ABU DHABI // Emirati women have made strides in education and politics, a report on equality revealed yesterday, but the country's overall gender gap remains among the widest of 130 countries surveyed.
The World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report 2008 found that women in the UAE still lagged behind when it came to economic participation, but that the gap was being "compensated by larger gains in educational attainment and political empowerment". The UAE was ranked 105th among 130 countries assessed in the report, the same position it held last year, and down from 101st in 2006 when the first assessment was published.
But the report said considerable gains have been made in the UAE since the country's first elections in 2006, in which members of the Electoral College selected Dr Amal al Qubaisi as a member of the Federal National Council, and eight more women were appointed members. While the UAE's general ranking was low, the country ranked 46th in terms of women's educational attainment, and 72nd in the global assessment of political empowerment.
The country fared worse when judged on "health and survival" of women compared with men, ranking at 112th in the world, and 121st in economic participation and opportunity. Speaking outside the second day of the Arab Women's Conference in the capital, Dr Fatima al Shamsi, secretary general of the UAE University, said the case for Emirati women was different because they were well-educated and did not have to deal with limits imposed by poverty.
Deep-rooted traditions were the main challenge for the empowerment of Emirati women, Dr Shamsi said. "The real obstacle is traditions and social mindset. Otherwise how can we explain that there's only 20 per cent of women in the work market, while 75 per cent of people with higher education degrees are women?" she said. "The society imposes certain categories where women can be seen taking care of households, raising children. There's also the view that women are not fit to govern, which widens the gender gap."
When asked about the role of economic security in helping bridge the gap between men and women, Dr Shamsi said: "Economic security is women's ability to take economic decisions; that women should be economically free and not dependent on men." The underlying reason most Arab countries performed poorly in the report, Dr Shamsi said, was that all of them were still developing. "The countries that scored better are developed countries because the rating takes into account illiteracy, for example, which is prevalent in some Arab countries among men and women."
Rima al Shorafa, a businesswoman and conference participant from Ajman, said it was not fair to compare the UAE with other countries that have existed for much longer. "Gender-gap rating lacks accuracy because of the novelty of the Emirati experience," Ms Shorafa said. "Only 15 years ago it was hard for me to be a businesswoman. Now there are so many women who run their own businesses." The report was compiled using data from UN agencies and other international organisations in measuring how each country ranked in terms of opportunities and resources available to men and women.
The report found that while countries in the Middle East "continue to perform far below the global average", such countries as Tunisia, Jordan, the UAE and Oman have shown improvements. But in the past year the situation has worsened in Qatar, Syria, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. For the third year in a row, Kuwait was the highest-ranking Arab country assessed in the report, with an overall ranking of 101, followed by Tunisia at 103rd, Jordan at 104th and the UAE at 105th.
Yemen was placed at the bottom of the 130 countries, although the report found the country had shown improvements over the previous year. Dr Ibtisam Huwaidi, an economist from Sana'a University in Yemen, said poverty and illiteracy were the main reasons for the poor performance of Arab countries in bridging the gender gap. "The problem in Yemen is the prevailing illiteracy among women, which reaches 74 per cent. It's among the highest in the world," Dr Huwaidi said.
She said part of the problem was also the absence of media in promoting women's participation, adding that even when women were given political positions in Yemen they were usually confined to such ministerial portfolios as human rights and social affairs. Dr Huwaidi advocated economic empowerment as a first step to establishing a more active role for Arab women. "Women want to defend their rights but poor women can't do that because their priority is to secure food," she said. "Economic empowerment is the beginning of women's development."
The World Economic Forum placed Norway, Finland and Sweden at the top of its report this year. Saudi Arabia, Chad and Yemen ranked the worst out of the 130 countries assessed on gender equality. In an overall global picture, the report found women were not necessarily translating gains made in education into more economic progress and political power. "Women not only make up one half of [the] potential talent base, they also contribute to bringing in some different perspectives that are so important in a complex, interdependent and fast-moving world," Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, said in the report.
"We hope that this report will lead to greater awareness of the challenges and opportunities, in addition to serving as a catalyst for change in both high and low-ranking countries." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com