Israel’s gender revolution

Elections in Israel are so intense that even dramatic and path breaking government decisions — unless they blatantly give undue advantage to incumbents — frequently elude the public eye. Such is the case with Decision #2331: the extraordinary announcement of the present government last Sunday of a new plan for promoting gender equality in the country. The plan constitutes a truly revolutionary change in approaches to the elimination of gender inequities.

In broad strokes, the December 14, 2014 ten-page government decision heralds a shift from strategies designed to promote the status of women to one aimed at achieving gender equality. By defining the persistence of gender gaps as a key social issue to be eradicated, the sole burden of instigating change is no longer placed on women — joint action is required by all sectors of society.

The decision introduces gender mainstreaming tools that take into account gender perspectives and implications in policy-making with a view to increasing opportunities for women in all spheres, enhancing their personal security and augmenting the representation of women from diverse sectors of society in decision-making. The culmination of the combined work of grassroots women’s organizations, scholars specializing in gender studies and government agencies during the past few years, this decision is a unique example of the constructive potential ingrained in joint citizen-government interaction.

The need for bold new ways to deal with festering gender inequities in Israel derives from three main sources, all masterfully elaborated in the explanatory notes appended to the policy directive. The first rests on the exceedingly slow progress made since the turn of the century in narrowing gender gaps. Despite the tremendous efforts invested in improving the status of women in the country and significant gains in a variety of fields — including important advances in education, health, employment and representation in positions of power — gender inequality persists and in some cases has become even more intractable as the progress of men has, oftentimes, outdistanced that of their female counterparts. (For example: today 76.7% of those in the top income percentile are male; 67.3% of those in the lowest percentile are female.) Thus, the increased motion on gender equality has yielded very little forward movement, suggesting that a different approach may be in order.

The second source of change derives from significant developments in the field of gender studies in response to these realities. Many of the formal tools used in the past to combat discrimination against women — such as the prohibition of gender discrimination and the introduction of affirmative action — may have increased the representation of some women in the power nexus, but neglected the existence of deep-rooted, albeit informal, obstacles to the advancement of women. They also overlooked what updated multi-cultural theories have underlined: that “women” are not a monolithic category and that they frequently suffer from double exclusion as a result of the intersection of their femininity with religious, ethnic or economic affiliations.

This intersectionality has highlighted the essentially gendered structures of society in Israel (as elsewhere), making the struggle for gender equality into a central social issue which requires all-embracing societal solutions. All these have brought about the development of gender mainstreaming tools which demand recognition of the gendered nature of society and consideration of gender perspectives to expedite the exposure of discriminatory arrangements and the removal of these formal and informal barriers. Indeed, gender mainstreaming is now commonplace in most advanced democracies and has been introduced in specific spheres in Israel. With the new government decision, it is now becoming official policy.

The third source of change comes from the international arena. On October 31, 2000, the Security Council of the United Nations adopted resolution 1325 which calls for the participation of women in all efforts to prevent and resolve violent conflicts and provides for their protection in wartime. Israel was the first country to codify elements of resolution 1325 into law in 2005. It has yet, however, to join the close to 50 countries which have adopted national action plans (NAPs) which, in the spirit of 1325, seek to apply gender mainstreaming instruments to promote gender equality in their domestic and international policies. For the past couple of years, over 30 civil society organizations and feminist activists, under the leadership of Itach-Ma’aki, Shavot (WIPS-The Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute) and the Women’s Media Center at ANU, have been engaged in formulating a comprehensive action plan based on updated concepts of gender equality. This draft NAP for Israel provides a blueprint for government action.

The combination of lackluster performance on the ground, scholarly advances in feminist studies and the detailed proposal prepared by a variety of women’s organizations working in tandem prepared the groundwork for last week’s historic government decision, which consists of three key elements. The first relates to the redefinition of the role of the National Authority for the Advancement of Women — to be renamed the National Authority for Gender Equality. The Authority will be responsible for the planning of government policy for gender equality, for the development of gender mainstreaming tools and allied training in the public and private sectors and for the promotion of equal representation in all spheres of life of men and women from diverse sectors of the population.

The second element of the new policy, directed at all government ministries, calls for a gender reassessment of ministerial work plans. Specifically, it requires each office to select at least one area for review through a gender lfens immediately and to adjust its 2015 plan accordingly. This means, as the document explains, that if the objective of a program is to strengthen the periphery and disadvantaged groups and the goal is to develop the economic infrastructure in these areas, then one of the tasks would be to expand the companies owned by minorities and the indicator for success would be a rise in the number headed by Arab women. The National Authority for Gender Equality is charged with preparing the training manuals, conducting necessary courses and supplying gender experts to carry out this objective in order to assure that starting in 2016, all government work plans will be gender-sensitive.

The third element of the government’s innovative directive #2331 calls for the creation of an inter-ministerial committee (which may include academics and representatives of civil society) to formulate a comprehensive action plan (NAP) for Israel in line with UNSCR 1325. This committee will address ways to entrench gender mainstreaming techniques in policy making; to open opportunities for women in all major spheres of life; to strengthen the security of women and to protect them against all forms of violence; and to increase the representation of diverse women in decision-making positions. The draft plan is expected to be brought to the government for approval within six months, thus providing a detailed instrument for ensuring gender equality in the long-term.

The unwavering pursuit of gender equality is one of the most accurate tests of democratic robustness. Israel’s renewed commitment to this goal, based as it is on the inclusion of women from all groups in society, lays the foundation — along with the incorporation of women into the ongoing quest for the resolution of Israel’s conflict with its neighbors — for the attainment of human security which is the bedrock of national security.

The road to gender equality is still long and paved with numerous obstacles. In the midst of the immense turmoil attendant on the dispersal of the Knesset and the preparations for the forthcoming elections, the significance of the non-partisan decision of the outgoing government cannot be exaggerated. Any government which assumes office following the February 2015 elections must embrace the December 14th decision and dedicate itself to its elaboration and full implementation.

This article was first publidhed in The Times of Israel
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