Gender equality in the Euro-Mediterranean: Milestones on the Path towards Women Empowerment in the Region
The present article, written by the UfM Secretary General, Nasser Kamel, is based on the findings of the UfM Progress Report on gender equality endorsed by the UfM Ministers during the Ministerial meeting on Strengthening the role of women in society held in November 2017 in Cairo (Egypt). It was first published in the Bled Strategic Times, a publication of the Bled Strategic Forum.
Despite numerous international agreements affirming their basic rights, and universal recognition of their key role in society, poverty and illiteracy rates remain higher among women than men. Women are also more likely to be victims of domestic violence. Their access to economic opportunities, credit, training and employment is still limited. Moreover, they are less likely to be actively engaged in politics or obtain leadership positions.
Progress toward achieving gender parity worldwide is being made, but it remains slow according to the World Economic Forum’s recent Global Gender Gap report (2018), which finds that only 15 countries will close their gender gap within the next half century. The biggest gaps to close are in the economic and political empowerment dimensions, which will take 202 and 107 years to close, respectively. The same conclusion was confirmed by the first SDG Gender Index1 (2019), which finds that, across the 129 countries studied, no country has fully achieved the promise of gender equality envisioned in the ambitious 2030 Agenda.
WHAT ABOUT WOMEN IN THE UNION FOR THE MEDITERRANEAN COUNTRIES?
Progress has taken place in the UfM Member States in relation to women and girls’ rights, and overall, gender equality matters have gained significant momentum. At institutional and political levels, all UfM countries expressed their commitments to gender equality within their constitutional, legislative, and international obligations such as laws, commitments to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and constitutional assertions of equality between men and women.
Countries have introduced public bodies and departments at different levels of government structures that address gender issues and have made national strategic commitments. In addition, further positive actions have been undertaken at the level of parties, parliaments and local bodies to increase participation of women in political life, including the introduction of quota systems.
Legislative and regulatory measures have also been introduced in most countries to eradicate illiteracy and improve educational and training infrastructure, prevent gender-based discrimination, and facilitate the empowerment of women in education. Many States have reached or are close to reaching enrolment equality in primary education, and an increasing number of women are completing university studies, often in higher proportions than men.
The principle of gender equality is enshrined in labor legislations of Member States. Legal amendments have been adopted regarding equal wages and maternity leaves. Some countries have also opted for making their financial systems more gender-responsive. Furthermore, countries have increasingly undertaken gender analysis of their strategies, policies and laws.
In spite of those measures, the region continues facing considerable challenges regarding the achievement of gender equality, and a clear gap perseveres between legislative efforts and implementation. The prevalence of some discriminatory practices, the persistence of an archaic view on the role of women, and unequal access to services and resources continue to block the progress and potential of women, who remain vulnerable to stereotypes. This, in turn, affects both their own decision-making process, as well as the support and opportunities available to them.
Women’s participation in public life is an area where significant positive changes have occurred. However, even in countries with higher women representation in Parliament, such participation remains at 30% or less in most UfM countries. Female representation in senior positions in Government structures, advisory bodies, local authorities, and the judiciary remains limited. Quotas have been adopted by many countries, but they remain a contested issue with occasional preference for voluntary targets.
Women’s economic empowerment is a domain where all countries are strongly committed. However, women experience grater obstacles than men when it comes to accessing both business and employment. For most countries, women are still underrepresented in top corporate jobs and on boards. Although some countries have introduced quotas and other measures such as Corporate Governance Codes and public targeting setting, they have not been fully embraced. And even when women are participating in the labor market, their roles continue to be more limited than those of men, despite higher levels of enrollment and completion in higher education among women.
Violence Against Women and girls (‘VAWG’) continues to be a major concern in both Northern and Southern Mediterranean UfM countries. In Europe, it was estimated that 13 million women had experienced physical violence in the course of 2014. In Southern Mediterranean Countries, reliable data regarding the extent of VAWG are not available, but research studies and surveys show the gravity of such problem. One of the main challenges which are undermining progress towards eliminating VAWG in the Euro-Mediterranean region in general, is the context of both conflict and austerity. A number of UfM countries are affected by at least one of the following challenges: armed conflict, political unrest, terrorism, influx of refugees, or political transition.
Several reports have recounted the cases of women who have been brutally killed, or abused and turned into slaves in conflict zones by radical groups. Displacement, also, significantly increases women’s risk of being subjected to all forms of violence. The majority of cases of violence perpetrated against displaced women go unreported. Women in the northern UfM countries have been subjected to other forms of vulnerability because of the economic crisis. Policies of spending cuts and reductions in social services are undermining efforts to tackle gender violence in Europe. Austerity measures adopted by countries have led to the deterioration of social provisions: cuts to police and the criminal justice system, cuts to charities working on domestic violence that are funded by local government.
Gender equality in the region is also being challenged by ongoing political transitions, conflicts and the continued impact of the financial crisis. Political transitions in some countries have led to major constitutional changes, while other countries have engaged in a more progressive transformation, which, in some cases, distracted efforts from addressing issues such as gender-related reforms. Furthermore, regional conflicts and post-conflict situations have resulted in a large number of victims and weigh heavily on several countries, making it difficult to lay the foundations for the advancement of women empowerment objectives.
BETTER IMPLEMENTATION, MORE IMPACT MEASUREMENT AND RELIABLE GENDER DATA COLLECTION SYSTEMS
A strong legislative framework and scrutiny in relation to gender equality is essential for challenging stereotypes and advancing women’s participation. In this regard, the key to fostering change will therefore be the adequate implementation of these legal and regulatory frameworks. In the UfM region, the positive developments and policies undertaken by countries, contrast with a reality in which discrimination against women and girls persists at all levels of society. Therefore, the most identified pressing issues is the effective implementation of these strategies and their enforcement. Adopted measures and legal provisions have not led necessarily to an increase in women’s access to economic resources and participation in decision-making and the impact of legal and institutional safeguards to protect women and girls from violence is slow to materialize.
The other structural issue is the insufficient gender mainstreaming in governance tools, policies and practices. While it is important to adopt laws that explicitly provide for gender equality, it is also essential to ensure that all laws and policies reflect gender equality considerations and are implemented in the right way to avoid different treatment and/or discrimination. While gender mainstreaming is increasingly evident across the UfM region, most policymaking processes across the region do not have a process for integrating gender considerations in a systemic manner. The biggest identified challenges in this regard are: the lack of resources, the lack of capacity/skills to implement an overall “whole of government” approach to gender mainstreaming, limited accountability, lack of monitoring mechanisms across public services, and the increased administrative complexities, especially with regards to gender impact assessments and gender-sensitive budgeting.
It is recommended to develop monitoring mechanisms backed-up with concrete indicators and gender data collection systems that will help to monitor changes and to better understand the impact of policies and the root causes of discrimination. Integrating gender mainstreaming in an effective way in all the policies is also needed in addition to providing institutional mechanisms with substantial budgets for mainstreaming and providing training for policy makers. And last, it would be relevant to evaluate the impact of quotas and encouraging the use of legally binding quotas at least on temporary basis with penalties in case of non-compliance. In the absence of quotas, it is recommended to implement a system of voluntary codes and targets alongside transparency and publishing progress towards these goals.
THE UFM FRAMEWORK TO PROMOTE GENDER EQUALITY AND WOMEN EMPOWERMENT
Promoting gender equality and the role of women is one of the main priorities of the UfM. This priority was confirmed by the Cairo UfM Ministerial Declaration and the UfM Roadmap for Action where the 43 Ministers have committed to take the necessary measures and policies to ensure the equal participation of women and girls, in economic, social and political life.
Four priority areas have been identified by countries:
Increase women’s economic participation by fostering their labor skills and promoting an equal access to the labor market and by creating an enabling environment for women entrepreneurs.
Strengthening women access to leadership positions in public and private sector.
Combating violence against women and girls including in conflict and post-conflict contexts.
Combating gender stereotypes and fighting against social norms that hinder the full participation of women.
Ministers recommend to give a particular attention to women and girls in specific contexts: women migrants and refugees, women in conflict and post-conflict context, women in rural areas and women with disability. An attention is also being given to the development of knowledge, research and data production on gender equality and women empowerment in the Mediterranean region.
The UfM Strategy on Women has been progressively built and structured since 2013 in coordination with countries and stakeholders operating in the region, including local authorities, international organizations, donors, civil society and the private sector. The strategy is implemented through an integrated approach articulated around 3 dimensions that constitute the UfM Methodology of Work and that acknowledge the key importance of expanding and reinforcing cooperation, collective efforts and complementarities toward advancing the gender equality at the regional level. These three levels are as follow:
Establishing a regional policy framework for women’s empowerment, through the UfM Ministerial process on Strengthening the Role of women in Society, which currently include 4 Ministerial meetings held respectively in 2006 in Istanbul, 2009 in Marrakech, 2013 in Paris and 2017 in Cairo.
Providing a regional multi-stakeholder platform for dialogue, launched in May 2015, which involves UfM governments, regional and international stakeholders and civil society organisations. The objective is to develop a multi-stakeholder framework for Dialogue and Technical Cooperation on gender equality and women empowerment in region, to monitor stakeholders’ commitments and to facilitate the exchange of best practices and partnership opportunities. Under this framework, the UfM is currently working to establish a regional gender follow-up mechanism that will be backed-up with indicators to monitor progress, assess the gap and provide recommendations to policy makers to advance the gender equality agenda in the region with participation of national statistic institutions and research centers.
Supporting concrete regional initiatives which effectively contribute to the enhancement of women’s empowerment through the equal access to leadership and decision-making positions, to education and vocational training, to health, to labour market and to entrepreneurship.
In addition, the UfM promotes also a crosscutting approach to mainstream gender equality within all activities and initiatives.
And while the UfM has been successful in many endeavors to develop an ambitious regional Woman’s Agenda and lay the ground for gender equality in the Mediterranean, further efforts still need to be undertaken. The path towards gender equality in our region remains long and arduous and requires further exertions to foster gender equality in a manner that corresponds to the ambitions of Mediterranean peoples and governments. As such, the UfM Secretariat will continue to work with its Member States, international organizations, civil society, and international financial institutions towards unleashing the full potential of women in the Euro-Mediterranean region.