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French Version

Women's conference looks at gains in Arab world

'Societies have taken big steps toward empowerment, but much remains to be done'

Six female Iraqi ministers, three in Oman, 35 MPs in Sudan's Parliament, 30 in the Morocco and six in Jordan: These are just some of the feats Arab women have accomplished in the past 10 years since the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.

The improvements, however, are not restricted to politics but also include health and education. All these issues, plus evaluating the implementation of the Beijing Platform of Action, will be "reviewed and assessed" at the three-day "Arab Regional Conference: 10 Years after Beijing: Call for Peace," which began Thursday.

The opening ceremony began with a speech from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, delivered by Mervat Tallawy, the executive-secretary of Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA). Annan's message emphasized the importance of reaffirming "the commitment ... to the vital cause of women's empowerment."

"It is heartening," Tallawy continued, "that the empowerment of women, one of the Millennium Development Goals, has become central to the Arab vision of reform."

The speech also expressed gratitude to Egypt's first lady, Susan Mubarak, for starting an international movement of women for peace. Mubarak did not attend the event.

"Arab societies have taken big steps toward empowering women, but much remains to be done," said Tallawy, adding that the conference was thus key to drafting a new agenda for the next 10 years with means to overcome previous obstacles.

"Women become the first victim in the absence of peace," she said, before naming some accomplishments: the establishment of the Arab Organization for Women, which held its first

summit in 2000; the foundation of ministries and councils for women; and the amendment of several laws and the 12-percent representation in the Syrian Parliament that exceeds that of any other Arab country.

Tallawy also mentioned several challenges, such as laws that tolerate "honor killings," illiteracy, violence against women, unemployment and religious extremism.

Tallawy said empowering women requires five goals; the most important of which is one's belief in the cause, coupled with consistent policies.

"Women should stand up and say 'enough is enough.' Are we being highly educated to sit at home?" she asked. "We ... will continue to be victims of ... oppression and injustice."

These are just a few of the statements issued by Nana Rawlings, Ghana's former first lady. She said that the three-day conference would succeed in building a "solid network for high-level advocacy" and not only be an occasion "to repeat tired slogans and adopt new bland resolutions."
Rawlings reasserted that women as "half of humanity" should continue "to prod, to lobby, and to insist."

Randah Berri, wife of the Lebanese speaker, addressed delegates on behalf of first lady Andre Lahoud. She said Arab societies "would be paralyzed" if the situation remains as is. She also spoke of Lebanon's success in achieving comprehensive primary education due to a law issued in 1998 and reducing illiteracy from 18.8 percent in 1998 to 15.4 percent in 2000.

Tallawy gave awards to Mubarak (in absentia), UAE first lady Fatima bint Mubarak, Palestinian and Moroccan delegates, as well as one for the late Laura Moghayzel, which was received by her daughter Nada.

The opening of a literature and art exhibition, with selected pieces from Arab women writers and artists - such as Souad al-Salem, Nada Raad and Naziha Sleem - then followed. It will span the next three days of the conference.

The day concluded with a seminar with Arab women MPs chaired by MP Bahia Hariri. It included Jordanian Social Development Minister Salwa al-Masri, Kuwaiti lawyer Kawthar al-Jouan and Amal Othman, Egypt's deputy speaker in the People's Assembly.

The next two days will feature seminars with Arab women ministers, syndicates, unions, political parties and intellectuals, and media figures to discuss the role of women in the different fields.

The conference will then conclude with the adoption of the report of the Committee on Women on its second session and the Beirut Declaration on "Arab Women 10 Years After Beijing: Call for Peace."

The past 10 years featured the endorsement of The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women by 17 Arab Countries and other advancements, but there remains an arduous trek ahead.

"Yesterday was time for talk, today is time for decisions and decisive action," said Rawlings.

Beirut,07 12 2004
Sarah Richani
The Daily Star
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