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UAE: Women’s Participation is the Norm

Meena Janardhan

DUBAI, Feb 24 2009 (IPS) - In the gender-sensitive Gulf milieu, efforts by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to empower women and recognise them as partners in the nation-building process has received praise, but experts stress that the scope for improvement is limitless.

In order to keep pace with the rapid modernisation process after the establishment of the UAE federation in 1971, the government’s strategic vision for women has been gradually providing them with the necessary tools to participate in both the public and private sectors.

“Contrary to some misconceptions and stereotypes that women are a restricted group in our society, they are at the forefront in both the government and private sectors. Their prominent role in the society has evolved as a norm and not an exception,’’ said Anwar Gargash, minister of state for foreign affairs, presenting the country report at the Universal Periodic Review, conducted by the Human Rights Council in Geneva in December 2008 .’’

Gargash added: “‘The UAE leadership is committed to empowering women and utilising their skills in our growing economy. This commitment is enshrined in the Constitution through guarantees for gender equality and social justice, as well as gradually evolving legislations that are striving to maintain the balance of modernisation with our cultural heritage and Islamic beliefs.’’

Education has served as the chief catalyst for women’s development in the country. According to a government publication citing a PricewaterhouseCoopers report, at 77 percent, ‘‘the UAE is registering the highest rate of women in higher education in the entire world’’.

Official statistics say that though women account for 49.3 percent of the national population of 4.6 million people, they constitute nearly 60 percent of government sector employees, with nearly half that figure occupying higher level posts.

Apart from serving as civil servants, engineers and bankers, as well as in traditional jobs like teaching and healthcare, women have recently become airline pilots, been appointed as the country’s ambassadors abroad and become part of the judiciary.

The 2007 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) status report on Millennium Development Goals recognised the positive outcome of the UAE’s target-oriented policies in a number of areas, including women’s empowerment. It noted that legislations in the UAE do not discriminate on the basis of gender with respect to education, employment or the quality of services provided.

According to the report, educational indicators show that women’s achievements in education have reached its targeted levels, and in some cases, exceeded that of men because of a strong desire among women to become financially independent and professionally successful.

The UNDP’s Gender-Related Development Index in the 2007/2008 Human Development Report, ranks the UAE 43rd among 177 countries and 29th in the world under the Gender Empowerment Measure – the best in the Arab world.

The historic Federal National Council (FNC) elections in December 2006 helped women move into the national political arena. While women made up about 18 percent of the electoral college, 63 of the 452 contestants were women.

While only one woman was elected, the government nominated eight other women to the 40-member FNC in order to ensure fair representation, which translates to a 22.5 percent share, well over the world average of 17 percent.

Complementing this, the Cabinet reshuffle in February 2008 doubled the number of women ministers to four, the highest in the region.

In March 2008, Khouloud Ahmad Jouan Al Dhahiri became the first woman in the UAE to be named as a judge. This decision made the UAE the second Arab country, after Bahrain, to appoint a female judge.

The contribution of national women to the economy increased significantly from 9.6 percent in 1986 to 33.4 percent in 2007, which approximately represents a 3.5 percent average annual growth. According to 2006 figures, the UAE has the largest number of businesswomen in the region.

The UAE Businesswomen Council, a nationwide network of business, professional and academic women, has almost 12,000 members, growing at around two percent annually between 2002 and 2006, and running investments worth about 25 billion dirhams (6.8 billion US dollars) in various fields.

Yet, the government considers the achievements as a ‘‘work in progress’’ and hopes to support women in achieving greater heights in the years ahead.

One particular problem area in the social sphere is the one that was highlighted a few years ago by Emirati women married to foreigners, who took the extreme step of publicly demanding re-instatement of their social security payments.

According to current laws, while men do not face any hurdles in marrying foreigners, women marrying foreigners face a host of difficulties, including the issue of citizenship for their children and spouses.

While acknowledging that the government created the opening for women, Afnan Al-Mutawa, a public sector employee, said that her family deserved more credit for allowing her to pursue the educational and professional opportunities.

‘‘Without their encouragement, the government efforts would have been wasted,” she told IPS.

Similarly, appreciating the government’s initiatives, Rima Sabban, a UAE-based sociologist, recommended that efforts should be undertaken to sustain the momentum over the longer term, especially ‘‘through laws and regulations’’.

In particular, ‘‘the law of equal opportunity to all UAE women should be enforced to ensure that even non-elite women feel empowered, especially in the political arena,’’ she told IPS.

Sabban added that ‘‘the government should take proactive steps to educate the society through family-oriented programmes that help take a more constructive view about women, especially in relation to gender equality in work domains that are traditionally considered to be the bastions of men’’.

‘’A holistic understanding of how women balance their lives between work and home at different stages of their life cycle is equally important to avoid social backlash and disturbance to the social fabric of society and avoiding,’’ the sociologist recommended.

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