UN Report Says
December 13, 2006
SAN’A, Yemen (AP)–The Arab world must improve the status of women if it is to see a “human renaissance,” the U.N. Development Program said in a report released Thursday, recommending reform in Islamic thought and an “affirmative action” policy to ensure women a place in politics and other fields.
The Arab Human Development report was the fourth in a series of studies by the U.N. since 2002 aimed at examining the “obstacles to Arab human development.” The first studies addressed problems in education and political rights.
Thursday’s report, researched and written by Arab experts, said women in the Arab world suffer “unacceptably high rates” of mortality related to pregnancy - 270 deaths per 100,000 births - and one of the highest rates of illiteracy, at nearly 50%, compared to 33% among men.
It said women’s economic participation “remains the lowest in the world” at 33%, below the world average of 55%.
UNDP official Amat Al Alim Alsoswa, who participated in the report, noted some “considerable steps in empowering women” - saying women in universities equal the number of men in 12 of the 20 Arab countries considered in the report, and were nearly equal in elementary schools in 17 countries.
“The report lays out the basic obstacles and challenges holding women back from achieving their human potential,” she told a press conference releasing the report in the Yemeni capital, San’a.
The report said that the elevation of women “remains an essential axis of the Arab project for a human renaissance… that will bring about freedom, pride and vigor for all Arabs, men and women.
“What deprive the region of these gains are its harmful and discriminatory practices that hold back women,” it said.
The report called for broad cultural and political reforms to eliminate discrimination against women and set a goal of attaining a 100% literacy rate among women by 2015.
Under cultural reforms, it said entrenched interpretations of Islam have helped create a status quo “approving the principle of discrimination between the sexes.”
It said the powers of religious interpretation should “escape the thrall of existing religious institutions and personages to become the right and duty of every Muslim of learning, woman or man” in an attempt to modernize religious thought.
The report also called for media and education to work to eliminate stereotypes of women and promote a more realistic picture and a “culture of equality.”
On the political front, it called on governments to conduct a complete review of legislation to remove any gender bias, as well as eliminate discrimination by courts and police. Personal status laws - on marriage, inheritance and other issues - “are considered to be among the most daunting obstacles to Arab women’s participation in economic life,” it said.
Personal status laws in most Arab countries follow Islamic Sharia law, often making it difficult for women to obtain divorces and giving them half the inheritance of men. In some Arab countries, laws restrict women’s ability to travel abroad - or even within the country - or conduct financial transactions without a male relative’s permission or presence.
The report said it was “imperative” that Arab governments adopt a policy of affirmative action, or “positive discrimination” to expand women’s participation and “allow the dismantling of the centuries-old structures of discrimination against women.”
In particular, it called for quotas for the number of women in parliament. Iraq’s constitution, adopted in 2005, requires that a quarter of the legislature be women, and in Tunisia, almost a similar proportion are women. But women’s presence in parliament is much rarer in other countries - ranging from none in most Gulf countries to 12% in Syria.
“At a time when the Arab world needs to build and tap the capabilities of all its peoples, fully half its human potential is often stifled or neglected,” the report said.
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