expanding presence in the labor market is indicative of the changes taking
place in the region
Although the journey along the road to the empowerment of women in the Gulf
region has sometimes been slow, it is now surely under way, through forward
steps of positive reforms, as more female voices are being heard. These
voices reflect the motivation, determination and ambition of all those women
who are striving to become active members in society and in building their
country. Today, women in the GCC region are taking on increasingly prominent
roles, becoming decision-makers, participating in the public field as
educators, professors, university deans, businesswomen, bankers, medical
professionals, scientific researchers and government ministers. Through their
achievements, they are exerting a positive influence on society and moving
beyond the traditional confinements of home and family.
Major positive changes and development have occurred during the past decades
in the status of GCC women. The education of women and their expanding
presence in the labor market provide some of the best measures of progress in
the region. Education is one of the most powerful tools for the empowerment
of women and a catalyst for economic and social change. Investment in
educational opportunities for girls will give us the best returns, especially
when the focus is on the quality of that education, the methodology and the
training provided to young women throughout their life.
GCC governments have invested heavily in education, which as result has
became widespread, and significant progress has been made toward achieving
the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of universal primary
education. They have made commendable efforts to achieve gender equality
among school students and provided considerable financial assistance to
female students in all areas and stages of education.
According to UNESCO, in 2009, the net enrolment ratio — that is, the ratio of
girls of official school age in primary education — reached 97 percent in
Bahrain, 87 percent in Kuwait, 77 percent in Oman, 93 percent in Qatar, 85
percent in Saudi Arabia, and 89 percent in the UAE.
Similarly, the net enrolment ratio in secondary education also increased and
reached 91 percent in Bahrain, 81 percent in Oman, 96 percent in Qatar, 76
percent in Saudi Arabia (2007) and 84 percent in the UAE.
In 2009, Bahrain achieved 100 percent literacy for young women between the
ages of 15 and 24, Kuwait achieved 99 percent, Oman and Qatar 98 percent, and
Saudi Arabia and the UAE 97 percent (2005). Universal literacy for young
women is projected for all of the GCC countries in the next five years.
Young women have been enrolling at all levels of higher education in numbers
that even exceed male enrolment.For example, in Saudi Arabia, women represent
almost 60 percent of the total number of university students. Princess Noura
bint Abdul Rahman University for Women, launched in May 2011, is one of the
largest centers of higher education for women in the world, with 15 colleges,
12,000 employees, and the capacity to enroll more than 40,000 female
Investing in women's education has been crucial to the social and cultural
development of the GCC countries, helping to bring about a reduction in
fertility rates and infant mortality rates, an improvement in health and
nutrition, an increase in life expectancy at birth, and a boost to greater
female participation in the labor force.
GCC countries have adopted many positive steps to promote gender equality and
the advancement of women in the labor market. At the international level, all
Gulf countries have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination
of Discrimination against Women (although with some reservations on marriage,
divorce and family relations which are based on Shariah compliance). Saudi
Arabia and the UAE have also ratified the International Labor Organization
Convention (ILO) No. 100 on equal remuneration for men and women, which
establishes the principle and practice of equal pay for work of equal value.
Five of the GCC countries (the exception is Oman) have also ratified the ILO
Convention No. 111 on job discrimination.
Although there is still a significant gender gap at all ages, women's
participation in the labor market has increased considerably in all GCC
countries, doubling and even quadrupling in some countries over the past 20
or 30 years. According to the International Labor Office, in 2010, women's
participation in the labor force reached 39.2 percent in Bahrain, 43.3
percent in Kuwait, 28 percent in Oman, 52.1 percent in Qatar, 17.4 percent in
Saudi Arabia, and 43.7 percent in the UAE. Women are predominantly employed
in the public and the services sectors.
Women hold legal rights that are basically established by Islam. They have
the right to own and manage their assets before and after marriage and a
husband has no right to the personal wealth of his wife without her consent.
She has the right to keep her maiden name after marriage, the right to
inherit and divorce, get an education, work and participate in government.
Women can make financial decisions for themselves and their families. Using
their own wealth inherited from their family, they also hold the same rights
as men to conduct business transactions, to manage companies and to own
assets independently from their husbands.
Businesswomen in the GCC have a strong influence in the business community
and have been extremely successful.The UAE has the largest number of
businesswomen in the region but in all the countries entrepreneurship is
increasingly in demand as it provides social flexibility between a woman's
traditional role at home and her emerging career aspirations.
GCC women hold also social power because of their important role as mothers,
and educators of future generations. This has a value that cannot be measured
in financial terms. Women also play a major role in community development by
improving the lot of other women of lower income through capacity-building
and vocational training. Societies for the welfare of children, the poor, and
those with special needs have been organized and presided over mainly by
women. In the UAE, Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak Al Ketbi, supreme chairperson
of the Family Development Foundation, holds the title of Umm Al Emarat
(Mother of the Nation) for her numerous achievements on behalf of women and
for her leading and pioneering role in supporting Emirati women and their
Five of the GCC countries have adopted new codified personal status laws that
govern issues such as marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody, and
Saudi Arabia is considering codifying a family law document. These
codifications are important because they constitute a basis for defining and
protecting the rights of women and children in family law and they reduce the
scope for judicial decisions unfavorable to women's rights that are mostly
based on patriarchal attitudes.
In providing social and economic opportunities for women, Gulf countries have
also granted political participation (even if limited) in high-level
decision-making. Today, there are female ministers in Bahrain, Oman, Qatar,
Kuwait, and the UAE. In May 2005, the Kuwaiti government extended political
rights to women by amending the election laws and in May 2009 through general
elections; four women won seats in the Kuwaiti Parliament marking a historic
landmark in the political empowerment of women in the region. According to
United Nations data, the percentage of parliamentary seats occupied by women
reached in Bahrain: 4; Kuwait, 8: UAE, 23; In Saudi Arabia, Custodian of the
Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah announced in September 2011 that women would
be allowed to become members in the Shoura Council for the next session and
to nominate candidates and run as candidates for public office in the next
elections for the municipal council.
Other signs of progress for women leadership appeared with the appointment in
2003 of Mariam Abdullah Al Jaber as the first district attorney in Qatar and
the Gulf region, and, in March 2010, Sheikha Maha Mansour Salman Jassem Al
Thani as the first female judge in court. In 2006, Bahrain appointed the
first female judge (Mona Jassem Al Kawari) at the Grand Civil Court. In March
2008, UAE lawyer and Shariah specialist Kholoud Ahmad Al Daheri was appointed
as primary judge at the Abu Dhabi Judiciary Department. In February 2010,
Saudi Arabian justice minister announced that the government is planning to
allow female lawyers to begin appearing in court to represent women in
matters related to divorce, child custody and other family issues.
Into the future:
We can say proudly that women have achieved gains, but more needs to be done.
Today, in order to face the new challenges of globalization, and to be able
to compete in a modern global economy, more measures should be adopted and
implemented so as to promote the advancement of women in the region.
Despite the benefits that women in the GCC have achieved, a mixture of local
norms and traditions emanating from the patriarchal system still exert
pressure on women, limiting their opportunities in education, employment and
participation in the public sphere.
Change and modernization can only come gradually from within our society, but
the cultural constraints placed on women should be removed through education
and public enlightenment that promotes a view that accepts women as equal
partners with men in society. Social and cultural patterns should be modified
according to a more tolerant interpretation of the values of our society.
These reforms should start at home with the education of the mother and
father and with the upbringing of the present generation of children,
initiating them into an open culture based on tolerance and understanding.
More can and must be done in the Gulf region to provide women with equal
opportunities in education, starting with a new educational reform strategy
for young women, that includes major structural changes in the school system
that will respond to the demands and priorities of a dynamic society. We need
to redefine the concept of girls' education and to define what role it should
play in reshaping a modern society. We need to implement a new educational
policy for women which takes into consideration their social and economic
needs, and that is responsive to the needs of the local market by providing
them not only with basic educational skills but developing curricula that
include mathematics, sciences, engineering, computer skills, and foreign
languages, with additional emphasis on health, business administration,
politics, law, physical education, community service and environmental
education. Our focus should be on good learning techniques and skills for the
future, including: the development of cognitive and communicative skills;
innovative, creative and critical thinking; information analysis; teamwork;
ability to take the initiative and take responsibility; all of which will
develop women's self-confidence.
GCC women represent an important source of energy for the economy. This is
why our governments should work to develop this most valuable resource of
human capital and seek to incorporate women fully into the labor market if
the Gulf countries are to transition to a knowledge-based economy.
Women's employment should be a crucial element in a larger macro-economic
policy designed to foster equitable social and economic development. It
should be part of a national vision supporting the active role of women in
the development process. We need to raise awareness about the vital and
positive role of women not only as mothers but also as active agents in
society and in the labor market by focusing on their rights, opportunities
and successes. Special policies should be implemented to create employment
opportunities for women and create institutional mechanisms that promote
women's well-being and success in the workforce.
A system of infrastructural support for working women should be promoted and
implemented such as family -friendly policies including flexible hours,
parental leave and the establishment of nurseries in workplaces and child
care facilities to help working mothers. A life-long learning system of
training and guidance should be established to promote entrepreneurship and self-employment
and women should have access to professional development in areas that are
most effective in a knowledge-based economy.
GCC governments can play a major role in helping and encouraging the private
sector to support women's integration in the economy. Private institutions
and funds can support women's economic development through loans and grants.
Cross-sector partnership should be encouraged as a key strategy in the
promotion of women's role in the workforce. Women's programs should be developed
to promote entrepreneurship, professional advancement, and relevant skills.
Entrepreneurship can be stimulated by the development of microfinance
programs to help low-income women start their own businesses by providing
them with loans, insurance and money transfers. Channels for funding should
be established to provide women at all stages of business development with
the capital necessary to increase the efficiency of their economic
activities. In addition, training programs aimed at empowering women with
confidence, skills, and technical know-how will allow them to advance to
managerial, decision-making positions. Women should be encouraged and
prepared to assume highly visible positions, and should be selected to
represent their countries at regional and international meetings.
Empowering women and providing them with equal access to opportunities will
allow them to emerge as social and economic actors, in influencing and
sharing in decision-making policies. They should also be given the
opportunity to express their full potential and be an integral part of the
socioeconomic society. We need to strengthen the legal protections for women
and enforce the implementation of laws preserving their rights.
Finally I would like to stress that the success of our society depends on how
it invests in all its members, women as much as men, because women are a most
valuable potential resource in the development of our region, and investing
in women will yield great rewards, both today and in the future.