The untold story of Egyptian women’s rights

In a report published last month on violent crimes committed against women in 2009, Karam Saber Ibrahim, Executive Director of The Land Center for Human Rights, a Cairo-based non-governmental organisation, spoke of a belief that some Egyptians continue to hold, that “women are fundamentally lacking…. They are not complete, because they are not men.” Attitudes like these, as well as laws that discriminate against women, create significant hardship for Egyptian women. In order to address these issues and solidify rights for Egyptian women, many governmental and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are joining hands to put new laws into effect and ensure that women are aware of their rights.
In Egypt, where women are working as ministers and elected as parliament members, gender equality is still an issue. According to UNICEF statistics from 1997 to 2007, 96 per cent of women between 15 and 49 have experienced female genital mutilation (FGM) and childhood marriage remains a problem. A study conducted by Egypt’s National Population Centre (NPC) in 2004 on women between the ages of 15 to 49 reported that nearly 86 per cent of those surveyed thought that husbands were justified in beating their wives under certain circumstances.

In addition, women who want to initiate a divorce must choose between years of legal proceedings to prove to a court that it is impossible to live with their husband, or a no-fault divorce (khul) in which they must renounce all claims to financial assets from the marriage.

The National Council of Women (NCW), a governmental organisation headed by First Lady Suzanne Mubarak works on women’s social, political and economic empowerment in general and has successfully helped tackle two significant issues: raising the minimum age of marriage to 18 years and criminalising FGM.

The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR), a Cairo-based NGO focusing on legal empowerment, has also worked to change laws that discriminate against women. The ECWR Legal Empowerment and Aid programme has participated in advocacy coalitions that have achieved such changes as improving the Nationality Law so that children of Egyptian women married to non-Egyptians can still be citizens, and creating the 2000 law allowing khul which, although problematic because of the aforementioned financial issues, at least allows women to initiate divorce without a lengthy legal battle.

Each year, the organisation conducts approximately 24 legal rights trainings, and publishes simplified information on important laws for women, providing direct assistance to 6,000 women. It also plans to establish a monitoring centre to track women’s experiences with the country’s legal system.

The Better Life Association for Comprehensive Development (BLACD) Organization in the Minya governorate in Upper Egypt is another example of how women are advocating for their rights. One of its initiatives has been to establish listening and counseling centres aimed at raising women’s awareness of their rights and fighting the notion that violence against women is justified. BLACD has trained more than 30 volunteers from target villages to mobilise their communities, raise awareness of the physical and mental impacts of FGM and reject the practice.

Each volunteer is responsible for 50 girls at risk. Volunteers make regular visits to their families and hold awareness raising meetings. They also help midwives and barbers, who often make part of their living from FGM, find alternative income, using them as models to convince others to stop the practice.

As a result of its efforts, BLACD reports that 1,363 of 1,500 at risk girls identified were saved from FGM between 2004 to 2007- echoing 2007 statistics from Egypt’s Ministry of Health and Population showing that FGM among girls aged 10 to 18 years was down to 53 per cent.

Egyptian women’s organisations are changing laws to make sure that women have the economic and legal resources they need. They are also working to change attitudes so that both men and women understand their rights and responsibilities and know what gender equity truly means.

(Photo: 37 degrees)
Rasha Dewedar is an editor at IslamOnline.net, and a regular contributor to Al-Arabiya.net. She has special interest in covering Middle East and gender issues. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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