Opinion

Op-Ed

Women Are Agents of Change

There is no economic, social, or political development in any society without women playing their rightful role in the economy and in society at large.

Contrary to common perception, women in the Arab world have achieved significant advancement in recent years. There are female C.E.O.'s, female government officials, female professors, female engineers; women run e-businesses and financial institutions.

Presently, most Arab countries have at least one female government minister, if not more. In Tunisia, 40 percent of doctors and 70 percent of pharmacists are women. Laws and decrees that grant women equal rights to participate in local councils, in consultative councils, and in municipality councils have been passed into law in many Arab countries.

Women in the Gulf have an estimated $40 billion of personal wealth at their disposal. In Egypt, women form 31percent of the workforce in the government sector. Most tellingly, in the Arab world overall, 70 percent of university graduates in 2007 were female.

However, the utilization of Arab women's capabilities through economic and political participation remains low in quantitative terms, as evidenced by the low overall share of women in government—6.5 percent compared to a world average of 15.7 percent. The Arab workforce comprises 25 to 30 percent women, compared to a global average of 45 percent.

There is no economic, social, or political development in any society without women playing their rightful role in the economy and in society at large. International and multilateral partnerships have the power to enable, inspire, and educate women to successfully participate in Arab societies, Arab economies, and Arab politics. We are working and living increasingly in a world without borders—hence, the exchange of knowledge and experience through intercultural dialogue are absolutely vital in achieving progress and development in all our societies.

Increasing cooperation and strengthening links between organizations and nations can only help in this regard. An international networking organization, such as the London-based Arab International Women's Forum (A.I.W.F.), founded in 2001, has members and contacts from over 45 countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. A.I.W.F. is essential in linking Arab professional women with each other and their counterparts in the international community. Such an exchange of knowledge and experience, and a focus on capacity building, training, skills development, and human resources, thereby develops the professional and political potential of all members, ensuring the continued empowerment of women in the region.

Continuing this course of action, it is important to bring together civil society organizations, the corporate sector, and governments to create an unrivalled forum for dialogue and growth. We must continue to support conferences and initiatives, such as the upcoming June 2008 conference "Partners for Change: Realizing the Potential of Arab Women in the Private and Public Sectors," jointly hosted by A.I.W.F. and the World Bank, that explore timely themes to promote the role of women in the economy and in public life.

When women prosper, families and communities also prosper. Promoting the strategic empowerment of women from all sectors is important to their effective contribution to the global knowledge economy. Through increased access to information, the promotion of cultural diversity, proactive business partnerships, and exposure to invaluable international business prospects, strategic alliances, and best practices, women can become positive agents of change to move forward an agenda of prosperity and peace.

Haifa Fahoum Al Kaylani is the founding chair of the Arab International Women's Forum (www.aiwfonline.com). This article was written for the Common Ground News Service.

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