(MENAFN - Arab News) I WRITE this week from London, where on the occasion of International Women's Day, the Independent newspaper asked key women leaders this question: "What do you think is the single biggest issue currently facing women/feminism? (both in the UK and worldwide)."
Some women leaders polled by the Independent cited political empowerment, violence and other issues as the most important facing women today. However, the number one challenge most listed was economic empowerment: Equal access to jobs, equal pay, access to high-level education, free childcare, maternity pay and benefits.
So it seems that after over a hundred years of activism, economic equality is most elusive. Women have been able to get the right to vote and hold office, but still face hurdles in the workplace.
In fact, economic disenfranchisement has always been the main factor in maintaining a subordinate role for women. Without financial independence, women were unable to negotiate better legal, social or political roles in their societies. This central role of economics is behind the stiff opposition men in many societies have put forth to prevent women's economic independence if they can, or else circumvent it.
It is useful to bear in mind that the International Women's Day, which is observed around the world this week, was originally meant to improve women's working conditions.
According to historians, marking an international women's day goes back over a hundred years. On 19 March 1911, the International Working Women's Day was observed, probably for the first time, by holding rallies of an estimated one million women and men in several European countries. In addition to the right to vote and to hold public office, they demanded women's right to work, vocational training and an end to job discrimination.
Six days later, on March 25, 1911, a fire in a clothing factory in New York killed (146) garment workers, mostly young women, thus highlighting the appalling working conditions under which working women toiled. The incident helped galvanize activists to raise awareness about those conditions.
As the cause drew in more followers, the name was changed shortly thereafter to "International Women's Day."
In 1975, the United Nations declared the 8th of March as International Women's Day with a series of events organized every year to mark this occasion.
While women have achieved a lot since 1975, development indicators show that there is much left to be done to reduce the gender gap worldwide, but especially in developing countries. In 2012, only Scandinavian countries - that same group of countries that consistently score high on human development scales - have achieved anything close to gender equality, between 78 percent for Denmark and 86 percent for Iceland. The rest scored much below.
In Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf, a lot has been achieved in the area of women's health, for example. In education, also, the results have been almost unimaginable. Starting from near zero just a generation ago, today Saudi and other GCC women university graduates outnumber men.
Saudi and other GCC women have also taken significant strides in the area of political empowerment. Earlier this year, 30 women joined the ranks of Shoura Council, constituting 20 percent of the membership of this important body. In addition, women are expected to run for office in the next round of municipal elections.
Economically, however, there is much to be done. It is true that women by law can own property and run their own businesses. And many do. It is in the area of employment where the biggest gap exists.
Consider the official Saudi labor statistics published earlier this year, compared to 2009 figures, to appreciate the difficulties women job seekers face.
Chances for Saudi women in finding work have slightly improved since 2009, but that improvement has been quite limited and their new employment rates remain still extremely low. In 2009, there were (505,000) employed Saudi women, compared to (647,000) in the second half of 2012.
Accordingly, their employment rate rose from (8.5 percent) to just (10 percent). This means that only one out of ten working-age women are employed outside the house. That rate is less than one-fifth of the comparable rate for industrialized countries, which was around 25 percent in 2011.
According to official figures, there are hundreds of thousands of Saudi women who are looking for employment but unable to secure it. The Central Department of Statistics and Information put their number at (359,000) in 2012. Figures from the employment incentives' program known as (Hafiz) suggest that their numbers have exceeded one million.
But this could be just the tip of the iceberg. From official unemployment statistics, you see that increasingly more women are actively seeking employment, but unable to find it. Between 2009 and 2012, Saudi women's rate of unemployment rose from (28 percent) to (36 percent), or six times the rate of unemployment for Saudi men.
It is clear, then, that economic empowerment remains the greatest challenge for Saudi women today. They thus share the same concerns with their sisters worldwide. With one little difference. In the case of Saudi Arabia, there is no shortage of jobs. The economy has maintained healthy growth rates for over a decade, doubling every seven years, and creating millions of jobs in the process. But only a small portion of those jobs are made available to women.