportunities. Saudi women working in the private sector numbered 830,660 in September 2017. Saudi women are now free to start their own business without the permission of a male guardian, and the number of commercial registers held in the name of Saudi businesswomen reached 87,575 in September 2017. Business activities include services, commerce, ICT, real estate, tourism, restaurants and the organisation of exhibitions. By royal decree women will be allowed to drive from June 2018, a boost to female participation and employment rates as well as job creation.
Saudi Arabia is making great progress in empowering women politically. More Saudi women are being appointed to leadership roles such as vice president for women’s affairs at the General Sports Authority paving the way for women’s participation in sports for health, competition and professional opportunities. Three Saudi women have been appointed to top jobs in banking and finance, breaking through the glass ceiling.
Thirty women (20 percent) have now been appointed to the Shura Council to take part in decision-making, and in 2014, women were granted the right to run and vote in local elections. The number of Saudi female diplomats has increased to 113 from 87 in 2015.
Women in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, as well as others in the region have achieved many gains during the past decade. But more needs to be done. Women face many challenges in a society where norms and traditions emanating from the patriarchal system still exert some pressure, limiting their broader opportunities.
And, as in many countries, women have to struggle twice as hard as men to reach the top. I believe that, while preserving our traditional heritage and values, reforms and positive change can only come gradually from within our society through education and public enlightenment that loosens cultural constraints on women and accepts them as equal partners.
The 21st century is the century of women and we have gained so much more than household appliances. So, in celebration of Women’s Day, let us celebrate the advancement of all women in building a better society for a brighter world.
Dr Mona S AlMunajjed is an award winning sociologist, author and advisor on Social and Gender issues. (firstname.lastname@example.org)