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Why the U.N. doesn’t fully cater to Arab women

At the core of gender inequality in the region is a male-led system that simply doesn’t cater to women

Yara al-Wazir

Published: Updated:

The Millennium development Goals (MDGs) set by the United Nations in 2000 are soon coming to an end. 2015 will be the birth year of the sustainable development goals (SDGs).

The idea of having a general goal that all countries can aspire to has proven, in some cases, successful, and in other cases not so much.

The SDGs have come out with 15 goals, with one targeting women. But can a universal and international framework to "achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls" really work in the Middle East, or does the region need its own set of goals? More accurately, the region needs goals specific to it, in addition to the universal goals. The SDGs, as opposed to MDGs, are not generic. Each goal comes with targets, and there are nine targets for women.

While most of these targets are valid for the Middle East, such as ending violence and discrimination, there are a few basics that the U.N. and the region have overlooked. The SDGs provide the perfect opportunity to address them.

Maternity leave should be at the forefront

The International Labor Organization recommends a minimum of 14 weeks paid maternity leave. There are only three Arab countries that abide by this recommendation: Algeria, Morocco and Oman. A fair and just maternity leave is one of the hidden gems to female empowerment.

Women perform better when they are valued, and women are valued when they are allowed to perform.

One of the underlying reasons the rate of female unemployment in the region is as high as it is, is because the notion of work-life balance is relatively non-existent. The majority of schools in the region still run till 2 or 3 tin the afternoon, even though professionals are expected to work till 5 p.m. This builds an unrealistic expectation that one spouse must remain unemployed to cater to basic needs, such as dropping the children off and picking them up from school. There are few female professionals who are praised for their families and their work being aligned - this doesn't mean they don't exist.

A support system for female working professionals in the region is lacking. A solid plan for maternity leave must be present to encourage women to work and support a family simultaneously, whilst maintaining their health.

Better yet, family leave - this is true gender equality. A combined maternity and paternity leave, allowing families flexible working hours and combined time-off in the case of birth or adoption of a child. As well as maintaining and preserving health, which is one of the goals of the SDGs, it touches on one of the targets of 'reproductive rights'. Maternity leave is one of the most important productive rights of women, and frankly, in the Middle East it is not given sufficient attention.

Mobilizing civil society

When women feel like they have support around them, they will support themselves. What this region needs especially is strong civil society NGOs that support women. Granted, this can be done through each of the targets set under the umbrella of the general goal, but it must be said that when women are given the opportunity to stand together, they stand united and stronger.

At the core of gender inequality in the region is a male-led system that simply doesn’t cater to women

Yara al-Wazir

What these civil society NGOs have the ability to do is organize and mobilize women to achieve what they want. The targets are great, and universal. I can't think of a country that doesn't want to end all forms of violence against women and girls, including trafficking and sexual exploitation, among others. However, the region needs to be able to prioritize these targets. The women of the region, not the men, must perform prioritization of these targets. It's about time we took powers into our own hands, rather than sit back and watch men, who dominate our parliaments, decide what our needs are.

Women can be trusted

Women need access to funds, to education, to life. We need businesses to trust us and give us jobs, and the government to support our decisions to work and raise a family. More than anything, women of the region need a cultural shift that is encouraging and supportive. First and foremost, however, women must believe in themselves if we expect governments and the public to believe in us.

While the targets for achieving gender equality are valid, there is no doubt that the Middle East needs special attention, and a different way to tackle these issues. At the core of gender inequality in the region is a male-led system that simply doesn’t cater to women.

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Yara al-Wazir is a humanitarian activist. She is the founder of The Green Initiative ME and a developing partner of Sharek Stories. She can be followed and contacted on twitter @YaraWazir

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.