eNews 32: Women's Rights in Democratic Transitions, Plus New Resources

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May 24, 2012



"Democracy cannot be realized in a regime that oppresses half of the population. Democracy without gender democracy is not possible."


-Thoraya Obaid
WLP Board Chair & Former Executive Director of UNFPA

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Dear Friends,

After several decades of authoritarian rule, Egyptians are going to the polls today in freedom and dignity to vote for a new president. This is a historical occasion of great significance not only for the people of Egypt, but also for all MENA peoples. WLP partners in Egypt celebrated their triumph when they ushered in change last year. They experienced frustration and concern when they were sidetracked during the process of formulating the new structures of governance. They were again cautiously optimistic when groups of varying political leanings in society engaged in conversation and debate, demonstrating a degree of flexibility when faced with alternate views and aspirations. Today, they express pride in the opening of spaces for them to voice their political will and to engage in public debates. Today is also an occasion for those who have been engaged in the struggle for women's human rights for years, as well as those who have just entered the arena of activism, to revisit the history of our struggle, evaluate our achievements, and reevaluate our visions, strategies, and tactics in the light of the evolving global political conditions. Our April Partners' Convening in Istanbul, which preceded the AWID Forum, was a prelude to this process of creative soul searching.

WLP Partners joined over two thousand women activists in Istanbul for the 12th triennial Forum of the Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID). In a pre-Forum meeting organized by WLP together with the Global Fund for Women, Equality Without Reservation, and AWID, 80 women leaders from 18 countries in the MENA and twenty activists from other regions that had recently experienced political transitions discussed the impact of recent developments in several Arab countries, focusing on the status of women and the appropriate strategies for the development of cultures of participatory pluralism. The sessions covered a wide range of issues, from structural prerequisites for a democratic political system to the rights and responsibilities of individual citizens, the relationship between state and citizen as embodied in national constitutions, the role of religion in the public sphere, and especially the role and rights of women in decision-making positions and processes. There was heated and intense discussion during the two-day pre-Forum meetings, as well as during the Forum in-depth strategy sessions the following two afternoons. We have asked Thoraya Obaid, former Undersecretary General of the United Nations and present Chair of the Board of WLP, who participated in all four days of the debates, to give a summation of the issues raised and points emphasized, drawing on her invaluable global experience and especially her first hand observations of Egypt and Saudi Arabia where she has spent most of her time during the past year. Her commentary appears below.

Let us hope that Egypt's historic election will prove to be a positive step towards realization of the dreams and aspirations of our partners, and all those striving to create democratic, gender-just societies.

Mahnaz Afkhami
President and CEO






Women's Rights in Transitions to Democracy:
Achieving Rights, Resisting Backlash

By Thoraya Ahmed Obaid

Summary of challenges and strategies discussed in the pre-AWID Forum and the subsequent Strategy Meetings


WLP partners joined over one hundred leaders, grassroots activists and academics from the MENA region and others from Asia, Africa, and Latin America to discuss the challenges faced by women in the MENA region and to share strategies for successful transitions to democracy. We had several days of very rich discussions, both conceptual and practical. I hope I have captured the main points.

The MENA region is at a point of no return, refusing oppression and injustice in all forms; change is inevitable. Transition to democracy has become a reality regardless of how it is defined. The rulers were removed. Though regimes might not have changed, public spaces have been opened for those oppressed under authoritarian regimes to claim their democratic rights. Open spaces are here and need to be seen as an opportunity for change. This is a beginning to more phases to change the context of our discourse about our lives. We may yet have to traverse many hurdles, but let no one doubt that it is a great achievement that cannot--must not--be undervalued. Read More

Click here for a full list of WLP's activities surrounding the AWID Forum.

New WLP Resources on Combating Violence Against Women

Worldwide, at least one in three women is a victim of violence. It is the most pervasive human rights violation on earth -- present in every country, every culture, every religion, every class. As part of WLP's ongoing work to create learning material for women, allied men, and youth to defend their rights and build gender-just societies, WLP has recently released two new resources on combating violence against women.

Our new practitioners' manual published this April, Victories over Violence: Ensuring Safety for Women and Girls, is comprised of 16 sessions which unfold in a progression-moving from violence at home or in the private sphere, to the community or public space, to the transnational and international arenas. Case studies in each session are drawn from actual events and feature stories set in societies as diverse as Haiti, Malaysia, Nepal, and the United States. This format enables facilitators and participants to explore the linkages between violence in these three realms-the private, public, and global-while underscoring the point that gender-based human rights violations are ubiquitous and exist across cultural, economic, ethnic, political, religious, and other divisions.

freedomWLP also recently released the documentary film From Fear to Freedom: Ending Violence Against Women. In the film, leading experts and activists from across the globe discuss the root causes of gender-based violence, share strategies to combat it, and provide inspiring accounts of the important milestones already achieved through the international women's movement. The film is being used as an awareness-raising and educational tool by women's rights organizations, universities and secondary schools, women's shelters, and individual citizens seeking to advocate for change in their communities.

WLP will be announcing the release of new language editions of both resources in the coming year.

Cooperatives Prove a Successful Model for Women's Economic Empowerment

By Layla Moughari

cooperativeI traveled to Istanbul in April for several Women's Learning Partnership (WLP) events and meetings in conjunction with the Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID) Forum on Transforming Economic Power to Advance Women's Rights and Justice. During my trip, I had the privilege of visiting the Foundation for the Support of Women's Work (FSWW)- WLP's partner in Turkey-learning more than I could have ever hoped about the Foundation's work through in-person discussions with staff, site visits to a cooperative in the network and the Nahil retail shop that sells goods produced by local women, and through participating in FSWW's session at the AWID Forum. The Foundation's critical efforts are doing so much to further women's economic security and to build individual and women's collective leadership and advocacy capacity.

FSWW, based in Istanbul, Turkey and established in 1986, is a non-profit, non-governmental economic cooperative that serves low-income women and their children. FSWW supports a network of autonomous, women-led cooperatives, offering microcredit programs and providing a space for women to sell their goods. It also provides a wide range of social supports that enable women to participate in the labor force – including childcare, counseling services, financial savings opportunities, and training on leadership, IT, and financial literacy. Read More

Interfaith Perspectives on Religious Fundamentalisms and Women's Rights

On the final day of the AWID Forum, WLP held the panel discussion “Interfaith Perspectives on Religious Fundamentalisms and Women's Rights.” During the panel leading activists from the Middle East, Central and South Asia, and the United States commented on fundamentalist groups, their recent rise in power, the values they hold, and their view of women's “appropriate” role in family and society. They emphasized the need for a concerted international effort by those seeking to advance women's rights and civil liberties to counter the negative impact of the fundamentalist position on gender equality. Speakers included Daisy Khan, Co-founder of American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA), Israeli peace and human rights activist Yvonne Deutsch, WLP Kyrgyzstan/CAC Executive Director Tolekan Ismailova, and WLP President Mahnaz Afkhami, with WLP Lebanon/CRTD-A Executive Director Lina Abou Habib moderating the panel.

Opening up the discussion, Afkhami spoke about the root causes of fundamentalism spanning borders, religions, cultures, and time itself. Fundamentalism, she said, is a reaction to change, surging especially when change is radical and poorly understood by society. Globalization, and the myriad social changes that have resulted from it, has fueled the rise in fundamentalism since the second half of the 20th century. The most radical of these changes, at various stages of development across the globe, has been the change of women's role in society and the family. This change affects every aspect of life – politics, architecture, religion, art. To succeed it takes time, and depends on the kind and quality of culture change, in particular the embrace of democratic, egalitarian principles not only in public life, but also as the foundation for relationships between individuals. According to Afkhami, fundamentalists can't quite accept this radical upheaval in human relations. But, through the work of women's rights activists and large populations of youth around the world seeking a more just, peaceful world, this change is surely coming. Read More

Strategizing for Democracy: Challenges and Opportunities for Women in the MENA Region

Strategic As part of our activities during this year's Commission on the Status of Women in New York, WLP held the first in a series of intensive strategy sessions on democratic transition in the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region. This series of discussions will serve as the foundation for a forthcoming toolkit designed to bolster the ability of activists, particularly women's rights activists, to navigate the most pressing challenges facing these countries in transition. To launch this initiative, WLP gathered 20 leading scholars and activists with expertise in several areas key to democratic transition for a day-long meeting at the Ford Foundation. As a result of this conversation and additional discussions and contributions by participants, WLP published Strategizing for Democracy: Challenges and Opportunities for Women in the MENA Region. This white paper compiles many of the insights presented by meeting participants who discussed the causes, consequences, threats, and opportunities presented by the revolutions sweeping the MENA region over the past year and a half. The recommendations from these activists and experts are based on their extensive experience advocating for human rights and working towards political change in their own societies to transition from authoritarianism to gender-inclusive democracies that embrace pluralism, civility, and compromise. Specifically, the paper focuses on achieving rights through constitutional reform, combating fundamentalism, amplifying women's voices in political parties, the importance of media to democratization, and the importance of civic and gender-sensitive education. This strategic conversation builds on WLP's previous meetings and events on achieving rights and resisting backlash during times of democratic transitions that will continue through 2012, and that will ultimately serve as the basis for our forthcoming toolkit for women's rights in transitional societies.

Participants in WLP's May Global Training of Trainers Institute for Women's Leadership and Political Participation in Malaysia recently shared their thoughts about the training with us. Click here to read about their experiences. 


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