Haifa Al Kaylani: "Parliament is the key institution for ensuring the respect of women's rights"

Haifa Al Kaylani
December 16, 2010

Haifa Al Kaylani is the Founder and Chairperson of the Arab International Women’s Forum. Ms. Al Kaylani is a graduate of the American University of Beirut and University of Oxford. Fluent in five languages, Ms. Al Kaylani holds senior roles in several organizations in the UK and internationally as well as seats on the boards of charities, cultural institutions and NGOs. In 2006, Haifa Al Kaylani received recognition as one of 21 Leaders for the twenty-first century by Women's eNews in New York.

In her speech at the International conference on “Strengthening the role of women MPs in Stabilizing and transforming Afghanistan” Ms. Al Kaylani stresses the importance of women’s active participation in political life and calls for more support for women coming from conflict areas and fragile democracies. Ms. Al Kaylani gives several key recommendations for mainstreaming gender equality in Post-War Afghanistan which include the enhancement of Afghan women’s participation in public life by  ensuring the access to education; providing a platform for women leaders from the region to share experience and apply best practices and the fight against poverty.

“The Arab International Women’s Forum and the East-West Institute share a core vision and mission in our combined and demonstrated commitment to confronting and working towards the resolution of the critical challenges that endanger peace and stability (both social and economic). We believe that there cannot be economic, political or social development or sustainability in any society without women playing their rightful role in their economies and their societies at large.

Fifteen years after the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and a decade after the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), the rights of women and opportunities for their empowerment remains a priority on the Arab economic agenda.

In March 2010 United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton identified equality for the world’s women and girls as one of the most crucial challenges that will ultimately determine the peace and progress of the 21st century.

If women’s rights are human rights, and the empowerment of women is the key to securing a safe, sustainable future society, then this issue alone becomes crucial to the question of how Afghanistan might regain its economic and social equilibrium after decades of unrest, war and political violence. The ‘Multiplier Effect’ of gender equality has been increasingly acknowledged. It has also given rise to the enhanced participation of Arab women in politics, and has had a remarkable effect on the number of Arab women establishing, growing and managing successful businesses and taking an active role in the development of their economies and the achievement of development objectives.

Across much of the region, legal, social, political and economic frameworks are being extensively reformed in order to protect, develop and empower women to become active participants in Arab government and to serve as the voices of Arab women everywhere, bringing gender-sensitive issues and matters of economic and academic equality to the forefront of the legislative process and preparing other women to enter public life. Throughout the Arab world, women are now increasingly in positions of leadership, gaining knowledge and playing important and key roles in the economic and political development of their countries. Women have become leading partners in the development process for the Arab world.

Parliament is the key institutional forum for promoting gender equality and ensuring that the rights of women are respected and encoded in law. Despite this, as of September 2010 and according to the IPU, only 19.2% of the world’s parliamentarians are women and the Arab region ranks weakest, with the inclusion of women in Parliament accounting for only 10.5%. While still under-represented in the parliaments, Arab women are rapidly gaining more equal representation in line with the liberalization of Arab political systems. In recent years, women in the GCC have achieved significant breakthroughs by participating in parliamentary elections and right across the Arab world, the debate about women in politics has become absolutely vital to public debate and a cornerstone of the Arab governments’ economic and social agenda.

Egypt, Iraq and Jordan are the most recent examples of Arab countries that have introduced an obligatory legal quota to enhance women's participation in the political life. Algeria, Morocco and Lebanon already apply partial quotas and allocate a certain number of seats for women to help them gain parliamentary presence. Across the MENA region, and specifically the GCC, educational reform and the advancement of women in both the private and public sectors have become the top economic priorities of recent decades. Throughout the GCC and the Arab world, Arab women are trumping their male counterparts in the academic realm.

The important roles of women as peace-makers and stabilisers in neighbouring countries that are besieged by conflict and political unrest, specifically Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine, must never be under-estimated. Leading women in business and public life, from the Arab region, India, Pakistan and the broader East must be inspired and encouraged to channel their strengths, talents and platforms towards promoting security for women and girls and promoting a collective agenda of economic and social stability. Experience exchange, mentorship, resources and financial support are all necessary tools that women in post-conflict areas will need in order to rebuild their communities from the bottom up, and most importantly – from within.

Women living in conflict areas must be supported and empowered to act as key influencers and change agents, and as active partners in peace processes. It is the responsibility of civil society, governments and the private sector to work together with women to emphasize the strong interdependency of peace, justice and development, specifically in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine today. The importance of women’s participation in the political process has a huge bearing on human security, as does the issue of poverty.

The global media has a responsibility to bring the world’s attention to women’s issues. Regional and International Communities also must work to promote dialogue, cooperation and action in ensuring that the issue of women’s rights becomes synonymous with the issue of human rights.

Recommendations for Mainstreaming Gender Equality in Post-War Afghanistan & How Arab Women in Public Life Can Make It Happen:

  1. Coordinate an international network of Parliamentarians to support and promote the difficult task of mainstreaming gender equality in Afghanistan’s political theatre;
  2. Award women MPs in Afghanistan with opportunities to connect with their counterparts from the Arab region and indeed the International Community, learning from their experiences and applying best practices and shared training;
  3. Agents of change in the Arab world – women business leaders, parliamentarians, legislators and educators – are in the best possible position to support the work of women in Afghan politics, given the slow but steady removal in recent decades of the socio-cultural barriers that excluded them from full and empowered participation in their economies, their governments and their national futures. These are invaluable lessons and can add a powerful and timely perspective to the experiences of women seeking to enter public life in Afghanistan;
  4. Enhanced participation of Afghan women in public life begins with ensuring that Afghan girls and women are given the opportunity of education, as a gateway to employment, entrepreneurship and public service;
  5. Addressing the issue of poverty. In Kabul alone, tens of thousands of widows and orphans live destitute in a city where over 60% are unemployed and the vast majority of women and children live well below the poverty line. The situation becomes increasingly desperate the further into rural Afghanistan one goes. There are numerous studies that prove that poverty, corruption, gender violence and diminished prospects for the education, employment and development of women and girls, are all inter-linked, and ultimately have a great bearing on a country’s global economic positioning and prospects. If Afghanistan is to succeed post-war as an example of a reconstructed, peaceful and democratic society, then the issue of poverty is one that must be dealt with swiftly and conclusively.
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