IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook 2009


Panorama: The Mediterranean Year

Economy and Territory

Culture and Society


Gender Equality in the Mediterranean: Continuity and Rupture

Aicha Ait Mhand

Association Démocratique de Femmes de Maroc (ADFM), Casablanca
Deputy Director
Euromed Non-Governmental Platform, Morocco

Gender equality constitutes one of the major concerns of civil society actors in the Mediterranean Basin and of certain government decision-makers who are conveyors of the values of democracy and respect for human rights as universally recognised. However, the degree of commitment of these stakeholders is not the same from one country to another and progress achieved is on a par with this commitment. Such an analysis is even more delicate due to the complexity of the Mediterranean Region, the area of study of this article.

The Mediterranean Region, surrounding an ‘inland sea’ with a rich history, forms quite a particular area, not only in terms of diversity, pluralism, interculturality and exchange, but also in terms of conflicts, of multiple and continuous confrontations. All of this naturally contributes to complicating initiatives on gender equality and relegating them to the background.

The presence of three monotheistic religions in the region and with different levels of practice oscillating from secularism for certain States to the adoption of a religion as a system of governance for others, complicates the task of human rights and women’s rights activists even more.

Moreover, the evolution of North-South relations replaces levels of responsibility regarding these issues on different State and supra-State levels; hence, evaluating the measures undertaken becomes even more complicated.

Thirteen Years into Euro-Mediterranean Partnership: What Place Does the Issue of Gender Equality Occupy?

The countries of the Euro-Mediterranean Region have attempted to group together into a more homogenous region for different reasons over the course of history, beginning with the geostrategic position of the Mediterranean Region and security issues.

The aim of this article is not to go over the history of the relations among Mediterranean Basin States, but it is interesting to recall the recent events that led to the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP) and that now profoundly influence the issue of fostering and protecting human rights as well as women’s rights.

Though the issue of gender equality is mentioned at all Euro-Mediterranean meetings, it should be noted that, insofar as results obtained, it seems evident that these debates come closer to rhetoric than any concrete commitment

In fact, since its accession to the EC in 1986, Spain has oriented its concerns in terms of European foreign policy towards the Mediterranean Region. As of that time, France and Spain have been the main instigators of European Policy in the Mediterranean (primarily in the Maghreb). But nothing concrete was registered until December of 1995, when twelve Mediterranean countries and the fifteen EU Member States met in Barcelona to sign the Barcelona Declaration. The declaration has three baskets that are considered priorities: an economic and financial basket, the main goal of which is to establish a free trade area; a political and security basket aiming to establish a common area of peace and stability; and finally, a social, cultural and human basket on issues of democracy and the protection of human rights.

This declaration, which currently constitutes the basis of cooperation between the countries of the European Union and their neighbours to the south (27 + 12), aims to turn the region into a joint area of peace and stability. The signatory States have committed to respect the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as developing constitutional, democratic States under the Rule of Law.

Subsequently, bilateral agreements gradually began substituting the multilateral negotiations of the Barcelona Declaration, first under the form of Association Agreements and then within the framework of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), in the form of action plans. The goal of these plans is to grant ‘Advanced Status’ to countries that best keep their commitments.

There is no denying that these agreements have not yet brought about any real progress in democratic evolution or greater respect for human rights, or at least none to speak of, in South Mediterranean Countries (SMCs).

In 2008, the emergence of a Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) on the initiative of the French government may have led to the belief that a new boost was about to be given the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership. However, with the evolution of reflections and the implementation of the project, this new initiative has proven to be restricted exclusively to the economic and security domains, neglecting such issues as the rights of peoples, their aspiration to democracy, respect for human rights and gender equality.

In addition, as the Partnership has progressed, we have observed that the issue of gender equality, though included on the official Partnership documents, does not clearly engage the Euro-Mediterranean Partners’ responsibility. If we read the documents, it becomes evident that the terminology used in the declarations of intent is stronger and more precise than that used in binding documents, namely: Association Agreements, the ENP Action Plans and the Istanbul Action Plan for Strengthening the Role of Women in Society.  

Though the issue of gender equality is mentioned at all Euro-Mediterranean meetings, it should be noted that, insofar as results obtained, it seems evident that these debates come closer to rhetoric than any concrete commitment. Indeed, a simple count of the number of activities organised since 1995 in comparison to the results obtained demonstrates that the strategy for attaining gender equality in the region is not yet coherent or clear in comparison to the ambitions declared. The year 2008 was no exception in this sphere in terms of significant quantity of activities and the weakness of their impact on the status of women in the region.

The Year 2008 Was Filled with Activities, But What Was Their Impact on the Status of Women in the Mediterranean Region?

The activities that have marked 2008 focussed on different subjects, both on the national and international levels. On the international level, activities are pursued through UN structures and the action undertaken by their local offices in the Euromed Region.

What Progress Has Been Made Towards Gender Equality Through the Strong Presence of International Organisations in the Mediterranean?

The global United Nations theme of International Women’s Day 2008 was “Investing in Women and Girls.” On that day, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon emphasised that investing in women and girls “has a multiplier effect on productivity and sustained economic growth.”

For its part, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women used the lemma “Financing for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women” as the priority theme of its meetings in 2008.

In Barcelona on 8 March 2008, the local governments of a significant number of States commemorated the 10th anniversary of the Worldwide Declaration on Women in Local Government, which was ratified by hundreds of local governments in 1998 and forms the basis of United Cities and Local Governments’ work to ensure the advancement of women and the mainstreaming of gender issues.

Moreover, the pilot initiative in cooperation among UN Agencies launched in 2008 thanks to the UNDP-Spanish MDG Achievement Fund has benefited a series of States of the Mediterranean Region, in particular Morocco and Palestine, under the ‘thematic window’ of Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment. The seven other ‘thematic windows’ of this programme also integrate gender equality,[1] mainstreaming the issue.

These international activities cannot but improve the life of women in countries where programmes against poverty and exclusion are being carried out, but it would be interesting to emphasise in this regard that, although the link between the status of women and economic growth is very strong, the Rights approach to improving the status of women of all social classes should not be eclipsed. This approach considers that women’s rights are an integral and indivisible part of human rights and advocates gender equality’s being considered independently of women’s economic status or the degree of development of the target countries, as well as independently of the economic repercussions of measures undertaken to foster gender equality. It is understood that even in developed countries, the gender gap remains quite significant and that women there continue to suffer numerous forms of discrimination (see Table 1).

On the level of the Euro-Mediterranean Region, UN Agencies, and particularly UNIFEM (United Nations Development Fund for Women), act primarily in the South Mediterranean Countries to improve women’s status. This agency, with its various regional offices, cooperates closely with States in the region and, in particular, EU institutions to free up the funds necessary for financing projects fostering gender equality in the region. Note in this regard that the UNIFEM saw a budget increase of 16% in 2008 over the previous year.

Initiatives by international organisations can be added to those organised by actors in the Euro-Mediterranean Region. These regional initiatives are varied insofar as both content and impact.  

Regional Dynamics Towards Gender Equality: A Roadmap for the European Union and a Non-Binding Action Plan for the Euro-Mediterranean Region

The Euro-Mediterranean Region registers a significant gender gap and in this respect, the outcome of efforts during the year 2008 is hardly satisfying. On the basis of reports produced by NGOs, regional and sub-regional NGO networks operating in the region as well as by statistics organisms, a gulf can be observed between declarations of intent and actual implementation.[2]

Indeed, the Barcelona Declaration of 1995, the statement and Five-Year Work Programme adopted at the 10th anniversary of the Barcelona Declaration (Barcelona+10), as well as all Euro-Mediterranean ministerial meeting reports, the Development Cooperation Instrument, ENP Action Plans and certain reports by the European Commission insist on the need to guarantee respect for women’s rights within the Euro-Mediterranean Region and the need to develop the gender approach throughout all baskets of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership and in all facets of bilateral cooperation.

This led to the adoption of an action framework entitled Istanbul Action Plan at the EMP Ministerial Conference of November 2006 on “Strengthening the Role of Women in Society”. This plan is designed to advance the role of women in the political, civil, social, economic and cultural spheres, as well as to combat discrimination.

Although it did not fulfil the aspirations of the civil society stakeholders having participated in the debate preceding its adoption, this action plan constituted a glimmer of hope in 2006 for movements working towards gender equality. However, the absence of a specific implementation scheme and the weaknesses of the monitoring mechanism for the Istanbul Action Plan have hampered its implementation and monitoring to this day.

In fact, monitoring is limited to meetings of experts designated by the Euro-Mediterranean Partner States, in which a single representative of the civil society participates, on behalf of the Euromed NGO Platform. This representative is a member of the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network.

A part from these experts’ meetings –which have not, by the way, led to the publication of a follow-up report nor proposed concrete measures to further the implementation of the Istanbul Action Plan–, no regional activities, in the proper sense of the word, have been dedicated to the issue of gender equality in 2008. This demonstrates that female-male equality is not yet a core concern, neither for the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership nor the ENP.

Moreover, only a limited number of public, governmental and non-governmental organisations is aware of the existence of the Istanbul Action Plan or the ENP Action Plans. Consequently, a limited number of them is involved and will be able to take advantage of the opportunities offered by these plans to improve human rights and the status of women.

In sum, the added value of this plan is highly limited due to the facts that it has no budget within the framework of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership and that there is an absence of results indicators, implementation timetable and any form of monitoring or making Partner States accountable.  

In the face of these deficiencies of the EMP, we emphasise that the different types of progress made in the sphere of gender equality in this region have been due to the European Commission’s gender equality roadmap for people in the EU and the dynamism of the civil society on both northern and southern Mediterranean shores, but above all in the South.  

In the North: A Coherent Strategy under Construction

The Roadmap for Equality between Women and Men in the European Union was adopted on 1 March 2006. It aims to reassert a dual approach to equality consisting of taking the genre dimension into account in all political domains and activities and of adopting specific measures.

The roadmap represents the European Commission’s commitment to advancing the programme on equality between women and men and strengthening partnerships with Member States and other actors.

It outlines six priority areas for EU action:

  • Equal economic independence for women and men;
  • Reconciliation of private and professional life;  
  • Equal representation in decision-making;  
  • Eradication of all forms of gender-based violence;
  • Elimination of gender stereotypes;
  • Promotion of gender equality in external and development policies.

In 2008, the different institutions operating in Europe contributed to advancing the debate and taking joint action to progress towards gender equality in the EU.

By the same token, the Council of Europe, for its part, continues to mobilise its structures to produce norms and organise events and initiatives in order to promote the equality of women and men, in particular through the production of legal norms and the organisation of awareness-raising campaigns. In this regard, it organised the Closing Conference of the Council of Europe Campaign to Combat Violence against Women, including Domestic Violence, held in Strasbourg on 10-11 June 2008. It was dedicated to evaluating the efforts made during the course of the 2006-2008 campaign and to making recommendations for future Council of Europe action towards eliminating violence against women.

The EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, the successor organism to the European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, has had its sphere of intervention expanded to include a broader range of issues, in particular, gender-based discrimination. The Agency’s new thematic areas of work have been determined through a Multi-Annual Framework adopted on 28 February 2008 by the EU Justice and Internal Affairs Council of Ministers. Gender equality is expressly mentioned in the regulations establishing the Agency. Hence, the Agency has the obligation to deal with issues of gender equality and not only the struggle against gender-based discrimination, as a theme and dimension cutting across all thematic areas.

In any case, the decision to eliminate the EU Commission on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality after the review of the operation of the EU Parliament casts a shadow on the picture of EU action to foster gender equality. The Commission, the main interlocutor for the European feminist movement, has played an important role in the adoption of a series of measures fostering gender equality in Europe, in particular the directive that led to the creation of the stated Roadmap in 2006.

On the level of the EU Presidency, on 13-14 November 2008 France organised a European Summit on the Equality of Women and Men in Working Life following the Commission’s announcement, on 3 October 2008, of proposals to allow women to be entitled to a longer maternity leave under better conditions.

Moreover, the Commission, acting in its capacity as ‘guardian of treaties’, continually examines the legislation of all Member States to ensure it properly reflects the requirements of the directive relative to gender equality. If this is not the case, the Commission initiates infringement proceedings against the Member State or States concerned.

The facts show that in Europe, women are still victims of violence and discrimination, and that parity/equality is limited by numerous difficulties and shortcomings

In this regard, on 26 June 2008, the European Commission delivered reasoned opinions to the Czech Republic, Greece and Poland for flawed transposition of the EU regulation prohibiting discrimination in access to and supply of goods and services (Directive 2004/113/EC). These Member States had two months to respond under penalty of having their case brought before the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

All EU action is taken within the framework of the Roadmap for Equality between Women and Men, the second work programme of which was adopted on 12 March 2008. In any case, the facts show that in Europe, women are still victims of violence and discrimination, and that parity/equality is limited by numerous difficulties and shortcomings.

Terry Davis, Secretary General of the Council of Europe, declared in his speech at the 6th Council of Europe Ministerial Conference on Equality between Women and Men that: “Violations of women’s human rights are still common and have actually increased in some regions of Europe in recent years. Women are often exposed to practices which could be classed as torture or inhuman or degrading treatment. These include domestic violence, sexual harassment, rape, forced marriage, honour killings, genital mutilation and trafficking in human beings.”

Moreover, women are largely underrepresented in decision-making. The ‘glass ceiling’ continues to prevent women from accessing positions of power. The women’s rights movement is strongly mobilised on this issue with a view to the 2009 European elections.[3] The issue of equal remuneration for men and women remains another of the major concerns of women’s rights movements in Europe. Indeed, according to Eurostat’s latest report, women continue to earn an average salary of 15% less than men. In addition, they are underrepresented in decision-making positions in enterprise, only 10% of women being on the executive boards of companies. Yet these shortcomings are even more accentuated in the SMCs.

In the South: Embryonic Strategies at Different Stages of Development

In South Mediterranean Countries, the progress made on gender equality issues differs from one country to another. Cultural aspects and religious movements substantially hamper advancement towards equality. The majority of SMCs are characterised by their insufficient, even non-existent, application of the principles of Rule of Law and this does not make intervention on gender equality issues easy.

In 2008, the main activities organised were done so at the initiative of the civil society in partnership with funding agencies operating in the region, namely the European Commission, UN agencies, diplomatic missions of Western countries and certain large international NGOs.

These activities come in the form of development projects and local action aiming to improve women’s living conditions, but also in the form of advocacy action to incite governments to adopt legal reforms and integrate gender mainstreaming into public policy. The main subjects of reform are family statutes, access to decision-making positions and the integrating the gender issue into public budgets.

In any case, the 2008 acquis is not very significant and concerns but a few countries, in particular Tunisia and Morocco. In Tunisia, the government ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), but without withdrawing its reservations to the Convention.

In Morocco, following the regional civil society campaign for the withdrawal of reservations to CEDAW,[4] the intention to withdraw these reservations was announced by the King on 10 December 2008, the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, the withdrawal procedures have not yet begun and are the object of virulent debate between conservative groups and pro-democracy movements.

In sum, the status of women in the South Mediterranean Region remains a matter for serious concern in all respects. Timid progress has been made on the issues of personal status and access to decision-making positions, but illiteracy, violence, poverty and marginalisation are just so many evils undermining the human dignity of women in the region. 

Civil Society: A Powerful Vector for Reform in the Euro-Mediterranean Region

Though the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership has certain limits insofar as the implementation of Partner State commitments in the sphere of democracy, human rights protection and gender equality, it remains one of the means to which civil society turns to attain its objectives. In addition, aware that goals of an economic and security order predominate in North-South negotiations, and being a conveyor of democratic values active in the sphere of human rights protection, civil society is constantly working to have its concerns integrated into the Partnership framework.

For this reason, civil society in countries of the Euro-Mediterranean Region has accompanied the establishment of the partnership between the EU and the SMCs since the start of preparations for the Barcelona Declaration of 1995 to this day.

The lack of democracy and the constraints regarding freedom of association[5] in the SMCs, accentuated by the wish of Northern governments to see their Southern counterparts strengthen their systems of struggle against terrorism and immigration, considerably limits the field of action of Southern civil society. For instance, feminist movements consider that the issue of gender equality is often treated as a bargaining chip in negotiations between the EU and the SMCs.[6]

In any case, this highly dynamic movement, structured as independent NGOs both in subregional and regional networks, continues to accompany the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership through participation in civil forums and evaluation of ENP Action Plans (in the case of Morocco). Moreover, it receives financial support from the European Commission and European funding agencies for development projects and initiatives advocating the improvement of women’s living conditions.

It is interesting to note, however, that progress made in gender equality in the South Mediterranean Region, in contrast to what occurs in the EU, is primarily initiated by women’s rights and human rights movements.

In addition, in order to foster gender equality in the Euro-Mediterranean Region, resorting to networking both on the national and the regional levels (whether the South Mediterranean or the Euro-Mediterranean Regions) remains the best means open to civil society actors for fostering gender equality in sensitive areas such as changing the personal status of women, but also for inciting governments to integrate gender mainstreaming in their public policies and promote women’s access to decision-making positions.

In the North, civil society has fewer constraints to acting in favour of gender equality because it acts in an environment where freedom of association is guaranteed. However, other difficulties prevent it from attaining its goals; namely, the fact that the culture of volunteer work is increasingly weakening in the North in comparison with the South Mediterranean Region; added to the resistance of conservative movements in Europe.

By way of conclusion, let us emphasise that, thanks to the dynamism of civil society, gender equality remains a highly relevant issue in the Euro-Mediterranean Region. However, though the objectives sought are easily defined –i.e. promoting equality–, the creation of public policies displays certain contradictions, in both the North and the South, and entails difficulties that are not always easy to overcome, above all in a context where States are generally demonstrating reticence to commit to democratic reforms.

CHART 1 Presence of Women and Men in Lower Parliamentary Chambers of Countries in the Euromed Region in 2008 (Data from November 2008)

Source: Website of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (international organization of Parliaments of sovereign States)

CHART 2 The Gender Gap in the Euro-Mediterranean Region

Source: The Global Gender Gap Report 2008, World Economic Forum, Geneva: 2008

CHART 3 Presence of Women and Men in Upper Parliamentary Chambers or Senates of Countries in the Euromed Region with a Bicameral System

Source: Website of the Inter-Parliamentary Union

TABLE 1 Gender Gap Rankings per Category for Euro-Mediterranean Countries

Rank for Each Country in the Euromed RegionEconomic Participation and OpportunityEducational AttainmentHealth and Survival
CountryInternational      Rank /130 CountriesCountryInternational  Rank /130 CountriesCountry
5Denmark28United Kingdom1Slovakia1Denmark10
6Slovenia31France1Lithuania38The Netherlands12
9Bulgaria35Czech Rep.1Poland38France18
10Portugal39Poland30Hungary38United Kingdom21
11United Kingdom42Sweden33Czech Rep.38Belgium27
15The Netherlands51Malta47Germany57Bulgaria43
17Israel55Germany49United Kingdom69Italy46
18Belgium60Cyprus50The Netherlands72Estonia48
20Czech Rep.68Greece55Sweden75Israel59
22Poland73The Netherlands59Portugal76Slovakia71
28Malta98Austria76Morocco85Czech Rep.88
36Lebanon Lebanon Lebanon Lebanon 
37Libya Libya Libya Libya 
38Palestine Palestine Palestine Palestine 

Source: The Global Gender Gap Report 2008, World Economic Forum, Geneva: 2008


[1] For further details, see the website:

[2] See the contents of the Partnership Agreements as compared to figures and statistics on Table 1 and Charts 15 and 16 published in this article.

[3] See the 50/50 Campaign coordinated by the European Women’s Lobby.

[4] See the Equality without Reservation Coalition website at:

[5] See the report on freedom of association published by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (

[6] See, in particular, the different reports and declarations of the Euromed Civil Forums.