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International Women’s Day 2019: The Afro-Arab perspective

Twenty-five years (one generation!) down the lane of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the world is still grappling with paving the way for the review of the implementation process.

Cairo, the capital of Egypt, hosts a regional preparatory meeting of representatives from 19 Arab States, Governments and the international community gathered from across the region to participate for a forthcoming 63rd Session of the Commission on the Status of Women, tagged CSW63.

This was held under the auspices of the League of Arab States, with support from UN Women, to develop a common regional position and a set of tangible, concrete recommendations that Member States can take to meetings at the UN Headquarters in March. Why March? It is the month hosting the annual International Women’s Day.

Ambassador Haifa Abou Ghazalah, Assistant Secretary-General and Head of the Social Affairs Sector at the League of Arab States put it clear in her opening remarks. She refers to a unique meeting “that brings together representatives from across the region, demonstrating their willingness to work together and articulate a common position that can be leveraged later in New York.”

Chair of the 38th session of the Arab Women Committee and Algeria’s Minister of National Solidarity, Family and Women Affairs, Ghania Eddalia, expresses her happiness for being “here among my sisters and brothers from the Arab world to discuss and advance the highly important agenda of women’s access to social protection….”

Mehrinaz El-Awady, Director of the Center for Women at the United Nations Economic Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), brings us closer by stressing that “the challenges in the region place great responsibility on Arab countries to implement their international, regional and national commitments to women …”

The most relevant technical items turn out to zoom on what is behind the essence of this year’s International Women’s Day; namely social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.

Uploaded on the United Nations, this translates into specific challenges and opportunities to ensure women and girls access and participate in such systems in accordance with international and regional legal frameworks. Downloaded on individual member states, this spells the effective ways of implementing various United Nations resolutions on women, security and peace.

In this regard, Åsa Regnér, UN Women Deputy Executive Director, could not have been more right, when she observed, on behalf of UN Women: “Groundbreaking shifts in personal status laws, in rights becoming more equal, and in women taking on positions of leadership.” This is on top of congratulating the participants for “making a solid commitment to break down the barriers that prevent women and girls from accessing public services and to make sure that these services are of adequate quality”.

The strategic timing of the Arab region consultation, right before the African ministerial pre-consultative meeting organized by the African Union, providing the opportunity to exchange knowledge and leverage best practices between the regions, cannot be overstated.

Both regions have somewhat congruent gender issues. Faith put aside, countries like Algeria, the Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Libya, Mauritania, Somalia, Sudan and Tunisia belong to the Arab League and the African Union (AU).

Chronicles reveal that women in the Arab world live in situations that are rather unique, with special challenges not present in many other parts of the world. In particular, these women have throughout history experienced discrimination and been subject to restrictions of their freedoms and rights rooted in tradition. Worse still, these restrictions have found their way on the countries’ statutes having a bearing on criminal justice, economy, education and healthcare.

Using evidence from the ancient Arabian kingdom of Nabataea, Saudi historian Hatoon al-Fassi considers Arab women of those times having independent legal personalities, which they lost upon entry of ancient Greek and Roman law.

From a Marxist point of view, another historian Valentine M. Moghadam argues that the position of women is mostly influenced by the extent of urbanization, industrialization, proletarization and political ploys of the state managers rather than culture. In some tribes, women were emancipated even in comparison with many of today’s standards. There were instances where women held high positions of power and authority.

Pakistani lawyer Sundas Hoorain also cites problems with the idea of mass female infanticide and simultaneous widespread polygamy as an illogical paradox. She questions how it was possible for men to have numerous women if so many females were being killed as infants.

It is generally accepted that Islam changed the structure of Arab society and to a large degree unified the people, reforming and standardizing gender roles throughout the region. Professor William Montgomery Watt says Islam improved the status of women by “instituting rights of property ownership, inheritance, education and divorce.”

The culture, evolution and history of African women are related to the continent itself despite numerous short studies that have touched women’s history in African nations. Several surveys have appeared that put the sub-Sahara Africa in the context of women’s history.

However, historians like Ester Boserup, a scholar of historical economy, sent shock waves in her 1970 book Women’s Role in Economic Development, which demonstrated the central role women had played over centuries of African history as economic producers, and how those systems had been disrupted by colonialism.

Women have been shown to be essential historical, economic and social actors in practically every region of Africa for millennia. During the 1962 Algerian War of Independence, women fought as equals alongside men, achieved a new sense of their own identity and a measure of society acceptance. In the aftermath of the war, women maintained their new-found emancipation and became more actively involved in the development of the new state.

In the pre-colonial past, women had held chieftaincies in their own right among some tribes had even been allowed to bequeath dynastic rights to their progeny. It is after independence, the sovereign states saw a solidification of the status quo, as both the first and second generations of African administrations largely failed to return their womenfolk’s erstwhile traditional powers.

For example, the state of the women rights in Benin has improved markedly since the restoration of democracy and the ratification of the

Constitution, and the passage of the Personal and Family Code in 2004, both of which overrode various traditional customs that systematically treated women unequally. Still, inequality and discrimination persist. Polygamy and forced marriage are illegal but still occur.

Women in the DRC Congo have a nasty story to tell due to internal civil strife. Despite Rwanda having the highest representation of women in parliament in the world, there are three major gender issues in the society in terms of workloads of women, access to education and gender-based violence.

Sudan faces many challenges in regards to gender inequality and is among the most repressive regimes. It is also one of very few countries that are not a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination on the Against Women (CEDAW).

Many African countries have laws against rape, the punishment for which can be up to life imprisonment like in Tanzania. Their impact is hampered by corruption, ineffective police work, and fear of social stigma. Police incompetence results in most sexual offenses being reduced to misdemeanors. Domestic violence is widespread. Women are reluctant to report cases and authorities are reluctant to intervene in what are generally considered private matters.

It is against this background that Africa must look at and act on this year’s y theme: Think Equal, Build Smart, Innovate for Change”.

The point at issue goes beyond marking, commemorating, celebrating or observing the International Women’s Day. It is pushing for: “Social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls”,

And this is not for Africa alone. It is global. According to UN Women research:
• 740 million women currently make their living in the informal economy with limited access to social protection, public services and infrastructure that could increase their productivity and income security.
• Women do 2.6 times more unpaid care and domestic work than men, with only 41 per cent of the world’s mothers with newborns receiving maternity benefits.
• One in three women are likely to face violence in their lifetimes, yet public services, urban planning and transport systems are rarely planned with women’s safety and mobility in mind.

This picture is bigger than Africa’s share. Ways must be explored in which innovation can work for gender equality, boost investment in gender-responsive social systems, and build public services and infrastructure that meet the needs of women and girls. In this way we cannot ignore an event whereby about 70 stock exchange locations around the world, including the New York-based NASDAQ Market Site, ring their market opening or closing bell to draw attention to the critical role that businesses and markets can play in advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment.

There is a general saying that behind every (successful) man there is a woman. If we want a successful world, women must not be left out. The UN Women say: “Equality is our goal, access is our right.” What systems should do is just: “Deliver the goods.”

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Felix Kaiza is a Tanzanian journalist with more than 50 years of experience currently working as an independent media consultant. Learned in agriculture, journalism, political science and international relations, his main fields of consultancy, besides the media, are good governance, nature conservation, tourism and investment. He was the first Tanzanian Chief Sub-Editor of an English daily newspaper in 1970, he has been behind the establishment and growth of the national independent media since the early 1990s. He is UNFAO Fellow Journalist since 1975 and has wide experience on regional integration. He worked on the Information Directorate of the original East African Community on whose ashes survive the current one. His ambition is to brand Tanzania in the inbound market with made-in-Tanzania brands, including information, almost all of which is currently foreign brewed.

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