Improving women’s rights is crucial to achieving nearly all of the United Nations (UN) Millennium Development Goals, the global development framework adopted by the UN in 2000 for improving people's lives and combating poverty in a sustained and sustainable way by 2015
As the world celebrates International Women’s Day, it is essential to emphasize the importance of protecting the rights of women and girls, and empowering them to be active community leaders as these are important aspects of building a robust rule of law1 in nations and regions around the world. This is especially important in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) as women, who make up more than 50% of the population, redefine their roles and forge new pathways of participation and leadership.
Across the MENA region, there are blatant shortcomings in terms of how the law is written and how the law is applied in practice. Improving the application of the law requires a collaborative approach of a variety of actors, including law and the judiciary, government, faith leaders, media outlets, educational institutions, and civil society groups. Adapted by the World Justice Project (WJP)-an independent, multinational organization to advance the rule of law for the communities of opportunity and equity- this multidisciplinary approach has proven to enhance the efforts of educating society about women’s rights.
In the UN Arab Human Development Reports, gender inequality was identified as one of the main obstacles to development in the Arab region. Although significant advances in social indicators, political participation and legal rights have been recorded over the past years, the gender gap remains the prominent challenge for the region. Tackling this deficit is a prerequisite for moving forward. It is essential for improving economic growth, creating jobs, and advancing the rule of law.
Political Participation and the Rule of Law
In MENA, political participation of women is very low compared with other regions of the world. In The Lenses of Gender, Sandra Bem offers an excellent description of the dynamics that propagate gender inequality. Bem’s main argument is that: what is ultimately responsible for every aspect of gender inequality, is not male-female difference but a “social world so organized from a male perspective that men’s special needs are automatically taken care of while women’s special needs are either treated as special case or left unmet.” Across the region, several governmental institutions and political processes tie women’s rights and benefits to their being the wife or daughter of a male citizen, thus rendering them dependent, second-class members of society.
1 Throughout this overview, the rule of law will be defined based on four principles developed by the World Justice Project: 1) governments and their officials and agents are accountable under the law; 2) laws are clear, publicized, stable and fair, and protect fundamental rights, including security of persons and property; 3) the process by which laws are enacted, administered and enforced is accessible, fair and efficient; and 4) Access to Justice is provided by competent, independent and ethical adjudicators, attorneys or representatives and judicial officers who are of sufficient number, have adequate resources, and reflect the makeup of the communities they serve.
Many governments of MENA countries often overlook the strong potential that women have to bring about reform. Since the uprisings began in the MENA region, we have seen women being denied freedom of expression and despite such obstacles, women continued to mobilize through technology and physical movement. The historical uprisings in the region show how important it is to educate the region’s growing women population about political participation: the rights and obligations that tie them to their state.
In these times of change, it is crucial to foster dialogue across different stakeholders including government, civil society, and the private sector to develop collaborative projects to bring fresh ideas from women to the forefront, to enhance legal protection of women and to support their role in advancing the rule of law development process. More importantly, it is time to re-assess countries efforts to bridge the gap between national commitments to gender rights standards and their implementation and enforcement across the region.