A vision of human rights and progress in the Arab world

Laila Baker
Sunday 10 Dec 2023

Human Rights Day presents an opportunity to reflect on ways to realize the slogan written 75 years ago today, that "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights."


‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’ - 75 years ago today, the world adopted this pioneering vision.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights marked a groundbreaking set of principles to ensure everyone can live free from want or fear, and set a benchmark for right and wrong in the world.

In the midst of multiple crises across the region, it is particularly important to recall that nearly thirty years ago at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, governments set out an ambitious set of actions to deliver inclusive and sustainable global development and recognized that women’s and girls’ rights are key to all progress.

Taken together these ideas and actions offer a blueprint for dignity, rights, stability and opportunity for everyone in the Arab world and beyond.

Realizing sexual and reproductive health and rights is fundamental. Yet over 40 percent of women cannot exercise their right to make decisions as important as whether or not to have children.

Health is a human right, and guaranteeing access to family planning and maternal healthcare is essential. By empowering women and girls to make informed choices about their bodies, lives and futures, we ensure healthier families, stronger economies, and more resilient societies.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ICPD Programme of action make clear calls for gender equality. Yet across the Arab world, many women and girls are kept out of schools, jobs and leadership roles. These grave human rights violations heighten the risk of gender-based violence, forced marriage and other harmful practices against them.

One in three women experience violence in their lifetimes, and in parts of the Arab world, nearly two-thirds of women suffer violence in their lives.

Forcing girls into marriage robs them of their childhoods and futures, yet despite progress, more than 20 percent of girls in the Arab region are married before age 18.

The dangerous and degrading practice of female genital mutilation is still high in the region. In Somalia, nearly 99 percent of girls between 5- and 11-years report being cut. In Sudan – where the rates are rising – nearly three-quarters of girls are affected.

The Arab region has the world’s lowest rate of women’s economic participation, at just 26 percent, while the global average is well over half. According to the World Bank, closing gender gaps in employment could raise GDP per capita by an average of 20 percent.

Yet the Arab Region has a diverse, dynamic and youthful population. Young people make up nearly one third of the population. The focus helping youth fulfill their potential in the ICPD programme of action aligns with the Universal Declaration's commitment to promoting understanding, tolerance, and friendship among all nations, races, and religions.

The principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have shaped international law, inspired movements for change across the globe, and fostered a global commitment to justice, equality, and the inherent worth of every individual.

Building on this, the ICPD adds a proven set of actions to strengthen individual rights and choices, boost sexual and reproductive health and rights, empower women, girls and youth, and thereby strengthen families, communities and countries.

These transformative agreements are more relevant than ever, and offer a blueprint for dignity, rights and opportunity for everyone in the Arab world.

On Human Rights Day, and everyday, it is more important than ever to promote all human rights – social, cultural, economic, civil, political and reproductive rights – which protect us all.

Human rights are for all of us, all the time: whoever we are and wherever we are from; no matter our class, our opinions, our gender. Let us uphold the right to human dignity for all.

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