At the 53rd session of the Commission on the Status of Women, Karama and the UN focused special attention on the pursuit of equal roles for women and men in decision-making at all levels. Nowhere is this pursuit more paramount than the Arab region, where women hold just 9.1% of government seats.
As Karama is an initiative to end violence against women in the Arab region, the Karama delegation took a keen interest in this issue at CSW. At Karama’s panel, “Women and Decision-making in the Arab Region: What Governments, Institutions, and Donors Can Do to Fulfill Their Commitments” co-sponsored by UNIFEM, delegates brought their recommendations as Arab women leaders and activists before an audience of more than 100 parliamentarians, government mission representatives, and leaders of UN agencies and NGOs.
Violence in the public and private realms remains a major deterrent to women’s access to political and decision-making roles, in the Middle East as in other regions. Arab women have a strong agenda not only to increase political participation, but also to offer sound policies for states to successfully to attain this.
In fact, the low figure for women’s representation in Arab governments belies what has actually been a nearly threefold gain since 1995, when the women held only 3.6%. This means that certain strategies are having a rapid impact over a relatively short term. Karama activists brought their insight on what has worked and what warrants improvement and scrutiny to the attention of CSW and the UN member states.
Karama delegates listened carefully to the CSW Interactive Dialogue held among governments and a few select NGOs. The presenters posited a strong endorsement of political quotas for women and elaborated a framework issued by the Fawcett Society (UK) suggesting four requirements for women to run successfully for office (and to stay in office): Confidence, Childcare, Culture, and Cash. While Karama delegates agreed in principle with both points, it felt there was more to say on these topics.
Karama partner Fatima Outaleb of l’Union de l’Action Feminine (UAF), Morocco, won a slot to speak during the CSW’s Interactive Dialogue. She asked the distinguished speakers to consider the importance of evaluation of quotas using measurements of success that go beyond straight figures to assess actual increases in gender policy and advocacy.
At the panel co-hosted by Karama and UNIFEM, “Women and Decision-making in the Arab World: What Governments, Donors,&Institutions Can Do to Fulfill their Commitments,” expert speakers engaged in debate and provoked discussion regarding strategies to increase and improve women’s political participation through the Arab region.
When female representatives are unprepared, appointed, or merely puppets of their party or their families, then the increased percentage of women in office does not automatically translate to policies that promote gender equality or women’s rights and concerns. The failure of such women as politicians also harms the public’s willingness to support other female candidates in turn.
Thus, Karama partners presented recommendations for governments, international agencies, the private sector, and civil society found in Karama’s new policy paper “Toward an enhanced participation for women in decision-making positions in the Arab World.” Panelists also debated the supposition that women need four things to run for office: confidence, culture, childcare and cash. Several speakers on Karama’s panel asserted that the crucial factors that hinder women’s equal participation go beyond these four elements to include education, training, and security.
In times of crisis such as armed conflict, the special measures or commitments for women are often the first casualties in politics. Zoya Rouhana, Director of Kafa, a Karama partner in Lebanon, asserted that unequal civil and criminal codes perpetuate political disempowerment, violence against women, and impunity for murder committed by males against their female relatives. She also noted that unstable security in the region is used to justify states’ lack of commitment to women’s political participation: “In Lebanon, it was not until 2004 that 2 women were appointed for the first time in the cabinet. The excuse referred to the volatile conflict between Lebanese parties.” She urged that donors maintain support to women’s NGOs during times of war.
Women are also directly targeted with violence when they enter politics. Amal Mahmoud reported an incident in which false accusations of prostitution were made against a female political candidate in Egypt. The ensuing raids by vice squads and sexual harassment by police officers eventually forced the woman to withdraw her candidacy.
UNIFEM Deputy Executive Director Moez Doraid pointed to a report which identified a “women’s disempowerment” as one of the three key deficits holding back Arab human development, and noted that women in the Arab region have the lowest rates of formal employment. The quality of women’s participation must be enhanced so to translate women’s presence into policies that promote gender equality. Siham Negm, Secretary General of the Arab Regional Network for Literacy and Adult Education, described the need for programs that train women in technology and leadership development. “Quality,” she says, “is needed in public education, and local governments need to provide school environments that are conducive to women learning in an empowering manner.”
It was agreed that increasing women’s participation in decision-making through the Arab region requires a cross-section of strategies by the state, the public sector, private sector, and the international community. Women’s low level of political representation is rooted in historical disempowerment and is affected by social, political and economic factors. Initiatives such as political quotas of 30% and parliamentary training have improved the situation dramatically since 1995, but these failed to show any net growth in women’s participation rates between 2007 and 2008.
Quotas have been effective in Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, and Iraq in increasing women’s levels of participation. Dr. Latifa Jbadi, former President of Union de l’Action Feminine and now an elected Member of Parliament of Morocco, agrees: “Since 1962, women have had the right to run for office in Morocco, but female participation was limited until 2002 when it radically changed due to the introduction of the quota.” The quotas will not need to be permanent but they require adequate time to “overcome the years and eons of discrimination against women in politics, which will take years to uproot,” explained Dr. Jbabdi.
Karama partners acknowledge the effectiveness of these strategies but also urge a more comprehensive approach in addressing equal participation of women in decision-making. Karama’s panelists noted that women are taking leadership and gaining political ground by multiple means, including civil society. In Lebanon, NGOs have proposed a law on domestic violence and then submitted it to the women’s committees of each political party to seek the support of new candidates.
Not only do cultural biases in the legal system need to be addressed, but resources need to be allocated to address the concerns presented by panelists. Without adequate preparation for leadership roles, women may eventually win more elections, but will have little chance of sustaining their positions of leadership. Finally, if the governments honor their commitments to fulfill CEDAW, the Beijing Platform for Action, the Millennium Development Goals, and the UN Security Council Resolutions 1325 and 1820, women’s capacities and opportunities to access to decision-making roles and power structures will significantly increase.
Karama’s panel attracted representatives from all over the world including:
Society for Women and AIDS in Zambia, government ministries of Spain, Ghana, Namibia, and South Africa, members of the Flemish Belgium Government and the permanent mission of Pakistan to the UN, the office of the President of South Africa, parliamentarians from Malaysia, Zambia, and Kenya, as well as the chair of the UN CEDAW Committee, who later met with Karama’s delegation to discuss advocacy techniques for governments’ compliance with CEDAW commitments.
Karama learned that two researchers from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington, DC, flew to New York for the day specifically to attend the session. Gratified by more than 100 attendees, Karama deemed the session successful toward its objective of sharing recommendations and strategies on women and decision-making roles in the Arab Region. It was equally pleased to see the policy paper and fact sheet distributed electronically on the listservs for the 16 Days of Activism and the Women’s UN Reports Network.