MENA Divided over Future Advancement of Women’s Rights

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75% of the survey respondents say women’s rights have increased in their country of residence in recent years, while only 40% feel feel things are going in the right direction.

Two Emirati women walk along Abu Dhabi corniche with the iconic Emirates Palace in the background.
Two Emirati women walk along Abu Dhabi corniche with the iconic Emirates Palace in the background. (Photo for illustrative purposes only)

Three quarters (75%) of residents in MENA believe women’s rights have increased in their country of residence in recent years. Unfortunately less than half agree they are still moving in the right direction according to new research findings.

The study, conducted amongst 4,431 residents in MENA, encouragingly reveals the region’s progress in the social, political and financial advancement of women with 77% of male respondents and 68% of female respondents claiming their country has witnessed an advancement of women’s rights over the past four years. This sentiment is especially accentuated in North Africa (83%), compared to the GCC (64%) and the Levant (48%).

Worryingly, despite recent progress, when asked which direction women’s rights are moving in their country of residence, only 40% overall feel things are going in the right direction, (36% wrong direction, 16% no direction at all, and 8% don’t know).

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GCC respondents are the most positive with 56% claiming women’s rights are moving in the right direction in their country of residence (compared to 42% in the Levant and 38% in North Africa). Indeed, the highest proportion of respondents in North Africa (41%) believe women’s rights are moving in the wrong direction (compared to 14% in the GCC and 21% in the Levant), hinting at slower progression of women’s equality in that region.

Issues affecting women

Women’s safety

When looking more closely at serious issues affecting women with regards to personal safety across the region, street harassment, domestic violence and poverty topped the list across the overall sample (50%, 48% and 40% respectively). Street harassment was the most prevalent in North Africa (52%).

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What women wear

Results suggest some women across the region also face limitations in their ability to express themselves, with only half (52%) of those surveyed across the region believing women should have the right to dress as they choose. As may have been expected, women were most supportive of this view (77% vs. 47% of men). Support for this notion is also highest in the Levant (71%) compared to 64% of respondents in the GCC and 47% in North Africa.

Still in the realm of fashion, 72% of respondents overall feel married women should be able to choose what they wear as long as their husband agrees. Just 17% believe married women should be able to choose what they wear independently, with a further 11% believing a husband should choose what his wife wears. Once again, women are more likely to agree married women should be able to choose what to wear independently (29% vs 14% of men).

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Women at work

On a positive note, when it comes to gender employment equality, just over half of respondents (52%) across MENA agree there is currently parity in the salaries offered to both genders.

Similarly, 54% of respondents also believe promotions are not based on gender, with those in the GCC and the Levant agreeing the most (both 59% vs 53% in North Africa). Across the overall sample, just 19% of respondents believe men are given preference over women when it comes to job promotions, while 13% believe women are given preference over men.

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Top priorities and future focus

When asked in which areas men and women should be treated equally, respondents selected education/academic opportunities (63%) and employment/labor laws (53%) the most. Child custody rights, property rights (both 46%) and citizenship rights (i.e. right to pass citizenship on to children) (41%) are also regarded as key priorities by many.

In terms of what can be done to further improve women’s rights in the region, emphasizing parts of the Quran that promote the advancement of women is the most popular choice amongst respondents overall (61%). It is also the most popular choice amongst female respondents.

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Having religious leaders promote women’s rights is also a popular choice overall (49%), while the requirement of legal reforms and educational initiatives to challenge stereotypes came third (39%) and fourth (30%) respectively.

Finally, two thirds (65%) of respondents believe international awareness days have the power to improve women’s rights across the region. Indeed, the majority of respondents in North Africa (83%) claim women in their country of residence took part in international women’s day this year (compared to 49% in the GCC and 60% in the Levant).

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