By Susanna Matters, UNICEF Australia Young Ambassador
Last Monday, one of those moments occurred. You know, the moment when you’re flicking through the newspaper and then you suddenly let out a whoop of joy. That private moment when you launch a mighty fist pump into the air, feeling like someone has personally set up a great day for you. The moment when your mind flashes into the future and there you are, proudly announcing to a younger crowd that ‘it’ happened in your day. That was me, last Monday, celebrating the news that women in Saudi Arabia have been granted the right to vote and run in municipal elections.
Saudi Arabia is a founding member of the United Nations and a signatory to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). With the 2015 MDG deadline roughly coinciding with the next planned elections, Saudi Arabia has produced its own opportunity to demonstrate serious commitment to the achievement of the third MDG – promote gender equality and empower women.
Yet, most of the media commentary and popular opinion which has greeted this news doesn’t seem to be nearly as enthusiastic as my own reaction. Take my mum, for instance, whose initial thought was ‘But how many wives does King Abdullah have?’ Indeed, many people appear to view the situation as incredulous for a country which does not even allow women to drive or travel without the permission of a male guardian.
As an advocate for the rights of girls and women, I am also deeply concerned about these issues. But at the same time, don’t they make the news of votes for women even more remarkable? Surely, this is a clear-cut acknowledgement that Saudi women have a voice and both the right and ability to make their own decisions. Isn’t it also a comfort to girls who have questioned their role in Saudi society? I cannot hope for further progress for Saudi women and girls if I do not whole-heartedly applaud this step forward. Having also heard reports at the 54th UN Commission into the Status of Women being tabled by close neighbours of Saudi Arabia, I believe King Abdullah’s announcement also serves as a previously unimaginable precedent.
Gender equality is integral to global development efforts and as such the announcement of votes for Saudi women is not to be dismissed lightly. UNICEF Australia is committed to working towards the MDGs and therefore has a particular interest in facilitating educational opportunities for girls to develop into empowered citizens. This is because girls are often excluded from such opportunities as a result of broader societal attitudes which limit their civic participation. King Abdullah’s announcement will have a marked impact on Saudi expectations regarding the active participation of girls within schooling and their local communities.
The greatest changes must be slow and King Abdullah’s decision to grant women the right to vote will challenge many long-held beliefs within his nation. Seen in this light, his decision is courageous. For the sake of further movement towards gender equality in Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah’s announcement needs to be praised and not treated in a scathing fashion by the international community.
I am truly excited by the prospect that Saudi women appear closer than ever to having input in the running of their country and I am inspired by the potential this offers for Saudi girls in terms of future educational and employment choices.With his announcement, King Abdullah has placed the rights of women in his own country on a very public and timely stage and I would hope that this action carries enough incentive per se for King Abdullah to stand by his promise.
Interested in gender equality and its connection to global development? Read more about the third MDG at http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/gender.shtml
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