The challenges and rights violations facing women and young girls in the Arab region are many, including low political and economic participation, violence, and discrimination grounded in deep-rooted inequalities and established systems of patriarchy.
Speaking to participants at the Third Forum for the Arab Girl which ended on Monday, Fadia Kiwan, general director of the Arab Women Organisation (AWO), said Arab governments should prioritise the issue of combating violence against women and make it an essential part of national legislation, plans and policies. “Spreading a woman-friendly culture and combating the cultural roots of all discriminatory and violent practices against women is a must,” Kiwan said.
Organised by the Ministry of Youth and Sports along with the AWO, the forum was held under the title “Partnership, Development, Stability”.
Throughout the forum’s five days several topics on gender equality, women’s empowerment, and the role of Arab youth in advocating for the rights of women and girls were discussed. Forum participants agreed that all human development and human rights issues have gender dimensions.
According to AWO’s latest statistics, 90 per cent of Egyptian men agree that women should tolerate violence to keep the family together while in Lebanon the percentage decreases to 26 per cent. Sixty-two per cent of Moroccan men hold the same position. As for Palestine the percentage is 63 per cent.
At the same time, only 29 per cent of Egyptian men think that there should be more women in political positions while the percentage in Lebanon is 72. In Morocco, 67 per cent of men believe that women should hold more posts in political authority, whereas in Palestine the figure is 42 per cent.
The AWO, in cooperation with the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), focuses on Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, and Palestine.
Nehad Abul-Qomsan, head of the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights (ECWR) and who participated at the forum, believes that it is essential for Arab countries to cooperate in empowering women to reduce the vulnerability of their social status, especially in poor and marginalised environments, in addition to enhancing their determination and ability to deal and respond positively to the various crises facing societies, whether security, health, or natural disasters.
The AWO, according to Kiwan, believes that the concept of violence is not limited to physical or emotional abuse but rather extends its concept to include all manifestations of discrimination against women and depriving them of their human rights. This includes deprivation of education, deprivation of work, political participation, and services of all kinds, such as health. This is in addition to various forms of discrimination against women within the family and in the workplace, violence against women in times of armed conflict and violence practised by terrorist organisations.
Ghada Ali, a member of the Egyptian parliament, stated that several Arab countries have introduced fundamental amendments to their legislative structure, particularly the Penal Code, to ensure protection for women against violence.
Ali pointed out that in June 2014 an amendment was made to Egypt’s Penal Code related to sexual harassment where the harasser is penalised by not less than one year in prison and a fine of not less than LE5,000, to be increased to LE10,000 in case of repetition.
Moreover, she said that in 2020 the cabinet approved a draft law to amend some provisions of the Criminal Procedure Code, stipulating that judges have the right to hide the victim’s identity in crimes related to sexual harassment, immorality, and assault in order to protect the reputation of the victims and their families so as to encourage victims to report any form of violence to bring criminals to justice.
In 2021, Ali added, the cabinet approved a draft law amending Article 242 of the Penal Code stipulating that whoever performs female circumcision by removing part of a female’s genital organs or mutilating, or causing injuries to those organs, shall be imprisoned for a period of no less than five years. If the act results in a disability, the penalty shall be increased to a period of no less than seven years, but if the act leads to death, the penalty shall be increased to not less than 10 years.
Wafaa Al-Diqa, a delegate from Lebanon and a member of AWO’s Executive Council, said that in 2017 the Jordanian House of Representatives approved the abolition of Article 308 of the Penal Code, exempting perpetrators of rape, sexual assault and kidnapping.
A Tunisian legislator, according to Al-Diqa, annulled the provisions of Article 227 of the Penal Code which allowed a woman to marry her rapist while exempting him from all legal consequences.
In 2020 the Sudanese government approved a law criminalising female genital mutilation. According to the new law, perpetrators of female circumcision are punished by three years in prison and a fine.
In Algeria in 2015, amendments were introduced to the Penal Code that would increase the punishment for men who practise physical and moral violence against women. The amendment provides for the criminalisation and punishment of perpetrators of all forms of violence: marital violence in all its forms (physical, verbal, psychological, and economic), as well as violence against women in public places and sexual harassment in the workplace.
The forum was attended by women from Jordan, the UAE, Bahrain, Algeria, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Kuwait, Yemen, Tunisia, Oman, Syria, Palestine, Qatar, Lebanon, Libya, and Mauritania, in addition to Egypt.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly