UNDP Cairo conference tackles the exclusion of women in Egypt politics

Lina El-Wardani , Monday 6 Jun 2011

Ahram Online speaks to Helen Clark, head of the UNDP, whose recent conference stresses that democracy and economy in Egypt will be hindered if women are not well represented

Helen Clark, head of United Nations Development Programme and ex-PM of New Zealand
Helen Clark, head of United Nations Development Programme and ex-PM of New Zealand

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) conference focused on democratic transitions and sharing experiences, including South Africa and Latin American countries.

Many of the sessions focused on the role of women in democratic transition, often stressing that if half of the society is led to democracy but the rest is left behind, the transition is obviously incomplete.

The Chilean example

Verónica Michelle Bachelet Jeria, former president of Chile, enchanted the audience with her charming presence and militant struggle. She was the first woman president of the country and served from 11 March 2006 - 11 March 2010. She campaigned on a platform of continuing Chile's free-market policies, while increasing social benefits to help reduce the gap between rich and poor. She was inaugurated on 11 March, 2006.

Bachelet also served as both minister of health and defence under President Ricardo Lagos.

She said that women’s struggle in Chile was not easy, and it will not be easy for Egypt, either. Bachelet stressed on the importance of the involvement of women in every aspect of society if the country aspires to any reform and progress.

"The security sector has to be reformed, and it will help a lot of you to include women in police and military service, as we did in Chile. I introduced a new concept in Chile, and that is that security is not above the people - no one is above the people," said Bachelet drawing another round of admiration and clapping in the prestigious Aida Hall in the Cairo Marriot Hotel, where the conference took place.

In an answer to a question from the audience on why women played an important role in the Egyptian revolution, yet they are now being pushed away from the political transition process, the former Chilean president said that including women in the transition is not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do because otherwise you lose a lot by taking them out.

Women are the best peacemakers, thinkers and business catalysts.

"Put more than three women on board of an enterprise and you are guaranteed over 53 per cent profit. And companies with women CEOs face less crises than with men. This is not my imagination, these are facts based on research done by men," added Bachelet, who also added that attempts to push women aside will persist, but women have to stand alert and fight sometimes patiently, and by pushing and fighting back most of the other times.

The New Zealand example

Another inspiring example of women leading their societies highlighted in the conference was Helen Clark, the administrator of the United Nations Development Programme since April 2009, and the first female to lead the organisation. Clark is also the chair of the UNDP Group, a committee consisting of the heads of all UN funds, programmes and departments working on development issues.

Prior to her appointment with UNDP, Helen Clark served for nine years as Prime Minister of New Zealand, serving three successive terms from 1999 - 2008. Throughout her tenure as prime minister, Clark engaged widely in policy development and advocacy across the international, economic, social and cultural spheres.

Gender has been always at the core of her struggle. Ahram Online met Clark and talked to her about the role of women in the democratic transition in Egypt.

"The UNDP has plans to assist Egypt even during its transitional period," Clark told Ahram Online. "We have a lot of experience assisting with elections in many countries, so we think that what we have to offer in this field would be useful."

The UNDP, according to Clark, can also help Egypt take new measures against corruption and to support freedom of expression and transparency, which is much needed in the coming phase, as well as assistance in introducing inclusive forms of economic growth.

When asked whether the UNDP has specific programmes for women, Clark said "As UNDP we will assist women of Egypt by all means we have. Women are half the society; a transition to democracy is incomplete without a full realisation and inclusion of women [in all] roles."

The conference held in Cairo witnessed the participation of women from South Africa who faced vicious repression based on race. "I think sharing their experience would be extraordinarily useful and let's hope women in Egypt will get inspired," Clark says.

The UNDP have also organised a security reform training in Cairo two weeks from now.

"We heard about the violations of human rights, especially women activists, and we were shocked when we followed the news about the virginity tests that some women activists were subjected to," says Clark. "This should not go unnoticed. That is why we think that security is a very important part if democratic transition. We will start with police reform and, hopefully, later we can expand to include prison reform."

Clark thinks that today in Egypt women don't have to prove anything to anyone and that all they have to do is be confident "Women can't be taken for granted anymore: a high sense of ‘mission’ should be felt. You have to believe in yourself and your mission and vision to change things."

The solidarity messages from high profile women can be of great importance to many in Egypt as they fight to find themselves a place under the new sun of the revolution. The mission might not as easy as it seems, not only for women activists, but also hand-to-mouth women who still suffer a hard life that doesn’t seem to be changing soon.

Ahram Online will focus in a series on women's anguish and dreams in new Egypt.

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