On March 8 we celebrated International Women’s Day, which recognizes women’s economic, political, and social contributions, past, present, and future. This year is particularly significant as it is the 20th anniversary of the UN Fourth World Conference on Women. It is also the 15th anniversary of UN SecurityCouncil 1325 on Women, Peace and Security and the 36th anniversary of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). In addition this year the UN is reviewing the Millennium Development Goals to determine how gender equality and women’s empowerment can be integrated into the post-2015 sustainable development goals.
While international, national, and local actors have made a great deal of progress in women’s empowerment, many challenges still remain in ensuring women’s full and equal participation in all sectors of society. World Learning is committed to working with women to improve their access to economic, political, and social opportunities. Prioritizing women’s empowerment and gender equality is critical to creating more stable, democratic, and prosperous societies.
The organization recently hosted an International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) exchange on Women as Political and Social Leaders for 11 women leaders from Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Tunisia. The three-week program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and aims to examine gender equality and women’s participation in politics, education, civil society, and other sectors in the United States.
We sat down with the participants while they were in Washington, DC, at the beginning of their program to discuss their personal opinions on the status of gender equality in their home countries, the challenges women still face, and opportunities to move women’s empowerment forward. Participants requested that we not identify them by name for this story.
While each country had different specific challenges, overall the women noted the biggest obstacles to achieving gender equality were traditional cultural norms, which affect how women are treated in society and view themselves. While many of the countries have official political an legal frameworks intended to promote gender equality, they are not always enforced due to these norms.
The participant from Sudan said that while women have officially had the right to vote and run for office since 1964, there is still a mindset of male domination that prevents women from completing their education and fully participating in the political system.
One of the Tunisian participants, who works with a women’s civic organization, said while her country’s new constitution includes provisions ensuring women’s rights and the equality of female candidates for public office, in practice women still face discrimination which limits their opportunities, especially in leadership roles and politics.
A participant from Egypt, who works with a nongovernmental organization improving the lives of women and children, said the new Egyptian constitution granted women many new rights. Gender equality in work and education is supposed to be guaranteed, however similar attitudes deny women educational opportunities which in turn limit their professional advancement.
Traditional practices also influence gender-based violence and responses to it. The Sudanese participant said one of the biggest threats to women in her country is female genital mutilation and forced body modification, which can include tribal scarification of a woman’s face. The country’s ongoing conflicts have also increased violence against women.
Governments have responded to these issues and many are working to improve legal protections for women. The Tunisian participant said the Ministry of Women is collaborating with a number of civil society groups there to draft legislation against gender based violence and an Egyptian participant said that the country recently enacted a new law to criminalize sexual harassment.
While these are important steps, gender based violence is still difficult to acknowledge and address in some places. One of the participants from Iraq noted that while laws against gender-based violence and services for survivors of violence have improved, it is still a taboo subject in spaces where women have not yet gained adequate representation. However women are gaining leadership roles and visibility in local and national government, which may help advance the conversation on gender based violence.
As in Iraq, many women are moving into positions of authority in their communities and countries, however for others cultural norms still strongly shape their self image. They may not see themselves as leaders or believe they must conform to traditional women’s roles in their families and communities. Many of the exchange participants work on changing these beliefs, so that women feel empowered to become leaders and see the benefits their participation in society can have for themselves, their families, and their communities.
Another participant from Egypt stated that her organization helps women get involved in political and education systems by demonstrating that it will not only improve their lives, but the lives of their children as well. She said she tries to live by example and when other women see her positive participation in society it encourages them begin demanding their rights as well.
The participant from Algeria said the number of female elected officials in her country has historically been very low. However, since a quota system was enacted in 2012, women now make up more than 30 percent of parliament and local government. She said people have noticed the positive impacts female lawmakers can have as many have introduced bills to improve life for women and children.
The participant from Jordan said that the government has been engaging women to help empower them on economic, political, and social levels. King Abdullah II issued a royal decree instituting quotas for female representatives at the municipal and parliamentary levels. The government has also sponsored workshops to help women learn about campaigning for political office.
Participants agreed that in addition to government support, in order to move forward women need to be united in their quest for equality. Many of them noted the importance of using positive portrayals of women in the media and acting as role models for others to raise awareness of these issues. They also emphasized the need to improve economic opportunities for all women in order to decrease their societal vulnerability. Empowering young women to obtain an education and become leaders in their communities is also important to ensure these gains continue with the next generation. In addition to unifying women behind the cause, participants said it was vital to engage men in the process to educate them about gender equality and act as advocates.
After speaking with us, the participants continued their program around the United States visiting, New York; Denver; Jackson, Mississippi; and Miami. They will meet with other women’s rights advocates to build relationships with them and learn about issues including international approaches to women’s issues, economic and political empowerment, increasing women’s access to education, and interfaith dialogues. They will return home in late March ready to put their new knowledge and skills to work fighting for equality and rights for all women.