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Democracy vital for prosperity and sustainable development

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In so far as the MENA region countries are concerned, Democracy being vital for prosperity and sustainable development or the lack of it, has been demonstrated over and over the millennia. Let us see what it means in today’s world for the rest of the world with Androulla Kaminara.

The above image is for illustration and is of the FDSD.

Democracy vital for prosperity and sustainable development

Transparency and reliability of how elections are carried out are key to ensuring that the winners enjoy legitimacy.

On 15 September, we are marking International Day of Democracy. Since the pillars of democracy around the world are threatened as new challenges emerge, this day is perhaps more pertinent than ever. Democracy is a dynamic concept that has evolved over time, as have the challenges facing it. To those challenges, new challenges have been added of late, including by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic deepening existing inequalities, spreading disinformation and distrust, and undermining women’s rights. In addition, the fast evolution of new technologies and their impact on all walks of life has also had a profound impact on democratic processes around the world.

As the world took emergency measures to address the Covid-19 crisis, concerns began to emerge that these actions could infringe on civil and human rights of citizens. Covid-19 also highlighted and aggravated inequalities within societies, including in social protection, increased discrimination and violence against women as well as disinformation. The pandemic was accompanied by a global infodemic that poses a direct threat to one of the pillars of democracy: the right to access to information.

The answer is — ‘to build back better’ — to build a society that works for all and that represents the will of the people is the objective. Democracy is built on inclusion, equal treatment and participation — is a fundamental building block of a progressive, stable and peaceful society that enables sustainable development, human rights and economic justice for all.

Democracy is one of the core values of the European Union, together with human rights and the rule of law. The EU is taking steps to safeguard and strengthen democracy inside our Union since no democratic system is perfect and continuous efforts are need for improvement. In the EU, we practise our rights, also through regular elections both at individual Member State level — local, regional and national elections — as well as at the European Union level. The elections to the European Parliament are one of the largest democratic exercises in the world, with over 400 million citizens being represented.

The European Union also takes a leading role in promoting democracy around the world through the implementation of relevant projects and through Electoral Observation Missions (EOM).

In 2019, cooperation projects in support of democracy amounted to €147 million in 37 countries. Over the last 7 years, the EU has implemented projects of €618 million in Pakistan and currently, the EU supports the National Assembly, Senate and four provincial assemblies by strengthening their functioning in terms of capacity, transparency and accessibility as well as accountability towards Pakistani citizens with a project of €9 million.

Since 2019, the EU deployed over 20 observation missions globally as part of its commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law across the world and these offer a comprehensive and impartial assessment of electoral processes. In addition, EOMs publish recommendations aiming to improve future elections and strengthen democratic institutions.

In Pakistan, the EU so far has deployed four observation missions since 2002 upon the invitation of the respective governments. The EOM of 2018 put forward a set of thirty recommendations for electoral processes and framework reforms. It is encouraging to note that several of these recommendations are reflected in the 3rd Strategic Plan of the Election Commission of Pakistan.

However, other recommendations are still pending. Among those is the need to ensure a full level playing field for women: registration of women voters and women representatives in parliaments as well as in the media. In Pakistan, there are 63 million registered male voters and 50 million female voters, clearly indicating that about 13 million women voters are missing. The report argues that stronger involvement of women in political decision-making leads to more accountability, better use of public resources, as well as stability and peace. The fact that a large number of women are not eligible to vote leads to alienation of a significant part of the population. Ensuring their inclusion in the electoral process as well as adequate representation for marginalised groups is key to a more inclusive and fair democratic system.

We recognise the difficulties in implementation of some of the EOM’s 2018 recommendations which are public. Nonetheless, as Pakistan is approaching its next general elections, it is paramount to keep the reform momentum and maintain efforts to further strengthen the electoral system and practice. In this context, the role of a fully functioning Election Commission of Pakistan supported by all is crucial.

The experience within the European Union and elsewhere shows that for democracy to work, trust in the democratic process, including the electoral mechanism, is vital. Transparency and reliability of how elections are carried out are key to ensuring that the winners enjoy legitimacy and support from the electorate. Without democracy, peace and stability, sustainable development and prosperity cannot exist.

The EU continues to be committed to safeguarding and strengthening democracy within its borders and across the world, and we work with all our partner countries including Pakistan in this endeavour.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 15th, 2021.

Radical improvements are needed to eradicate illiteracy in the region

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ZAWYA published an article by Sara Al-Mulla on how illiteracy is still the dominant factor in the MENA region. It recommends notably no less than Radical improvements are needed to eradicate illiteracy in the region once and for all.

Radical improvements are needed to eradicate illiteracy in the region once and for all

The picture above is for illustration and is of the Gulf Times.

Students learn the alphabet in a classroom of 12 women of different ages all eager to learn to read and write at the literacy centre of Umm al-Hareth secondary school on April 17, 2009, in Amman, Jordan. Getty Images By Sara Al-Mulla, Arab News

In today’s world, knowledge is deemed to be the key to progress; spearheading innovations in myriad futuristic sectors, commandeering global competitiveness and empowering people to live high-quality lives. Indeed, the true wealth of any nation lies in its human capital’s ability to thrive.

The Arab region has achieved great strides in the field of education in the past five decades, with the widespread establishment of schools, high enrolment rates and government support for students. Data from the World Bank demonstrates this remarkable progress, as the Arab region has lifted literacy rates from 43 percent in 1973 to 79 percent in 2019. Despite this phenomenal achievement, illiteracy remains a shortcoming in the region. It is estimated that about 50 million adults in the Arab world are illiterate today, limiting their roles as active members of their societies. These figures are aggravated by the 6 million children who have been forced out of school due to conflicts and poverty.

The calamity of illiteracy manifests itself in a number of threats. Without the basic tenets of communication, people could find themselves drastically limited in their life choices and their ability to carry out important daily tasks. For example, illiterate people are unable to examine a medicine label, read a bank statement, skim through the news, calculate a financial investment, understand government policies, or communicate with family and friends via mobile phones or online social networks.

Illiterate parents also tend to have lower expectations with regards to their children’s educational attainment, aggravating generational illiteracy. Dr. Bernadette Dwyer, a professor of literacy studies in education at Dublin City University, made a powerful statement in this regard: “Literacy permeates all areas of life, fundamentally shaping how we learn, work, and socialize. Literacy is essential to informed decision-making, personal empowerment, and community engagement.”

Illiteracy also costs the global economy an estimated $1.19 trillion annually in lost economic productivity, according to the World Literacy Foundation. Globally, illiterate people earn 30 to 42 percent less than those who are literate, severely limiting their capacity to thrive and access important goods and services, such as food, shelter, education, and healthcare services. Furthermore, illiteracy has been linked to unemployment or low-quality jobs, lower lifelong earnings, reduced access to professional development courses, poorer health outcomes, increased crime rates, lower civic participation and community involvement, lower feelings of self-worth, increased isolation, limited retirement savings, and welfare dependency.

In order to tackle the issue of illiteracy in the region, it is imperative that policymakers understand its root causes. Perhaps the greatest barrier to literacy is the rampant poverty rate in certain communities, where children are forced to work to help their families make ends meet. At the same time, low economic productivity in many Arab nations has limited public funding for schools and reduced financial support for families in the form of tuition subsidies and scholarships. Poverty has also worsened gender discrimination in many parts of the region, resulting in limited female enrolment in schools due to early marriage and pregnancy, violence or cultural norms about the role of women.

Additionally, deteriorating safety issues and raging conflicts have, in recent years, resulted in an exodus of children from schools. Another leading cause of illiteracy is the presence of children with learning disabilities or difficulties that go undetected or untreated. Special education is expensive to finance for families on their own, as they would need to pay for diagnostic tests, treatments, dedicated shadow teachers, and special resources.

Research shows that children living in rural areas are more likely to drop out of school compared to children in urban areas, as nearby schools are lacking. Other institutional aspects that undermine children’s ability to learn include unsatisfactory learning environments, overcrowded classrooms, shortages of trained teachers, unengaging school curricula, and insufficient learning resources.

As such, radical improvements are needed to eradicate illiteracy in the region once and for all. It is imperative that household data be captured to elucidate illiteracy rates according to geographical location, age group and gender. Additionally, such research should evaluate the root causes behind illiteracy so that appropriate policies and programs can be formulated to overcome these specific barriers.

Solutions could be designed based on the size of the cohorts, such as the establishment of modern schools to cater for large groups or individualized workshops that are tailored to the needs of small groups of learners. Enrolment can be encouraged by taking on local volunteers who can sign people up or via applications on online portals. Additionally, relevant and engaging educational curricula need to be designed to accommodate local workplace needs, in addition to the hiring of skilled teachers. For participants who are unable to attend school due to work or family responsibilities, one-on-one tutoring sessions could be facilitated on a weekly basis to meet their learning needs.

Perhaps the greatest challenge is the cultural attitude toward education. Nationwide grassroots and media campaigns can play an influential role in highlighting the priceless value of literacy and its beneficial effects on people’s lives, especially among cultures that have contradicting viewpoints on the subject. Furthermore, governments could partner with nonprofit and private sector organizations that dedicate their funds and efforts toward literacy programs.

Nations are today competing against one another in terms of their ability to transform knowledge into economic productivity and high-quality living for their citizens. Literacy is the key for Arab nations if they are to create a new renaissance period.

  • Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature. She can be contacted at http://www.amorelicious.com.

Zaha Hadid: even more than her buildings, it’s her mind that left its mark

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Zaha Hadid: even more than her buildings, it’s her mind that left its mark by Lakshmi Priya Rajendran, Anglia Ruskin University is more than an eye-opener on the person behind all those unconventionally looking buildings.

Changsha Meixihu Culture and Arts Centre, in Hunan province, China. Designed by Zaha Hadid Architects in 2019. Jason_x.j / Shutterstock.com

Zaha Hadid: even more than her buildings, it’s her mind that left its mark

In the five years since Zaha Hadid’s passing, much has been written about the glorious and towering legacy the fabled British-Iraqi architect left behind. Thinking about what she started, though, is more instructive.

Born in Baghdad, Iraq in 1950, Hadid – aka the Queen of Curve – fundamentally altered the contours of modern architecture and design. She shattered gender stereotypes too by, in 2004, becoming the first woman to receive the Pritzker prize – the highest award in her field.

Antwerp Port House by Zaha Hadid Architects, Antwerp, Belgium. Claudia Lorusso on Unsplash, FAL

As the world grapples with how to respond to the climate crisis, architecture is in the spotlight. The built environment is responsible for almost 36% of global energy consumption. Cement alone causes 8% of global emissions.

In this context, Hadid’s most valuable contribution is the inspiration she represented and the innovation she embodied. She conceived of modernity as an incomplete project, to be tackled. And she demonstrated to students not just how to imagine revolutionary forms but, crucially, how to bring them to life.

The Daxing International Airport in Beijing, China. Hao Wen on Unsplash, FAL

Problem solving

The seductive nature of Hadid’s buildings means that the approach she took to sustainability is often overshadowed. It also wasn’t an explicit aspect of her early works, but rather became so later on in her career, in projects including the Bee’ah Headquarters in Sharjah, and Eco-park stadium in London. In 2015 she memorably highlighted sustainability as a defining challenge of her generation and stated that “architects had solutions”.

Hadid was a problem solver. From the outset she was unique in harnessing both technology and talent, through her groundbreaking interdisciplinary research group. She was one of the early adopters of a fully digitised 3D design process. When virtual reality became a thing, her practice was one of the first to adopt that too.

Morpheus Hotel by Zaha Hadid Architects in Macau, China. Macau Photo Agency / Unsplash, FAL

This ability to make things happen was hard won. As a student at the Architectural Association in London in the mid-1970s, Hadid turned heads from the start with her otherworldly ideas. But it took her over a decade to get her designs realised. It was with her first big commission – the 1993 Vitra Fire Station in Germany – that the world finally got to see up close the power of her architectural imagination.

The Danish architect Bjarke Ingels (founder of Bjarke Ingels Group, one of the most dynamic contemporary architectural practices) described visiting Vitra Fire Station as an “eyeopening experience” that brought to life the kind of visual impossibilities people usually only dream of. For all its ambition, though, the Vitra building was criticised as unsuitable by the firemen who occupied it.

Zaha Hadid’s groundbreaking design for the Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhein, Germany. kamienczanka / Shutterstock.com

Undeterred, Hadid went on to create daring, experimental designs for London’s Millennium Dome exhibition spaces and the Serpentine Gallery’s annual summer pavillion. She gave Innsbruck a new landmark – the Bergisel Ski Jump – and became the first woman to ever design an American art museum, with her iconic Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati.

Immeasurable influence

Although her career had begun with that infamous tag of her buildings being unbuildable, Hadid rapidly established herself as a radical architect by creating a strong and unique design statement globally. Hadid expanded her global brand and her reach to product design, fashion and jewellery.

In Canadian architectural historian Despina Stratigakos’s book, Where Are the Women Architects?, Hadid explained how she survived and fought sexism in her profession. Her inspiring attitude and professional demeanour was gender-neutral. She was able to switch between femininity and masculinity as required to survive and excel in what is a ruthless and ultra-competitive business.

In this way, even though her projects saw her labelled a starchitect, Hadid’s ideas set her apart from the old school. They opened a radically new path for later generations, like this year’s Pritzker laureates, Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal.

Her presence continues to be felt across the contemporary design and architecture worlds. With around 1.2 million Instagram followers, Zaha Hadid Architects is now the most followed architectural practice in the world. Her sinuous lines and captivating shapes have been referenced by set designers on trendsetting movies including Black Panther.

The Nanjing International Youth Cultural Center by Zaha Hadid in Nanjing, China. Denys Nevozhai / Unsplash, FAL

Her words – especially the famous quote, “There are 360 degrees. Why stick to one?” – have stuck with architects in China and designers in Germany and India. Her principles have fostered new possiblities in architectural research, thinking and process.

In every way, Hadid remains a muse. She was rebellious and defiant. She embraced the unimaginable. Known for provoking controversies, even her critics agreed to the fact that without Hadid, architecture would be less interesting.

When she won the Pritzker prize in 2004, the jury noted how consistently she defied convention. Even if she’d never built anything, they said, Zaha Hadid would have radically expanded the possibilities of architecture. She was lauded as an iconoclast, a beautiful mind. As the critic Joseph Giovannini put it at the time, “Rarely has an architect so radically changed and inspired the field”.

Lakshmi Priya Rajendran, Senior Research Fellow, Future Cities, Anglia Ruskin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Read the original article.

MENA region enjoys less academic freedom

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The MENA region enjoys less academic freedom and it was copiously reported here and there. The countries students’ limitations in academic research study fields ranging from architecture to filmmaking were known for some time. The comparatively limitless European and American universities atmospheres were as always unattainable in terms of openings or ease of integration. Al Fanar Media produced this article by Burton Bollag to confirm that the MENA region enjoys less academic freedom, highlighting the centrally related and common freedom of speech and thoughts problematics. 

Arab Region Scores Lowest in the World for Academic Freedom

16 Mar 2021

The Academic Freedom Index paints a troubling picture of the state of academic freedom in the Arab world. Most Arab countries ranked in the report’s two lowest categories, those with the most severe restrictions (Illustration: Shutterstock).

Scholars and students in the Arab region enjoy less academic freedom than their counterparts elsewhere in the world, the second annual Academic Freedom Index 2020 found.

“If you compare world regions, the MENA region scores worse than others,” said Ilyas Saliba, a researcher at the Global Public Policy Institute, in Berlin, and one of the report’s authors.

He was speaking at a virtual news conference to launch the report on March 11.

“There are a few bright spots, like Tunisia,” he said. A guarantee of academic freedom was included in the country’s rewritten 2014 constitution, making Tunisia the only Arab country to enshrine that right in its basic law. 

But overall, the situation in the Arab region is deeply troubling.

The index assesses academic freedom in 175 countries and territories worldwide, placing each in a category going from A, indicating complete freedom of research and teaching, to E, indicating the least academic freedom.

High Marks for Tunisia

Tunisia is the only Arab country in Category A. Category B, indicating a few restrictions, includes Lebanon, the West Bank and the Comoros. Category C, indicating moderate restrictions, includes Kuwait, Libya, Gaza, Morocco, Somalia and Sudan.

The majority of the Arab countries are in Category D or E, indicating severe or complete restrictions, and university teachers and students in those countries face expulsion, jail, or worse if they carry out unwelcome research or express views unpopular with the authorities. 

This is the second yearly installment of the Academic Freedom Index. The project was jointly developed by researchers from Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg in Germany, the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, and the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, working in close cooperation with the Scholars at Risk Network, based at New York University.

“In the longer term we could still see a more drastic impact. For example: self-censorship in digital teaching.”

Katrin Kinzelbach  A professor at Germany’s Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg and one of the report’s authors

The index is compiled from five indicators: (1) freedom to research and teach, (2) freedom of academic exchange and dissemination, (3) institutional autonomy, (4) campus integrity, and (5) freedom of academic and cultural expression. The indicators are assessed by some 2,000 experts, typically academics in the countries being evaluated.

The index can be explored with a powerful graphing visualization tool that can show academic freedom trends over time within a single country or a region.

Particularly sharp deterioration in academic freedom has taken place in Egypt, especially after Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seized power in 2013, and in Turkey after the failed 2016 coup. 

Many campuses have been closed during the past year due to the coronavirus pandemic. The impact on academic freedom appears less than was feared, the report’s authors say, but the potential for surveillance of online education is troubling.

Self-Censorship Concerns

“In the longer term we could still see a more drastic impact,” said Katrin Kinzelbach, a professor at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg and one of the report’s authors. “For example: self-censorship in digital teaching.”

Globally, the index finds that from 2019 to 2020, the countries that experienced the largest declines in academic freedom were Belarus, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka and Zambia.

Countries experiencing the largest decline in academic freedom over the past five years were: Brazil, Colombia, Hong Kong, Nicaragua, Turkey and Zambia.

Countries that experienced the largest improvement in academic freedom over the past five years were: Gambia, Kazakhstan, the Maldives, North Macedonia and Sudan.

Universities in the oil-rich Gulf states “are modern and engage in international partnerships. But it is in the context of particularly brutal repression of any forms of dissent,” both on and off campuses.

Laurie A. Brand  A professor at the University of Southern California

Still, said report co-author Kinzelbach, “overall we found that only about 20 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where academic freedom is well protected.”

Does a lack of academic freedom really matter? The report argues that it does. “Academic freedom is essential to top-quality teaching and research, which are themselves essential to national competitiveness in a global knowledge economy.”

Which is why the report’s authors argue that the index’s country scores should be used to improve established university rankings. “At present,” the report says, “leading rankings narrowly define academic excellence and reputation as a function of outputs. … They thereby mislead key stakeholders and make it possible for repressive state and higher education authorities to restrict academic freedom without incurring a reputational loss.”

In an essay titled “Why University Rankings Must Include Academic Freedom,” published in University World News, the authors state, “Prior to 2020, ranking companies might have been forgiven for not including academic freedom in their systems. No longer.”

A lack of academic freedom is often associated with countries in conflict, such as Syria, which has one of the lowest ratings in the index. Yet the index presents some surprises. Libya, for example, which is mired in a civil war between two competing governments, ranks in the C, or middle, category.

At the same time, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, three affluent and rapidly modernizing Gulf states, are in Category E, the lowest level.

“It’s paradoxical,” comments Laurie A. Brand, a professor at the University of Southern California and chair of the Middle East Studies Association’s Committee on Academic Freedom. Universities in those oil-rich Gulf states “are modern and engage in international partnerships. But it is in the context of particularly brutal repression of any forms of dissent,” both on and off campuses. 

Women face uphill climb to equality in the MENA region

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The Media Line elaborated an article on Women’s Rights on International’s Women’s Day, specifically on the particular situation in the MENA countries. According to this, Women face an uphill climb to equality in the MENA region despite the well-proven fact that Women are at the rescue of the MENA Economies.

Remembering Women’s Rights on International’s Women’s Day … and the Rest of the Year

By Tara Kavaler

Activists and human rights groups paint a daunting portrait of the equality landscape between the genders in the MENA region, as they prepare to mark International Women’s Day, March 8. The coronavirus epidemic, certainly, did not help the plight of women this past year. Still, going forward, the largest issues facing women in the Middle East were entrenched long before the pandemic hit.

In the Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) countries, women’s rights defenders have it tough.

While prominent Saudi women’s activist Loujain al-Hathloul was freed last month after almost three years in prison, Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Sadah, Nouf Abdelaziz and Maya’a al-Zahrani remain in jail after their 2018 arrests on charges of advocating for women’s rights.

They are part of a 13-member cohort that advocated for women’s rights issues, including the right to drive, which is now permissible by law. Nine other activists were captured at the same time and released, while they wait for their day in court.

“Those who are behind bars are the champions for the change that took place,” Khalid Ibrahim, executive director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, told The Media Line, referring to women driving.

“While this is one example of how we are getting success, we are achieving success with lots of sacrifices,” he said. “It’s not easy to have change in these countries.”

While I’m happy for International Women’s Day, we shouldn’t forget women on the other 364 days

While Ibrahim says that is it is difficult to confer the title of the “worst” human rights offender against women on any one Gulf country, Saudi Arabia is up there when it comes to gender norms and the male guardianship system.

“Social gender rules are clearly distinct. Men are supposed to be tough and have all the opportunities. Women still don’t have a lot of access to lots of services like hospitals, travel, marriage [of their own accord]. There is a lot of repression going on,” he said.

“It is really problematic when you talk about which country is better than the other, but we have a chronic problem across the region where women don’t have access to basic rights,” Ibrahim added.

This includes male guardianship, which is particularly pernicious in the Kingdom of Saud.

“In some cases, the guardian could be the younger brother and a woman, at 32 years of age, has to get permission from her 12-year-old brother,” Ibrahim said.

“We are facing problems all the time. It’s all about this mentality about treating women as second-class citizens or as a kind of individual who can’t decide for themselves, of course it’s not acceptable,” he said.

“This mentality is very much rooted in oppressive governments. When you confiscate public rights, surely you are also going to confiscate the rights of women,” Ibrahim said.

The United Arab Emirates, which tries to bolster its reputation as a more modern Gulf country, still has notions of women that are dated.

“The UAE says that they are a very civilized state, but behind all these palaces people are still in prison,” Ibrahim said.

The harsh treatment extends even to royalty.

Women are still portrayed as property of the man and the man can do whatever he wants

The whereabouts of Sheikha Latifa, 35, daughter of the Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, remain unknown after the BBC published undated videos of the princess saying that she was being held against her will and believed her life was in danger.

The video marked the first time the public had heard from her since December 2018, when she was brought back to the UAE after a failed attempt to escape, due to what she said was an oppressive relationship perpetrated by her father.

Ibrahim says there is no such thing as independent media anymore in the Gulf, only traditional outlets owned by the state. As a result, people go online to publish “real” stories, leading the governments to crack down on this by instituting new cybercrime laws against journalist and activists.

In the UAE, this includes two female activists, Amina Al-Abdouli and Maryam Al-Balushi, who are still in jail despite completing their five-year sentences both set at the same time in 2015, which were supposed to end on Nov. 19, 2020.

Ibrahim says that in many cases, criminals fare better than human rights defenders.

“Criminals are treated better than defenders. On the day of their release they can go anywhere, they often get released after serving two-thirds of their sentences,” he said. “Defenders face a travel ban as soon as they get out, and they don’t get amnesty and serve the full amount,” he said.  In addition: “The families of defenders pay a heavy price, they have no access to their money in banks or to jobs.”

However, the most exploited women in the Gulf may not be Arab at all.

“Coronavirus is affecting all sectors of society across the Gulf, but there’s a lot of pressure on migrant women … I’m worried about the situation of housekeeping workers and other female workers who are really not being given their full rights in the Gulf,” Ibrahim said.

While many Gulf states made changes to their kefala, or employer sponsorship system, the program remains problematic. While Qatar ended the employment consent for migrants to switch jobs and raised the minimum wage, many workers, particularly women, fell through the cracks. Domestic workers, who are often female and mostly from Asia, require permission to leave the house in order to search for a job.

According to statistics from January 2016 to August 2020 from the United Kingdom-based Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, 61,000 migrant workers experienced some type of labor abuse, the most common of which was “wage theft.”

Without much legal recourse available to them, migrant workers often cannot do anything if they are underpaid or not paid at all. Labor unions are completely off-limits to them.

Suad Abu-Dayyeh, an Amman-based women’s right activist and consultant on gender rights in the region, says that in the Arab world in general, the biggest problem women face is family law.

“The family law that tackles women’s everyday life – divorce, marriage, custody, inheritance – all these laws are mostly governed by Sharia and are very much discriminatory to women, also Christian courts are discriminatory,” she told The Media Line. “I think it will take years and years to challenge this family law because it is very much related to religion and people are objecting to any amendments to this law.”

“We need to have a unified law, this is our dream in the region as activists. We need to have civil laws that govern our lives as women. It shouldn’t be dividing women by religion. Still, we have a very long way to go,” Abu-Dayyeh said.

This also includes nationality laws that prohibit women from passing citizenship to their spouses and children. However, there have been some recent changes in Egypt which now allow women to transfer citizenship to their offspring.

Abu-Dayyeh says that penal codes are problematic for women in the Arab world.

“Marital rape is not a crime in most of the countries in the region,” she said, noting that Tunisia is one of the rare countries that criminalized the practice in a recent violence against women bill. “Women are still portrayed as property of the man and the man can do whatever he wants,” she said.

Another problematic portion of penal codes in the region criminalizes abortions. “Anyone who might support a girl in getting one, even from incest or rape or an extramarital relationship, will also be punished,” she said.

This could lead to the woman being a victim of a so-called “honor crime,” where the offending female is killed by make relatives to preserve the family’s reputation.

Abu-Sayyed says the Arab world is becoming more conservative, indicating a step back for women’s rights.

“You can see society becoming more conservative. You can see more women in veils and hijabs, and fundamentalists are becoming stronger,” she said.

An example of this is seen in the Palestinian territories, where women’s rights activists and groups face threats because they are demanding a family protection bill that would help victims of violence based on gender.

Abu-Dayyeh attributes the shift to the geo-political situation in the region.

“I think it’s the implications of all the wars in the region, there is no rest for people to think about treating women in a different way,” she said.

In Israel, Michal Gera Margaliot, former executive director of the Israel Women’s Network, says that the employment sector and representation are the biggest problem facing women in Israel.

“This year was really tough. Women lost their jobs much more than men did. The reason this happened is because their wages are lower and because in most houses they are the main caregivers and when they closed the education system, then women were the ones to stay with the kids” during the coronavirus shutdowns, Margaliot told The Media Line.

“We need to fix the employment here in Israel and in more places in the world. You need to not only work on the participation of women in the labor market, which was very high in Israel before the pandemic – the highest in the OECD, you need to change the fact that men are main providers and secondary caregivers and women are main caregivers and secondary providers. You need to work on the quality of work to reduce wage gaps to have women and men everywhere,” she added.

As a result, Margaliot says that adequate parental leave needs to be established, the state should sponsor day care from a much earlier age, school days should be extended, and the number of working hours reduced.

The second challenge women face is representation, both in government and in senior levels of the employment market.

“It’s not only about the numbers, but the quality. You need to have senior women in decision-making junctures,” she said.

In government, this includes committee heads. While a record number of women – eight – held ministerial posts in the last government, almost all the committees they led were minor.

Ahead of the March 23 national elections, only one woman leads a party, Merav Michaeli of Labor. However, there is cause for some optimism.

“This is the first time ever that there are seven parties that will be in the next parliament, or are close to the threshold, that have women in the No. 2 position,” she said. These include the Blue and White, Meretz and Yamina parties.

Margaliot believes that about 30 women will secure Knesset seats in the upcoming election, which is approximately one quarter of all parliamentary seats.

“It’s not like it is getting worse when you look at the three first rounds of elections where we were furious,” she said, referring to the three elections that took place between 2019 and 2020, It’s “It’s not getting worse, but it could get better,” she said.

The third challenge facing Israeli women is domestic violence and sexual harassment and assault at home and in the workplace. Margaliot says the government has detailed plans to combat both, but they have not been funded.

“They need to take these detailed plans forward and create spheres where women feel safe. Only when you’re safe can you flourish,” she said.

While domestic violence rose during the pandemic, the issue has plagued Israeli women for a long time.

“At the end of 2018, there was the largest protest ever in Israel over women getting murdered and domestic violence. The governmental decision to have a national plan to fight this issue passed in July 2017,” Margaliot said. “It’s not going anywhere in the near future, but if you won’t put the resources, and the thought and the time to decide that it’s part of your priorities, it will just get worse. It can’t get better.”

While activist Abu-Dayyeh says International Women’s Day is important, she says that problems facing women need to be focused on and alleviated all year.

“While I’m happy for International Women’s Day, we shouldn’t forget women on the other 364 days,” she said.