WED 22 - 5 - 2019
Jan 21, 2019
The Daily Star
Promises, skepticism at women’s empowerment conference
Farah-Silvana Kanaan| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: Promises of achieving gender equality abounded from politicians at the first-ever Mashreq Conference on Women’s Economic Empowerment, held in Beirut Saturday.
But they were met with hesitation from some attendees who were skeptical that the political will exists to change the status quo.
The conference, which focused on women in Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan, took place a day before the main meeting of the fourth Arab Economic and Social Development Summit.
Notably, at Saturday’s event, Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri announced that Lebanon would launch a national action plan to increase women’s economic participation in the country.
Amid a boast about the number of female staff in his own office and expressing excitement at one day seeing a woman premier (“I hereby encourage my aunt [MP Bahia Hariri to run]”), the prime minister-designate noted that women in Lebanon continue to be gravely underrepresented in the workforce despite their academic achievements.
According to statistics presented at the conference, women’s participation in the three countries’ labor markets is poor: Only 23 percent of Lebanese women, 19 percent of Iraqi women and 14 percent of Jordanian women are employed.
The World Economic Forum’s 2018 report on the gender equality gap also found that out of 149 countries, Lebanon dangled at 140th.
The “Women’s Economic Empowerment National Action Plan” will aim to redress this by increasing women’s participation in Lebanon’s economy by “no less than 5 percent” over the next five years, Hariri said.
Beyond that announcement, domestic violence, the gender pay gap and women’s absence from the labor market took pride of place at the conference.
“Draft laws have been prepared to punish sexual harassment in the workplace and to facilitate parental leave for fathers,” Hariri said.
The national action plan notes that other bills geared toward empowering women have already been submitted to Parliament. These include proposals to enhance women’s access to credit, and the amendment of discriminatory laws related to the National Social Security Fund, bankruptcy and nationality.
The premier-designate ended his speech on a positive note, saying, “The future of our region is bright, and women will be the backbone of our region’s renaissance.”
Several other high-profile figures also spoke about the need to promote gender equality in the Middle East and North Africa region.
Ferid Belhaj, World Bank vice president for MENA, noted that women’s economic empowerment was essential to the development of all nations, particularly those in the MENA region, and said it should have a prominent place at the economic summit.
He also pointed out that as regional economies continue modernizing, and if demographic trends go on as they have been, a gap will emerge in the labor market, and women must be the ones to fill it.
Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit took the stage to announce that issues of women’s empowerment would be placed high on the economic summit’s agenda.
Caretaker Minister of State for Women’s Affairs Jean Ogasapian spoke with The Daily Star on the sidelines of the conference about how agreements made throughout the day would affect Lebanese women in particular.
Although Ogasapian expressed hope that Arab states would step up their efforts and pledge enough funds to safeguard the economic empowerment of all women, he said he believed that real change could come only from within each country.
“As a government, we need to eliminate all laws that insist on there being any differences between women and men in the workforce as I don’t believe there are any.
“We need more women in higher positions in the public sector and need to adopt laws that will oblige the private sector to have more female board members,” he said.
Ogasapian added that having more women elected to government positions “would be a very beneficial development.”
“Women are much more flexible and much more dedicated to the needs of the Lebanese people,” the official said.
However, he noted, the change that is most urgently required in Lebanon is a shift in mentality.
“We need to let go of this idea that women have less to offer in the workplace than men, or that they should be assigned different tasks than men.”
“The only way to achieve this is through training and education, especially in rural areas,” he added. “But I believe our society is ready to change, given the right conditions.”
Though speeches by men seemed to dominate the morning, women commanded the microphone for much of the rest of the conference.
But this was cold comfort for many of the gender equality advocates present, as after the official opening ended, most of the men, including Hariri, Belhaj and Aboul Gheit, left, as did over half the audience - a fact noted by several speakers, often with biting humor.
Nadim Kassar, the chairman and general manager of BLC Bank, said that if people were to look at the arc of women’s economic empowerment over 10 years, “Lebanon would look pretty ugly.”
And, he added, judging by the conference attendees, “most men see women’s empowerment as little more than a photo opportunity.”
Several present also expressed their skepticism about the sincerity of the Lebanese government’s commitment to gender equality.
When asked by an audience member when Lebanon would finally have a civil status law granting equal rights to women, Claudine Aoun Roukoz, president of the National Commission for Lebanese Women, said, “We are very far from adopting such a law.
“If we ever want such a law to see the light of day, we need take matters into our own hands by electing a Parliament which consists of politicians who actually believe in it.”
The Canadian government announced a commitment to supporting Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon in developing their action plans.
Canadian Ambassador to Lebanon Emmanuelle Lamoureux announced her country would do so by contributing 10 million Canadian dollars ($7.5 million) to the Mashreq Gender Facility. The initiative will seek to identify and address gender-based constraints to women’s full participation in society and work toward improving their access to economic opportunities.
When asked about monitoring mechanisms that would ensure transparency with regard to the funds - a concern many Lebanese people share about money controlled by their government - Lamoureux told The Daily Star that all funds would be managed by the World Bank and that a steering committee would periodically track the implementation of the action plans.
She also said that one of the reasons her government had committed to the endeavor was because it saw a very clear political will on all sides on women’s empowerment.
“We had real champions in all three governments,” she said. “Otherwise I don’t think we would have committed, because domestic drive is essential if we’re going to have any success in this endeavor.”
The second Mashreq Conference on Women’s Economic Empowerment will convene in Amman in 2020.
Additional reporting by Emily Lewis
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