As in many other Arab countries, women in Syria enjoy fewer rights than men in many domains. The inheritance of Muslim women, for instance, is 50 percent of what a male receives. This hampers the small but increasing number of women heading family businesses (nine out of ten businesses are family owned). Christian women are denied the right to divorce. In some regions, women are also prevented from inheriting as a result of local customs and traditions.
Women also tend to be poorer and less educated. Women’s participation in the labour force is 18 percent. This is the official figure, which does not take into account the informal sector – in which women are predominant. In the informal sector they have no job security or social protection. Those who do have a regular job, enjoy the same rights and duties as male workers, at least in theory. Maternity leave for women who are regularly employed is 50 days, with 70 percent of their wages paid by the employer.
In some regions (particularly in the north and north-east), a husband may forbid his wife to see a male doctor; women in labour have been known – even in recent years – to bleed to death because the husband did not want them to go to hospital in case they were treated by a male doctor. Consequently, infant mortality and maternal mortality remain higher in these regions than elsewhere, and contraception and family planning are less practised.
Empowerment of women
However, the government – with the help of international organizations like United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) or UN Women, as well as an increasing number of NGOs – is trying to implement changes. Syria’s First Lady, Asma al-Assad, is very active in this field. She heads the Fund for Integrated Rural Development of Syria, which places great value in the empowerment of women.
Possibly due to Syria’s socialist orientation in past decades, the situation of women in Syria is slightly better than elsewhere in the Middle East. In 2006, Syria’s Najah al-Attar was the first woman in the Arab world to become Vice President. In 1979, the first female minister in the whole region was Syrian (today, the cabinet includes just three women out of a total of 32 members). Since the last general elections in 2007, 31 out of 250 Members of Parliament (12.4 percent) are women. In comparison, the proportion of female parliamentary representatives in the Arab world is 8 percent, the lowest in the world, according to UNDP. In this respect, Syria comes immediately after Iraq and Tunisia.
The proportion of female members in local councils is still low, although it increased from 27 in 1975, to 189 in 1999, and 797 in 2005. In general, however, women continue to fill only a small share of leading governmental posts, accounting for 7 percent of the ministries and embassies, and 20 percent in trade unions.
The enrolment and achievement of girls is lower than that of boys in basic education (88 percent of girls reach the basic education level), but once they pass a certain threshold, girls seem to do better than boys; more than half of university graduates are females.
(Sources: Second National Report on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in the Syrian Arab Republic 2005; UNDP; Poverty in Syria, UNDP; Woman Facts and Numbers, Syrian Government; Decent Work Country Programme Syria, ILO)
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