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.
Emirati women are well represented in all echelons of society, from the political arena to the diplomatic corps, judiciary and the commercial sector. Five women hold ministerial positions in the Cabinet, including the position of Secretary General of the Cabinet, and women constitute 20 per cent of the UAE's partially elected representative body, the Federal National Council. Of these, one was elected as Speaker in November 2015, the first time that a woman has held such a post anywhere in the Gulf region.
Three of the UAE's ambassadors, one consul general and the UAE's Permanent 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 (one at Brigadier level), 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 the boards of all government institutions and companies was agreed by the Cabinet in 2014 on the basis that introducing more capable women into leadership roles in a male-dominated area would not only make these organisations 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 renewable and nuclear energy, the aviation and space sectors, 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 at high levels, embarking on adventurous expeditions and participating in many unconventional fields.
Equal access to and participation in education has greatly facilitated this success story. According to the 2014 WEF Global Gender Gap Index, the UAE ranked first (out of a total of 142 countries) on the report's literacy rate indicator and on its enrolment in secondary education index. Educational attainment also played a major role in the UAE achieving a ranking of 43 (out of 185 countries) in the Gender Inequality Index, section of the 2014 UN Human Development Report. This was also the highest ranking of all Arab countries.
Statistics in education 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 of students attending government universities and over half at private tertiary-level institutions. Women also regularly outperform their male counterparts academically and are making major inroads in faculties that were previously considered to be a male domain. For example, 46 per cent of the country's 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 (22,000 women are members of Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce), overall female employment, especially in the private sector, has not kept pace with educational achievements. Women age 15 and over constitute 46.6 per cent of the labour force, compared to 91.0 per cent for men. The reasons for this are complex and are related more to employment conditions, personal choices and cultural norms than government policy.
Addressing these and other challenges, considerable efforts are being made to further the role of women as an essential partner in building the country's future and as the main building block of society. As one commentator explained in response to the launch of the UAE Gender Balance Council by H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai: 'We have moved beyond the phase of empowering women. Indeed, we are empowering society through women.'
H.H. Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, Chairwoman of the General Women's Union, Supreme President of the Family Development Council and President of the Supreme Council for Motherhood and Childhood has also launched the Strategy for the Empowerment of Emirati Women 2015–2021. This provides the framework for federal government institutions and organsiations in developing work programmes to empower women in all areas of sustainable development. This latest strategy builds on an earlier strategy launched in 2002. Prepared with the assistance of experts from the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, UN Women and the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, this strategy concentrated on eight main areas: education, health, the economy, law-making, the environment, the social domain, information, political participation and decision-making.
Under the leadership of Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, the General Women's Union (GWU) has been tirelessly supporting women since its formation in 1975. Early on, the GWU focussed on primary issues of concern for women, children and the family, including literacy, education and health. Due in no small part to GWU efforts, life expectancy at birth for women is now on a par with developed countries, 100 per cent of 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.
National and international legislative frameworks for strategies governing the empowerment of UAE women include the UAE Constitution and the Convention for the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), to which the UAE has acceded. The UAE is also a party to 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.
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. This commitment is underlined by a UAE pledge of US$5million between 2014 and 2016 to the UN Commission on the Status of Women to support gender equality, women's empowerment and peace and security programmes, with a particular emphasis on the effects of climate change on women.