Women's empowerment should encompass more than just women's issues, it should be an indispensable part of Egypt's economic development and social progress, Miwa Kato, United Nations Women country director in Egypt, told Ahram Online.
“[This is] a society where [many] people are jobless, only 20 percent of university graduates can get a job; men or women," said Kato. "Only talking about the situation of women does not help, so I think the [solution] to all this is strong economic growth and a very visible and inclusive [economy]."
The unemployment rate stood at almost 13 percent in 2015, with the rate among youth reaching 26 percent, according to numbers from Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) released in 2016.
The country is seeing more female job seekers, as the unemployment rate for women has reached 25.8 percent, while the rate for men is at 8.9 percent.
“When we talk about female empowerment, [we talk about] a wider area of social inclusion and respect for diversity, which will benefit not just women but also the whole of Egyptian Society,” Kato said.
"As UN Women, we are eager to [capitalise on] the momentum of change as there is so much happening in Egypt. Some stuff we could not have imagined even a year ago, so many opportunities," she asserts.
"Obviously, the first thing that comes to mind is the new parliament and the new National Council for Women's members and president, thus, UN Women is trying to engage with these policymakers," said Kato.
Egypt's new parliament has the highest number of women in the country's modern history, with 89 female MPs elected in 2015, representing up to 15 percent of MPs, which exceeds the 12 percent quota for women on electoral lists.
In January 2016, 30 members were appointed to the National Council for Women by a presidential decree.
Maya Morsi, who previously worked as the UN Women country coordinator and Regional Gender Practice Team leader in the UN’s Development Programme, was elected in February 2016 as the new head of the NCW.
The National Council for Women was founded by a presidential decree in 2000 and was headed by first lady Suzanne Mubarak until her husband, president Hosni Mubarak, was deposed in 2011.
On the number of female MPs in parliament, Kato said “it is great, but having this number is not the whole picture."
“We need to make sure that the female MPs who are elected are able to take effective policy decisions, [and] not just on women's issues,” she affirms, adding that it is vital to have male parliamentarians come around to women's empowerment.
Kato emphasised that representation is central for women, adding that the upcoming local council elections, planned to take place next year, will be a great opportunity, as there will be a set quota for women.
According to Article 180 of the constitution, a quota of "one quarter of the seats" is allocated for women in the elected local councils.
"This would be 13, 500 seats, which is a big number, and since we have this provision we need to do a lot to ensure good women are there as candidates and can make it through. It's not easy... It’s a lot of people."
Kato says that taking the lessons learned from last year's parliamentary elections, UN Women will be working not only with NCW but also with the various non-governmental organisations that are active in this field, especially at the local level, in order to scale up women’s representation in government.
"By working with parliament, we can get a lot of the legal provisions and parliamentary actions we have been waiting for to really move in the right direction.”
Violence against women
Criminalising sexual harassment in spring 2014 was a major step to counter violence against women, yet it is not enough, Kato asserted.
The anti-harassment law was ratified and added as an amendment to the Egyptian penal code in June 2014, criminalising sexual harassment for the first time.
The law imposes jail terms of no less than six months and/or fines of EGP 3,000 to EGP 5,000 ($419 to $700) on those who are found guilty of sexual harassment in public or private areas, with harassment defined as gestures or words or any modern means of communication, or any other action, that carry sexual or pornographic hints.
However, Kato says, the law is not comprehensive in addressing various other forms of violence against women.
"We talked a lot about sexual harassment in the public space, which is of course horrible... but never talked about domestic violence," she said.
“For instance, as part of our media campaign at the end of last year, we talked about violence against women, as you might have seen," Kato said, referring to UN Women’s media campaign "Speak up" on billboards and TV ads on sexual harassment and domestic violence.
According to Egypt's Demographic and Health Survey 2014, one out of four Egyptian women is subjected to physical violence from their husbands.
If the conservative estimates that 30 percent of Egyptian Women are subject to domestic violence, Kato says, it is a shame not to tackle the problem.
In mid-2015, Egypt's cabinet adopted a nationwide violence against women strategy addressing what it refers to as societal and domestic violence.
The strategy includes provisions for prevention, protection and legal procedures.
Kato said that while legal provisions are important, the actual application of legal and strategic frameworks as the national strategy is much more important.
She stresses on the importance of reaching out to communities where violence is dominant, highlighting UN Women’s flagship programme “Safe Cities.”
“We work with three impoverished neighbourhoods in Greater Cairo, which is yielding more interesting lessons because it is a community engagement," she said.
"We do everything from building shelters to awareness-raising – from the perpetrators to taxi drivers – and improving some of the infrastructure as there are dark roads, groping at schools and community centres for youth. We are doing a lot of things, but obviously we need to do much more.”
Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces is a global programme that develops, implements and evaluates tools, policies and comprehensive approaches on the prevention of, and response to, sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence against women and girls across different settings.
Yet to increase its outreach and impact, Kato highlighted the necessity of scaling up this kind of local community intervention by reaching out to more governorates and districts.
However, Kato underlines that it is imperative not to portray women who are victims of sexual harassment or any form of violence as women who deserve pity.
Women Economic Empowerment
With women’s unemployment reaching 25.8 percent, economic empowerment for women is a priority.
“How do you make sure that people have legitimate income and contribute to growing the economy? Entrepreneurship... small and medium-sized enterprises (SME),” Kato says.
Egyptian women’s participation in entrepreneurship still remains lower than expected.
Almost 86 percent of early-stage entrepreneurial ventures in Egypt are led or owned by men, according to the most recent Global Entrepreneurship Monitor Report of 2012.
With the government and president prioritising entrepreneurship, it is important that women be included, Kato said.
Dr. Abla Abdel-Latif, chairman of the Presidential Advisory Council for Economic Development, announced that there is an upcoming project on SME initiatives for men and women supported by the president – which will offer job opportunities – to be discussed at a forum held in Cairo in mid-February titled 'Role of Women and Youth in Transforming Societies: Egypt and Japan, Comparing Notes.'
Egypt ranks 136 out of 145 countries in gender equality, making it among the bottom 10 countries, according to the Global Gender Gap Report 2015.
“This [issue of women's empowerment] must be elevated to higher policy discussions, especially as it relates to Egypt's overall economic development and social justice," Kato says. "Where is women's unique role in this?"