A century of women's rights is just a start

On International Women's Day, the UAE celebrates the strides made in recent decades and the work that still needs to be done so that women can enjoy full equal rights and the same opportunities to contribute to society.

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Women in the Emirates, Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak once said, "have managed to carve out a niche and to impress the whole world". Her Highness offered the observation in 2009, but her words are as true now as ever.

As the world honours half the planet's population on International Women's Day today - 100 years after its global launch - it's worth recognising the achievements of our sisters, mothers and daughters. Unthinkable just a few decades ago, women in the UAE are now business executives and paramedics, police officers and physicians.

Yet despite all the progress towards true equality, the road ahead for women - in the UAE and elsewhere - is long.

Some leaders in the Emirates, for instance, have pushed hard to enact maternity leave policies that rival those in western countries and even elsewhere in the region. But new mothers in most industries are still given just a few weeks to recover and return to work. This is a key oversight that needs immediate attention. Efforts to protect female domestic help are also long overdue.

But in a part of the world where women's personal freedoms are not always guaranteed, the country that Sheikha Fatima has helped build should be seen as a model. Other regional states have far further to go.

In Saudi Arabia, gender roles have traditionally centred on a patriarchal structure, where male guardians are mandatory and veils are required. In Egypt, women continue to be the targets of harassment and sexual violence, and disenfranchisement from the political process. And in Iran, despite high levels of education, women are unable to pass their nationality on to their children.

Generally speaking, most countries in the region have made progress in recent years to increase legal protections for women. And yet gaps remain.

In a report last year, Freedom House, a US-based research group, found that physical abuse continues to go unaddressed. In each of the region's 18 countries surveyed, the institute found, "only Tunisia and Jordan offer specific protections against domestic violence, and none prohibit spousal rape". Clearly this needs attention.

Sheikha Fatima, who herself will be honoured by the UN today for her role in advancing the rights of women in the UAE, concluded her 2009 observation with this thought: "It is enough to say that the UAE women are no longer busy claiming their rights, but exercising them." We look forward to the day that women across the region, and the around the world, are able to say the same.