‘KARAMA’ WOMEN LEADERS CALL FOR INCREASED REPRESENTATION OF WOMEN IN POLITICS AND DECISION-MAKING IN THE ARAB REGION
For the third consecutive year, women activists and leaders have joined together as Karama, a movement across the Middle East and North Africa to end violence against women – a movement which has doubled in size and strength since the organization formed in 2005.
This week, the strategy of Karama (Arabic for ‘dignity’) took center stage at the United Nations, where its members made multiple interventions at the 53rd Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York.
Addressing the 2009 CSW themes of equal participation in decision-making at all levels and equal responsibility for caregiving, the Karama delegation released a practical policy paper, “Toward an enhanced participation for women in decision-making positions in the Arab World,” using the occasion of a high-level speakers’ panel co-sponsored by Karama and UNIFEM, an international press briefing, and meetings with the Special Advisor to the Secretary General on Gender Issues, the head of the New York Office of the UN High Commission on Human Rights, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, and the Chair of the UN CEDAW Committee.
In these venues, Karama partners issued recommendations to governments, agencies, NGOs and donors present at CSW, providing in-context strategies for realizing women’s equal participation with men at all levels and their political participation in the Arab Region.
“If Barack Obama could become president of the US, why can’t a woman in the Middle East be president?” said Hibaaq Osman, founder and Chair of Karama, based in Egypt. “Like Ellen Sirleaf, she had no idea she’d be the first female president in Africa, let alone, Liberia. But she made it. A female Arab president – that’s just a matter of time. [But] governments need to facilitate and maximize the role of women, not just pretend they’re doing so.”
The UN released the most up-to-date statistics, which showed no statistical improvement from 2007 to 2008 in the numbers of Arab women in parliaments, currently the lowest in the world at 9.1%. Karama partners noted that although 9.1% is still a growth of nearly 3 times the proportion held by Arab women in 2000, the lack of real progress from 2007 to 2008 and the low global standing represent a gulf between the Arab governments’ commitments to international agreements such as the international Convention on women’s rights, referred to as CEDAW, the Millennium Development Goals, and the real situation on the ground for women in the region.
Karama calls for compliance by governments in the Arab region with the international agreements they have in fact signed. The lack of strategies and procedures that would enter these agreements into force further hinder women from achieving high levels of public participation and leadership they have sought.
At the same time, the global financial crisis has brought about a dramatic increase in poverty – especially for women, its first wave of victims – pushing increasing numbers into harmful situations such as the sex trade. One immediate vulnerability and a long-term consequence of this for women is the heightened exposure to HIV and STIs, a focus of the proceedings at the Commission on the Status of Women this week.
In collaboration with the Western Asia NGO Caucus at CSW, Karama partners delivered an oral statement to the governments present at the Commission on the Status of Women, read by Karama partner, Azza Kamel of ACT in Egypt. The statement put forward additions to the language of the Agreed Conclusions, to repeal discriminatory laws that hinder equal sharing of responsibility in caregiving, ensure that HIV-positive women are treated with dignity, and remove the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS; and to reaffirm Security Council General Resolutions 1325 and 1820 to ensure the protection of women living under armed conflict and occupation.
The absence of women in decision-making posts enables discriminatory policies and practices to remain embedded in society and maintains violence against women as an institutionalized and permissible practice. One strategy that has helped reverse the gender gap is the political quota, reserving up to 30% of electoral seats for women to enter parliaments and local councils.
Moroccan activist and Member of Parliament Dr. Latifa Jbabdi elaborated, “We call for the introduction of quotas to overcome eons of discrimination, which will in turn take some years to uproot.”
From available statistics, we note that women are prevented from reaching many high posts in the Arab region. While many Arab countries have signed CEDAW and some have removed reservations to the Convention, governments are failing to adopt programs and policies that would guarantee women’s political participation in the region.
The key obstacles which prevent the participation of women in decision-making are: discriminatory laws, the fundamentalist movements that suppress women’s public roles, the lack of democratic systems, the absence of training programs for women, the high proportion of poverty for women, the lack of political will of parties to include women on candidate lists, the lack of security for women candidates, the lack of electoral financing for women candidates, and a historical pattern of gender inequality within a patriarchal world view which saturates the voting public as well as the pool of female candidates.
The women in armed conflicts in the region are consistently the first ones to pay the price of war, displacement, loss of power, and violence—in Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza, Lebanon, and Sudan. As a lead partner to the tragedy, she must be a lead partner in politics, gaining influence and power over such decision-making for the country, the society, and women who have heretofore been disproportionately under-represented. Please refer to the related fact sheet and policy paper for more information concerning women in decision-making roles in the Arab region.