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UN Report: Low Position of Women Hinders Arab Societies

A U.N. report says women in the Arab world are making gains, but are still denied equal opportunity, and, that is hampering development in Arab countries. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.

The report says continuing discrimination against women in education, employment and politics is a barrier to progress and prosperity in Arab societies as a whole.

The annual report by the U.N. Development Program says Arab nations will not rank among world leaders in commerce, learning and culture, until women are empowered and allowed to play a significant role. It says giving Arab women a fair chance to thrive is a precondition for development.

Isla Jad is a professor of gender and culture at Birzut University in the Palestinian West Bank and co-author of the report. She says women have gained greater political rights in recent years. They may now vote in all Arab countries, except Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

She says women now can run for political office in many Arab countries, and some participate in senior levels of government. But, she calls this a democratic fa├žade, and says women in high-profile positions have no real power. She says that is in the hands of men.

"So, they pick a few women, and put them in positions. But, these picked women, they represent, not women's interest in general," she said. "They rather represent their ruling party interest, and they are not abide by women's rights necessarily, and they are not abide by any calls for real and deeper reforms coming from Arab civil societies."

The Arab Human Development Report for 2005 says women's participation in the labor market in Arab countries is the lowest in the world - 33 percent compared with 69 percent in East Asia and the Pacific, and more than 60 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Jad says a similar form of discrimination exists in education. In the early years, she says, girls excel in their studies over the boys. But, while the boys go on to secondary school and university, the girls drop out.

"They drop out, whether for marriage, they drop out, whether for family restrictions, sometimes, or for lack of economic possibilities. And, this is a big waste for any development efforts in our area," she said. "If women are excelling in education, society has to use this knowledge, and they have to use these skills."

The report says women in Arab countries are victims of honor killings, female genital mutilation and domestic violence. It says many labor laws, penal codes and nationality laws still discriminate against women.

The report calls for the temporary adoption of affirmative action in expanding the participation of Arab women to all fields of human activity. It says this will allow the dismantling of the centuries-old structures of discrimination against women.