For the Middle East to progress, women need to have a ticket to ride
According to a World Economic Forum report released last week, the gap between human rights for men and women decreased tangibly in every region across the world – save one. The report said that there was no improvement in rights for women in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
Yemen was ranked as the worst country in the world in terms of gender gaps on economic, political, education, and health-based criteria. This should not come as a surprise. After all, Yemen is the very same country where an eight year old girl died due to injuries caused on her wedding night with a forty year old man. More recently, a father burned his fifteen year old daughter for meeting with her fiancée before marriage.
Earlier this week, only twenty five women took to the wheel to fight for their right to drive in Saudi Arabia – a freedom women take for granted in other countries. As Hillary Clinton said recently, “the ban is even hard to rationalize in today’s world.”
Most arguments in favor of improving women’s rights are presented as a moral imperative. These appeals have their heart in the right place. However, in our capitalist age, moral arguments often entice, but fail to convince. In the global market system, it is not far-fetched to say that many of our thoughts, be it be it on life, love or art, are often tinged (even if ever so slightly) with the green of the dollar.
Well, here’s some breaking news for the more financially minded among our friends. Women’s rights are not a “nice-to- have”. They are must have for a country to progress looking to progress on key social and economic indicators be it GDP, per-capita income, education or life expectancy.
Indeed, improving women’s rights – the rights for girls to go to school, the right for women to make as much money as men, the right to speak, the right to be heard -- are beneficial for:
Our children: Be it in Sweden, Iceland or the matriarchal pockets of countries like India, research has shown that focusing on women’s rights reduces birth rates and child mortality. A 2012 report by Matthias Doepke, Michèle Tertilt and Alessandra Voena has shown that giving women more rights refocuses private and public spending towards children, in particular on health and education.
Our life expectancy: Across the world, women’s education has driven significant improvements on key health and nutrition indicators. To give one example, according to the UN AIDS 2012 report, MENA is one of only two regions in the world with growing numbers of HIV/AIDs cases. Recently, a thirty two country survey found that women with post-primary education were five times more likely than illiterate women to know facts about HIV/AIDS. Illiterate women, on the other hand, were more likely to believe that there is no way to prevent HIV infection.
Our democracy and our economy: In countries like Bangladesh, increased women’s participation in microfinance has resulted in the growth of self-nourishing community organizations that help foster grassroots democracy. There are several other benefits, too numerous to mention here. Suffice it to say, that improved women’s rights have direct and immediate benefits on the physical, emotional and financial state of a nation.
To ensure that a government implements women-friendly policies, we have to elect women to our most senior public positions. In Jordan, 15 seats in the 108 member Parliament are reserved for women. This is a step in the right direction. However, clearly a lot more needs to be done. To hasten the implementation of women-focused policies, we need our senior-most leaders – our Presidents, Prime Ministers, cabinet ministers and monarchs to be women.
But surely, the traditionalists say, women belong at home. For thousands of years, women have taken care of children, while men have gone out into the world. Increased participation of women in the workforce, these critics say, will weaken the family and damage the social structure.
This is an argument that merits further inspection.
Traditionally, men have been specialists. They have been accountants, engineers, doctors, bankers and soldiers. They have done one thing and they have done it well.
And what about women?
From the very same traditionalist point of view, women have had to take care of our children. They’ve had to take care of the child’s education, health, social skills, creativity and a host of other criteria that are necessary to turning out a well-rounded individual. In short, women have not been mere specialists – they have been universalists. They’ve had to do many things, and they’ve had to do them all well.
Historically, their scope has been within a smaller universe comprised of our family and children. We now need to broaden that universe.
Who would you rather have as a leader? A man who is a specialized expert in accounting? Or a woman, a universalist, who can work with people to balance a budget, implement a health program, draw up a truce and worry about the education of our children – all while taking care of family matters with a helpful partner?
The answer is clear. For MENA to truly progress, women need a ticket to ride.