What do the SDGs goals mean for Arab women?

A region overwhelmed by violence and conflicts* Moreover, the realities of women in the Arab region are influenced, directly or indirectly, by the recurrence of conflicts, including state crisis, wars, occupation, and the onslaught of religious fundamentalism and militarized religious extremist group. While the implications on rights and broader political, social, and economic realities differ in these circumstances, they all leave women subjected to various forms of violence and exclusions. It is not expected that the region will be free of these cycles of conflict and violence in the short term; thus the manifestation of this violence will inevitably continue shaping the lives of women and men living in the region.

Four major categories of vulnerabilities among women could be depicted in the context of the Arab region; women living under military occupation, women living in areas controlled by radical fundamentalists and armed groups, women refugees, and internally displaced women including those who had to leave their homes demolished by occupation. Women victims of these realities could often fall outside the scheme of statistics, and policy-making could remain blind to their specific situations and needs. Accordingly, discussing the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and its implementation in the Arab region requires reflection on the specific nature of the complex realities resulting from these contexts and the consequent needed interventions.

According to ESCWA2, the situation of women in refugee camps, especially the case of Syrian refugees, represents a dramatic setback in the struggle against discrimination and violence against women. For example, reports on cases of rape, early marriages, violence, and expansion in the number of households that became the sole responsibility of women have been prevalent upon the crisis in Syria. This situation is a reflection of how women and their bodies remain the fore arena for manifestation of violent power struggles in the region.

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women underlined in its general recommendation No. 30 on women in conflict prevention, conflict and post-conflict situations the importance of ensuring “that immediate humanitarian assistance needs and protection requirements are complemented with long-term strategies in support of the socioeconomic rights and livelihood opportunities of returnee, internally displaced and refugee women, and enhanced leadership and participation, with a view to empowering them to choose durable solutions that suit their needs”.

The SDGs, a step improving on the MDGs?

The design of the SDGs is an attempt to tackle structural issues, including inequality within and among countries. The SDGs embodied a departure from the reductionist approach of the millennium development goals (MDGs), which did not address the larger policy framework within which gender equality and women’s empowerment are pursued.

The proposed goal 5 of the SDGs, on gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls, captures some of the major demands of women’s groups and movements presented during the development discussions held through the 1990s, and which were not captured in the MDGs. Overall, the proposed goal 5 of the SDGs, together with gender-focused dimensions covered under other proposed SDGs, is broader and touches on more structural dimensions compared to the narrow approach to gender equality reflected in the MDGs.

However, the SDGs do not go further than the set of commitments undertaken by states during the 1990s’ development conferences and under human rights conventions. Furthermore, the SDGs lack the needed ambition for urgent transformational change. One of the major shortcomings of the SDGs is the limitations3  in addressing structural changes needed to realize substantive equality between men and women, including in the areas of employment, the reduction and redistribution of unpaid care work, and women’s control over assets.

The SDGs for the Arab region

Deficiencies curtailing development in the Arab region are largely characterized by discrimination against women and deficits in women empowerment. Overall, the kind of growth achieved in the Arab region during the last three decades did not work for women and equality, nor did it work for a lot of other societal factions and groups. Compared to other regions of the world, the Arab region still witnesses most significant gaps between women and men in education, the economy, and political empowerment4. Besides the overwhelming context of conflicts and violence addressed above, women’s conditions in the region are highly influenced by deep and diverse de jure discrimination, patriarchal attitudes, and deep-rooted stereotypes regarding the roles and responsibilities of women.

Revolutions and popular uprisings witnessed in several countries of the region since 2010/2011 did not materialize in opportunities to address traditional challenges that women have struggled against. To the contrary, we saw the re-emergence of old struggles that women have attempted to address in the region. Yet, the significance of citizen’s will and influence, manifested in the context of the revolutions and uprisings that took place in the region, will necessarily allow for more spaces of struggle against patriarchal norms and religious fundamentalism, and towards women’s rights and equality.

Within this context, achieving sustainable progress on women’s rights and gender equality front requires embedding the goals in a broader framework of structural transformations at the economic, social, cultural, and political levels. It requires recognizing and acting upon the interconnected nature of risks and opportunities in the development framework that is being sought, and the need for a multi-faceted intervention at the economic, social, and political levels, including at the national and global levels. Furthermore, given the nature of persistent and recurring occupation, conflicts, and state crisis in multiple countries of the Arab region, States should ensure that short-term humanitarian assistance to cover the immediate needs and protection requirements is complemented with long-term strategies in support of the socioeconomic rights and livelihood opportunities of women impacted by these conditions.

Central to this discussion is addressing the role of the state, including in preserving and adequately utilizing policy space through dynamic design of national economic, social, and environmental policy tools and mobilizing development-focused institutions. Besides, one of the main tasks in the Arab countries starts with reforms in the legislative frameworks.

The added value of the SDGs agenda will rest to a large extent with operationalizing the means of implementation associated with the goals, including the commitments on financing for sustainable development at the global and national levels. In the national context, effectively reflecting gender considerations in financing for development policies requires a gender conscious design of distribution policies, including tax policies and national budgets. Overall, deepening and effectuating accountability mechanisms for the SDGs requires looking beyond simplified indicators. It entails extending the monitoring task to consider the broader context within which the development goals are sought, including economic and social policies and implications of instability and conflicts.


* This article is based on a report prepared by the author for ESCWA entitled "Women's Rights and gender Equality for Sustainable Development; Discussing the SDGs within the Context of the Development Problematique in the Arab Region" (2015).

2 ESCWA, power point entitled “Presentation of the Arab Integrated Report on implementation of Beijing platform of Action +20”, slide 22, presented in the regional experts meeting on Beijing outcomes (Beirut, October 2014).

3 Limitations cover the proposed targets and accompanying means of implementation in these areas.

4 The Middle East and North Africa region, encompassing Arab states, scores worst in terms of the gaps between women and men in education, the economy and political empowerment, in comparison to other regions (i.e. Central Asia, East Asia and the Pacific, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, North America, South Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa). That is according to the ‘Social Watch’ Gender Equity Index.

Source: Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND).