A Global Index Can't Count All the UAE's Gender Challenges

May Al-Dabbagh
November 2010

The UAE was ranked number one out of 14 countries in the Arab world in the latest version of the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI). This nine-point jump has been celebrated as evidence that the UAE is taking gender equality seriously and can now be a role model for women's leadership issues regionally.

While the rise is a laudable achievement, the reading of the index itself remains problematic. In the effort to boost a country's rank, officials are often motivated to "fix rankings" rather than undertake a deeper study of issues on the ground. In turn, reform efforts can end up being superficial and ineffective.

Indices such as the GGGI are also often unable to measure important aspects of well-being for large portions of the population because they depend on broad indicators and national points of focus. In this regard, they overemphasise outcomes for elite segments of the population, often at the cost of community-level empowerment or the informal work sector.

For instance, the UAE still has a long way to go to address restrictions on women's movement during marriage and divorce, the practice of disciplining wives, the denial of citizenship rights to the children of national women married to non-nationals, and discrimination against women in state-funded entitlements such as housing programmes.

Women's labour, particularly in the informal sector, also remains under-assessed. While the number of women-led businesses in the UAE is growing, many are unregistered in formal-sector indices and are not reflected in social and economic statistics. The equal recognition of paid and unpaid work also remains a challenge. Historically, the workloads of men and women have been generally equal in most parts of the world, with men doing the majority of paid labour and women performing most of the unpaid labour. However, women have not experienced a reduction in their unpaid labour as their participation in paid labour has increased.

Merely looking at a rise in women's participation in the formal workforce may actually reflect increasing gender inequality. Employers and organisations have to give women support to ensure that non-paid work is recognised.

Men also should be given opportunities to fulfill their increasingly important role in community and family development. Indeed, the economic, political and social changes that women experience also affect their counterparts. Addressing these issues in the context of globalising economies is important for both sexes because globalisation may actually reinforce local gender hierarchies.

It is important to remember that women are intricately tied to the well-being of their families and communities. In this regard, more advanced models of the gender gap need to account for reverse gender gaps to see how women can sometimes benefit from increased access to opportunities and resources.

It is also important to keep in mind that challenges and solutions can have overlapping effects. For example, positive educational outcomes are a requirement for women to further engage in the labour force. At the same time, more readily available employment would encourage women to pursue further education.

So while education for women in the region might be improving, the lack of co-ordinated efforts to include them in the labour market might not only limit their economic participation, but also their educational opportunities.

The GGGI index has been fairly effective in raising the issue of gender equality. However, the obsession with rankings on a global index leads to action aimed at the rankings, not the root issues. This promotes the idea that women have already received their rights, and overlooks the more fundamental ways in which gender inequalities are perpetuated.

Our hope is that while the UAE's ranking on the GGGI is celebrated, local efforts that tackle tough gender issues are not forgotten.

This editorial was first published in The National. It can be accessed here.

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