By Yunqing Han
Plan International’s recent report, The Protection of Women and Girls in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), examines women’s rights in the region in five countries: Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Sudan, and Syria. Unfortunately, women are still subjected to many inequalities and conservative groups often unwelcome potential legal changes.
The countries’ legal protection of women is improving but is still not sufficient. Egypt has no law against sexual harassment in workplace. The continued Syrian conflict leads to inadequate access to healthcare, increased GBV, and more child marriages. All five countries except Lebanon allow children below minimum ages of marriage to marry so long as their guardians believe it to be “in their [the children’s] best interest.” And in all five countries, abortion is criminalized.
On a brighter note, Egypt and Sudan are passing laws to ban female genital cutting – in any type of clinics for the former and in all cases for the latter. Lebanon has recently passed a law in December 2020 to criminalize sexual harassment under broad definitions. Its Parliament amended the domestic violence law to incorporate violence related to but not necessarily done during marriage. And albeit with reservations, four of the five countries (except Sudan) have ratified CEDAW, the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. All five countries have some sort of government structure that promotes women’s rights.
Many problems still impede promotion of change for women’s rights. Intensified political conflicts have prompted governments to overlook women’s issues. Data on the scale of GBV and what women need remain largely unavailable. Inadequate enforcement of laws that protect women’s equality and rights persists. And, despite there being increased activism in the last decade, there is little space for Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) in the region. Governments often consider these entities to be foreign agenda implementers who advance anti-Arab values and sentiments.
However, the report also suggests next steps for activism. The most urgent priority for governments is to harmonize discrepancies between regional and national laws about women. They should also promote dialogue discussing women’s status in issues where women face the most discrimination; namely, in marriage, inheritance, property, and custody. For women’s rights movements, progress mainly looks like including men and religious/conservative leaders as partners and strengthening young feminist movements. With these actions, we might be able to alter agendas to fit local contexts. More importantly, we might gradually let ones who oppose the women’s rights movement see its radical or not-so-radical underlying notion: that women are also people.