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Women and the Arab spring: an ongoing struggle for equal rights

The prominent role played by women has been a feature of the democracy movements in the Middle East and North Africa but the apparent progress has not been achieved without conflict and dissent.

Several countries from the region are undergoing fundamental transitions, including holding elections, drafting new Constitutions, new laws and in some cases establishing mechanisms for transitional justice. The outcome of these processes is critical for the rights of women and their status in the new democracies.

At a recent gathering of media and civil society experts in Beirut, Nada Darwazeh, from the UN Human Rights Middle East Office said, "The Arab uprising has at long last empowered women to claim a larger presence and role in the public arena, which is something revolutionary, and somehow contrary to decades of gender stereotyping."

This more prominent role is, however, not without risk: "Women face several gender-specific threats in conflict and transition countries, including but not limited to gender based violence in both the public and private spheres, which is manifested in verbal and sexual abuse reaching to extreme cases of rape in some contexts," Darwazeh noted.

Dedicated to discussing the situation of Women's Rights in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings, the panelists debated gender equality, women's empowerment in the wake of the Arab uprisings, and the political and judicial reforms which must now follow, including the introduction of  a quota system to ensure the representation of women in decision-making positions.

"This region's ultimate challenge lies in how to enhance the commitment of governments to fully implement the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), a treaty that has long been ratified by all the region's states," Darwazeh said.

CEDAW's implementation, she further explained, ought to commence with a thorough revision of how new constitutions are being drafted, and whether or not they are taking into account the role of women in the countries’ decision-making process.

Established in Beirut in 2002, OHCHR's Regional Office for the Middle East has long strived to adopt a comprehensive framework to strengthen the protection of human rights in the region. At an earlier regional meeting in 2012, as part of its commitment to work with and protect women human rights defenders, activists from Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen were brought together to track developments in the region and assess strategies for advancing women’s rights in the evolution of their countries’ political and legal systems.

"From Tunisia to Egypt to Bahrain, to Syria, to Yemen and Libya women from the region have made their presence a defining feature of the uprisings," Darwazeh said.

For Mona Rishmawi, Chief of Rule of Law and Democracy with the UN Human Rights Office, women human rights defenders are often marginalized in their work and as such are ousted from society.

"However, they have taken great strides to break free from fear, which is critical for sustaining their voice of change. The question is how to maintain this beam of hope," Rishmawi said in her address to the regional meeting.

"The situation of women is worse since the uprisings," a participant from Egypt told the 2012 meeting. "Some harmful practices are returning because of lack of security; for instance, early marriage, where some families are marrying their daughters earlier because girls are safer if they are married.”

“In cases where women did get elected, they face fierce opposition when they propose laws that address women’s equal rights in the society,” she said.

Another participant from Yemen described how at first, the uprising seemed positive for women. "But now, everything is being done to tarnish the reputation of women," she said, referring to the sexualized nature of public attacks against the reputations of activists.

Another of the participants concurred: "In Libya, rape has been a big problem."

"The victims are forced to get married in horrible situations, but some women who become pregnant, as a result of the rape have their marriages nullified. They are abandoned by their families and treated as prostitutes," she said.

Another of the speakers described the situation prior to the uprising in Tunisia, when there was repression of women and men alike.

"Yet now, women human rights defenders have become symbols of evil," she said. "Before, I faced challenges because I was a human rights defender. Now I face challenges because I am a woman."

22 March 2013
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