International Women's Day gives us a chance both to celebrate women’s achievements but also reflect on the issues they still face. Over the past two years the Middle East and North Africa has seen momentous change. At its heart has been the people of the region demanding dignity, a voice, a job, equal rights and opportunities. From Tahrir to Tunis to Tripoli, women have played a leading role, alongside men, in demanding change.
Remarkable strides have been made in strengthening citizen participation, leading in some cases to a greater voice in the public arena for women. This month 30 women were appointed to the Saudi Consultative Council, representing 20% of it’s total membership and a landmark moment in Saudi Arabia. In Tunisia the elections for the Constituent Assembly in October 2011 returned 23% of seats to women candidates. With the UK figure at 22.2% this statistic reminds me we have work to do here too.
Finding a voice
Women across the region are playing a key role in building more open and democratic societies. Women journalists are raising awareness of sensitive issues, asking tough questions and holding decision-makers to account. And I’ve met female lawyers, police officers, NGO leaders and educators - including many involved in projects we support – who are playing a vital role in building the future of their country by seeking or designing change. In Tripoli in December, I spoke alongside human rights activist Abeer al-Hudiri on International Human Rights day. I also visited an open air art gallery created by women, along the walls of Qaddafi's old compound. This project was supported by two local civil society organisations, the Flame of the Capital and the Voice of Libyan Women and I was incredibly moved to see and talk to those Libyan women whose murals, calling for an end to violence against women, were painted on the very walls which used to symbolise their oppression.
From Tahrir to Tunis to Tripoli, women have played a leading role, alongside men, in demanding change
It’s been humbling and encouraging to see women playing such vital roles in civil society, but this sits against a troubling backdrop of continued discrimination within the legal framework, inadequate protection from sexual violence and lack of equal opportunity in the workplace. To highlight just one example, I remain deeply concerned by the continuing lack of laws across the region to protect women from spousal rape or domestic violence. And I have been particularly alarmed by the rise in violent attacks against women, including protesters in Egypt.
Violence and discrimination against the female population is not a problem unique to the region but as we work with Governments to support their efforts to create more open and democratic societies we must ensure we don’t forget the importance of enabling women to play a full and equal role. I believe that a society in which women’s rights are respected and their voices are heard is the only way to achieve lasting stability and prosperity. Promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment worldwide remains a priority for the UK.
Striving against the odds
Last year the Foreign Secretary launched the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative which aims to erode the existing culture of impunity that surrounds the use of sexual violence in conflict. Under the Initiative, UK experts have already helped to train local health professionals in how to respond to reports of sexual violence on the Syrian border, and we will also look at ways the UK can assist Libya in terms of justice and support for survivors of sexual violence. During our G8 Presidency we will seek to build a global partnership to prevent sexual violence in conflict and to improve national capacity to investigate allegations of sexual violence so that perpetrators can be brought to justice.
Under our G8 Presidency we will also work with Governments and civil society through the Deauville Partnership, and BMENA Forum for the Future to strengthen the economic and political opportunities available to women in the Middle East and North Africa. This includes our hosting a “MENA Women in Business” Conference in June to look at how we best support greater involvement by women in economic life.
And we will continue to use UK programme funding to support women’s empowerment. This is a particular focus for the UK’s Arab Partnership initiative, through which we have helped to build the capacity of women in Egypt, Morocco, Libya and Tunisia to involve themselves in public life, including by training and supporting female parliamentarians. This year we’re also funding rural civic education by the National Democratic Institute to encourage greater political engagement by women in Libya.
I’d like to close by reflecting on the story of a young girl who’s been working with a project we support in Algeria. Leila Maarouf was born with congenital malformation of the upper and lower limbs. After leaving school Leila embarked upon a training scheme with Handicap International. She has worked incredibly hard to acquire and master technical skills and is now able to design clothing, weave carpets and use computers. Having gained these skills she is now looking to develop her own business. Leila is just one example of many women across the MENA region who are striving against the odds to create opportunities for themselves and who are contributing to their societies. Today is a day to reflect on their remarkable achievements.
(British MP Alistair Burt was appointed Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office on 14 May 2010. Alistair was educated at Bury Grammar School, and studied at St John’s College Oxford, where he was president of the university law society. He entered Parliament for the first time in 1983 and is the Conservative MP for north east Bedfordshire. The minister is based in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and is responsible for Afghanistan and South Asia, counter terrorism, counter proliferation, North America, Middle East and North Africa, FCO finance and human resources and diversity. Alistair Burt can be followed on Twitter: @AlistairBurtFCO)