On February 17th, 2018, dozens of dedicated members of our growing international network convened in Paris, France, to discuss areas of strategic focus for the year ahead. The session opened with an address by WNC’s distinguished Vice-President, Dr. Ranjana Kumari, Director of the Centre for Social Research in Delhi and Chairperson of Women Power Connect, a national level organization of women’s groups in India.
Before opening the floor to the exchange of ideas on pressing social, economic and political issues, the panel revisited some of WNC’s achievements over the past year. Specifically, since July of last year, the Women’s Network for Change has participated in many global forums, including, for example, the annual FORUM 2000 event in Prague whose theme, this year, was ‘Strengthening Democracy in Uncertain Times’. The WNC was also invited to meet with Members of the European Parliament to discuss with various Member-States about how we can effectively work alongside them to promote women’s political empowerment, internationally. WNC was also in attendance at a conference commemorating the ‘Day of Elimination of Violence Against Women’ on November 23rd, 2017 in Palermo, Italy, alongside the Mayor of Palermo and the Head of Amnesty International. Representatives of our network later travelled to Nepal to take part in the South Asian Regional Workshop convened by Women For Human Rights, single women group (WHR), an organization that seeks to put an end to discriminatory practices against women in Nepal and elsewhere based purely on their marital status.
Distinguished participants at this February’s Board Meeting included, Prof. Rita Süssmuth, President of WNC and Former Speaker of the German Bundestag (1988-1998); Dr. Ranjana Kumari, Vice-President of WNC, Director of the Centre for Social Research (CSR) – India, and Chairperson for Women Power Connect; Prof. Rashida Manjoo, former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women (June 2009-July 2015) and Professor of Human Rights at the University of Cape Town, South Africa; Baroness Sandip Verma, Member of the House of Lords – UK and Former Minister of International Development until 2016; Hoda Badran, Chairperson of the Alliance for Arab Women (AAW) – Egypt and President of Arab Women’s League; Dr. Fatma Khafagy of Egypt; Soheir Kansouh-Habib, a former senior member of Cairo’s UNDP office; Linda Chavez, American author, commentator, radio talk show host, syndicated columnist, and Chair of Center for Equal Opportunity – USA; Maria Candida Almeida, Deputy Attorney General – Portugal and Former Attorney General until 2015; Maria Elena Elverdin, President of the International Federation of Women in Legal Careers (FIFCJ) – Argentina; Susana Medina, Minister of the High Court of Justice of Entre Ríos (2004 – present) – Argentina, and President of the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ); Suheir Al-Atassi, Member of the Syrian Opposition Coalition and former Vice Chair of the Council; Najima Thay Thay, former Minister of Education and Youth – Morocco; Khadija Ziyani, Member of Parliament – Morocco; Soumia Ouaalal, Member of Parliament – Morocco; Zhor El Ouahabi, Member of Parliament – Morocco; Bozena Kaminska, Member of Parliament – Poland; Sonia Hornery, Member of Parliament – Australia; Margarita Duran Vadell, historian, journalist, Senator (2011-2015) – Spain and Vice-President of INCO Human Rights; Eva Duran Ramos, President of INCO Human Rights Organization, EPP representative for Puente de Vallecas, Member of Parliament (2011-2016)- Spain; Virginia Romero Banon, lawyer and former Member of Spanish Parliament, and Carmen Navaro, translator and women’s rights activist.
Three main issue-areas were discussed: (1) Rural Women’s Empowerment, (2) Women’s Leadership in Politics, and (3) Women and Social Media Connectivity.
On the subject of rural women’s empowerment, Virginia Romero Banon from Spain discussed the important contributions of rural women to the Spanish economy. At least 3 million women in Spain work in rural areas and many of these jobs are in the agricultural sector. In the last three years, the Spanish rural population has increased by a rate of 45,000 persons per year, but there remain many obstacles to women’s full participation and engagement. Women’s economic empowerment in rural areas has meant that the entire country benefits from their labor, but they too, must benefit in terms of political representation and decision-making capacities.
Representatives from Portugal also intervened to demonstrate the ways in which, despite the freedoms and atmosphere of peace enjoyed in the country, women – and rural women in particular – lag far behind men in areas of political, economic and financial leadership. Participants from Portugal underscored the lack of investment in rural women’s education as well as the disparity that exists between the belief in women’s substantive equality in theory – at the level of the constitution – versus the reality of women’s equality across the country. According to Maria Candida Almeida, “People are sleeping. Because we are free to work, to write, and speak as we wish, we do not always recognize how far we still have to go in order to achieve women’s empowerment. As a prosecutor in the Portuguese Supreme Court, I see that domestic violence is still a big problem. Women are often the victims of sexual and physical aggression and we need to work towards the very equality guaranteed by the constitution, but in reality”.
On this note, a member of the Moroccan delegation, Zhor El Ouahabi, shared some of the advancements the women’s movement has seen in her country in recent years: In 2004, they started a campaign focusing on family rights and by 2011, they succeeded in taking a crucial step forwards. Changes were officially made to the Moroccan constitution granting women additional rights in the family and in the political arena. Among more rural parts of the country, one of the central challenges they currently face is the Islamophobia born out of a mixture of religion and politics. This mixture acts as a barrier and denies many muslim women their rights to participate and express their rights on an equal footing as men and must be overcome as a key to achieving greater political equality. Similar concerns were raised by representatives from Egypt, where rural women are often subjected to forms of coercion that have nothing to do with Islam, but that are undertaken in the name of Islam: “Because we are muslims, we must stand together and condemn the Islamists who are taking such positions against women, positions that are not Islamic at all”.
Next, addressing an important point on the topic of rural women’s empowerment, Prof. Rashida Manjoo elaborated on the need to avoid the dangers of essentializing rural women and putting them to use for political capital in bodies such as the United Nations: “The issue of sustainability on rural women’s issues, whether it is about lack of access to resources, opportunities, or unfair labor practices for agricultural workers, these are issues that we need to keep on our radar at all times and not simply every four ears when some intergovernmental body decides they are the designated themes. The bandage solutions that some governments have come up with, as it relates to rural women, have been more about a welfare approach than an empowerment approach. We need women to be active agents in their own lives and this remains a source of concern. When we buy into ‘sexy topics’ such as these we need to understand our engagement as substantive and see rural women as having something to teach us about how to proceed.”
On the question of sustainable of engagement with rural women and girls, Soheir Kansouh emphasized the importance of extending organizational capacities and resources to rural women who are not, at present, as collectively organized as women’s organization’s in urban areas. In order for international institutions to hear rural women’s voices and in order for rural women to be able to talk for themselves in a sustained way, this is an important obstacle that we can help to overcome by sharing experiences and successful frameworks.
Turning to the subject of women’s political empowerment and leadership in politics, Baroness Sandip Verma, Member of the UK House of Lords emphasized that “unless we get more women into positions of power, into decision-making roles, however much progress we make or don’t make on social norms, we still won’t answer the question of accountability in decision-making.” She continued: “It’s really important that we do get women into positions of decision making. Social norms can only change if women feel as though laws will be implemented and that people can get justice at the other end… To date, collectively, we have allowed a system to dictate back to us. The only way we can change it is when we are determined that people be held accountable. As a non-white member of the Tory party, I’ve have to battle to achieve consensus. For example, if we are going to meet any delegation in the world, if there are no women on it, we have to question it! Whether it is is at the United Nations, where I still question why there are no women peace envoys, or elsewhere, we have a lot to challenge. Women’s collective voice has to share a common ground because the pain of discrimination is universal”.
Citing a number of obstacles facing women’s leadership in politics, Prof. Manjoo took up to discuss the pros and cons of legislative quotas for equal participation before moving on to challenge the unresponsiveness of political institutions born of patriarchal attitudes and cultures: “During my time at the UN, one of the issues that kept coming up was ‘should we have legislative quotas and will that lead to more women in politics? And further, will it change the political and economic landscape of a country?’ We’ve seen, as some of you have raised, the issues brought about by legislative quotas. On the other hand, leaving it to political parties to have quotas is also a challenge. In my country (South Africa), we have a national congress (the ruling party) that only shares 1/3rd of its representation with women… The next barrier that women seem to face is when women are in politics – the sort of unresponsiveness of institutions and structures is a problem. I received many reports when I was Special Rapporteur about violence against women in politics, some verbal and some physical in different countries around the world. Women do feel that once they go into formal politics, they lose the support of their constituencies, the NGO’s and women’s organizations, because there is an expectation that by simply entering formal politics they can change the world. I know that in our first democratic parliament in South Africa, some chairman of a committee would decide that the meeting would start at 9pm, irrespective of the triple-shift that women would have to do to accommodate this. When the first black woman judge took office in 1994, there was no toilet in the high court for her. When she asked, she was told to use the Secretary’s restroom. From entry-point barriers to the non-responsiveness of institutions, we face challenges all around”.
Echoing similar concerns, Soheir Kansouh of Egypt spoke about how even in countries where gender quotas are mandated throughout the Arab world, the success in achieving gender balance in Arab legislatures has not translated into the advancement of women’s rights: “It does not matter how many women are in parliament if they are not really talking about women’s rights. People are beginning to lose faith and they need to see more action – this likely has to do with the unresponsiveness of political institutions as Prof. Manjoo describes”.
Linda Chavez, the current chair for the Centre for Equal Opportunity and former US expert to the sub-commission on the prevention of discrimination and protection of minorities at the United Nations, raised similar concerns: “In some countries, like Iran, the institutional power is entirely in the hands of men, and therefore this kind of violence against women takes every form and is institutionalized. But even in countries where you have more freedom and equal protections before the law, these problems nonetheless persist. I don’t know how to answer this problem, and so I raise it is as a question. There exists a fundamental issue about how the two sexes relate to one another and about how women continue to be victimized in ways that are very unique to our sex. Women in the 21st century hold economic power in many countries around the world and even the women we think would be the most secure are nonetheless victimized”.
Next, representative Hoda Badran from Egypt intervened to underscore the need for women’s groups to focus on three areas necessary for waging successful mobilizations for political empowerment. In her view, we can learn from the women’s union in Tunis and turn our attention to: (1) solidarity and size, (2) organization and capacity-building, and (3) gaining increased access to resources.
Rounding off this subject, a representative from the Argentine Federation of Jurists, Maria Elena Elverdin, spoke about how in Argentina, parity laws have been passed gaining women representation in congress but that this does not hold true for professional organizations, leaving women’s participation in decision-making roles limited, at best. This relates to cultural barriers that affect issues such as violence against women, femicide and sex-tortion (or sex extortion): “Women are dying due to femicide every day and we are working very hard on this issue but we have plenty more to do.”
This brought us to the 3rd issue-area relating to women and social media connectivity. Citing education as the main entry point for achieving stronger institutions in favor of equality, the President of the Judges Association of Argentina, Susana Medina, remarked how, over the last 25 years, they have channelled their efforts into building Centres of Education and Capacity Building that work to educate women on justice-related issues: “The latest chapter of this effort promotes education about crimes of sexual extortion. This was inspired by the ongoing #MeToo campaign in Hollywood, but was made necessary by the fact that human trafficking and similar problems are ongoing in Argentina and around the world. You know, human trafficking, of which young girls are the primary victims, grosses an annual revenue of $32 million”.
Adding to the complexity of such concerns, Prof. Manjoo underscored how the MeToo campaign has provided a “new, intergenerational space” for discussing violence against women and sexual harassment, but also risks diminishing such realities to hashtags and social media campaigns when, in actuality, they necessitate change at the individual, structural and institutional levels that are part and parcel of women’s daily lives in different sectors of society: “One strategy has to address how we educate the media in order to avoid diminishing these stories, because you know the media is always in search of a sound-bite. And if we don’t give them the sound bite they will find someone else who will. We therefore have to write opinion pieces and engage a message that goes beyond the one line – #MeToo. For example, when we talk about crimes of sex-tortion, the discussions need to go deeper to demonstrate that this is not a new problem, but an ongoing manifestation of deeper structural and institutional problems and challenges. We need campaigns to expose how insidious these forms of sexual harassment and exploitation are and how deep they go”.
Offering her concluding remarks, Prof. Rita Süssmuth challenged the group to gain the attention of our political leaders and to tap into women’s unharnessed potential, the world-over: “Of course women are more powerful than we were 100 years ago… but we have more potential than power.” We must therefore analyze women’s concerns in order to help build a more prosperous future. This entails reaching out to those less powerful than ourselves and lending our voices to echo their demands.