Barriers to women’s political participation have long existed in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Conflict, gender-based violence, disempowerment, and restrictive laws all represent continued challenges that women face throughout the region. Pro-democracy protests have been sweeping across MENA for over a decade, leaving the countries of the region with no choice but to re-evaluate the place of women in their societies. Women who were at the forefront of demonstrations also deserved to be at the forefront of politics. Across the MENA region, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) implements programs to address these challenges and the gender imbalances prevalent throughout society by advancing women’s rights and empowering women to participate in politics. In honor of Women’s History Month, NDI is highlighting the achievements of women and celebrating the contributions they have made to history, culture, and society.
Women across MENA have been advocating for quotas to ensure that women are represented in future political processes and government positions within their respective countries. In Libya, with support from USAID through the Consortium for Elections and Political Process Strengthening (CEPPS), women’s advocacy groups supported by NDI have successfully raised awareness and facilitated change on issues affecting women throughout the country, including the lack of representation in government. Launched in 2018, the “30% Quota” campaign advocates at the local and national levels to ensure a quota for women in all levels of government. Last November, members of the campaign met with members of the Libya Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) to push the forum in adopting these measures; as a result, in early 2021 the interim government elected by the LPDF pledged to include no less than 30 percent of women in executive positions.
The tangible results seen in Libya are a testament to the enduring perseverance of advocacy groups that have learned how to leverage their skills to propel them to desired outcomes. In January 2021, NDI, with funding from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), conducted workshops and training sessions that supported Yemeni women and youth party participants in advocating for greater internal party inclusion and engaging community members and civil society organizations (CSOs) on local priority issues. These efforts have yielded significant results: the cross-party women and youth political party participants convinced the Yemen Socialist Party’s (YSP) branch in Hadhramaut and the Hadhramaut Comprehensive Conference party to sign the “Political Empowerment of Youth and Women Document”, requiring the signing parties to ensure at least 30 percent of future negotiation and political process participants are women and youth. This campaign has increased community awareness of the necessity of integrating women and youth in decision-making processes and peace negotiations to end conflict. Throughout the work of these campaigns, NDI support has amplified their messages through technical assistance and strategic guidance, and this support will continue as Libyan and Yemeni women fight for a more inclusive and equitable society.
Women have also been stepping up as indispensable members of their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Existing hardships have been exacerbated by the effects of the pandemic, and women have taken the initiative to raise awareness and provide credible information about the virus, as well as create specific responses to some of the resulting effects of the pandemic. With support from the Government of Canada, in Iraq, Women Advisory Boards (WABs) members - a select group of women from the provinces of Anbar, Diyala, Kirkuk, Ninewa and Salahaddin - launched several local initiative campaigns to address gender-focused issues affecting women and young girls in their provinces. WAB members from Kirkuk arranged a bicycle parade, involving mainly female volunteers, to raise awareness on COVID-19 precautions. To guide parents through the new world of online education, Salahaddin WABs provided online training to parents on the use of the educational platform designed by the government. Ninewa WABs ensured that vulnerable retirees receive their monthly allowances in aims to protect them from the risk of getting infected by the virus. Alongside helping the senior community in Ninewa, WABs organized an art competition to highlight the rise of domestic violence cases in the country.
Similar work is being done in Algeria, where NDI, with funding from the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), is supporting an association of women journalists called Femmes en Communication (Women in Communication) to enhance information integrity around the global COVID-19 pandemic, including through the provision of credible information about the pandemic’s effects on women. In a context where women are often viewed solely as passive homemakers who should be at a remove from current events, Femmes en Communication seeks to combat such negative stereotypes, providing positive topical coverage of women and spotlighting women role models from diverse backgrounds and professions in the media. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Femmes en Communication has provided information through radio and in-person outreach on such topics as: disinformation and misinformation around the pandemic, particular risks of violence facing women during lock-downs as well as steps that women can take to denounce perpetrators of violence, and important health and safety measures that women should follow. Through its partnership with NDI, Femmes en Communication is exploring how to improve online outreach and advocacy through strategic use of social media, development of such visual communications content as infographics, and improved digital security practices.
Over the past two years, women in both Tunisia and Jordan have undertaken efforts to highlight the rise of domestic violence in their countries. Tunisia’s focus has been on growing incidents of gender-based violence (GBV) as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since April 2020 and with support from the Department of State’s Near East Bureau, NDI and two civil society organizations - the Tunisian Mediteranean Center (TUMED) and Aswat Nissa - have been working with an informal network of women parliamentarians in Tunisia who are committed to creating a pandemic response well-suited to addressing increasing rates of GBV in the country. The women members of parliament (MPs) scheduled a series of meetings with the Ministry of Women and other key stakeholders to discuss and identify priorities for Tunisian women and develop the group’s strategy. A key point of focus for their work that emerged during initial meetings was to push for the even and full application of the 2017 law eliminating violence against women. NDI and its CSO partners continue to advise the women MPs on how to track the Ministry's responses to their recommendations and stay true to their commitments.
In Jordan with CEPPS support, NDI collaborated with MP Wafa Bani Mustafa to establish the National Advisory Team to Combat Violence Against Women in Public Life (VAW-PL), which has held training sessions, workshops, and consultations to increase women’s political participation and address the current issues that women in politics face. NDI and the Advisory Team also worked together to spread awareness and provide training on the “Guide on Combating Violence against Women in Politics”. The guide explains the different definitions and characteristics of violence against women in politics, including physical, psychological, moral, societal, cyber, sexual, and legislative violence. Discussion sessions across Jordan’s 12 governantes were also held, allowing females in elected and appointed political positions to share their testimonies and add value to the importance of addressing VAW on both the national and local levels.
The accomplishments achieved by women across the MENA region have been significant, but the work is far from complete. Ensuring that political parties and governments uphold their promises for greater gender equality will take continued courage by the same women who pushed for them. The current issues facing women in politics will not disappear instantaneously; NDI and its partners on the ground remain ready to assist women in overcoming the barriers that they face.
Author: Micaela Miller is a Project Assistant with the MENA team at NDI.