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The fight for empowerment: Women in the Middle East and North Africa

By Rep. Gerry Connolly

Gender equality, women’s rights, and women’s empowerment are fundamental to our cultural identity, national security, and economic prosperity. Countless Americans have fought hard to make sure of that. However, progress on gender equality and women and girls’ rights ha been uneven around the globe, especially in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The data speaks for itself.

According to the 2019 Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) Index, 10 of 18 MENA countries are among the world’s bottom 12 performers for gender-based legal discrimination, with Saudi Arabia unsurprisingly ranking the lowest globally. Female labor force participation remains low across the region, despite rapidly rising female education rates and improved access to health care. Only 16 percent of legislative seats are held by women in MENA countries compared to 25 percent globally.

The Trump administration’s attacks on women’s health and women-centered initiatives have further hampered progress on these fronts. The president has engaged in an all-out assault on women’s health by proposing drastic funding cuts, expanding the “Global Gag Rule”, and eliminating U.S. funding for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Ivanka Trump’s Women’s Global Development and Prosperity (W-GDP) initiative is a thinly veiled attempt to salvage her own legacy and distract from her father’s disastrous anti-women policies. We need to immediately reinstate funding for UNFPA and restore U.S. foreign assistance in support of rights, empowerment, and equality for women and girls.

Certain countries actively suppress women’s rights through the persecution of women’s rights activists. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Saudi Arabia, where authorities arbitrarily arrest and detain women’s rights leaders with impunity. The Saudi government arrested my constituent and U.S. Lawful Permanent Resident Aziza Al-Yousef in May 2018 on charges related to her peaceful human rights activism. Despite her provisional release in March 2019, Ms. Al-Yousef cannot leave Saudi Arabia given the charges pending in court. The government has further targeted Ms. Al-Yousef’s family by detaining her son, Mr. Salah Al-Haidar — a U.S. citizen and constituent of my district — since April 2019.

The Trump administration has turned a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s egregious human rights violations and ignored repeated calls for action from members of Congress. I personally have written the president and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, demanding justice and the immediate release of Mr. Al-Haidar and all Saudi activists detained on trumped up charges. I have also advocated for the protection of Saudi critics abroad by introducing the Protection of Saudi Dissidents Act (H.R. 4507), which was passed by the House Foreign Affairs Committee in September. This legislation would hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the murder of prominent Saudi journalist and my constituent Mr. Jamal Khashoggi and other attacks on critics of the Kingdom.

Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic has reversed certain gains made on gender equality and threatens to stymie further progress, with early data indicating that women and girls in the MENA region are experiencing unique and dire effects from the pandemic. Women in many MENA countries are more exposed to COVID-19 through their employment as health care workers or home care givers. A UN survey in nine Arab countries found that between March and May 2020, less than 40 percent of women surveyed who experienced domestic violence had sought help. Another report indicated that 700,000 women in the region faced income insecurity. While women constitute a much smaller percentage of the workforce in MENA countries, women’s jobs account for around 40 percent of the 1.7 million jobs expected to be lost.

There is no easy path to national prosperity when women and girls are subject to widespread economic, political, and social discrimination. While progress on gender equality was already limited in the Middle East, the Trump administration’s attacks on women’s health and neglect of human rights have exacerbated the problem and emboldened those who would keep women oppressed. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has cast a deep shadow over the march for women’s rights, as it has burdened women disproportionately in MENA countries and around the world. Moving forward, Congress must seek every opportunity to work closely with the new administration to restore U.S. leadership on global women’s empowerment and address the unique needs of women as we enter the next phase of this global pandemic.

Read the full piece in the Hill here.
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