Middle East gender inequality is ‘corrupting the region’

BEIRUT: Failure to narrow the gender gap and confront violence against women in the MENA region is stalling progress and exacerbating crises, according to activists.
Panelists at a regional conference on gender-based violence in Beirut highlighted the damage that marginalizing women does to Middle Eastern societies.
These countries must start taking the challenges facing women more seriously, said Dr. Lina Abirafeh, director of the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World (IWSAW) at the Lebanese American University.
“You cannot have half of the region’s population under-utilized, discriminated against and treated like second-class citizens then expect to make progress,” she said. “Your economy will fail, your political structures will be undemocratic and your conflicts will continue unabated.
“Gender inequality is corrupting the region; it’s the biggest imbalance and injustice that we have and gender-based violence is the most obvious manifestation of that inequality,” she added.
The Middle East remains the least gender-equal region in the world, with an estimated 365 years before the balance is righted at the current pace of change, according to projections in the World Economic Forum 2016 Gender Gap report.
Recent research by the World Bank and the IMF points to a strong correlation between a country’s progress in closing the gender gap, particularly in education and the labor force, and its economic competitiveness.
Speaking ahead of the panel discussion, Asma Khader, former minister of culture in Jordan and president of SIGI, a women’s rights NGO, pointed out that “Middle East societies are losing half of their available human resources.”
“You cannot build any development or a truly representative political life without half of the population,” she said.
At the two-day conference, which was hosted by the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World in partnership with IM Swedish Development Partner, Diakonia and Norwegian People’s Aid, speakers said that women continue to be an “under-utilized force in the region” and “under-represented at every level.”
“We can’t continue to come up last in every single (gender) measure across the world,” Abirafeh said.
In some quarters of government, “a select few leaders” are beginning to appreciate the value of carving out a wider space for women, according to Khader.
“I think a few leaders in the region have started to realize this need to engage women and respect their right to be part of public life.”
Recent months have seen a rush of legislative developments advancing women’s rights across the region.
Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanon have all overturned controversial articles enabling rapists to escape punishment if they marry their victims and activists are now looking to Bahrain and Palestine, in the hopes of a knock-on effect in these and other countries upholding rape-marriage laws.
In Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced the lifting of a longstanding ban on female drivers as part of a comprehensive reform program that aims to promote greater participation of women in the workforce as the country overhauls its economy in line with Vision 2030.
However, passing laws is just the first step. Activists are emphatic about the need to ensure effective implementation backed up by sufficient funding to create an inclusive environment for women across the social, economic and political spectrum.
“When it comes to women’s rights this is usually the missing part of the conversation. Having these laws is very important but the most vital thing is implementing them and having the tools to do so,” said Ikram Ben Said, Middle East program officer at IM Swedish Development Partner.
In countries across the region, the percentage of national budgets allocated to women’s rights is negligible, she said, outlining the huge overhaul of state apparatus needed to combat gender-based violence — from establishing shelters and reforming health care systems to re-training the relevant law enforcement personnel.
Jihan Idredi, general prosecutor of the High Criminal Court in Jordan, told Arab News that judges, lawyers, prosecutors and police officers need to be trained to create judicial systems capable of upholding and enacting women’s rights laws, “so that they really believe and adopt the new laws based on equal rights. Otherwise they will be implemented from the same traditional mentalities and nothing will change.”
Legal progress must go hand-in-hand with confronting a value system that sustains inequality as the status quo, he added.

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