Egyptian women losing rights at a fast pace: Thomson Reuters Foundation CEO

Tony Gabriel, Tuesday 12 Nov 2013

Monique Villa, the CEO of Thomson Reuters Foundation, explains to Ahram Online why Egypt came last in a recent poll on women's right in Arab world; says women struggling to maintain rights gained before the 25 January revolution

Thomson Reuters Foundation CEO, Monique Villa

A recent poll by Thomson Reuters Foundation has revealed that Egypt is the worst place in the Arab world for women.

“Here the revolution has unequivocally failed to deliver on women’s expectations. Violence is at its worst: over 99 percent of women and girls are subjected to sexual harassment, with little evidence of perpetrators being prosecuted,” says the report released on 12 November.

Based on the key provisions of the UN Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which 19 Arab League nations have signed, Reuters Foundation polled 366 respondents – aid and healthcare workers, policy makers, journalists, academics, and lawyers – and asked for their expert opinion on how women are currently fairing in politics, society, the family system, the economy, and whether they have access to reproductive rights, and are protected from gender-based violence.

The Union of the Comoros, the third-smallest African nation by area, tops the ranking. Despite a poor human rights record in terms of freedom of political expression, women in the small archipelago nation in the Indian Ocean are not discriminated by law, says the report. “Twenty percent of politicians in ministerial positions are female, and women make up to 35 percent of the country’s workforce,” the report adds.

Ahram Online interviewed Monique Villa, CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, about the results and methodology of the poll and whether it can be considered revealing about the condition of women’s rights in the Arab world.

Ahram Online: Any Egyptian looking at the poll will be struck by the fact their country ranks last. How can you explain this? Women's rights are generally perceived to be much worse in other Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen or Somalia.

Monique Villa: It’s important to bear in mind this is a perception poll, meaning it is based on gender experts’ perception of women’s rights across the Arab League countries.

Egypt scored badly in every category, from violence against women, to reproductive rights, to the treatment of women in the family and their inclusion in politics and the economy. The poll clearly shows that - almost three years after the revolutions – three out of five Arab Spring countries are ranking at the bottom of the list.

These experts told us that traditional patriarchal norms have been reinforced. In addition to that, the increase in violence, instability, corruption, and in the number of bribes, combined with a vacuum of security and total impunity for the perpetrators of violence, has lead to the situation that is clearly reflected in the poll.

Sexual assault has become a political weapon, even on Tahrir Square, where – in some cases - women have been raped as a weapon to silence them.

Recently, both local and international media have pointed to a steep rise in the number of abductions of young women, especially in the Sinai Peninsula, where security is weak.

Last year, we polled gender experts on women’s rights within the G20 countries and India ranked last, behind Saudi Arabia. An Indian media outlet asked me the exact same question. The point I made then is the same one I’m going to make now: in Saudi Arabia, women cannot drive or do gymnastics, in fact they cannot do anything without a male guardian, however they have access to healthcare, education, finance and contraception.

The poll is a photograph of a certain moment in history, as presented by gender experts. Today we are showing that picture, no matter how shocking or uncomfortable that picture might be.

AO: What are the main factors that put Egypt in last place?

MV: Egypt scored badly in every category, from violence against women, to reproductive rights, to the treatment of women in the family and their inclusion in politics and the economy.

AO: Are they any positive achievements that can be noted in terms of women’s rights in Egypt in recent years?

MV: The situation is very grim, however some activists still find reasons for optimism. They point out how the revolt has made women at the margins of society more aware of their rights. These women have discovered that they could have a voice. This is a seed that has been planted for the future.

Women’s rights organisations, such as the National Council for Women, are actively engaged in making the long-awaited change happen for Egyptian women. They’re holding meetings and mounting campaigns to ensure women are adequately represented in the new constitution, and to avoid what happened in the immediate aftermath of the revolution, when only a handful of women were elected to parliament and to the constituent assembly.

Based on what the experts are saying, the outlook is obviously far from positive. The overall feeling is that women haven’t gained any clout in the country’s political process. This seems to be in line with what Mervat Tallawy of the National Council for Women in Egypt argued recently – that there has been zero progress.

AO: In Egypt, what impact did the January 2011 uprising have on women’s rights?

MV: The rise of political Islam in Egypt has had a real impact on secularism. Most political gains for women have been lost. Women are struggling to preserve their dignity, and far from progressing, they are now fighting to preserve some of the rights they had before the Arab Spring. Despite hopes that women would be one of the main beneficiaries of the Arab Spring, they have been some of the biggest losers. The revolts have brought violence, instability, and displacement in some cases.

Women were better off in Egypt under Mubarak than they are today, almost three years after his fall!

AO: What do the most advanced countries in the list have in common?

MV: It is difficult to find things in common between Comoros and other countries ranking at the top of the poll, except for the fact that women are not discriminated by law.

In Tunisia, where abortion was legalised in 1965, well before the UK and the US, women hold almost 27 percent of parliamentary seats. Last year, the government introduced the first domestic violence hotline and opened a number of shelters for victims of abuse. Women can pass their citizenship to non-Tunisian born husbands and to their children. They also enjoy 30 days of maternity leave at 67 percent of their full wages. However, our respondents also pointed out that women face increased levels of harassment in the streets and many feel obliged to wear the veil to try to avoid it.

In Qatar, women’s social freedom remains partially restricted, but there has been a lot of progress in the last few years. Female students outnumber men in universities and are highly encouraged to finish their studies. For this reason, almost 52 percent of women in Qatar are employed, and most don’t marry before their 25th birthday.

The country that topped our ranking is the Union of the Comoros. Here women are not discriminated by law. Law is mainly based on the French civil code. In case of divorce or separation, women are normally given land and property. Twenty percent of politicians in ministerial positions are female and women make up about 35 percent of the country’s workforce.

Comoros is no paradise for women, but the French influence on the country’s legal system has given women more rights than anywhere else in the Arab League, including the countries at the very heart of the Arab Spring.

AO: In those countries ranked higher, was the implementation of women's rights a top-down or bottom-up process? In other words, is it a matter of legislation or is it a matter of social beliefs, cultures and traditions?

MV: It’s a top-down approach. In Tunisia, for example, it was Habib Bourguiba who implemented equal rights for women. The change came from the leader.

But in some case, progress has been reversed. In Tunisia, the situation has not improved. Far from that, according to all experts we polled.

AO: How did the Arab Spring impact on women's rights? Can we see a general trend?

MV: The picture is grim. The reality is that those very same women who fought shoulder-to-shoulder with men demanding social change in Tahrir Square and on the streets across the Middle East were expected to return to their traditional roles of mothers and wives once the crowds had dispersed. Women are still longing for spring.

AO: Are there sub-regional groups in terms of women's rights? Do the Maghreb countries form a coherent group with women being in a similar situation in the different countries? And the same question for the Gulf countries and the Levant countries?

MV: Looking at the full results of the poll, there aren’t any sub-groups. Every country presented specific issues. Oman has different issues to the UAE etc. There are no regional trends.

However, you can claim that one can see how the history of specific countries – I am thinking of the Maghreb, for example - is partially still reflected in the laws.

One shocking example is Lebanon, which used to be the Switzerland of the Middle East thirty years ago, and is now, after the wars, the rise of political Islam and the radicalisation of society, discriminating against women by law. Lebanon now ranks seventh worst country for women in the Arab League.

AO: Instead of comparing facts, laws and statistics between different countries, the ranking is based on individuals' perceptions of the situation in their country of expertise. Why did you choose this method? Doesn’t this make for a bigger bias?

MV: Perception polls are the best way to take the pulse of the situation when data is lacking. This is typically the case for violence against women and harassment. Women tend not to report this kind of crimes out of fear and shame.

AO: So, if official data isn’t always available, how do you assess the situation?

MV: At the Thomson Reuters Foundation, we shed light on issues that are often neglected. And perception polls are a way to do this. We gather, crunch and put data into perspective to highlight global issues such as women’s rights.

Our data journalism team put together the poll. We polled 600 gender specialists in the region and used only the 336 fully completed surveys. Respondents included healthcare and aid workers, women’s rights activists, policy makers, journalists, academics, and lawyers at regional, national and local level. We asked them 36 questions each, assessing the extent to which countries adhere to the key provisions of the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which most Arab League states have signed, ratified or accepted.

The questions fell into six categories, all based on key CEDAW articles: women in politics, women in society, women in the economy, women in the family, reproductive rights and violence against women. We judged each of the 22 Arab League member states by the same standards advocated by the UN. We didn’t make allowances for countries’ legislation, as that would have violated polling ethics.

If you like, our ranking gives a snapshot of how gender experts perceive women’s rights in each of the 22 Arab League countries.

With women in politics, we looked at women’s representation or opportunity for representation in the political, civil service and state administrative spheres. With women in society, we assessed cultural expectations concerning women, as well as cultural factors that might prevent women from participating fully in society. The questions on women in the economy  touched on issues such as women’s power to financially sustain themselves, as well as gender discrimination in property rights and employment. With women in the family, we looked at issues such as forced marriage and divorce. The category of reproductive rights included a variety of questions regarding cultural attitudes to choice in bearing children, as well as access to reproductive health care. And finally, on violence against women, we looked at the most dangerous forms of violence and their prevalence in each of the 22 Arab League states: trafficking, female genital mutilation, corporal punishment, marital rape and other factors that encourage all type of violence against women.

We started the poll in August this year, and closed it on the third week of September. The rest of the time was spent analysing the findings.

AO: Why do you not publicise the names of the people you interviewed?

MV: For safety reasons. Many respondents were happy to help us understand the situation in the region, but they requested not to be named. We discussed cyber security issues with a top information security consultant from Front Line Defenders. The survey was sent in English, Arabic and French to make sure respondents could answer in the language they felt more comfortable with.

AO: Who did you speak to about Egypt?

We surveyed local, national, regional and international humanitarian, development and human rights organisations, academics, media professionals, healthcare providers, refugee shelters, women’s shelters, legal advisers and journalists, with a strong preference for female respondents. We avoided polling politicians.

Short link: