Women empowerment has been identified, as per the first Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) in 2002, as a key deficit in the Arab region. According to the AHDR of 2005, women in the Arab world represent 2/3 of illiterates, higher unemployment rate is among women, they have limited participation in the decision making process, and many reservations are put on the CEDAW convention ratification and implementation by Arab Countries. On the other hand, women represent half of the society and a labor force to be tapped towards greater prosperity for a country’s economy. Only through women empowerment and full participation at all social, economic, and political levels, human development can be sustained and the eight MDGs achieved. Thus UNDP has adopted a gender mainstreaming approach into programming and considered women empowerment as a crosscutting issue in all its practice areas.
In the Kingdom, women development has emerged in the last few years as a priority which can be witnessed through the high emphasis placed on the national strategies and policies on increasing women’s participation in the economic and social development processes without contradicting the Islamic laws and cultural values. Thus, women empowerment and capacity building are highlighted as major goals of the Eighth National Development Plan (2005-2009). In this context, various improvements have been achieved at the national level; for example the average age expected at birth for female has increased to reach 73.6 years old in 2002 versus 71 for males; as well as the average rate of yearly growth for female enrollment in all education levels has reached 8% between years 1975 and 2002 versus 4.2% for males. These efforts were, in fact, aligned with the effective participation of Saudi women in the third national dialogue forum in 2004 that focused on women issues, rights, and responsibilities and yielded several related recommendations.
UNDP Riyadh Country Office, aiming at aligning its work with the national development goals and the MDGs, has taken the lead in initiating several women empowerment and capacity building projects. Among these successful projects was the first “Women and MDGs Forum and Workshops”, which aimed at creating a platform of dialogue among prominent Saudi ladies and exchange knowledge and best practices.