Egypt’s National Council for Women (NCW), a government-affiliated group, has expressed scepticism over a World Economic Forum (WEF) report stating that the country has the largest economic and social disparity between the sexes of almost 60 countries studied.
The report, released on 16 May, entitled “Women’s Empowerment: Measuring the Gender Gap” quantified the extent of the gender gap in 58 countries.
It measured the degree to which women have achieved full equality with men in the five areas of economic participation, economic opportunity, political empowerment, educational attainment and health and well-being.
While acknowledging that there are problems in gender equity in Egypt, Dr Sahar Nasr of the NWC, said efforts made to address the problem should not be ignored.
“We’re behind on political participation but there’s a lot of work that is being done as part of comprehensive political reform. In terms of women’s economic participation, Egypt has picked up significantly over the last five to 10 years,” she told IRIN in Cairo.
“Educationally, we’ve achieved the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) health and education targets before the target date. Definitely we rank higher than many Middle Eastern and North African countries,” she added.
The MDGs, a specific set of targets for human development and progress, based on the United Nations Millenium declaration, were unanimously adopted by the UN general assembly in September 2000.
Nasr, an economist, also voiced doubt about the usefulness of the labour statistics used in the report, pointing out that a significant number of women who own small businesses or contribute to the economy through the informal sector, never make it into national labour statistics.
According to the World Bank, female representation in the Egyptian parliament was only 2.4 percent as of 2003, and only 31 percent of the officially measured workforce were women.
Although the report states that gender inequities exist in every country, it singles out Muslim countries for their lack of progress.
“There is little doubt that traditional, deeply conservative attitudes regarding the role of women have made [Muslim countries’] integration into the world of public decision-making extremely difficult,” the report says.
“As the newly independent Arab governments of Egypt and Jordan focused on modernisation more than half a century ago, they neglected the needs of women, one of their most important assets. In recent times however, some progress has evidently been made.”
The report named Sweden and four other Nordic countries as having the lowest gender gaps, while it said Jordan, Pakistan, Turkey and Egypt have the largest disparities.
Internationally compiled gender statistics show that Egypt does have significant gaps between the sexes.
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) figures show illiteracy among females over the age of 15 to be 56 percent compared to 33 percent for males. The number of women in Egypt, according to World Bank estimates, is 31.5 million out of a total population of 65 million.
The WEF report states that a dearth of available statistics led to the inclusion of only two Arab countries in the report, these being Egypt and Jordan.
El Saadawi, however, goes a step further than the report in her assessment of women’s political participation in the country.
“Women have no role in Egyptian politics, this is a very male dominated class society. We have one man or one family rule; we don’t have political institutions or (viable) political parties,” she said.
Nasr would not disagree that women are underrepresented in Egyptian politics. She argued, however, that the government had taken significant steps towards improving women’s participation.
“The burden of empowerment lies not just with the government or the [political] parties, but with women themselves. If I want to effectively participate on the political field I need to develop myself, reach out to the people. The reform concept is there and we need to work on it.”