Numerous efforts are exerted to eliminate violence against Egyptian women, but how far they have been echoed in women's day-to-day life, asks Amira El-Noshokaty
Another International Women's Day comes by, but Magda Abdel-Rahman, has little to celebrate. Abdel-Rahman, a married mother of four, is a government employee with a monthly salary of LE190. She, like several of her colleagues has suffered verbal and physical violence from her husband over the past 16 years. Yet six month ago, his violence took a new form. He stopped supporting her and her children financially. In reaction to the current situation, Abdel-Rahman chose to offer her service as a house-keeper in order to support her family. Last month, she sold her television set to help pay the rent. Since her husband refrained from any financial obligations, she is seriously considering filing a law suit against him. Yet both, procedures and expenses remain grand obstacles.
"Isn't what's happening to me considered a kind of violence against women? I hear about those women NGOs but where can I find them and can they really help me?"
Abdel-Rahman is certainly not alone. Violence against women is an interwoven cultural, social and educational dilemma that faces women worldwide. According to the first World Health Organisation's (WHO) multi-country study on women's health and domestic violence against women in 2005, violence against women is a universal phenomenon that persists in all countries of the world. The study that targeted 24,000 women in 10 countries -- unfortunately Egypt is not one of them -- stated that domestic violence is frighteningly common as well as acceptable as "normal" within too many societies.
Since the World Conference on Human Rights in Geneva 1993, the declaration of the elimination of violence against women at the same year, and down to the eight millennium goals, out of which gender equality and women empowerment is a main aim, national and international efforts are exerted to implement human rights-based approaches on governmental and non-governmental levels in order to empower women all over the globe. According to WHO, the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (1993) defines violence against women as "any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life." Moreover, it is "physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family and in the general community, including battering, sexual abuse of children, dowry-related violence, rape, female genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women, non-spousal violence and violence related to exploitation, sexual harassment and intimidation at work, in educational institutions and elsewhere, trafficking in women, forced prostitution, and violence perpetrated or condoned by the state".
Nationally speaking, efforts have drastically increased during the past decade. The way Amani Qandil, director of the Non-Governmental Associations Arab Network, "during the 1990s only a handful of women NGOs have took the initiative in breaking the codes of silence," Qandil told Al-Ahram Weekly. Yet ever since the Peking conferences and onwards, women have been on the agenda. "By the turn of the new millennium," she continued, "the National Council of Women was established as a sincere gesture and confession on behalf of the government stating that the civil society efforts are not enough; that a governmental intervention is needed." And indeed lots of development projects that aimed at women empowerment were implemented. Women research centres, women legal rights, women political rights, women studies, women shelters, and lots of civil societies activities all piled up in order to empower Egyptian women. True lots of micro-credit programmes saved lives of female-headed families, lots of girl-friendly schools and development projects have touched and perhaps altered lives forever. Yet often the issue of sustainability is hardly tangible in some of these development projects that lack a future planning and the concept of networking in order to have a horizontal other than a vertical scope of the impact of such development projects on society at large. However, the effectiveness of such development projects remains quite subtle if one considers the facts and figures. According to Egypt's Human Development Report 2005, (EHDR) over 90 per cent of married women were subjected to female genital mutilation, and the incidence of illiteracy among female-headed households is 85 per cent in rural areas and 57 per cent in urban areas.
To Fatemah Suleiman, a dentist's secretary, in her 20s, from a lower-middle class background, the idea of violence against women is quite obvious. "I am against the fact that women are beaten by their husbands except when they deserve it," Suleiman further explained, "if a woman goes out without his permission for example, if she disobeys him in anyway, then she deserves being beaten, after all her husband is the centre of her life and the one who provides for her." Suleiman is quite optimistic with women's present status. Believing that through education and economic independence, Egyptian women can defy any violence they are subjected to. "Yes I have heard about the women programmes and the term violence against women. No I have never attended any seminars but the sheikh at the mosque highlights the fact that Islam puts women in a very high status," concluded Suleiman.
There is no doubt that the majority of the civil society's approaches deserve a second look. Answering to the fact that almost all of the development projects are gender-oriented, Qandil commented that this is one of the major drawbacks of National NGOs' development projects. "You cannot change the cultural scope of violence against women while targeting only one of the two parties involved," explained Qandil. "You cannot just target women alone, both men and women should be addressed because they constitute the society that bares such culture."
Among the great efforts to combat the culture of violence against women, the Alliance for Arab Women's (AAW) stands out. AAW's project to eliminate violence against women in collaboration with the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM); started out in 2002/03 by using unconventional techniques in promoting women rights. Among such techniques was the use of street plays. Topics like women's political participation reached lots of villages throughout Egypt. "Such plays encouraged women to be part of the elections. From almost none to 150 women political candidates is quite an influence," Iman Darwish, AAW representative, told the Weekly. Moreover, The 12-month extension of the same project includes studies on violence against women in Egypt, awareness campaigns through art-based approaches as well as seminars and improving women's image in the media. At one of the project's workshops allocated to the press, a short documentary film was featured. Thorns is an excellent film that pictures real life testimonies of Egyptian women, who were subjected to physical violence and spoke out and some of them fought back. The film directed by Hala Galal, and scripted by Basma Al-Husseini, truly portrays violence of the states quo. But unfortunately the audience of the film remains limited to the AAW beneficiaries or a handful of NGOs. Shortcomings of media exposure from both ends (the media coverage and the NGOs' media campaigns) are among the major obstacles of Egyptian civil society in general. "The media element is part of the problem," explained Qandil, "due to financial limitations as well as capacities, lots of the NGOs' efforts do not necessarily reach their target audience."
On the other hand the media coverage sometimes lacks accuracy a thing that could create a negative publicity to the cause. Despite being a tool to defy violence against women, sometimes it tends to reflect such cultural stigma. Promoting segregation, even if it is a positive one is still against women's equality. If we still have women sections in our local papers, women media programmes, isn't that singling out women in society to begin with? Isn't a woman more of a human who is by default interested in a variety of topics including food and beverages?
"With the exception of very few television shows that are on the right track, addressing the issue of violence against women. Point out a media programme that addresses men while talking about violence against women," concluded Qandil.