Three years ago, weeks before the centenary of International Women’s Day, I remember sitting in my living room in Manchester, watching on TV with hope and astonishment the brave women and men who were taking to the streets in the Arab World, reclaiming their right to live a dignified life and to make free decisions about how their countries were run.
Women were at the forefront of the Arab uprising protests. Images of women protesting, interviews with young women activists, were all over global media. A window of opportunity for real change seemed wide open; the governments of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen were overthrown, new transitional political processes were introduced and leaders sworn in. This seemed a time ripe with opportunities for the advancement of women’s rights in most Arab countries. As a woman, campaigner and activist myself, I could not but be moved and inspired by their courage.
But three years on, on the eve of International Women’s Day, the sky is darker with political divisions, economic instability, societal violence and conflict restraining the quest for women’s empowerment. However there are also glimpses of light. At best, women’s struggle to achieve the changes they aspired to resulted in successes such as the Moroccan and Tunisian constitutions of 2011 and 2014 respectively, and higher representation in elected bodies in many countries. At worst, women’s rights seem to be going backwards, for example in Egypt’s abolition of parliamentary quotas for women and increased public violence. These days, I am still a mere spectator, but this time I am a little closer to the action, since I am working directly with those women who have been campaigning during the Arab uprisings – as part of Oxfam’s Amal programme team. Let me explain.
In the aftermath of the Arab uprisings in the region, political spaces have opened and regardless of the outcomes in each country, the relationship between citizens and states has changed irreversibly. As a result of this, many new organisations, groups and movements are emerging.
They have a lot to do. Women in the MENA Region (like in a lot of other regions of the world) remain largely under-represented in all three branches of government; judiciary, legislative, and executive. Many overarching reasons lie behind this: social norms, the tribal nature of a lot of Arab countries, as well as a legal environment that often hinders the advancement of women.
But one area where such exclusion is not universal, where women are given a chance to shine, is the social and informal sector. Building on that, Oxfam is today launching an “Innovation Fund”. The fund will give small grants to new organizations with creative and bold solutions to long-lasting challenges and reach informal and emerging groups through partnerships with established organizations.
The fund is part of the AMAL (‘Hope’ in Arabic) programme, which works in four of the countries affected by the Arab uprisings: Tunisia, Morocco, Palestine and Yemen, in partnership with 13 local organizations. Oxfam and women’s organizations are working together with women – often from poor communities – strengthening their confidence, knowledge of their rights and their campaigning and advocacy skills. As I am writing one of Oxfam’s partners in Morocco, La Fédération de la Ligue Démocratique des Droits des Femmes, is mobilising civil society to call for the implementation of Chapter 19 of their new Constitution, which requires the end of discrimination and equality between men and women.
In rural Yemen too, Oxfam’s partner, the Yemeni Women’s Union is creating spaces for women to come together to share their experiences, needs and aspirations and equip them with the practical skills and confidence to influence change in their lives and communities; word about these activities is spreading fast amongst Yemeni women and more discussion sessions than anticipated are being organized as a result.
Working on women’s empowerment in Arab societies is an exciting and growing area of interest for Oxfam. The overall aims may be the same as in other regions, but the means differ. Especially following the Arab uprisings, the diversity in the region is surfacing more than ever, with those who are both proponents and opponents of women’s rights all basing their views on a mix of values derived from the family and tribal culture, religion, tradition and social norms, as well as modernity and international human rights. The key is to take account of these differences and develop adapted messages that can build the alliances and coalitions needed to bring about positive change.
Whatever the short term ups and downs of the struggle for women’s rights in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the experience of protest and organization have left a legacy among the region’s women of confidence in their ability to ‘raise the roof’ (to use the Arabic expression). It is the energy of women like these, who are hungry for change and hopeful for a better future where they can be the masters (mistresses!) of their own destiny, that Oxfam and its partners would like to celebrate this International Women’s Day.
The Innovation Fund launched today offers small grants to emerging and new women’s organizations in Tunisia, Yemen, Palestine and Morocco. Grantees will be able to access awards of and in-kind support of up to $35,000. For more information, see below.
Three years after the Arab uprisings, the energy and hunger for change – and women’s influence and strong leadership within this – is needed more than ever. This time, I am pleased to be able to do more than just watch.
Applications for the Oxfam Amal Innovation Fund will be open until 15 April. Apply using the form below, forms should be returned to Amal@oxfam.org.uk.
- Oxfam Amal Innovation Fund Application Form
- Oxfam Amal Innovation Fund Call for Proposals
- Oxfam Amal Innovation Fund Budget Template