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Women, Peace and Security: How does the Arab region measure up?

The first-ever Women, Peace and Security Index was released a few days ago. This is a major milestone in understanding the challenges and constraints faced by women worldwide. The index measures well-being – defined by three dimensions:

  1. Economic, social, and political inclusion

  2. Formal laws and informal discrimination in the justice sector

  3. Family, community, and societal security

Let’s start by noting that not one single country attains perfect scores on women’s inclusion, justice, and security – meaning we all have a lot of work to do if we’re going to achieve equality in our lifetime.

This index is different from others in that it combines gender and development indices with peace and security indices, recognizing that there is no hope for equality as long as insecurities persist.

The WPS Index examined 153 countries – covering 98% of the world’s population. The Arab Region comes in at the bottom. The region performed poorly in the last index – coming in lowest in the world, according to the 2016 Global Gender Gap Report. Despite some advances in women’s economic equality in Qatar, Algeria and the United Arab Emirates, at the present rate, the region’s 39% gender gap will take another 356 years to close. Worse still, between their patriarchal societies, increased conservative movements and lack of political will to move towards gender equity, the Arab region today is seeing a backlash against women’s rights and freedoms.

I’m guessing we’re not paying enough attention to this – or not taking it seriously enough – because we’re last again. Literally. Syria came in last place – tied with Afghanistan. Other Arab countries, like Yemen and Lebanon, did not fare much better. [Iceland came in first – in case you want to know!]

So, where are the disconnects?

The report notes the region’s high levels of organized violence and discriminatory laws alongside generally poor scores on inclusion. The global average for women’s employment is close to 50% – Syria is at 12%. And – 37% of men in the region do not accept the idea of women working. Discriminatory norms remain strong. In terms of parliamentary representation, the region also has the lowest ranking country: Qatar has zero (yes – ZERO) women in parliament (UPDATE: Since the publication of the Index, Qatar has appointed 28 new members to its Shura Council, including four women). And Yemen’s share of women in parliament is only 0.5%.

Extensive legal discrimination exists – with Saudi Arabia ranking worst in the world on this front. Syria, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen follow closely behind. Unsurprisingly, no Arab country criminalizes marital rape.

It’s also worth noting the differences within the region. UAE is the highest ranking in the region, due to the government’s emphasis on women’s education and participation in public life. And yet, it ranks poorly in terms of justice due to their Sharia-based Law of Personal Affairs, including clauses that require a male guardian to approve a woman’s marriage and so on.

Support for survivors of violence and legislation preventing violence against women are weak to virtually non-existent – and there is a disconnect between policy and practice. Here’s the bottom line: the Arab region is missing the point. As long as we continue to deny women full equality, rights, respect, dignity, we will never achieve peace or sustainable development. Ever more, the obvious denial of women’s rights is an indicator of future instability and conflict. The world knows that it stands a better chance of peace and prosperity when women have full and equal rights and opportunities – I’m not sure the region knows it!

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