This year, the world marked International Women’s Day on March 8 in circumstances very different from previous years. As the pandemic continues to challenge us, communities across the world are drawing deep from their resources to combat the repercussions of a crisis that the world has never known in its modern history.
This unprecedented pandemic has shown nations that it is critical to bring all sections of the society to counter the crisis at every level. The UAE has been a role model for the world in navigating this pandemic. In these trying times, it has demonstrated that a gender inclusive society can be one of the nation’s most powerful assets in fighting such a massive crisis.
Women have been at the forefront of the UAE’s fight against COVID-19. Their contributions have been crucial to the country’s remarkable success in tiding over the crisis in every sphere. Yet, the resourcefulness and resilience shown by Emirati women in the face of challenges would not have been possible without the visionary policies of our country’s founding leaders.
The late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan recognised that the UAE cannot progress if half of its human resources are not engaged to their full potential. Based on this conviction, the Father of the Nation set about creating the conditions for women to be equal participants in nation building, right from the time of the UAE’s foundation in 1971.
The Mother of the Nation Her Highness Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, Chairwoman of the General Women's Union (GWU), President of the Supreme Council for Motherhood and Childhood, and Supreme Chairwoman of the Family Development Foundation (FDF) also provided inspirational leadership in this early drive. To this day, Her Highness continues to work tirelessly to launch nation-wide initiatives to enhance women’s capabilities.
All the leaders that came later followed in the footsteps of the Father and Mother of the Nation in ensuring women’s development remained on top of the policy agenda. The support of His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE; His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai; His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces; and Members of the Federal Supreme Council, the Rulers of the Emirates, in the form of legislative amendments and policy reforms, helped ensure women in the UAE do not face barriers in their pursuit of excellence.
The UAE Gender Balance Council
Over the last five decades, the UAE has made outstanding progress in women’s development. The literacy rate of UAE women soared to 95.8 per cent, one of the highest in the world. As much as 77 per cent of Emirati women enrolled in higher education while the percentage of women among university graduates in the UAE climbed to 70 per cent. Even more remarkably, the representation of the UAE’s women graduates in science technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses at government universities rose to 56 per cent, a gender ratio only a few countries can match today.
At no stage did the UAE rest on its achievements. In 2015, as part of raising the benchmark higher, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum established the UAE Gender Balance Council. The Council’s efforts were focused on one goal - establishing the UAE among the world’s top 25 countries in the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) 2020 Gender Inequality Index (GII). In just five years since the Council’s establishment, the UAE surpassed that ambitious target, achieving a ranking of 18th globally and first in the region.
A regional model
The Gender Balance Council continues to work assiduously to create an environment of gender balance in every sphere of life - from the grassroots to the highest levels of government and corporate organisations. It continues to review all aspects of working conditions for women across the UAE and create new frameworks for greater female representation in leadership positions across sectors.
The UAE’s leadership has backed the Council’s efforts every step of the way. Under the directives of His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE, the representation of women in the Federal National Council (FNC) has increased to 50 per cent, one of the highest rates in the world. Women today make up 27.5 per cent of ministers, one of the highest worldwide, and account for 30 per cent of the country’s diplomatic corps.
I am proud to say that the UAE is a leading model for gender balance in the region. Last month saw another major global endorsement of the UAE’s progress when the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law (WBL) 2021 report ranked the country first in the region, with a full score (100 points) in five major indicators.
We have learned from His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum that the journey to excellence has no finish line, and the UAE continues to be ambitious in raising the bar. In just the last two years, the country has enacted 11 new laws and legislative amendments to enhance women's well-being, protect their rights and promote their advancement.
Women’s role in a post-COVID-19 world
This year’s International Women’s Day is an occasion to highlight the crucial role a gender-inclusive world can play in healing the problems of our planet. It is an opportunity to acknowledge the pivotal roles played by women around the world in combating the pandemic in capacities ranging from frontliners to decision makers.
Anywhere in the world, women make up a majority of the healthcare workforce, while at home, they shoulder the responsibility of the family’s wellbeing. I would like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to every woman who has dedicated time and effort to protecting her family, community, and country in these tough times.
As we look ahead, we must work to ensure gender balance and women’s participation are at the core of our efforts to create a bright new post-pandemic world.
Sheikha Manal bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum is the President of the UAE Gender Balance Council