Muslim, Jewish, and Christian women from eight countries in the Middle East and North Africa (the MENA region) spend a week together every summer addressing problems such as Syrian refugees, women’s representation in peace and security negotiations, and violent extremism.
This is the agenda of Forward Global Women, an organization I co-founded a decade ago. My motivation was deeply personal: my daughters and their families live in Israel, a country in an area mired in conflict.
As a politician, I understand that Israel’s challenges are not only about Israel, but are rooted in issues throughout the MENA region. Therefore, any change needs to bring people together from the region to forge solutions.
Change happens from politicians, academics who provide research on the issues, and people in civil society who are most affected by violence, political instability, poverty, and unequal access to education, housing, and healthcare. That means women.
Forward Global Women invites 30 women academics, politicians, and activists from eight MENA countries to address these issues. The women collaborate across typically contested borders of nationality and religion.
Representation by women matters. Laws, rules, and decisions tend to be more inclusive when women are involved, such as including more focus on women’s health, pay equity, parental leave, and daycare. Countries with women leaders have stronger income equity.
Countries that advance gender equality also increase their GDP. In the MENA region, it is projected to increase by $600 billion by 2025. One example of how this works in other regions is in Latin America. Peru reformed its laws in 1990 to lift restrictions on women’s right to work, to allow access to banking and financial services, and to enable women to own and inherit assets. Since then, Peruvian women are in the labor force at a rate of 68 percent, higher than most Latin American countries. Poverty levels have diminished. Today, Peru has one of the fastest growing economies.
Most governments in the MENA region have invested in women by establishing programs designed to recruit, train, and onboard qualified women. For example, the United Arab Emirates has been pushing for gender diversity and has made significant progress over the past 20 years; women now make up 66 percent of public-sector workers, with 30 percent in leadership roles.
Between 1990 and 2019, women constituted 2 percent of mediators, 8 percent of negotiators, and 5 percent of signatories in global peace processes. Monica McWilliams was on the negotiating team for the 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. She faced frequent sexism and ridicule, and challenged that behavior. Only two women in history — Miriam Coronel- Ferrer of the Philippines and Tzipi Livni of Israel — have served as chief negotiators in modern times. Only Coronel-Ferrer has signed a peace accord as chief negotiator.
Change in leadership is happening, albeit slowly. In 2018, for the first time in United Nations (UN) history a woman was appointed head of the Department of Political Affairs. As of September 2018, women comprised 41 percent of heads and deputy heads of peace operations led by the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations and the Department of Political Affairs — a 13 percent increase in one year. As of January 2019, 11 women are serving as Head of State and 10 are serving as Head of Government.
In Palestine today, three women serve as ambassadors to other nations. In Bahrain, women comprise a record-breaking one-third of the country’s foreign ministry. Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud became the first female ambassador to represent Saudi Arabia. In Lebanon, Raya Al-Hassan became the first female interior minister in the Arab world.
In the U.S., more women, including women of color, have run for office and been elected at all levels —although women are still only 24 percent of the House, 23 percent of the Senate, 28 percent of state legislatures, 18 percent of governors, and 23 percent of the mayors of the 100 largest U.S. cities. In Minnesota, our Speaker of the House is Melissa Hortman, and our lieutenant governor is Peggy Flanagan. This is a stark contrast to representation by women 50 years ago.
At the 2018 D.C. session of Forward Global Women, our work and relationships came together as we lobbied Congress during a “Day on the Hill.” Lobby groups were made up of women from Jordan, Israel, Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, and the U.S. Discussions included advocating for an Israeli-Palestinian Peace Fund, requesting more aid for Syrian refugees in Jordan, and stressing the importance of involving women in anti- terrorism efforts.
This summer Forward Global Women will look at climate change — its impact on increasing conflict, and how it disproportionately affects women and families.