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Gender parity in Muslim-majority countries: all is not bleak

Since 2006, the World Economic Forum has issued its annual Global Gender Gap Report, which monitors the progress of individual countries toward gender parity in four areas: health, education, politics and economy. A number of metrics are used to evaluate the equitable distribution of national resources. For example, how do women compare with men in life expectancy, birth-sex ratio, literacy, educational attainment, wages, managerial duties and elected representation in a given country?

In each of the four areas, a country’s score can vary from 0 (no parity) to 1 (full parity). For many years, a number of Gulf monarchies scored 0 in political empowerment owing to the absence of female legislators. Last year, 27 countries (including Canada) attained a perfect score of 1 in education.

Why is parity important? Aside from basic issues of fairness, the WEF asserts that female participation is essential for a country’s economic growth and competitiveness.

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The number of countries surveyed rose from 114 (in 2006) to 144 (in 2017). While worldwide parity has been steadily increasing since 2006, a slight reversal was observed for the first time in 2017, driven by declining gender equality in the workplace and political representation.

A few notable highlights from last year’s report: Iceland occupied top spot, for the eighth consecutive year. The remaining top 10 (in order) were Norway, Finland, Rwanda, Sweden, Nicaragua, Slovenia, Ireland, New Zealand and the Philippines. Among the Group of 20 countries, France (11) was the highest ranked, while six G20 countries finished in the bottom tier: China (100), India (108), Japan (114), South Korea (118), Turkey (131) and Saudi Arabia (138).

As in previous years, Muslim-majority countries ranked in the bottom 20, whether rich (Qatar, Saudi Arabia) or poor (Yemen, Chad); Sunni (Saudi Arabia) or Shia (Iran). However, 11 countries in the Middle East and North Africa improved their overall score compared with the previous year.

In fact, all is not bleak as it looks. Saadia Zahidi, a founder and co-author of the report, has chronicled dynamic economic and cultural changes under way in 30 Muslim-majority countries in her book Fifty Million Rising: The New Generation of Working Women Transforming the Muslim World. Advances in women’s employment have occurred at a dizzying pace in the past 10 years, buoyed by gender-parity educational policies instituted many decades ago.

For example, Kazakhstan has a 75-per-cent female labour-force participation rate, about the same as Norway and Sweden, and higher than either the United States or China. Egypt has a higher percentage of women going into the STEM fields than the United States. Seven Muslim-majority countries have had nine women as heads of states, while the parliaments of Algeria, Sudan and Tunisia have more than 30-per-cent female representation – higher than the United States.

While there is much room for progress, these recent advances subvert the stereotype of Muslim women, who in fact, have demonstrated resilience, determination and a pioneering spirit that will leave an indelible mark for years to come.

Closer to home, Canada’s change in rank (from 35th to 16th in 2017) was only second to that of Bulgaria – an improvement due to large gains in political empowerment. Since the survey began, our highest standing was 14th (in 2006), to our lowest point (35th) in 2016. For five straight years, we have tied for first place in the world with full parity in education. And while we consistently finished in the top 15 (from 2006 to 2013) in terms of economic participation for women, our ranking has declined to 29th in the world since 2014.

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The most alarming trend, however, is in the health subindex, where Canada finished at 105 (out of 144) in 2017. This reflects a steady, precipitous decline from 2006, when we ranked 51st in the world. The greatest change occurred between 2013 (ranked 49th) and 2014 (ranked 100th), during which the life expectancy of women (relative to men) was reduced by almost two years.

The 2017 report indicates that one of the reasons for our low ranking is a result of the high incidence of death among women (relative to men) due to non-communicable diseases, which include cancer and cardiovascular disease. Some surmise that this may be the culmination of decades-old efforts by tobacco companies to target women. If so, one can only imagine future health outcomes due to aggressive marketing geared toward women by the alcohol industry.

The WEF report should be a wake-up call to all Canadians that more attention and resources are needed to improved women’s health in this country. Our sense of complacency only compounds the problem.

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