Women MPs from Arab Countries review efforts to end gender violence

Representatives from 13 Arab countries, the Tunisian Ministry for Women, Family and Childhood, and the Coalition of Women MPs from Arab Countries Combating Violence Against Women gathered in Tunis for a two-day summit on 16 and 17 November.

The summit, supported by Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD), took stock of recent progress made in Tunisia and Lebanon and adopted a Tunis Declaration with legislative recommendations to help combat violence against women in the region.

Violence against women remains prevalent in the Arab world and globally, taking various forms in both the public and private sphere; as parliaments across the region are emboldened, it is necessary to develop legislative systems that secure women’s rights in principle and in practice.

Significant progress has been made so far and this conference convened in the context of real legislative achievements in the Arab region including the recent repeal of the rape marriage article 522 of the penal code of Lebanon and article 308 in Jordan, and the passage of the pioneering Tunisian Domestic Violence bill which recognises domestic violence for the first time and places a responsibility on the state to act in situations previously considered part of the private sphere. Where, according to the National Family Office of Tunisia, 43.6 percent of women between the ages of 18-24 have been victims of violence at least once in their lifetime, this law has the potential to have significant impact.

It is in this context of legislative change that this summit convened to explore and share experiences of implementation mechanisms across the spectrum of violence against women and to affirm commitment to an integrated system of adoption, implementation, and monitoring.

The summit was held in partnership with the Tunisian Ministry of Women and was opened by the Minister, Naziha el Obaidi, who said:

“Tunisia is a country of democracy, it is a nascent democracy but it is establishing legislative systems that preserve the rights of women, children, the elderly, and paves the way for a society where mutual respect prevails. We are proud to belong to this large crescent that is a cradle for civilisations. There is a common dream in the Arab countries to speak in a common language, endorse our responsibilities to our societies; there is a burden on us to act diligently and seriously in fulfilling the responsibilities to our societies, and to our women.”

Experts from across the region, Morocco, Jordan, Tunisia, Iraq and Lebanon, presented best practice on implementation with a focus on the provisions of women’s shelters, harassment in the workplace, and the specific forms of violence perpetrated against women with disabilities or women caring for those affected by disabilities.

As well as regional expertise, Sundari Anitha from Lincoln University shared the results of her research on domestic violence in the UK and in India, exploring the concepts of continuums of violence and intersectionality, introducing language and ideologies prevalent in the international community.

Although great strides are being made in legislative terms across the region, effectiveness of implementation remains to be seen and WFD’s Regional Director Dr Dina Melhem emphasised the need to commit resources to implementation and to post legislative scrutiny. Application can be hindered by many factors, including the ambiguity of the legal text, lack of coherence with other legal texts or other national laws and lack of human resources and other resources to implement however there needs to be a clear and unified understanding of the expected outcomes of the law to measure success.

In bringing together women representatives of 13 Arab countries, the meeting facilitated continued consultation on the draft Arab Convention to Combat Violence against Women; the Convention is the first of its kind to be ratified and reviewed by national parliaments during the drafting stage and attendees were encouraged to share their feedback.

The summit agreed a Tunis Declaration:

  • Our support for the adoption of the draft Arab Convention against Violence against Women and Girls and Domestic Violence
  • We look forward to the Tunisian presidency of the Committee on Women in the League of Arab States next year to upgrade this mechanism to become, in accordance with the proposal of Tunisia, a Council of Arab Women Ministers
  • We encourage States that have not yet adopted legislation and comprehensive frameworks to eliminate violence against women and girls and domestic violence to work towards the establishment of national systems in this field that are in conformity with international standards and are consistent with the contents of the draft Arab Convention
  • We have endeavored to adopt a broader definition of all forms of violence and discrimination and to avoid the narrow concept of the victim to ensure the protection of the rights of all victims,
  • Emphasizing the importance of ensuring special protection against violence for women with disabilities and tightening the sanctions against perpetrators,
  • We call for taking the necessary measures to eliminate cases of violence and sexual harassment in the workplace and to work towards the establishment of legislation in this framework, especially in the labor laws and penalties,
  • Emphasize the role of the judiciary in general and judges in particular to combat violence and to ensure the protection of women and work to develop jurisprudence bold and supportive to protect women and girls from violence and domestic violence,
  • Our emphasis on the need to allocate shelter centers for women and children victims of violence and domestic violence and to monitor the human and material resources necessary to safeguard the dignity of women and children,
  • Our belief in the need to spread the culture of women’s human rights among all the circles concerned with protecting them from violence and domestic violence and our emphasis on the role that national human rights institutions, educational and cultural institutions, media and social media can play in raising societal awareness and changing attitudes in order to ensure respect for women’s human rights and dignity.

Tunisia will assume the Presidency of the Arab League’s Women Committee in 2018 and will continue to be a key partner for the Coalition of Women MPs in their efforts to combat violence against women.

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Speak up and speak out: Our message to women this International day for the Elimination of Violence against Women

Every day across the world, women experience discrimination purely because of their gender.

It might not be instantly recognisable. Discrimination can take discrete forms – unequal wages, lack of women in leadership roles at top FTSE 100 companies. But it exists, and can often take a violent turn.

As the world marks International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, take a look at how three of our programmes are finding practical ways to help achieve further change…

Empowering women in Uganda

In July this year WFD coordinated Uganda’s first Women’s Parliament – a major part of our EU-funded programme in the country. Tackling violent behaviour towards women is at the heart of what we are doing, and this programme aims to ensure the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is actually implemented. To do this WFD wants to encourage a greater dialogue between women, civil society and politicians to ensure that issues which matter to women are dealt with at the national level.

What is so shocking about the situation for women and girls in Uganda isn’t just the harrowing experience of violence and discrimination but the feeling that there is nowhere to turn, that this is normal, that they deserve this treatment. One of the wonderful outcomes of the Women’s Parliament is how it empowered women to speak out and raise issues of importance to them. Beatrice Chelangat, director of local NGO Gender REACH, highlighted how ground is being covered and progress is slowly being made: “People are more aware of female genital mutilation and sexual- and gender-based violence. They know it is a crime. Before people thought a woman is killed, that is it. They did not know some laws can protect them and it is a crime to abuse a woman.”

Our programme’s main goal is to ensure that women in Uganda understand how CEDAW can help them eliminate violence from their own lives and communities.

Uniting women across MENA

Our support for the Coalition of Women MPs from Arab Countries to Combat Violence unites women from across ten nations to press for reforms to legislation that impacts on women and girls.

Take the most recent Coalition meeting that took place in early November. Its main goal was to create a space to discuss the revision of Article 522 of the Lebanese Penal Code, which allows a rapist to avoid prosecution by marrying the victim. The coalition meetings provide a space in which women can share experiences of how discriminatory laws have been defeated in other Arab nations and find a way forward to tackle the issues with their respective parliaments. That is what Gilberte-Zouaine MP took from the latest meeting. She said: “We aspire throughout this conference to benefit from the experience of Arab countries who have been pioneers in this domain and to re-establish Lebanon’s commitment to tackling violence against women.”

It’s felt that this regional approach can gather momentum in favour of women’s rights across a region with an existing difficult context for women to work and live in.

The first step in this process is to raise awareness of the forms and consequences of violence. The more women know about their rights and how to access them, the easier it will be for them to take a stand. Secondly, having discussions on these issues across the region provides examples of best practice in how to deal with what is often perceived as a controversial issue amongst traditional elites. Finally, WFD has encouraged the development of Violence against Women Laws in four of the ten countries the Coalition operates in (Iraq, Jordan, Tunisia and Lebanon).

Together, these three steps will help provide solid progress for women who want to access justice. But getting the legislation through parliament is only the beginning. Changing cultural attitudes that discriminate against women is a long process, but we are confident the Coalition’s work will contribute toward this end.

Promoting women in politics in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Improving representation is one of WFD’s four outcomes, and it’s this which our programme in Bosnia and Herzegovina is focused on. Its emphasis is on providing practical help to get women into politics. By actively engaging with the media and civil society to ensure women are represented and listened to ahead of the 2016 local elections, the team hopes to yield some impressive results.

This autumn we’ve seen a series of local discussions bringing together local women councillors to discuss issues of importance ahead of the 2016 elections, like this event at the University of Mostar. A common theme which has emerged from these discussions is the critical role played by political parties. Alisa Hajdarevic (SDA Mostar), for example, mentioned the need to ensure women participate in the internal structures of the political parties to ensure they are equally represented. This is something that is surely felt here in the UK too – it was big news this year when the shadow Cabinet split roles 50/50 between men and women.

The debate over the relative merits of setting quotas for women will run and run. A quota is not a gateway to equality, which is why the work the Bosnia team is doing is so important. By using a range of different activities including training courses, public debates and media training they are providing women with the important skills they need to make a dent in the political landscape.

 

Change can be achieved, and in a relatively short period of time. Look at the UK: as recently as the 1990s it was legal to rape your partner if you were married. No longer. Women across the world trying to eliminate abhorrent laws which condone violence should believe that progress is possible. One hundred and eighty nine states have ratified CEDAW; the sustainable development goals put gender equality high on the agenda; and at WFD the focus is now on implementation and getting women represented in institutions that shape fundamental decisions. Now, more than ever, there is international momentum towards improving women’s rights.

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Coalition of Women Arab MPs combat violence against women

On 5-6 November, WFD supported the Coalition of Arab Women MPs’ seminar on combating violence against women.

The event was hosted by the Lebanese Parliament, the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Chair of the Lebanese Parliament’s Women’s Committee, MP Gilberte Zouain.

MP Gilberte, who has been a strong supporter of the coalition and spoke strongly of the need for change, said: “We aspire throughout this conference to benefit from the experience of Arab coutnries who have been pioneers in this domain and to re-establish Lebanon’s commitment to tackling violence against women.”

The seminar brought Lebanese MPs together with public institutions and women MPs from nine other Arab countries, creating a space to discuss the revision of Article 522 of the Lebanese Penal Code – which allows a rapist to avoid prosecution by marrying the victim.  The seminar highlighted the need for Parliament to act on this issue and showed the unity of Arab Women MPs in fighting such legislation. It’s a problem which exists in many other Arab countries’ penal codes: notably, Morocco and Egypt have amended the equivalent provisions in their penal codes.

The meetings were chaired by MP Wafaa Bani Mustafa of Jordan, who highlighted the important role of the coalition and their colleagues. She said: “We as parliamentarians are required to eliminate all types of legislative discrimination.”

All coalition members agreed on the need to empower victims through legislation; that there is no honour in violence against women; and that we need practical recommendations that lead to the abolition or amendment of legislation regarding rape marriage.

The delegation was hosted for lunch by Ms Randa Berri, Vice President of the National Commission for Lebanese Women.

(Pictured above: Ms Randa Berri, Vice president of the National Commission for Lebanese Women and MP Wafaa Bani Mustafa of Jordan)

The coalition meeting hosted a number of key speakers, including Dr Fadia Kiwan, Professor and Director at the Institute of Political Science at St Joseph University; and Abdelfattah Jamil from Jordan, who stressed the important role that men can play in advocacy and awareness-raising. The women commended the men in the room for their support.

Mr Nourredine Bouchkouj, Secretary General of the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union, said: “On behalf of the Arab federation of parliamentarians I wish you all of the success in your deliberation so that we can get full equality for women for the good of our nations.”

(Pictured above: Dr Fadia Kiwan, Professor and director at the Institute of Political Science at St Joseph University)

WFD’s Dina Melhem highlighted individual cases that have pushed attention towards the issue but highlighted that we don’t truly know how many girls and women are living at home with their rapists, because they are forced to live in silence.

(Pictured above, Coalition meeting)

Hasna Marsit from Tunisia followed this by saying that where the law does protect them, women should be encouraged and supported to report their plight. The coalition can contribute to this change by building awareness of the issue and to provide a counter-narrative that empowers the victim, something they will be working on over the coming months. The Coalition will meet in January to mark the Arab day to combat violence against women.

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