Arab World: Interview with Karama founder


Questions for Hibaaq Osman, founder and director of Karama: 1. How have efforts to implement the Beijing Platform for Action (BPFA) in the Arab region evolved since Beijing? Has this been satisfactory? Since the adoption of the BPFA, there has been considerable progress throughout the region in meeting international standards that reinforce gender equality. In particular, the civil society sector has expanded, proliferating local organizations whose mission it is to address key issues that have prevented governments and other authorities from enacting, implementing and enforcing laws that protect women from discrimination and violence. This NGO component had been largely missing and now acts to directly respond to the needs of the local community and communicate these to national and international authorities. In particular, a renewed focus on empowering women and increasing their role in decision-making has been demonstrated.

These efforts have brought about a plethora of victories, including commitments by governments to amend discriminatory family codes, which are the most impactful with regard to women’s general health, well-being and autonomy. National institutions such as ministries of social affairs have been created by most of the Arab countries with the objective of achieving gender equity (see Egypt’s National Council for Women and Sudan’s General Department of Women for example). Additionally, most Arab nations offer a minimum of support services to women, particularly to those who live in poverty, providing them with certain financial subsidies such as social security.

Despite these efforts, gaps continue to remain. While governments have shown commitment to gender equality through the adoption of treaties and agreements to various protocols, a major discrepancy continues to exist between what is ratified and what is actually enforced and implemented. Only Tunisia allows legal abortion and only Egypt has legalized abortion in the case of rape or high-risk pregnancy. In many countries, women married to foreigners still cannot pass on their citizenship to both their children and their husbands. In Syria, women lose their right to financial support if they take a job without the permission of their husband. In Iraq, women lose this right if they leave home without permission or refuse to accompany their husband in travel. Meanwhile, while the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) – a major treaty related to implementation of the BPFA and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – has been ratified by 20 out of 22 countries, only four have done so without reservations. Sudan and Somalia have yet to ratify CEDAW and many other Arab nations have placed reservations on core articles impacting women’s mobility, safety and security, thus rendering ratification less significant.

2. Karama, which you were instrumental in founding in 2005, provides a framework for coordination, cooperation, and linkages among people working to stop violence against women. Can you describe what kind of progress has been made in the Arab region in addressing both violence against women and vulnerabilities of women in armed conflict, two of the 12 critical areas of the BPFA, in the past five years? What urgently remains to be done?

Karama’s founding was a response to several critical elements of region-wide advocacy that were not being acknowledged or addressed. We aim to take a comprehensive look at all sectors of society to identify how each contributes to or perpetuates violence against women and oppression of women as a result of armed conflict. We also were adamant about forming a network of local organizations, experts and activists that would build momentum and fuel a regional movement to advance the status and conditions for Arab women.

Since 2005, we have linked with over 200 local organizations and hosted several regional consultations with the objective of identifying common challenges, obstacles and goals to develop region-wide strategies with which to lobby and influence political processes at the national and international levels. Additionally, we have hosted regional trainings involving our partners and helping them build capacity for high-level interventions with which they have had limited experience in hopes of increasing their potential to launch similar interventions in the future.

Over the last five years, we have witnessed a tremendous amount of commitment and passion for change. In 2007, Morocco amended its prevailing nationality laws to allow women to pass on citizenship to children shared with foreigners. In 2008, we celebrated Jordan’s government’s enactment of a new domestic violence law. Part of a significant effort to implement quotas, several elections in the region yielded an unprecedented number of women appointed to local and national government positions, including, in 2009, the first four women ever elected to parliament in Kuwait. In 2008, our Lebanese partners successfully lobbied for the CEDAW Committee to adopt language from a shadow report on the status of refugee women to its Agreed Conclusions, a huge victory given prior ignorance of refugee women as a major and separate issue that needed to be considered.

Despite forward momentum as witnessed by these successes and by a growing civil society sector seeking support for national campaigns, much remains to be addressed. The crisis of gender bias and violence wielded against women in the Arab world stems in part from a lack of awareness on the impact of discriminatory laws not only on women, but on the prosperity of the region as a whole. Additionally, cultural and social norms reinforce discriminatory behavior, making it difficult to discuss or identify controversial practices that have been labelled taboo. Among these major discriminatory practices and issues left to tackle is the abusive practice of trafficking – one which our Moroccan partners recently recognized as the result of a lack of laws governing migrant workers and as a practice which people are highly unaware of – as well as female genital mutilation and honor crimes. Our partners are working together to debunk stereotypes of women perpetuated by the media, to put in place infrastructures which support enforcement of laws that protect women from discrimination, to lobby international bodies such as the UN to exert pressure on their governments to change, to raise awareness of taboo issues and of the consequences for women of armed conflict, and to ensure that international agreements are fully adopted, not only in name, but also in practice.

3. In the lead-up to Beijing +15, how have women’s organizations been mobilizing in the region? What have been some of the key concerns emanating from the National Reports? Although it might differ per country, what were, according to you, some of the main accomplishments and gaps identified by these reports?

While each country faces unique challenges in achieving gender equality, there is a strong cultural thread represented by a common language and religion that links the 22 nations of the Arab League in defining its advocacy. Given commonalities between issues faced as part of this shared culture, regional coordination and cooperation, in addition to development of separate national campaigns, is essential in delivering impact.

In early 2009, in anticipation of the 15th Anniversary of the BPFA, Karama began planning for a regional consultation which would focus on country-by-country analysis of progress in the region over the last 15 years, as well as foster forward-looking discussion, which would help identify a five-year plan for advocacy and evaluation within the region. With cosponsors, the Alliance for Arab Women and United Nations Women’s Fund (UNIFEM), Karama held the resulting regional meeting in December 2009 with over 230 attendees participating from 14 countries of the Arab League. For two days, NGOs from across the region made presentations on their countries’ progress toward fulfilment of the BPFA. These informed a roundtable discussion which resulted in the development of final recommendations and strategies for future advocacy, as well as a draft of our Regional Beijing+15 Shadow Report which will be presented at the 54th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women at the UN in New York in early March.

As we prepare for the presentation and launch of our Regional Beijing+15 Shadow Report, our delegation, which will consist of up to 30 women from 14 countries of the region, is simultaneously planning a one-day conference which will illuminate for a global audience our findings, future plans, and recommendations in linking BPFA advocacy to fulfilment of related goals, mainly the MDGs. Meanwhile, our Moroccan partners have also prepared their own national Beijing+15 Shadow report, which they will share alongside the larger report at CSW.

4. In your opinion, what areas need additional efforts? Should any new critical issues be added to the 12 originally outlined by the BPFA?

Many things have changed since the BPFA was implemented, however the core areas of concern remain the same. While the BPFA does cover both Violence against Women and Women and Armed Conflict as part of its critical areas of concern, there still needs to be more emphasis on the violence that women experience specific to times of conflict – most notably, the sexual violence that takes place during wars, but also including emotional, economical, educational, social and psychological effects that have yet to be thoroughly identified and assessed.

5. Concerning the UN Gender Equality Architecture Reform (GEAR) Campaign and the subsequent adoption by the General Assembly of Resolution 63/311 on 14 September 2009 that calls for a new gender entity, are you engaging with the new process and how?

Karama is beginning the process of lobbying the governments of the Arab region to support GEAR. We are reaching out to potential partners in hopes of designing and implementing a campaign that speaks to this, as well as seeking training for our CSW delegates with regard to details of GEAR as they will be incredible resources and advocates on the national level.

We want every man and woman to advocate for the success of GEAR. But we also are cautious. It is not good enough to have an entity, but it must be a functioning political arm that drives action in areas that need it most. In order for this to happen, we must avoid replicating mistakes of existing entities that have proved to be ineffective in advancing our collective mission to achieve equality and advancement for all.

In response to our fears, I have several hopes for GEAR as it develops. First, I hope that the general secretary will appoint a strong woman who can work on women’s issues. We have seen many women forget their roots when they are appointed. Not only do the divert attention from women’s issues, but often, they end up working against our objectives and goals. Many of these appointments are political appointments and while some of the women chosen are good for the system, they do not work well for existing movements across the globe.

Another concern from the south is that it has become the norm for higher positions to be awarded to women coming from the north. Usually a country willing to pay a lot of money will push its own candidate through to fill this new position. Those with fewer resources cannot compete at this level and are often shut out. It is my hope that these types of negotiations or persuasions do not play a factor in GEAR. An entity designed to help advance and enforce measures of equality must reflect these same principals. Countries with the least resources may have the best women candidates to run GEAR, and they should be considered at the same level as women candidates from wealthier nations.

I am very excited about the entity. There is an absolute need for it, and we must commit to making it a success. The budget should not be less than a billion and politics should not play a part in appointments. We must find a way to make our governments accountable to their promises, and we must work together to promote diversity, equality and justice both in the areas we are addressing and in our own processes. But we must consider the notes above to ensure that GEAR is an authentic, honest and effective entity that will further our collective mission.

The women chosen to run and represent GEAR should come from societies ravaged by the issues they are addressing, where young women need role models and advocates to share their stories and their suggestions. The new entity should reflect realities that are present on the ground and in the so-called south, giving a heart and face to the problems we are fighting to solve and the changes we are hoping to implement. Without absolute integrity in our decisions now, we risk GEAR becoming another big entity with big bureaucracy but no substance.

6. What are you hoping to see come out of Beijing +15?

While NGOs and the civil society sector have the heart, expertise and motivation that is necessary to build momentum toward change, they cannot work alone. No matter how much training, awareness and passion we have, and no matter how much fight and energy we put into our work, at the end of the day, we have to go back to governments and lobby them and pressure them and push them to implement reforms. For a long time there has been friction between governments and NGOs because of this relationship. Many activists politicize issues in a way that alienates governments. Meanwhile, governments reject the idea of change and isolate the efforts of NGOs in soliciting it.

Fifteen years ago, the BPFA was signed, sealed and filed away with the hope that the commitments that had been made would speak for themselves, and that our governments would fulfil the promises they had made. However, today, we continue to discuss the BPFA because so much remains to be done. From the lessons learned and shared, it is upon us all now to recognize that we must pool our resources and efforts. Everyone including women will benefit from successful implementation of the BPFA. Without bringing change to their societies, governments will watch national prosperity decrease as their citizens’ levels of education, wealth and content also fall. Disarming women of the tools they need to contribute to society will lead to lost prosperity of nations as a whole.

The BPFA represents the most basic of rights, which afford us the basic necessities with which we survive. We are all born equal, but in many areas of the world, women have been stripped of the bare essentials and have spent a lifetime trying to get them back.

Both parties – NGOs and governments – need to commit more to the fulfilment of the BPFA critical areas and of other key international agreements that affect the lives of men, women and children all over the world. Governments have signed many pieces of paper and now it is our job to make sure they are accountable to do what they have agreed to do and enforce standards that represent nothing more than our most basic right not to simply survive, but to live.

Karama is a coalition of women’s groups in the Arab region focused on ending violence against women. ‘Karama’ is the Arabic word for dignity, as well as an initiative fueled by a coalition of partners as constituencies to build a movement to end violence against women in the Middle East and North Africa. Karama puts emphasis on women from the ground up, addressing violence as they define it, with solutions of their own design.

Launched in 2005 to provide a framework for coordination, cooperation, and linkage among people working to stop violence against women, Karama has initiated an unprecedented range of multi-sectoral collaboration and advocacy by women across the region at the national, regional, and international levels. Further information is available online.