Reform to Reality: Empowerment of Women in the Middle East

Date: 10 Jun 2011

Speech delivered by UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet at a lunch event hosted by the governments of the United States, Tunisia, Canada, Colombia, Jordan, the Maldives and Norway, titled “Women's Political Participation in the Middle East, held at the Palais des Nations, Geneva, 10 June 2011.

[Check against delivery.]

I thank our hosts — the US, Tunisia, Canada, Colombia, Jordan, the Maldives and Norway — for this opportunity to highlight the critical issue of women's leadership in democratic reform processes.

Over the past 30 years, we have seen democratization processes in many countries, in Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia, and in my own region, Latin America. But these transitions do not always deliver greater equality for women. This is a loss for the quality and sustainability of democracy. Simply put: If a democracy neglects women's participation, if it ignores women's voices, if it shirks accountability for women's rights, it is a democracy for only half its citizens.

As we have seen from the dramatic events of the “Arab Spring, women have been actively involved in a new wave of demands for political freedoms and dignity. In the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Sanaa and other cities, it has been inspiring to see women from all walks of life joining the ranks of protestors to demand democracy and citizenship.

When the task of governing begins, the struggle to achieve women's equal voice and participation takes on new dimensions. In April of this year, the political reformers of Tunisia achieved what had been unthinkable only months earlier: a draft electoral law calling for full parity in the political representation of the new Tunisian democracy. The law proposes that in the next parliamentary elections, candidate lists will alternate between women's and men's names.

I have just returned from Egypt and, next week, will be joining colleagues in Tunisia to support consultations that highlight the pathways and strategies for advancing women's leadership and rights in democratic transitions.

In Egypt, women from Latin America and other regions met to share their experiences with Egyptian women leaders, after which we supported a meeting of more than 3,000 Egyptian citizens — men and women, government and non-governmental organizations — to articulate their priorities for ensuring that women are full partners in building a democratic Egypt.

What they are calling for in Egypt is specific to their context, but with many elements that are echoed in change processes around the world. Their main demands — articulated in what they call the “Egyptian Women's Charter — include the following:

  • First, greater representation of women, including in the committees that draft the Constitution and all legislative committees. Their charter calls for women to occupy 40 percent of ministerial positions and 30 percent of proportional electoral lists; for women to be represented in Egypt's delegations to international human rights mechanisms and to become judges in all branches of the judicial system.
  • Second, social and economic rights. The Charter points out that 40 percent of Egyptian women are illiterate and that only 16 percent of Egyptian full-time workers are female. It calls for basic services for poor women and for decent working conditions for all women, including freedom from sexual harassment.
  • Third, the revision of discriminatory legislation, and, in particular, the reform of Family Law.

These are visionary demands and we will hear more, later, from our Egyptian panellists, about the likelihood of achieving them.

From my own experience in the Chilean transition, I would highlight that it is important to remember that these transitions are pathways rather than a single path. The processes of social struggle and democratization are unique moments for mending broken ties within communities, shaping institutions, and projecting the desired future for the country in the coming decades. Each country must find its own way to do this. The final format of transition — its timing, its emphases, the institutions that will govern the process — must be relevant to the country itself and emerge from participation of and consultation with all parts of society.

While each struggle is unique, some of the lessons learned by UN Women's support to the efforts of women in various regions of the world to secure inclusive democracy include the following:

  • Making elections free and fair for women as well as men. Ways to do this could include temporary special measures such as electoral quotas, waivers of nomination fees, access to public resources for political campaigns, or measures to ensure that women political aspirants are supported and protected and that women — especially those who are poor or who live in remote areas — have identity cards and can register to vote.
  • Support women's civil society and grassroots organizations to advance women's priorities and interests. Women have many different — and sometimes conflicting — interests. But they also share priorities that cut across these differences. It is important for women to coordinate, create coalitions, work together and ensure common messages.
  • Build accountability to women's rights in emerging public institutions. Special efforts must be made to ensure that constitutional revision processes take into account women's priorities and that women are appointed to positions of leadership in government and in service delivery institutions.
  • Support women political leaders. This entails supporting mechanisms such as women's parliamentary caucuses or women's civil service networks, creating governmental mechanisms — like National Machineries or Bureaux for Women — that have the mandate, capacities and authority to be an effective policy advocate for women's interests.

Worldwide, we still have a long road to reach women's equal participation in political leadership and governance. Let us remember that despite progress in a growing number of countries, globally, women still comprise less than 20 percent of legislators and less than 5 percent of ministers.

The numbers are important, but women's struggle to achieve a greater voice in political leadership is about better outcomes for all citizens. The great courage shown by women and men across the world in demanding the right to be heard calls on every one of us to make sure that gender equality is addressed in our efforts to make democracy real for all.