Women have played a prominent role, under very different circumstances, in all of the countries embroiled in the Arab Awakening, including Egypt. This is the promising side of the coin. But, a negative dimension also appears to be emerging. Gains made previously by women in societies in the Middle East and North Africa are being challenged. There are reports that women who played decisive roles in democracy movements are being excluded from negotiations on future systems of governments.
For those of us who followed the uprising in Egypt with keen interest, the recent parliamentary elections were a disappointing setback. Women won only 3 percent of seats. This is like Norway three generations ago. If Egypt is to develop into a peaceful society with a prosperous economy and a social system that can provide a better life for all, Egyptian women cannot be marginalized from the political process.
It is important to draw on all parts of society and all groups, including minorities, to ensure that their voices are heard, and to ensure that you draw on the talents of as many people as possible. Only in that way will they feel they have a stake in the success of their society and country. If I can use a football analogy, you cannot build the best team if you exclude at least half your potential players from even being considered for selection.
Why, then, is the participation of women so important? Certainly, because it is a fundamental human right, enshrined in United Nations conventions and declarations to which Egypt is a signatory. A representative democracy must fully include women—in the same way that it must also represent the voices of all citizens regardless of religion or ethnicity.
Women are also crucial for any country’s effort to promote economic and social development. The World Bank’s latest World Development Report argues, quite convincingly, that gender equality is also smart economics. A few years ago, a pioneering study, the Arab Human Development Report produced by the United Nations, first spotlighted the issue of gender as a key factor in holding back the development of most Arab societies. Egyptian economists took part in producing that landmark report.
Their conclusions are now widely accepted: countries that create better opportunities and conditions for women and girls can raise productivity, improve outcomes for children, and advance development prospects for all. Well-functioning societies need to be able to provide for women and men to be able to participate at all levels and sectors of society.
This is not something that changes overnight, of course. In my own country, Norway, women got the right to vote one hundred years ago. Today we are very well off in economic terms, and at the top spot of the UN Human Development Index. You might think this is just because of the wealth generated by oil and gas from the North Sea. That certainly helps, but as we know in this region, large oil and gas revenues do not guarantee broad economic and social development. The reverse is sometimes the case.
A main reason for Norway’s development has been that we have managed to mobilize and put to good use all our human resources. The participation of women in the labor market in Norway is among the highest in the world. Women have doubled the pool of intelligence and talent in the workforce. They have created new jobs and generate tax revenue, enabling us to continue investments in welfare and opportunities for all.
Women also have a strong voice in decision-making. I was proud to be elected the first female prime minister in Norway. And, back in 1986, when I formed my second government, 40 percent of cabinet ministers, eight out of eighteen, were women. Not all of the public, including many women, were in favor of such a prominent presence of women in government. They were just not used to it. After twenty-five years, it has become commonplace and uncontested. And I believe the decisions we make are better—because we benefit from listening to more perspectives in making them.
Of course, sometimes you need more than voluntary action. In the boardrooms of private sector companies in Norway, progress was rather slow. As a result, a law was adopted to ensure there were at least 40 percent women on corporate boards. Initially viewed with distrust, this is also now broadly accepted and has not adversely affected balance sheets, as critics had said it would.
In the Middle East, at least half of all university students are now female. So why are women not equally represented in government, or in leadership roles in the private sector? Is it because many women feel more comfortable filling traditional roles at home? Or is it that they don’t dare to challenge their male peers? Or is it because they are not given the opportunity to compete on equal terms? Perhaps the answer is a combination of all the three. Now, certainly, is the time to ensure that women’s rights and participation is fully guaranteed in the new constitution and to ensure that discriminatory laws are removed.
This essay is adapted from Gro Brundtland’s Nadia Younes Memorial Lecture on March 12, 2012, at the American University in Cairo.
Gro Brundtland is a former prime minister of Norway, a former director general of the World Health Organization, and is the special envoy on Climate Change for the UN Secretary General. She is a founding member of The Elders, a group of independent world leaders working for peace and human rights.