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Rights of women on International Women's Day

20 March 2016

By Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi

International Women's Day was celebrated on March 8. The day was first observed as a popular event after the United Nations General Assembly invited member states to proclaim March 8 as the UN day for women's rights and world peace. Before that, such a day was endorsed by the first conference of the Women's International Democratic Federation, held in Paris in 1945. It was said that the idea of celebrating the day originated after the brutal dispersal of demonstrations of women seeking their rights held in New York in the middle of the 19th century. There were similar demonstrations in the same city in the early 20th century, and by that time men began to come forward to recognize the rights of women.

On International Women's Day, men congratulate women, and women also congratulate each other by exchanging roses and gifts. As part of the celebrations, newspapers publish articles and interviews, and radio and television stations host special programs praising women by lauding their contributions and underscoring their rights.

In fact, this is a single day which is devoted exclusively to women while the rest of the days of the year are supposedly for men. This was illustrated by a cartoon that was circulated in social media. In the cartoon, a man is seen dragging his wife by her hair with a comment: ''After the passing of International Women's Day.'' This prompts me to ask just how far women's rights have actually been secured.

The BBC Arabic service recently aired a report published by the International Labor Organization (ILO) on the occasion of International Women's Day. The report shows that there are enormous challenges women continue to face in finding and keeping decent jobs. The report titled ''Women at Work: Trends 2016'' also indicates that women have failed to achieve more in terms of equal opportunities in the employment market as compared to their male counterparts ever since the Fourth International Women's Conference held in Beijing in 1995. This has led to huge gaps that are very difficult to narrow while implementing the Sustainable Development Program, initiated by the United Nations in 2015.

The report examined data from up to 178 countries and concludes that inequality between women and men persists across a wide spectrum of the global labor market. What's more, the report shows that over the last two decades, significant progress made by women in education has not translated into comparable improvements in their position at work. At the global level, the employment gender gap has closed by only 0.6 percentage points since 1995 with the unemployment rate among women stands at 6.2 percent as compared to 5.6 percent among men. Women continue to work longer hours per day than men in both paid and unpaid work. Most often, women are forced to accept lower quality jobs compared to the jobs taken by men.

If this is the condition of working women at the global level, what is the condition of Arab women, and what is their status compared to other women in the world? How many years will it take for Arab women to be on a par with women at the global level? The Egyptian columnist Farida Naqash, chairwoman of the Forum for Women in Development, said that Arab women have paid a big price for retrogression. Arab women were the first victims of unemployment after many Arab countries witnessed slow growth and development after governments pursued new liberal policies based on the reduction of government spending on public utilities, she said.

According to Naqash, in the event of reducing spending on health and education, women are the first victims as traditions and old customs look down on them as inferior to men. She also draws attention to the fact that nearly 31 percent of families in Egypt are being taken care of by women even though women constitute three out of four unemployed people in the country.

The situation of Saudi women is similar to that of other Arab women. They face numerous problems, such as those pertaining to divorce, custody of children, maintenance, and hurdles in getting citizenship for their children from foreign husbands. They also want other rights, such as the right to drive. Religious scholars have so far not pronounced women's driving as taboo and society is not the decision maker in this regard. There should be a political decision to sort out this pressing issue.

At the same time, we have to admit that Saudi women, during the last five years, have managed to achieve many things. These include their entry into the Shoura Council and permission to take part in municipal elections as voters and candidates. They were also able to take up a large number of jobs during this period. A Saudi woman has become the first editor in chief of a daily newspaper. There are several young women among foreign scholarship students and some of them have brought laurels to the Kingdom through their excellent academic performance even at the global level.

Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi is a former Saudi diplomat who specializes in Southeast Asian affairs. He can be reached at algham@hotmail.com


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