Development of Arab world stalled by sexist laws and domestic violence

Women’s economic marginalization and vulnerability to violence is hindering development in the Arab world, UN and civil society officials said last week.

Launching the Arabic version of the “World Survey on the Role of Women in Development” at the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), representatives said increasing women’s access to resources would have positive implications for social and economic development. The report, published every five years by the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs, was originally published in English in October.

“The Arab woman is still incapable of being equal to men,” said Afaf Omer, head of the ESCWA Center for Women. “Women in the Arab world cannot help society improve unless they enjoy their full rights.”

However, women in the Middle East “still lack any understanding” of the rights to which they are entitled under international law, she said.

Omer noted that while the economic participation of Arab women has risen steadily in recent years, it still lags behind the rest of the world. In Lebanon, women count for 26 percent of the total labor force, an improvement of only one percent since 2000, the UN has said.

According to ESCWA’s report “Women’s Control over Economic Resources and Access to Financial Resources”, released in August 2009, “this [lack of participation] is primarily attributable to the existence of discriminatory laws, failure to implement the non-discriminatory legislation that does exist and a lack of awareness by women of their rights in such matters.”

Lebanon, which signed and ratified the UN Convention of the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1997, maintains reservations on Articles 9, 16, and 29, which pertain to citizenship, family law and the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice to settle disputes concerning the convention’s application.

No Arab states, however, have reservations on Articles 10-14 of CEDAW, pertaining to eliminating discrimination in education, employment, health care and economic and social rights. Still, the UN has found a 27 percent wage difference exists between male and female employees aged over 30 in Lebanon, and discrimination against unmarried women workers in terms of sick leave.

Lebanese women-led small enterprises received only 17 percent of the loans of formal institutions in 2006, compared to 47 percent in Tunisia or 32 percent in the United Arab Emirates, the United Nations World Survey said.

Domestic violence is also impeding progress on women’s rights in Lebanon, said Zoya Rouhana of the civil society group KAFA: Enough Violence and Exploitation.

According to 2002 estimates from the United Nations Population Fund, around 35 percent of Lebanese women have experienced physical violence, although KAFA says the figure is closer to 75 percent.

“This year is the 30th anniversary of CEDAW … but most Arab countries have not synchronized their laws” with the convention, often touted as an international bill of rights for women, she said.

The Lebanese penal code has no specific laws relating to domestic violence and does not criminalize marital rape.

“Our laws must reflect the changes that have taken place in our households and amongst [Arab] women,” Rouhana said.


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