Let's talk about gender equality

29 April 2021
Gender inclusive societies are crucial to achieve a better world, says Expo 2020 Dubai’s Hind al-Owais

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Women and girls make up half of the world’s population. We are not a minority, yet throughout history, our contributions to economic advances and social progress have often been marginalised.

Gender equality is a fundamental human right. It is essential for our development and for achieving peaceful societies that fulfil our human potential. However, there is still a long way to go before equality of rights and opportunities between men and women will be attained. In fact, according to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Gender Gap Report 2020, it will take about 99 years.

Having previously worked as a diplomat, representing the UAE in the conceptualisation, design and negotiations of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) at the UN, I remember an intense debate about whether gender equality should be a standalone goal or remain integrated as part of the other SDGs. The UAE, along with several other countries, supported the UN entity for gender equality, known as UN Women, to ensure the issue would be taken on board as an individual SDG and across other goals.

The result was the global adoption of a goal that aims to “achieve” – not just promote – gender equality and “empower all women and girls”, complete with six specific targets and three means of implementation. This agreement sends a message to the world that women’s issues are everyone’s issues – and that all issues are women’s issues.

Equality at Expo 2020

Expo 2020 has followed the same model as the SDGs, aiming to bring the agenda of gender equality and women’s empowerment to life through the Women’s Pavilion, as well as ensuring these topics are woven in to discussions across all of Expo’s thematic weeks and during event programming.

The gender equality and women’s empowerment (GEWE) agenda is not new. For decades, the international community has been negotiating the issue and discussing what needs to be done, and concrete actions and plans have been identified. We know what laws need to be passed. We know what investments need to be made. We know what policies need to be adopted. And yet no country has fully achieved gender equality.  

In order to fulfil the aims of the SDGs with GEWE at their heart, our collective efforts need to focus on key areas for transformation. 

The right policies

Women’s equality and empowerment should be supported by deep legal and legislative regulation that corrects the stark gender disparities that exist in the economic, political and social spheres.

The UAE has emerged as the region’s leader in GEWE efforts by pursuing a policy that is consistent and data-driven. Groundbreaking reforms have been introduced that allow women to fully participate in economic activities, as well as to support equal treatment of women in their personal lives.

This includes the establishment of the UAE’s Gender Balance Council, which focuses on providing women with equal opportunities in the public sector.

Another directive, issued by the UAE government in December 2018, has ensured that Emirati women now occupy 50 per cent of the UAE’s Federal National Council.

Taking effect in 2019, this has placed the UAE among the countries with the highest level of female representation in parliament, overtaking the UK and the US, where women make up about 32 per cent and 19 per cent of parliament and congress, respectively.

There is a disparity between genders regarding access to resources and opportunities across all sectors. Investing in and enabling the empowerment of women will demonstrate a positive return across all aspects of human welfare.

Studies conducted by non-profit organisation BSR have shown that women in employment are more likely to invest in the education, nutrition and the health of their children, helping to break the cycle of poverty.

A cultural shift 

A gender-inclusive narrative is key to formulating and cultivating the right cultural shift towards equality, and is arguably the most important transformation that needs to take place.

During my time at UN Women, its executive director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka always used to say that a good law sitting next to negative social norms will mean and achieve nothing. This is an important idea to recognise.

The UAE is an example of a country in which social norms have moved forward in tandem with legislation to achieve change. The cultural shift in a short space of time has been incredible. 

Indeed, the 2021 WEF Global Gender Gap Report released in March revealed that the UAE has advanced 48 ranks in just one year, rising from the 120th rank to the 72nd globally, and has already closed 71.6 per cent of its gender gaps to date.

Expo 2020 Dubai will build on what has already been achieved, serving as a platform of empowerment for women and girls across the globe and inspiring them to become catalysts for change in their communities.

It is now time for the world to recognise the central role of women across all spheres. Female participation and leadership in all areas of life is the only route to creating stronger and more inclusive societies.

Expo Talks: Global Goals
Global Goals is the ninth in a series of 10 thematic pre-expo talks launched in October 2020, bringing together influential policymakers, thought-leaders, Expo participants and the public to help shape the thought-provoking content and conversations taking place during Expo 2020. Held in association with the UN, the Global Goals talks explored the innovative solutions and concrete actions needed to turn the SDGs into reality.

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