x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Proposed law will help empower all women in the UAE

While the nation is leading the region, there is still work to be done on women's rights.

The situation of women around the world is like a "moving picture", said Kate Adie, a famous British journalist and author, on International Women's Day on Saturday. Despite the progress, there is much to be done to empower women. She also said, during a panel discussion at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, that education is key but there needs to be more exposure to what women can achieve.
In the UAE, women have moved a long way in narrowing the gender gap, and the nation leads the Arab countries in the Global Gender Gap Report 2013. The UAE Cabinet decided in December 2012 to make it compulsory for corporations and government departments to include women on their boards of directors.
Due to the commitment of the leadership of this country to empower women, many of them have reached high positions. But there are still challenges facing women in lower-level positions in both government and private organisations. There are issues that affect women in their daily lives - such as domestic abuse and sexual harassment - that have been increasing recently.
Last week, the FNC suggested a sweeping new law to define and guarantee women's rights at home, work and in public places in all seven emirates. The newly formed Human Rights Committee viewed having a new "women's law" as a natural progression from the Child Rights law passed this year. The FNC recommendation is sound and should certainly be taken into consideration.
In the workforce, the playing field isn't yet level for women to reach their potentials, as there are still some obstacles. The National has highlighted some of these issues during the past weeks. One is the ongoing issue of the short period of maternity leave, compared to the international average, and the lack of workplace-sponsored daycare centres.
According to the 2008 federal law on human resources, women who have worked more than one year for a government organisation are entitled to have paid maternity leave for a period of 60 days. In the private sector, the paid maternity leave entitlement is even shorter, at only 45 days.
This is below the standard set by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) of at least 12 weeks. The ILO's figures show that 119 countries meet the minimum number - with one, the Czech Republic, offering 28 weeks - while only 31 countries mandate a maternity leave period of less than 12 weeks, including the UAE.
Experts have been calling for an amendment to the law to provide more support to new mothers, who often face difficulties adapting to their new situation after giving birth. Workplace-sponsored daycare centres are also needed to help women establish a bond between them and their children. The two hours of breast-feeding a day stipulated under the law can be impractical, especially for women who live far away from their workplace. One of them told The National last month that there must be changes in the current law to "strengthen the family unit, promote parenthood and increase the number of skilled women in the workplace".
Members of the FNC argued last year that the existing maternity leave provision was inadequate. New policy papers have been proposed, but there has been no concrete progress.
There are other issues affecting women in the UAE that could be addressed by the law. Lawyers and psychologists have noticed an increase in the number of cases of sexual harassment of women in recent years. They told The National last week that the decline in religious devotion, lack of parental supervision and growing use of the internet are a few factors that have led to this phenomenon. They urged women to report cases and seek professional support to avoid developing severe anxiety and depression.
Expatriate women are more vulnerable to sexual harassment in the workplace. I remember reading a story this year about a woman who had been repeatedly harassed verbally and physically by her employer at work. The expat woman waived her sexual harassment complaint for fear of losing her job and being forced to leave the country. Many women in her situation do the same thing, because there is a perceived lack of support for women in such cases.
At home, despite the increasing efforts of authorities to provide social support centres, many women are still reluctant to report domestic abuse. Adding to that, there is also a rise in the number of cases of women being abandoned by their husbands. A s the FNC discussed earlier this year, many of these women don't seek help from the authorities because they fear legal consequences or losing their children.
I believe a new women's rights law should be put in place to bring together all the ongoing efforts to protect women under a nationwide framework. Ali Jassim, an FNC member from Umm Al Quwain, said that the law should focus in particular on domestic violence against women.
The UAE is a model in the Arab world when it comes to women's rights. But the country can do even better at the international level.
On Twitter: @AyeshaAlmazroui