Beirut, 23 April 2017 (Communication and Information Unit) – Two weeks ahead of parliamentary elections in Lebanon, a panel discussion at the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) today gathered activists and experts in the field of political participation to discuss ways of ensuring electoral justice for women and youth in the Arab region.
In partnership with the Embassy of the Netherlands in Lebanon and the Beyond Reform & Development Group, this eighth civil society dialogue entitled “Electoral Justice: The Essence of Meaningful Participation in Lebanon and the Arab region” focused on dismantling the barriers to political participation of women and youth, and the solutions that can help improve the status-quo.
“I noticed a drive amongst youth in Lebanon but also a lot of frustrations and lack of hope as many of them are leaving the country,” said Jan Waltmans, Ambassador of the Netherlands in Lebanon. “The question is, who are the current agents of change in Lebanon, and if they can be identified, to what extent are they able to ensure that certain changes take place in the country?”
Ambassador Waltmans recalled that in the current Lebanese parliament, only four out of 128 parliamentarians are women. In the upcoming elections, there are 113 female candidates on the electoral list. He said this looks “promising” but voiced concern about the number of them who would eventually enter parliament.
“Having women in leadership positions will create a more balanced reflection of society," he stressed.
In the meantime, the Arab region registers the world’s highest rate of youth unemployment and one of the lowest rates of representation of youth and women in the political sphere. Women only account for 18.4 per cent of the total number of parliamentarians in Arab countries, compared with 19.2 per cent in Asia, 23.1 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa and 41.1 per cent in Nordic countries.
As of January 2018, only 3.1 per cent of seats in parliament were occupied by women in Lebanon and Kuwait. The figure drops to 1.2 per cent in Oman, and in Yemen, there are no women in parliament.
“Our focus at ESCWA has always been to promote civic engagement in public policies,” said Frederico Neto, the Director of the Social Development Division. “Our commitment has remained to provide a platform for open and free debate and to advance informed opinion on socio-political issues that matter for development in the Arab region.”
He highlighted that for the first time in Lebanon and the region, more than 100 women candidates are running for office, and there is a significant number of youth candidates as well: “This is a development that can only bode well for the future of politics in this country and in the region regardless of the outcome,” he underscored.
Today, many structural challenges and obstacles prevent women from taking part in shaping the decisions that affect their lives and future. In the case of Lebanon, underrepresentation is mainly due to the country’s social and political landscape marked by sectarianism, oligarchy and gender-based discrimination.
Young people (aged under 30 years) do not fare much better. They constitute another marginalized group that still suffers from limited access to the labour market, health-care services (particularly in rural areas) and political participation. Youth are strikingly absent in national parliaments in Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman and Qatar, and only four countries feature specialized youth-related legislative committees (Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia and Yemen).
The founder and managing partner of the Beyond Reform & Development Group, Gilbert Doumit, expressed how important it is that among all the women who tried to register their names,113 succeeded in spite of political, economic, social and cultural barriers that are systemically excluding women and youth.
“We should acknowledge that the efforts of civil society are paying off,” he stressed. “When we look closely, we realize that 40 per cent of those on civil society lists are women which means there is a whole political sphere that is gaining traction and legitimacy.”
Speaking about youth, Mr. Doumit noted that the highest percentage of young people is recorded within the civil society lists compared to traditional political party lists, meaning that invested efforts are indeed paying off.
The dialogue was organized into two parts: the first session discussed youth and women in political positions as agents of change, noting the barriers and challenges; the second session debated good practices and success stories to identify tools and mechanisms to enforce policies that are gender sensitive.
A final report is expected to document the discussions and main recommendations. These recommendations will be used by ESCWA to inform its normative work, namely the policy documents it produces on participatory governance and social justice. The outcome of discussions may also serve to set the ground for activists to campaign and engage with parliamentarians on how to promote the participation of youth and women in future elections in Arab countries.
The eighth civil society dialogue session is part of a series launched by ESCWA in 2013 in partnership with civil society organizations (CSOs) and other stakeholders on issues related to justice, participation and citizenship. These dialogues and consultation meetings also serve to take stock of developments in the situation and action of civil society organizations, and to discuss challenges and opportunities for civil society activism and the impact of CSOs on political transition processes in the region in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings.
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