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What women need
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 15 - 03 - 2007

At the seventh conference of the National Council for Women, Mrs Suzanne Mubarak stressed the importance of enhancing women's role in public life. Reem Leila attended
As the world joined forces in celebrating women this month -- first on the occasion of International Women's Day on 8 March followed by Egyptian Women's Day on 16 March -- the role and status of women in society has increasingly become a priority. The domestic agenda was marked in part by the seventh Conference of the National Council for Women (NCW) entitled "Women and Constitutional Amendments" which opened on Tuesday. The three-day event was held under the auspices of Mrs Suzanne Mubarak, the head of NCW, who will give her speech today.
A principal purpose of the conference was to announce the statistical status report on the condition of women in Egypt, as well as to launch NCW's new five-year plan which ends in 2012. NCW Secretary-General Farkhonda Hassan announced that the plan will address several issues, including halving extreme poverty and hunger; promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women; achieving universal primary education for boys and girls; reducing under five mortality rates and maternal mortality rates by two-thirds and three-quarters, respectively; as well as reviewing statistics on the spread of HIV/AIDS and malaria.
"Implementing these goals will be coordinated with the government's different associations and ministries, in addition to NGOs," Hassan told Al-Ahram Weekly. She added that the NCW explicitly recognises the importance of other factors not mentioned in the goals, such as good governance, the role of the private sector and NGOs, and the importance of productive work -- especially for youth -- in achieving broader development.
Investigating poverty, Egypt's Human Development Report (EHDR) used three poverty lines to measure poverty: the food poverty line for those surviving on less than $1 per day; the lower poverty line for those unable to afford the cost of essential food and other basic requirements such as education; and the upper poverty line which reflects the actual consumption expenditures of the poor, which are not limited to essential needs. According to this approach, poverty in Egypt may not necessarily be classified as abject or extreme. According to statistics from 2003, the ultra poor are officially estimated at seven per cent of the population, while those under the lower poverty line comprised 22 per cent.
NCW member, Suad Kamel, said the latter figure is expected to decline to 13 per cent by the year 2015, adding that the Council is considering formulating and implementing an anti- poverty action plan which would spell out policy measures and identify quantitative targets for poverty reduction. "Several donors, such as the World Bank, International Labour Organisation and the UNDP, are supporting a number of initiatives aimed at acquiring better knowledge of poverty dynamics in the country," Kamel said. She continued that one focus of the anti-poverty strategy would be on the productive use of the poor's most abundant asset; labour. Another focus is to provide basic social services such as primary education, basic healthcare and family planning.
With regards to education, the conference noted the disturbing rates of illiteracy and school dropouts among women and girls. According to the most recent statistics, women's illiteracy stood at an alarming 51 per cent in 2003. And as papers reviewed by the conference indicate, this high rate of female illiteracy correlates with early marriage and poor health conditions. A high illiteracy rate limits women's accessibility to formal labour markets, remunerated economic activities and political participation, according to Hoda Rashed, the head of NCW's Education and Science Committee. The Council is hoping that by 2015 female illiteracy will be zero across the nation. Moreover, Rashed believes learning goals must extend beyond reading and writing skills to include IT awareness to facilitate education.
As for empowerment and equality, women represent nearly half the population and head nearly one quarter of households, hence contributing significantly to family income through paid and unpaid work. Recent figures compiled by the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) of the Gender Development Index (GDI) and Gender Empowerment Measures (GEM) reveal a declining trend. The GEM fell from 0.258 to 0.247, and the GDI from 0.62 to 0.591. Naglaa El-Ahwany, member of NCW's Economic Committee, said these figures demonstrate the need for renewed efforts to achieve greater gender empowerment in Egypt -- notwithstanding the positive attitude towards the formulation of gender sensitive policies.
While women have been granted full constitutional rights, including the right to vote and to stand for elections since the 1950s, they continue to occupy a negligible number of seats in parliament. El-Ahwany stressed that a constraining culture which gives preference to males in employment, education and recreational benefits must be addressed. Many women lack awareness of their rights and enjoy little status or authority in areas of decision-making. To integrate women into the process of development comprehensively, she asserted, there should be a total repeal of gender- discriminating legislation in accordance with various international conventions ratified by Egypt. Eliminating all violence against women, as well as providing more income-generating opportunities for female heads of households, is also essential, believes El-Ahwany.
While there have been some landmark changes, such as the nationality law, Family Court and Children Custody Law, Hassan insisted that much more is yet to come.
In a culture where pregnancy and childbirth are regarded as natural events that do not require medical services, the involvement of trained medical professionals at births has been a great challenge in Egypt. Over the past 20 years, national awareness campaigns on reproductive and child healthcare have penetrated every corner of the country, and the results are reflected in the Egyptian Demographic and Health Survey (EDHS). In 2005, the proportion of medically-assisted births increased from 41 per cent in 1999 to 62 per cent in 2005. The percentage of pregnant women receiving treatment to prevent reproductive and neonatal health problems increased from 70 per cent in 1999 to 75 per cent in 2005.
Safaa El-Baz, head of NCW's Health Committee, noted that improvements in healthcare must be tackled in tandem with cultural issues, such as the necessity of obtaining permission and being escorted by a male family member to journey to distant health facilities. Despite the gradual improvement in indicators of child and maternal health, El-Baz said, there is a need to intensify intervention to achieve the NCW's national goals. These efforts should focus on increasing the availability and accessibility of information and services relating to children, enhancing awareness of reproductive rights and improving the quality of prenatal care.
Clearly, the task ahead is overwhelmingly intricate and the proposed changes complex and immense. Critics, of course, reflect on past promises and question whether true change will ever come. In recent years, and certainly months, the national agenda for women's issues has made its mark with concrete steps and grounded change. Perhaps this time, amidst an atmosphere of nationwide reform, the comprehensive plan of action will prove its worth.

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