Dr Shaikh Sultan, Shaikh Abdullah, Rula Ghani and Shaikha Lubna attend the opening session of the Sharjah forum on Wednesday. Image Credit: WAM

Dubai: The UAE is a regional leader in gender equality, according to the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report, with illiteracy rates in the country reported as low as 7.3 per cent last year.

This was highlighted by His Highness Dr Shaikh Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Sharjah, while addressing the opening ceremony of ‘Investing in the Future: Building the Resilience of Women and Girls in the Arab Region’ conference being held in Sharjah on October 19-20.

Referring to the low literacy rate as a statistic that makes the UAE proud, Dr Shaikh Sultan discussed the importance of women’s role in driving a society to success. “Today, women make up 49.3 per cent of the UAE’s population and a third of the members in the UAE Cabinet. Emirati women comprise 66 per cent of the national UAE labour market,” he said at the conference’s second edition.

Women also make up 38 per cent of the banking sector, and are managing investments in the UAE exceeding Dh12 billion, he added.

Discussing women’s right to education, Dr Shaikh Sultan said the UAE’s efforts will continue to completely eradicate illiteracy in the country. Illiteracy levels in the UAE dropped from 89.8 per cent in 1970 to 7.3 per cent in 2015.

Looking at Arab countries in the region, he pointed out the number of children failing to attend school in the Mena region has decreased by nearly 40 per cent over the past decade. However, more work is yet to be done to bridge the gender gap and prepare more women to take on important roles in their societies, he said.

Women in history

Addressing the conference, Shaikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, supported Shaikh Sultan’s call to empower women in the region. He referred to women role models in history, pointing out that a woman was always by the side of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). “My father consulted my mother in all matters. The UAE was not built by men alone, women are a pillar of this country,” he added.

Shaikh Abdullah supported the vision of Her Highness Shaikha Fatima Bint Mubarak, Chairwoman of the General Women’s Union, Supreme Chairwoman of the Family Development Foundation (FDF) and President of the Supreme Council for Motherhood and Childhood, to provide women and girls with opportunities and calling them “the core of education.”

“We want the Emirati girl, who stands proud of her heritage, to be a role model for all Arab girls around the world,” he said.

Pointing out the various roles women have in different sectors in the UAE, Shaikh Abdullah said, “There is no future without women.”

“We must not forget that youth, tolerance and happiness in the UAE are all led by women,” he added.

Also speaking during the opening session was Rula Ghani, the First Lady of Afghanistan. Referring to strife-torn countries in the region, she deplored the “increasingly precarious” situation facing “mothers and daughters in the Middle East”, pointing out women are always the “biggest losers in war”.

The wife of Afghan president Ashraf Gani added that it was crucial to help make women victims self-reliant. “Eventually the canons of war will fall silent... It takes a huge effort to rebuild lives,” she said.

The conference’s second edition was organised by the Big Heart foundation, a Sharjah-based international humanitarian body dedicated to helping the vulnerable and people in need worldwide — in partnership with the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women.)

The UN conference aims to highlight the need to incorporate women and young girls in decision-making and planning for economic empowerment; paying attention to their specific needs in education, skills-training and employment.

The two-day conference has brought together government officials, representatives of international organisations and non-governmental organisations, advocates of gender equality, academics and a number of experts and media personalities from the region and beyond. Participants are mainly discussing effective means to ensure their access to resources, particularly for women-headed households in view of the socio-economic restrictions placed on women in many countries. The event is taking place at the Al Jawaher Reception and Convention Centre in Sharjah.

_With inputs by Faisal Masudi, Staff Reporter