Gender equality, social protection and people-centered data for Arab world’s prosperity

Gender equality, social protection and people-centered data for Arab world’s prosperity

Gender equality, social protection and people-centered data for Arab world’s prosperity
Lebanese women march in Beirut to demanding that marriage before the age of 18 be banned. (AFP)
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The world today is wealthier, healthier and has made more technological and data advances than in any single previous generation. We have witnessed many gains specifically related to the UN Population Fund’s mandate. Paradoxically, the single greatest threat to these gains lies in inequality.
Age at first marriage in the Arab states has increased for both men and women. Reproductive and maternal health have improved significantly in the region, despite persisting disparities. In 2023, for example, the use of contraceptive methods for women aged 15 to 49 was 34 percent. Strides in reducing maternal mortality were significant, marked by the high percentage of births attended by skilled personnel, which rose to 86 percent in 2020.
On the contrary, child marriage, divorce rates and unequal access to healthcare remain pervasive. Eleven Arab nations met the Sustainable Development Goals target of attaining below 70 maternal deaths per 100,000 population by 2030, while progress has slowed and, in some aspects, come to a standstill within and between other countries across the region and beyond. Access to reproductive health and rights advancement, particularly among the most marginalized women and girls, is still uneven and often falling behind the  Sustainable Development Goals targets.
We are at a crossroads. And we must ask ourselves what, after so much effort, investment and commitment, is the main path to success leading to peaceful and prosperous Arab countries and societies?
First, global solidarity and collective efforts are required to empower people, families and communities for generations. We must focus on the core tenets of the landmark Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development that was agreed by world leaders in Cairo 30 years ago, calling on all of us to put women and girls at the heart of development and of peace-building.
Second, ensuring gender equality and social protection is key in equipping countries to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, both at local and national level and among countries.
This also points to big challenges in the Arab region.
While our primary focus and efforts are toward serving the people, we should also tackle the deep-rooted and detrimental disparities in our health and social systems and societies. Where opportunities are denied due to entrenched social norms, discriminatory laws and lack of access to education and economic resources, we must work together to create a society where women and girls are valued, respected and empowered to lead in all spheres of life.
For instance, to strengthen gender equality and combat discrimination and violence, the government of Morocco introduced various legal protection measures for women, including policy reforms such as the National Equality Plan. This aims to integrate a gender approach into national policies and development programs, as well as to empower women and enable them to cope with emerging threats, such as COVID-19, climate change and brain drain.
Another often unrecognized factor driving advancements in women and girls’ reproductive health and community engagement, enabling societies to measure and achieve goals related to health and the fulfillment of rights and choices, is data. The Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development clearly emphasizes the importance of people-centered data, which is disaggregated to identify gaps and disparities affecting individuals and communities and to ensure that no one is left behind.
In Jordan, data from a UN Population Fund-supported demographic health survey was used to enhance the country’s National Strategy for Women 2020-2025. The data helped to clarify the causes and extent of gender-based violence in Jordan. It also allowed for evidence-based decision-making and for targeted actions to combat gender-based violence and to empower marginalized women.
In Algeria, crucial work is underway to capture and use inclusive population data that is valid and reliable. This can be used for policymaking and to build health systems with a focus on equity, as well as to work with the youth to ensure they can make informed decisions about their bodies, relationships and futures.

We must work together to create a society where women and girls are valued, respected and empowered.

Laila Baker

Conflict and climate change-fueled crises are further deepening inequalities in access to healthcare, jobs and education, with a disproportionate impact on women and girls, further compounding discrimination and gender inequality. These growing causes of marginalization require attention and immediate action.
Yet, committed efforts offer hope and a way forward.
Even in countries like Somalia, where protracted crisis has ensued, the National Social Protection Policy actively integrates climate change considerations, including their gendered impact, in its objectives. It aims to build the resilience of households to support people, particularly in rural areas, and thereby work to address the exacerbating impact of climate change on equality for a just and equitable society.

In 2022, more than 102 million people were forcibly displaced in the Arab world. That is about one in five people and, with the onset of wars in Sudan and Gaza, the numbers are rising. The majority of those affected are women and children and we know that gender-based violence, including sexual violence, spikes in such settings. Harmful practices like child marriage and female genital mutilation also rise in crisis areas, where people are often the hardest to reach, exacerbating inequalities and widening disparities. But opportunities lay ahead.
In one case study, Aisha fled her home amid the war in Syria. At the Family Planning Association in Jordan, she received guidance on childcare, parenting and education, so her children can enjoy a better start as they rebuild their lives. “My message to women is simple,” Aisha said. “If you are pregnant, get a check-up and plan your families. I didn’t know about family planning before, but I make informed decisions now.”
The State of the World’s Population Report 2024, the UN Population Fund’s flagship publication, outlines the progress made in advancing reproductive health and rights around the world since 1994. It also highlights the disproportionality, with the most marginalized women experiencing the least improvements. In parts of the Arab world, the huge gains we have made in the last 30 years are at grave risk of being erased.
Together, we must root out inequalities from our health systems and policies to ensure everyone benefits. There are already inspiring examples of this.
Amid conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Sudan and Gaza, women-led organizations are on the front lines, ensuring safe births, providing lifesaving supplies and protecting women and girls from gender-based violence. They have long been the backbone of their communities, the heroes who have held families together and worked to provide safety and security in their homes, workplaces and communities, contributing to their societies in countless ways. Yet, too often, their voices have been silenced, their potential untapped, their rights denied or stymied. Their full and equal participation, and their leadership, is key to any lasting peace and shared future prosperity.
Inclusive health and social systems are enablers of human rights and evidence and reliable data shows that empowering women advances prosperity and peace. When women and girls control their bodies, choices and lives — when they can get educated, secure meaningful work and fulfill their dreams — people, families, communities and countries benefit for generations. Inspiring stories like Aisha’s are a testament to that.
On World Population Day, which is marked on Thursday, we celebrate and advocate for a cause that is fundamental to the progress and prosperity of any society: the right to health and prosperity of women and girls. It is a cause that goes beyond boundaries, beyond cultures, beyond prejudices. It is a cause that speaks to the very essence of humanity — the right to live a life of dignity, of opportunity and of fulfillment. The UN Population Fund and its partners, with thanks to the generous contributions of its donors, will continue working and investing in sexual and reproductive health and rights for all, emphasizing the important role of gender equality, which contributes to the realization of sexual and reproductive health and rights and people-centered sustainable development.
So, while we applaud the huge progress the Arab world has made in advancing reproductive health and rights, we must make sure that our commitments are fulfilled for everyone, everywhere.
Everyone counts in weaving a collective future.

Laila Baker is the UN Population Fund’s regional director for Arab states.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view