Different approaches towards the empowerment of women:

What is the way forward?

by Mine Yücel



The social, political and economic rights of women everywhere, but especially in the Arab world are lagging behind those of men. This has also been put forward by Commissioner Ferrerro Waldner in her article Ten years after the Barcelona Process: Empowering Women as a catalyst for Economic Development. There is a two way causality between the advance of economic and social rights of people and their economic and human (to use the term developed by the UN Development Program) development.

The European - Mediterranean Partnership that was initiated in Barcelona in November 1995 between the EU 15 and 12 southern and eastern Mediterranean Partnership countries (MPC) aimed at ‘turning the Mediterranean basin into an area of dialogue, exchange and cooperation guaranteeing peace, stability and prosperity.’ According to the signatory parties this required ‘a strengthening of democracy and respect for human rights, sustainable and balanced economic and social development measures to combat poverty and promotion of greater understanding between cultures.’

10 years after the beginning of the Barcelona Process, the position of women in the Med countries has hardly evolved. This paper aims to look at ways by which women can be empowered in the Med countries. In order to do this it first looks at the common problems women face in these countries and proposes solutions to overcome them.

Different methods for the empowerment of women:

The following questions were asked at the Thematic Workshop organized at the Luxembourg meeting of the Euromed Civil Forum in 2005.

-  Does one need to reform by supporting the process via the economic and social development of women?
-  Does one need to give up the old system and opt for a symbolic break?
-  Does one need quotas so that women may emerge in political life?
-  Or is their participation in social and economic development sufficient to change mentalities? Each of these questions represents a theory or a path to be adopted in the endeavor to empower women.

I would like to argue here that none of these methods alone shall be enough for true empowerment of women. Firstly, the quota method alone is not enough to increase the number of women in political and public life. The idea of quota or affirmative action (positive discrimination) has been introduced to give the less fortunate sectors of the society an increased chance of participating in various aspects of public life.

The quota system was introduced in Europe in the 1970s. For example the People’s Socialist Party in Denmark adopted the 40% quota system in 1977, with the Social Democrats following in 1983. The Greens in Germany has a quota of 50%. Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland have had the quota system for more than 30 years and it has been argued that it was the quota system of the Scandinavian countries that led to the success of increasing the number of women in the parliament. Sweden has around 44% women in the parliament and is followed by Norway (39.4%), Finland (33.5%) and Denmark (33%) (Uludağ, p. 77). The Labor Party of England is also given as an example to increasing political participation of women simply by increasing the number of women candidates.

Nevertheless, moving from a recent example from the northern part of Cyprus, where one political party introduced the quota method for women candidates and turned out to be the party with the lowest number of women members in the local parliament, we have seen that the quota system alone is not enough. A recent survey we have carried out in Cyprus has shown that women vote for political parties (and different candidates) by looking at various issues; the policies of the party on women issues only received a very low rate of votes: 0.07%! (Women in Cypriot Communities, 2003)

It is important to also change the attitude of both men and women in terms of their voting behavior as well as the political culture. The culture of political parties as well as that of political life partly explains why women do not or cannot run as candidates. This is a small link in the bigger chain of the traditions and culture of the society and explains the way women are treated in general. We can argue that access to political decision making positions is limited for 5 reasons:

-  Women are poorer than man
-  Culturally, women have a duty at home as care-givers
-  Political culture. How are women treated within the party and the society?
-  Lack of access to training and education
-  Self-confidence

Unless all of these factors can be improved women will have a very hard time in participating in political life.

The quota system was successful in the Scandinavian countries because they were supported by a whole system of strategies aiming to improve women’s position in politics. Among these strategies were: child care homes for working mothers to leave their children, parental leave, equality principles became part of the education curriculum, changes made in the family law to give more property rights to women, a department was formed to monitor equality problems, an ombudsperson’s office was established for equality purposes and with the demand of the ombudsperson, a monitoring commission was also created. The ombudsperson could impose penalties on organizations or private businesses that did not implement the equality legislation properly. Additionally, a 5 year action plan was prepared to monitor the level of gender equality in the country. Later, the idea of informal quotas in education etc was introduced, with many simultaneous projects for improving women’s access to education and training. Thus we can see that it was not only the quota system that helped Sweden become so successful in improving women’s position in public life, but it was a wholistic strategy of which the quota system was a part.

Similarly, we cannot aim to empower women simply by helping them participate in the economic system. Many countries and donors are very eager to introduce micro credit schemes designed for women to increase women’s participation in the economic system. This is itself is a very useful method, but alone is not enough, as we can see in the Palestinian example. Economic rights are needed to sustain democracy but are not enough to lead to it. Micro credit schemes need to be supported by other economic, social, cultural and political rights in order to be successful. Otherwise they will lead to individual comforts but will not improve women’s position in the society (as argued by the Palestinian paper).

We can start answering the question of what steps should be taken to improve women’s position by first concentrating on the common problems women face in the southern countries and then attempting to foresee how the EuroMed partnership may help.

Common problems:

-  Lack of access to political life and decision making positions. The level of women’s participation in political life and the number of women in high ranking positions are very low in MPCs. This in turn leads to a system where gender policies and issues are not taken into account and women’s voices are not heard.

-  Discrimination in terms of employment rights. The number of women employed in the public and private spheres is low. There is discrimination in terms of equal pay. Men doing the same job as women still get paid higher salaries or wages.

-  Education: equal access is denied Access to education is still denied for many girls. This limits women’s chances to break away from chains around their necks in terms of rising out of the private into the public sphere.

-  Access to resources is restricted. Credit, property, inheritance rights and many other forms of resources are only limited to men and a small percentage of women. This limits the chances of economic development for women.

-  Property ownership and economic participation (husbands have considerably more rights and once divorced, women are left empty handed). Family law in some countries is such that the wife may lose everything if she gets a divorce. This makes women dependent on their husbands and many times forces them to stay in unhealthy relationships.

-  Women in conflict situations: they are affected disproportionately more than men.

-  Women’s position at home: domestic violence is treated as a private matter and not dealt with properly by the state. Laws should be enacted to ensure this is treated as a public issue.

-  Women’s position in the society. Traditionally women have been seen as caretakers who stay at home. This belief affects women’s participation in political as well as economic life. The attitude of society towards women needs to change for women candidates to be able to get elected or for women to get and keep jobs. The present situation is that although it is harder for women to get jobs in traditional societies, in times of economic crises, it is women who lose their jobs first.

-  Lack of culture of active citizenship and ownership of rights.

-  Sometimes the problem is not due to the lack of legislation but the awareness and implementation of the legislation. This is partly due to the fact that law enforcement officers are not sensitive to gender issues and partly because women are not aware of their own rights or how to ask for their implementation. Or simply because women’s voices are not heard in the public sphere. The media has a lot of responsibility in this as well.

Generally we are speaking of countries where the process of democratization is slow.The level of economic development among women is very low. In these countries, we can see that there is low regard for human rights in general. This attitude has to be changed in parallel with the process of empowerment for women.

-  Honor crimes and virginity tests are still being carried out in some societies.

-  Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). FGM is still a common practice in many countries.

-  Polygamy: In some countries polygamy is allowed and men can marry more than one woman. (This is part of the religious practice and thus there is a need for the secularization of the law).

-  Domestic violence. Many states treat the issue of domestic violence or some other aspects of family life as private, as they do not want to deal with the consequences, while they turn some other aspects of family life (such as abortion etc) into a public issue. This should be changed and domestic violence or violence against women should be treated as a public issue.

-  Many labor unions and NGOs are not independent of state funds or control.

-  Traditional NGO structures and donor agendas in these countries do not help deal with the true problems faced by women.

-  Women trafficking. This issue is increasingly becoming a problem for the entire world. There are hardly any support mechanisms for the victims.

-  Forced and early marriages are common practice in many parts of these countries.


It is apparent that the 12 southern and eastern countries in the Euro-Med partnership are very different and each country needs to design its own action plan for the elimination of discrimination against women. Nevertheless, it is the argument of this paper that the action plan to be used should be a wholistic plan (which could be adopted for local conditions).

Before any other steps are taken, long term action plans should be prepared and implemented. This will ensure that the root causes of the problem is addressed.

-  1. Women’s rights are part of human rights in general and as human rights are universal, they are also indivisible. If we want to ensure women’s rights are respected we should make sure there is respect in general for human rights. The countries we are looking at have very slow democratization processes which in turn slows down the empowerment process of women. Thus the endeavor to increase women’s empowerment and the democratization process should work simultaneously. It is not possible to have a true democracy without equality between men and women.

-  2. Social science research indicates that although economic growth is important for sustaining democracy, it is not enough to create it. Micro credit schemes designed for women should be part of the wholistic empowerment action plan, as well as other economic rights. The Montreal Principles on Women’s Rights suggest a list of economic and social rights for women and are listed in Annex 1.

Economic, cultural and social rights are of particular interest to women because as a group, women are disproportionately affected by poverty and by social and cultural marginalization. The fact that women are less economically powerful is due to the fact that they are less powerful socially and culturally. But this in turn affects the social and cultural status of women. Thus women live in a vicious circle of economic, social and cultural rights, or the lack thereof. To ensure women’s enjoyment of these rights, the environment they live in should be taken into account. Inequality in the access to education, training, employment, equal pay, economic resources, ownership, etc lead to economic dependence and thus a denial of autonomy for women. In many Med countries (ex Syria) women are left empty handed after divorce, leading to dependence to the husband. Women’s dependence and lack of empowerment limits the level of women participation in the political life and decision making mechanisms. Additionally, women will be less able to enjoy their civil and political rights if they are stripped off from their economic, social and cultural rights. Poverty can lead to many adverse conditions in general, but women are hit harder by this reality. Some consequences of women poverty are as follows: lower food intake, being forced to migrate, women trafficking, vulnerability to violence, and ill health. (Human Rights Quarterly, August 2004 p. 763)

-  3. Quotas in public life will be useless unless the whole culture around rights changes. If the idea of quotas and affirmative action will be adopted, there should be a wholistic policy of equality, and quotas shall be employed in all aspects of life (ex. school participation, state jobs, teachers, judges, lawyers, private employment, political parties etc)

-  3.1 The idea of active citizenship should be introduced and promoted. Connected with the above mentioned point, the active citizenship idea should be promoted in order to change the culture around rights. People should be active in asking for their rights and following up with the public offices on the implementation of what is on paper.

-  4. An ombudsperson’s office or a commission should be established in these countries to monitor equality in practice. These offices should have implementation power and the authority to impose penalties on institutions that break away from the practice of equality.

-  5. Exchange of information on women’s issues between the EU and Med countries. Good practices should be shared.

-  6. Awareness raising campaigns for both men and women especially for law enforcement agencies such as police, judges, courts, lawyers and media. As we can see in the common problems section, sometimes it is not the lack of proper legislation that is the problem, but the true implementation of this legislation. This is partly due to the lack of awareness both among women on their rights and also among law enforcement officers on gender issues. There should be intensive awareness campaigns for all parts of the society, especially for women and law enforcement officers such as judges, lawyers, police forces etc. Media is also important since it plays a big role in forming public opinion.

-  7. Strengthening Civil Society in general and women NGOs in particular. A strong women’s movement should be formed and supported. These organizations can work for a common agenda of improving living standards of women and lobbying for both changes in the legislation and the implementation of laws. In addition to the micro credit schemes for women international donors and European countries should fund women’s NGOs and groups to help them build a real and sustainable women’s movement.

-  8. The issue of incentives: economic and political conditionality should be imposed and implemented by donors and the European partners on the MPCs. This will ensure women’s rights in particular and human rights in general are respected.

-  9. Secularization of the law.

-  10. Shelters for victims of domestic violence, rape, trafficking etc should be established.

-  11. There should be support mechanisms and child care facilities for working women including parental leave.

-  12. True independence of NGOs from state control and influence.

-  13. Equal participation of men and women in the consultation mechanisms of the EuroMed partnership. If the EuroMed partnership is to suggest ways of improving women’s conditions in the MPCs, the partnership itself first needs to improve its policy towards women.

Annex 1:

Women’s Economic and Social Rights: (Montreal Principles of Women)

An adequate standard of living including: i. Food and freedom from hunger ii. Water iii. Clothing iv. Housing and freedom from forced eviction v. Continuous improvement of living conditions

The highest attainable standard of mental and physical health through a women’s life cycle, including reproductive and sexual health and freedom.

Equal inheritance and ownership of land and property

Social security, social protection, social insurance and social services, including special assistance before, during and after childbirth.

Training and education

Freely chosen work, as well as just and favorable conditions of work including fair and equal wages and protection from sexual harassment and sex discrimination at work.

Form and join trade unions

Protection from economic exploitation

Protection from coerced and uninformed marriage

A clean and healthy environment

Participate in cultural life

Claim and enjoy the benefits of patents and intellectual property

Nationality; and to bestow nationality upon children

Freedom from trafficking and exploitation; recognition of the human rights of the trafficked person.


-  Human Rights Quarterly, Volume 26 Number 3 August 2004. The Johns Hopkins University Press

-  Hadjipavlou, Maria Women in Cypriot Communities, 2003

-  Khafagy, Fatma Egyptian Women Towards Achieving Gender Equality (presented in Euromed Civil Forum in Luxembourg)

-  Martin, Byrne and Schade Poulsen Mediterranean Politics, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Autumn 2004

-  Syrian Women League, Non Governmental Organization Report, Implementation of 1995 Beijing Declaration and Work Plan, Beijing + 10

-  UludaÄź, Sevgül Politikada Strateji ve Planlama, Kadın AraĹźtırmaları Merkezi Yayınları, LefkoĹźa 1998

-  Women’s Movement in Turkey (presented in Euromed Civil Forum in Luxembourg)

-  Women’s Issues in Palestine (presented in Euromed Civil Forum in Luxembourg)

Mine Yücel


11th January 2006


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