Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 March 2012
Issue No. 1089
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

For better impact

The current goal of the National Council for Women is to give prominence to issues left unattended in the past. Reem Leila explores the council's future plans

Having taken the helm at the National Council for Women (NCW), newly appointed Secretary- General Nehad Abul-Qomsan has drawn up a future plan for improving the status of women which emphasises the conviction that women must be part and parcel of the country's social, economic and cultural development.

Abul-Qomsan, who succeeds Farkhonda Hassan, already has a considerably formidable voice of her own. She is a lawyer, head of the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights (ECWR), and is now one of the main figures in Egypt, fighting for a better life for women.

The new council is headed by Ambassador Mervat El-Tallawi who succeeded Suzanne Mubarak, who was the NCW head. El-Tallawi was the council's first secretary-general when it was established in 2000. There are 30 new members including law professor Nour Farahat, Sharia professor Amna Noseir, MP Margaret Azer, and TV talk show host Dorreya Sharafeddin.

Abul-Qomsan is a founding member of the ECWR, established in 1996. It has a mandate to fight for gender equality in Egyptian society and to demonstrate that women's rights are an essential part of human rights.

Celebrating Women's Day on 16 March will have a different look this year as it is among the NCW's priorities. The council intends to hold celebrations during which mothers of protesters who were killed since the start of the revolution in January 2011 will be honoured.

The NCW is calling for effective policies that guarantee equality between men and women, in accordance with provisions in the Egyptian constitution, which will eliminate all forms of discrimination against both sexes. Only in this way, the NCW states, can the principle of equality be transformed from mere theoretical provisions to actual reality.

Combating illiteracy among boys and girls comes on top of the NCW's agenda, a sore point with women's groups which claim current efforts are weak and ineffectual. A damaging international development report recently ranked Egypt painfully low among countries on the issue of illiteracy. Out of 174 countries, Egypt came in at 119.

Announcing that improving literacy among women was key to improving women's political awareness -- and hence their status in society -- Abul-Qomsan said that the council will be working in cooperation with all authorities concerned to end the problem.

Also on the agenda is turning the government's attention to the significant percentage of households headed by women, estimated at somewhere between 16 and 22 per cent. Abul-Qomsan said that the needs of these women need to be more thoroughly addressed, and that several governors had begun allocating buildings for housing. She said the NCW is raising money to fund projects to develop a source of income for women heads of households.

According to the plan, women and community empowerment should go hand in hand. It emphasises the importance of overcoming poverty in general, and women's poverty in particular. This, it said, cannot be achieved in the absence of mechanisms to manage limited resources and thus ensure their sustainability.

Women do not constitute the NCW's exclusive focus. According to the plan, a new strategy against poverty is necessary, entailing more resources, sharper focus and greater commitment. Anti-poverty plans should be comprehensive, the NCW believes. They demand adequate funding and effective government coordination. The plan notes that good governance is the missing link between anti-poverty efforts and poverty reduction and that transparency and accountability are essential in the fight against poverty.

Another goal is to ensure the presence of an organisational and legal framework that supports women on the political, economic and cultural levels. The plan also calls for cooperation between governmental and non- governmental organisations in all development plans. The organisations, the NCW says, must realise they are addressing several categories of women, with different intellectual, economic and social backgrounds as well as different aspirations.

According to Abul- Qomsan, among other challenges facing women as well as the council is political representation in local councils as well as women's representation in the committee which will work on the country's constitution. The NCW is giving priority to the enhancement of women's role in public and political life. Reinforcing women's political participation, according to the plan, entails promoting their participation in governmental and non-governmental organisations such as civil society organisations, trade unions, labour unions and sporting clubs. The NCW plans to conduct studies on possible amendments to existing legislation that will ensure greater parliamentary participation of women.

The new council has angered many people, especially men, who have been asking for the creation of a council which attends to family affairs, not to be centred on women and their issues. Abul- Qomsan denied this was the case, stating that the council was not created just for women. "It's true the council is called the National Council of Women, but the fact remains that poverty and illiteracy as well as political, legal, social and economic problems will be properly dealt with without being bias to one party or the other," Abul-Qomsan said.

The council has its own legislative committee which will amend laws passed during the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak. "If we find anything that contradicts with Sharia laws or human rights, it will most certainly be amended while taking into consideration the welfare of all family members," Abul-Qomsan said.

She affirmed that the council was keen to communicate with all of society's social categories because neither its impact nor its goals have been felt by the public. "The council will communicate with the marginalised, the poor and illiterate and slum dwellers in order to best serve women and society as a whole." (see p.26)

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