This is a joint post with Jessica Brinton

At a recent CGD breakfast with Johnny West on his new book Karama! Journeys Through the Arab Spring, our colleague Mead Over asked how women would benefit from the Arab Spring. Though he speaks Arabic and has spent 20 years in the region, West didn’t have much to share about the role and prospects of women. As West explained, he had very few opportunities to interact with women. Unfortunately, this is a piece of a broader reality: even when women have played a huge role in protest movements, they are rarely represented in accounts of the revolution.

Yet there is no doubt that women took an active role in the revolutions from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen and Libya. One of the few to be internationally recognized is this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkol Karman, a pro-democracy campaigner from Yemen. We think the Nobel committee is also signaling to countries that women should be recognized for their contribution to these revolutions and included in the constitutional reform processes now underway.

What is still in doubt is what will happen to these women after the streets (and media) have gone quiet (USIP’s Mary Hope Schwoebel unpacks some of the changes here). Reflecting on our recent Arab Spring discussion at CGD, we are concerned about a potential lost opportunity for development in this region. We pose two key questions below to argue that women’s rights are critical for development and to make a case for a more concerted donor—in particular U.S. and UN-- effort to ensure that women are key participants of their countries’ reform movements.

Why does gender equality and women’s political participation matter for development?

Gender equality matters because when women play an active role in public and professional life, they strengthen the economy and increase the chance that health and education services reach the most marginalized—poor women and children. CGD has a strong history of working on gender issues as they relate to global development. For example, Girls Count: A Global Investment & Action Agenda Report and Start with a Girl: A New Agenda for Global Health show why improving adolescent girls’ health and wellbeing is critical to achieving international development goals and identify eight priorities for international action. In Moving Beyond Gender as Usual, we show why AIDS donors should respond to gender inequalities that drive the HIV/AIDS epidemic (Learn more about CGD’s work in this area here and here.)

How are outsiders supporting a gender equality agenda in Arab Spring countries?

A logical place to look for answers is to two high-level leaders on women and development: Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Michelle Bachelet, head of UN Women.

Although Secretary Clinton has publicly remarked on the importance of women’s political participation and the Arab Spring, recognized the Nobel Peace Prize Winners, and even met with students at Tripoli University, the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues has so far been silent on women’s political participation and the Arab Spring (full list of current programs). The State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) says it provides assistance to countries that respond to women’s needs, including their ability to participate in politics. Their agenda promises the support of young women, who are considerably more literate than their mothers and grandmothers (See Economist article here for this encouraging statistic). Unfortunately, MEPI’s website lacks detail about this support.

UN Women has just kicked off a new call for proposals on women’s empowerment in the Arab Spring region through their Fund for Gender Equality. A good first step, but UN Women could do much more: it has the ability and the neutrality to be a convener of smart and influential experts who can bring sound policy proposals to the newly formed governments. It seems they are participating in a workshop this week where participants will gather in Brussels to systematically document the lessons learned from the Arab Spring. We hope this information will increase the likelihood that women’s rights, including political participation, are a core component of the new political agendas.

Shall we only say “Insh’Allah” (God Willing) this will happen? Perhaps not. We need more action. The United States, UN and others outside the region who understand the importance of women’s full participation in society should use all the tools at their disposal NOW, when the course is being set for the future, to help ensure that that gender equality is a key part of the revolution sweeping the region.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.


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