EBRD is committed to promoting gender equality

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Delivered by: 

Sir Suma Chakrabarti, EBRD President


London, UK


Jointly organised with Women for Women International

Equal access to economic opportunities is key

All of us, I’m sure, agree that women are vital agents of change. Indeed, I would go further. I would argue that their participation in politics and their active engagement in civil society and government decision-making are not just key ingredients in building a democracy and an inclusive society. Without them, it is difficult to speak of real democracy at all.

We all witnessed striking proof of this in the changes that swept through the Middle East and North Africa after December 2010. During those days, women and men marched together for change.

All across the region, wherever democratic movements gained momentum, women were also highly visible and vocal on social media. Women expressed their frustration at the status quo through other public spaces such as art and culture as well.

And yet if we look at those same public spaces today, at the end of 2013, those women who campaigned for freedom, justice and more opportunities alongside men seem to have - in some contexts -disappeared.

Indeed, women’s very presence at public events sometimes provokes hostility.

In some countries, this, and the broader climate, risk undermining the rights women gained after their countries received independence from colonial powers.

What we know for sure is that the campaign for real gender equality goes on. The World Economic Forum’s 2013 Global Gender Gap Index shows that many Arab nations rank lowest of 135 countries worldwide. They all displayed large disparities between men and women in economic participation, educational attainment, health and political empowerment. Despite progress made in the last few years, the Middle East and North Africa stands out as the region with the largest gender gap.

A recent survey by our hosts today, the Thomson Reuters Foundation, bears this out. The survey covered issues such as violence against women, reproductive rights, treatment of women within the family, their integration into society and attitudes towards woman’s role in politics and the economy. Its results are alarming. Out of 22 Arab states, five Arab Spring countries came bottom for women's rights.

So were the encouraging events of the last few years merely a temporary blip? No, not at all, I would argue. In fact, women’s active participation in state-building in the region is nothing new. It has a long and proud history. Women played a major role in their countries’ struggle for independence, for example.

In Tunisia, the first women’s association, the Tunisian Women’s Islamic Union, was created back in 1936. Before independence, the speeches of Habib Bourguiba, the nationalist leader and later the country’s first president, insisted that its development and prosperity depended upon everyone taking part, women and men alike.

In Morocco, in 1946, the Sisters of Purity Association issued a set of demands, including the abolition of polygamy, full and equal political rights, and increased visibility of women in the public sphere. Female journalists, academics, and civil society built on these demands after independence.

In Jordan, the Jordanian Women’s Union was set up in 1945. And when the kingdom gained independence from Britain, the movement was active in demanding greater political, social, legal, and economic rights for women.

In Egypt, many associations devoted to women’s issues were established and secondary schools opened for women in the 1930s. Egypt’s main university, the University of Cairo, accepted its first female student even before then.

Egyptian women were granted the right to vote in the 1950s. And in the first elected parliament after the revolution of 1952 five women stood in the elections and two of them won seats. The Egyptian constitution in 1956 explicitly asserted the equality of opportunity for men and women.

Today we can still see the legacy of those ideals and aspirations. From the early years of independence. The problem is that on many fronts they have remained just that - ideals and aspirations that exist more on paper, on the statute books, than in reality and everyday life.

Women in most countries of the region enjoy legal equality with men with respect to issues such as freedom of movement, health care, education, political participation, and access to employment. But in some cases they still suffer from discrimination with regards to nationality and citizenship and cannot pass their citizenship to their spouses or children.

Women face gender-based discrimination in personal-status laws, which regulate marriage, divorce, child guardianship, inheritance, and other aspects of family life. Laws in most of the region declare that the husband is the head of the family, give the husband power over his wife’s right to work, and in some instances specifically require the wife to obey her husband.

In the world of employment, the combination of poor education and societal pressure to work in certain professions or industries has led most working women to take up low-paying jobs.

Women also suffer from unequal pay, despite the fact that most labour codes mandate equal salaries for work of equal value.

The World Bank’s 2012 World Development Report on Gender Equality and Development argues that there is indeed a gap in the MENA region between advancement in education and healthcare on one hand and economic contribution on the other hand - not because women are jobless but because women have poor quality jobs or work without actually getting paid for their labour.

While many women participate in civil society and community based activities, they are significantly underrepresented at senior levels both in politics and the private sector. According to the latest data, women’s representation in parliaments in the region is a mere 15.9 per cent, almost 10 per cent below the OECD average.

Another significant problem for women that I should mention here is gender-based violence and all its consequences on women’s lives. Women also face gender-based discrimination due to traditional assumptions about the way they should behave in public.

The upshot of all this is that many women, even those who are educated and come from relatively privileged backgrounds, cannot play a full role in the economy, nor can they achieve financial independence. The gaps are higher for women living in rural areas, who face many challenges related to access to basic services.

Where does the EBRD stand on these issues? Well, we, as an international financial institution, are committed to the promotion of inclusive societies in emerging Arab democracies. And, as I suggested earlier, we do not think that a functioning market-economy based on democratic principles is possible without equal rights and opportunities for women.

So we see one of the main challenges for the years to come to be the adoption of the institutional and policy framework necessary to end inequalities in law. Another will be to ensure that laws are enforced and implemented fairly and consistently. And for the latter to happen, we need to raise both awareness and commitment to creating an enabling environment. And we will also need both men and women to be committed to changing society.

Clearly, the likelihood of this happening depends on the countries themselves and their leaders. But I am convinced that international institutions, including the EBRD, can play an important role in supporting change.

The EBRD has been promoting the emergence and growth of democratic market economies in central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia since its creation in 1991. Now, at the request of our shareholders, we are investing in Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt too.

Over the two decades of our existence, supporting private enterprise and investing in improving the business climate has proven to be a powerful tool for fostering broad-based economic prosperity – for both men and women.

Now, lack of access to finance and employment are among the main reasons why women suffer from inequality. This is particularly true of the Middle East and North Africa, where their labour force participation remains the lowest worldwide despite high levels of education (often referred to as the MENA paradox).

Furthermore, in some regions such as the Maghreb, the public sector has provided the lion’s share of female employment, while the private sector has been rather ‘men dominated’. There needs to be change.

To help women enter the labour market as well as to support their entrepreneurial activities, we have to invest in programmes which provide women with the opportunity to learn skills in demand by the private sector. This needs to take place alongside investments in entrepreneurship support programmes, addressing collateral issues related to women´s access to finance, developing specific finance products for them and facilitating access to services.

In Turkey, the Bank has been successfully supporting domestic banks in offering women-only credit lines to female entrepreneurs. I am hopeful we can do the same in the Middle Eastern and North African countries in which we invest.

We support women’s economic empowerment and see it as inextricably linked to their social and political empowerment. We do so to help them become independent and ensure their voices are heard and their rights are respected. Like their peers in other countries, women in the region deserve to live in a society where they can be agents of their own destiny.

I have said this already today but I really do believe that women’s economic, social and political inclusion is key to democracy’s success. If we at the EBRD can boost participation, inclusion and gender equality in the region through our work there – and I know we can - we too can do our bit to deepen democracy.

I believe men play an important role in eliminating gender inequality. We need to help today’s men and boys to gain a better understanding of the benefits for all of the importance of gender equality and women’s rights in the economy and the rest of society.

The changes currently underway in the region offer a real opportunity for long-term democratic reforms.

I am an optimist about where those changes are leading.

But I also believe that those changes will only deliver truly inclusive and prosperous democracies if they remove the barriers to women’s access to services, finance, employment and political participation – and strengthen women’s role in society as a whole.

Thank you very much.

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