"Women's empowerment and their full participation on the basis of equality in all spheres of society, including participation in the decision-making process and access to power, are fundamental for the achievement of equality, development and peace" — Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, September 1995
Gender equality is, first and foremost, a human right. Women are entitled to live in dignity and in freedom from want and from fear. Empowering women is also an indispensable tool for advancing development and reducing poverty. For more than 30 years, UNFPA has been in the forefront of advocating for women, promoting legal and policy reforms and gender-sensitive data collection, and supporting projects that improve women's health and expand their choices in life. Yet discrimination against women and girls — including gender-based violence, economic discrimination, reproductive health inequities, and harmful traditional practices — remains the most pervasive and persistent form of inequality.
In Egypt, despite substantial improvements in female literacy rates, enrolment rates, labor force participation and unemployment, there remains a gender gap in favour of males. Egypt's rank on gender empowerment in the UNDP Human Development Report 2004, was at a very low 75 out of 78 countries, with a GEM value as low as 0.266. In the Gender-Related Development Index (GDI), from 144 countries, Egypt was 99th, with a GDI value of 0.634, and in the global gender gap of 58 countries (World Economic Forum 2005), Egypt came last, with a rank of 58th out of 58.
Generally speaking, gender disparities in Egypt are pronounced. Illiteracy among women is almost twice as high as among men. Fifty percent of ever-married women have been subjected to violence, 20 percent during the last year and half of them find it justified. A combination of attitudinal barriers and traditions continue to deny women equal access to education, employment and health care. Many women lack awareness of their rights and have poor status and authority in areas of decision-making.
In the area of economic participation, according to official UNDP indicators, women’s participation in the labour force increased from 18 percent in 1996 to 31.4 percent in 2004. Females represent 23.9 percent of the labour force, and the female unemployment rate was 24 percent in 2004.
The shrinking role of the public sector as a traditional employer of women has created unemployment, and women resort to low productivity activities outside the formal sector, primarily in agriculture. In agriculture, women’s work is frequently unpaid. Poor women's productivity is limited by low education levels, lack of information, and virtually no assets for collateral for credit.
In the area of political empowerment, in 2004, prior to the national elections, women made up 2.4 percent of the Parliament, 6 percent were appointments to the Shura Council and 1.2 percent was elected to local councils. Participation in syndicates was 17 percent, in trade unions 3 percent. A major challenge is to overcome entrenched chauvinistic norms (MDG 2003).
In the area of educational attainment, official figures indicate that by 2004, enrolment indicators increased to 95.9 percent in primary schools, to 92.2 percent in preparatory schools, to 99.3 percent in secondary schools, and to 90 percent in tertiary education.
However, gender gaps are accentuated by poverty. The gap in the illiteracy rate is 16 percent for poor and 5 percent for non-poor children. The incidence of illiteracy among female-headed households is 85 percent in rural areas and 57 percent in urban areas. Cultural constraints and the heavy burden of household chores are factors contributing to poor girls’ low education achievement. Unemployment rates among young girls completing secondary school remains high and is a disincentive.
In the area of health and well-being, while women’s life expectancy at birth increased to 72.3 years in 2004 and the maternal mortality rate (per 100,000 live births) decreased from 174 in 1992 to 67.6 in 2004, serious gender-related health risks remain. In Egypt, female circumcision remains almost universal, with over 90 percent of married women subjected to female genital mutilation.
There are unmet family planning needs. Given the urgency of regulating population growth, more action is needed, especially in rural areas, for women to gain more control over fertility decisions within culturally accepted norms. There are no laws, protective measures or sufficient mechanisms protecting women from domestic violence.