The belief that women are entitled to take their place in society is grounded in the UAE Constitution, which guarantees the principles of social justice for all, in accordance with the precepts of Islam. Under the Constitution, women enjoy the same access to education, health care, social welfare and the same right to practice professions as men. The guarantees enshrined in the Constitution have also been carried through into implementing legislation governing equalisation of opportunities in all fields.
Women hold 66 per cent of public sector posts in the UAE and 30 per cent of senior decision-making positions in the Government sector. In fact, Emirati women occupy high-profile positions in all sectors of society, including the judiciary, prosecution services, diplomatic corps (three ambassadors and one consul general), police force, military forces, business and finance. As far as political participation is concerned, four UAE cabinet ministers are women and in the 2011 indirect elections for the UAE's parliamentary body, the Federal National Counci (FNC), women registered as candidates in 46 per cent of electoral colleges. One woman was subsequently elected to the FNC (and is now Deputy Speaker) and six were appointed.
The UAE’s achievements in the empowerment of women are such that it ranked thirty-eighth among 187 countries in the UNDP’s Gender-related Development Index for 2011.
This positive ranking is primarily due to the substantial enrolment by women in education: according to the last census, in 2005, the ratio of literate women to men aged 15–24 years stood at 110. Ninety-five per cent of girls who complete their secondary education enrol in higher courses and women account for 70 per cent of university graduates in the UAE, one of the hightest proportions worldwide.
The relaxing of social restrictions on female employment and the fact that work is increasingly being seen not merely as a source of income but as establishing personal identity have also played a role in female empowerment. Moreover, there is no doubt that inspiring female role models in all walks of life (doctors, architects, engineers, pilots, artists, explorers, skydivers, to name but a few) are multiplying rapidly in the UAE, encouraging women to break away from traditional areas of employment.
According to a survey of Emirati women carried out by TNS MENA, 55 per cent of young women between 25 and 34 years of age are currently employed and eight out of ten are happy with the career trajectory offered by their current position. Recent statistics also indicate that over 14,000 UAE businesswomen run up to 20,000 private companies in the UAE, investing over Dh15 billion in financial markets, real estate and trade. This level of participation is set to increase since the UAE Cabinet in December 2012 made it compulsory for corporations and government agencies to include women on their boards of directors.
The TNS MENA survey also indicated that 97 per cent of respondents were satisfied or very satisfied with their level of personal safety, leading to a 91 per cent consensus on the overall quality of life for women in the UAE.
Nevertheless, gender inequality remains an issue requiring renewed focus to ensure that individual success stories are no longer exceptional. The challenge remains to create an enabling environment for the achievement of real equality between the sexes. A key player in this strategy has been the General Women’s Union. Under the leadership of Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, the GWU has addressed many inter-related issues of concern for women, children and the family and, as the needs of women have developed, so the range and focus of the GWU’s concerns and expertise have evolved.
The GWU plays a significant role in women’s affairs at regional level (through organisations such as the the Arab Women's Organisation, which is headed by a UAE academic) and at international level and has participated in all UN-sponsored world conferences on women. In this context, it is now focussing on the necessary measures at a national level to implement the Convention for the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, to which the UAE has acceded, and the recommendations of the Beijing Declaration. This is being achieved through the National Strategy for the Advancement of Women, a joint initiative with UNDP, UNIFEM, 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. Steps are now being taken to update the strategy for the next five years.
The GWU and The Supreme Council for Motherhood and Childhood, in conjunction with UNICEF, UN Women, UNESCO, UNDP and ECSWA, have held numerous courses and workshops to disseminate information about human rights principles in line with the treaties to which the UAE is a party.
Much work has been done in recent years in the UAE in the area of children's rights. The Supreme Council for Mothers and Children, a strategic partner of UNICEF, has worked with civil society institutions to formulate the UAE's first National Strategy for Motherhood and Childhood. This sets out the principles for ensuring that mothers and children have access to an appropriate environment, enjoy their right to development, health, education, protection from violence, ill-treatment and exploitation. It is considered a fundamental reference point for decision makers in the domain of motherhood and childhood in the the Emirates.
The UAE, having acceded to the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1997, is in the process of formulating implementing legislation to fulfil its obligations under the Convention.
In this context, the Children's Rights Bill of 2012 is currently under review. This far-reaching child-protection billl (dubbed Wadeema's law after an Emirati child who suffered abuse at the hands of her family) contains 72 articles governing the rights of children in the UAE and the responsibilites of Government to enforce those rights. Significantly, the law changes the onus of protection, making the state responsible for preventive intervention.
Many of the important issues covered by the bill were aired during a national awareness campaign on children's rights ('Give us our rights') conducted at the end of November 2011 by the Ministry of the Interior, the Supreme Council for Motherhood and Childhood, the Supreme Council for Family Affairs and the Department of Social Services.
In addition, a human rights education game for students aged between 9 and 15 years of age was designed by the national Human Rights Association in cooperation with the Ministry of Education. The game is designed to familiarise children with their rights and obligations and teach social skills.
The UAE is also a party to other international instruments that seek to protect women and children. For instance, in January 2009, it acceded to the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Supplementing the UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime. The Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially in women and children, visited the UAE in April 2012 to examine what the State was doing about these issues.
A committee comprising representatives of relevant institutions in the UAE has also been set up to look into the possibility of acceding to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict. Work is being done to bring the country's laws into line with the provisions governed by these instruments, to prepare the ground for accession by the State.
Apart from the legal framework, practical procedures have been put in place on the ground to assist in the protection of women and children. For example, 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 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.