Women in the UAE have been encouraged and empowered since the foundation of the state. This policy is spearheaded by the country's leadership and backed by the UAE Constitution, which guarantees equal rights for men and women in accordance with the precepts of Islam. As a result, the role of women in society has evolved considerably over the years. Today, the economic and social benefits of diversity are universally recognised and embraced and women are viewed as partners in achieving sustainable development.
In the twenty-first century, Emirati women are well represented in all echelons of society, including the political arena, diplomatic corps, judiciary and the commercial sector. Four women hold ministerial position in the Cabinet and women form 17.5 per cent of the UAE's partially elected representative body, the Federal National Council. Three of the UAE's ambassadors, one consul general and the UAE's representative to the United Nations in New York are women. Four women have been appointed as judges, two as public prosecutors and 17 as assistant public prosecutors and marriage officials. Women also serve in the armed forces, customs and police. Prestigious government entities, such as twofour54 media free zone, Tecom Business Park and Jebel Ali Free Zone Authority, are headed by women. In fact, women constitute 66 per cent of the public sector workforce (the average globally is 48 per cent), with 30 per cent in senior and decision-making positions, close to the level in advanced countries.
The appointment of women to UAE boards was made mandatory in 2012 on the basis that introducing more capable women into leadership roles in a male-dominated area would not only make companies more competitive but encourage innovation and entrepreneurship. The UAE is the first country in the Arab region and the second country in the world to introduce a mandatory female presence in the boardroom . Overall, a growing number of Emirati female role models in many diverse fields, including the aviation sector, oil industry, transport and ICT, reinforce the perception that in the UAE there is no ' glass ceiling', the sky is the limit if you are female, committed, willing and able.
Women are also breaking down stereotypes and pushing out boundaries in their private lives, competing internationally in sport, embarking on expeditions to Antarctica, forming skydiving teams, and participating in many unconventional fields.
Equal access to and participation in education has greatly facilitated this phenomenal success story. According to the 2013 WEF Global Gender Gap Report, the UAE is the only Arab country in the MENA region that has fully closed the educational attainment gender gap: the UAE ranked sixth (out of a total of 136 countries) on the report's literacy rate indicator and seventh on enrolment in the primary education indicator.
Educational attainment also played a major role in the UAE achieving a ranking of fortieth (out of 186 countries) in the Gender Inequality Index, part of the 2013 UN Human Development Report. This was also the highest ranking of all Arab countries.
Statistics at tertiary level in the UAE are particularly impressive: 95 per cent of female high-school graduates pursue further education at tertiary-level institutions, compared with 80 per cent of males. Women constitute almost two-thirds (71.6 per cent) of students attending government universities and over half (50.1 per cent) at private tertiary-level institutions. Women also regularly outperform their male counterparts academically and are leading the way in faculties that were previously considered to be a male domain. For example, more than half (56 per cent) of the country's federal university graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are women. At the prestigious Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi, 60 per cent of Emirati graduate students are female.
Neverthelss, despite these ever-increasing success stories, and the high number of women who run their own businesses (14,000), female employment (43.5 per cent of women age 15 and over, compared to 92.3 per cent of men), especially in the private sector has not kept pace with educational achievements. The reasons for this are complex and are related more to employment conditions, personal choices and cultural norms than government policy. However, despite the UAE's significant efforts, it is obvious that much more remains to be done to nurture an enabling environment for the achievement of real equality between the sexes.
Under the leadership of Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, the General Women's Union (GWU) has been tirelessly pursuing this goal, focusing for many years on issues of concern for women, children and the family. In addition to literacy and education, the GWU has been a strong advocate for women's health and today life expectancy at birth for women is now on a par with developed countries, all births in the UAE are attended by professionals and the mortality rate for women in childbirth has been reduced to 12 per 100,000.
As the needs of women have developed, so the range and focus of the GWU's concerns and expertise have evolved. The GWU now plays a significant role in women's affairs at regional and international levels and has participated in all UN-sponsored world conferences on women. In this context, it is focusing on national implementation of the Convention for the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), to which the UAE has acceded, and the Beijing Platform for Action. This is being achieved through the National Strategy for the Advancement of Women, a joint initiative with UN Women, the UN entity for gender equality and the empowerment of women, local government agencies and NGOs. The strategy provides a road map for the empowerment of women in eight main areas: education, health, the economy, law-making, the environment, the social domain, information, political participation and decision-making. The strategy has been updated recently to cover the 2013 to 2017 period.
The UAE's election to the membership of the Executive Council of UN Women for the period 2013 to 2015 is an indication of the progress made in gender equality in the UAE and the UAE's commitment to the empowerment of women worldwide, especially in the field of education.
The UAE is also a party ro other international instruments that seek to protect women and children. In particular, the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (Palermo Convention) and its Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (Palermo Protocol). The UAE is also party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the amendment to Article 43(3) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Apart from the legal framework, practical procedures have been put in place on the ground to assist in the protection of women and children. The Dubai Association for the Protection of Women and Children was founded in 2007 to provide psychological support to all women and children, whether nationals or expatriates, who are victims of human trafficking, domestic violence, neglect, ill-treatment by an employer, or other social problems. The Association also organises educational, awareness and capacity-building courses in this field. Ministry of the Interior social welfare centres also protect women and children from domestic violence.
The reality is that the United Arab Emirates is one of the safest places on earth for women. This is borne out by the WEF Social Progress Index, which ranks the UAE extremely highly for treating women with respect and dignity.