Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)
Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

HEYA’s work in Egypt

Hiam Elgousi, coordinator of the HEYA Centre for Public Policy in Egypt, talks to Nesmahar Sayed about the work of this important NGO

Al-Ahram Weekly

Hiam Elgousi is a former lecturer at the University of Leeds in the UK, where she taught the cultures, religions and literature of the Middle East. While there she was nominated by students for the University of Leeds Partnership Award and was a key lecturer in the University’s Understanding Islam programme.

She holds a PhD on the influence of contemporary ulama’ (religious scholars) on Arab women’s rights, with a focus on Muslim women in Egypt. Her master’s degree was from the University of Wolverhampton, also in the UK, where she focussed on development training and education; her thesis was on gender-based domestic violence in the UK.

Elgousi has accumulated over 15 years of academic and professional experience in the fields of social development, adult education and learning, and social research linked to the community. She is a member of many NGOs and INGOs working under different mandates and on various projects, including Help the Aged International, UNICEF Sudan, and Save the Children in the MENA region. She has also been acknowledged by invitations to deliver papers at events organised by institutions such as Georgetown University in the US and York University in the UK.

She spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly about her work and the importance of the HEYA (She) Centre for Public Policy, where she holds the position of Egypt coordinator.

What is the HEYA Centre for Public Policy?
The centre is a continuation of a dream that was began by the HEYA programme two years ago, as part of regional support for women’s leadership and participation in the public domain in the six provinces of Cairo, Giza, Alexandria, Al-Beheira, Qina and South Sinai.

The programme managed to come up with 42 policy papers about the most important issues in various fields. It is considered to be a means of communicating women’s voices and issues to decision-makers through roundtables and meetings with officials, as well as through the media and social networks.

Today, the HEYA Centre for Public Policy works in several Arab states. It is an embodiment of the objectives of the programme, in terms of combatting the marginalisation and exclusion that have hindered the participation of women in the public sphere. It hopes to be a think tank and a reference for policy-makers. All this is supported by transparency and respect for diversity and integrity.

How was it established?
In December 2013, funding from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) began the implementation of the HEYA Centre for Public Policy for three years. It was set up simultaneously in five countries, namely Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia and Yemen, with five non-governmental organisations to be partner NGOs and partner non-governmental organisations (PNGOs).

The overall goal is to increase women’s participation in the public sphere in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region in order to bring about sustainable and gender-equitable changes in policies and practice to ensure that the voices of women at all levels, including the poorest and most marginalised, are heard.

The main objectives include ensuring that women in the MENA region have access to policy-making mechanisms and their voices are heard, that the capacity of women leaders is increased in governance and public policy areas in order to play an equal role with men in societal affairs, that NGOs in the region are able to empower women leaders and to maintain the impact of the Women Policy Centres (WPCs), and that women leaders and their allies see increased interaction, mutual support and joint advocacy on women’s public participation at the national and regional levels.

The centre’s programme focusses on a multitude of policy issues, including governance and democracy, women and youth development, education and socioeconomic development, environmental and natural resources, and public affairs.

It is directly targeting women, with a special focus on women leaders, in capacity-building and awareness-raising interventions on policy-making and policy-monitoring. The programme also targets men as well as women’s organisations in its advocacy activities. It will directly benefit 3,600 women, and indirectly over 18,000.

What are the main sectors the centre works in?
The centre aims to contribute to the analysis and formulation of public policy in the countries it works in. These include Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Lebanon and Yemen, especially after the radical political changes experienced by these countries. The centre also aims to strengthen the participation of women in electoral experiences and in accessing leadership positions as important priorities.

Among the centre’s other objectives is participating in the decision-making and practices of good governance and activating the role of civil society organisations, as these are the only way to bring about real change to a truly democratic climate.

How are topics, participants and partners chosen?
The selection of topics is based on the use of participatory research tools that allow the women involved to identify their community needs and problems according to their own perceptions. The selection of partners is based on assessments by NGOs, as well as geographical location (Upper and Lower Egypt and urban and rural areas).

What are some of the challenges women face in the Arab region? What is the centre’s role in helping to meet them?
There is no doubt that women in the Arab region face many challenges in terms of personal law, gender inequality, high rates of illiteracy, gender-based violence, especially in conflict zones, and low representation in parliament and legislative councils. These are common problems in the MENA region, yet their exact size differs from one country to another and on the existing political system and government policies.

The role of the centre is not to solve such problems as such, but rather to provide women with the skills and techniques to analyse their concerns through reviewing, examining and criticising existing policy. They can then come up with recommendations aiming at creating a better situation. In my opinion, the importance of the centre lies in the idea that women should have a channel to express themselves and to make their voices heard by decision-makers.

Why do many women still face such challenges in 2016?
Following the Arab Spring revolutions, tremendous changes took place across the Arab world, and many laws were amended or in some cases abolished. In Egypt, women gained more rights in the 2014 Constitution, yet these rights are waiting to be activated on the ground.

In my opinion, what women have learned from their prolonged struggle is that the road towards attaining their rights is full of obstacles and challenges. However, if led by motivated young women activists the journey will continue and will not stop until women reach their goal.

What are the qualities of Arab women that make them potential leaders in many fields?
I would rather turn the question to what Arab women need to do in order to enable them to be productive leaders in many fields. I believe Arab women must learn from their past, analyse their strengths and weaknesses, and reflect on their previous achievements. This will assist them in analysing their own situation in the contemporary world and contesting it on historical grounds.

It is very important to understand the significance of the women’s rights movement, its achievements and shortfalls, and the lessons to be learnt from pioneering women, and so today’s Arab women need to know who these pioneers were and the circumstances in which they organised their movements. However, the most important thing is to revive the memory of Arab women through historical journeys into their past and to reflect and learn from their own rich heritage.

By this I mean the heritage that demonstrates that the deterioration in the status of women in the Arab world is not a result of religion. On the contrary, it is a result of the blind following of traditions and customs that are detrimental to women and that, most importantly, are far away from religion.

What are the main problems facing women in the Arab region? How can they be resolved?
Women in Arab societies are restricted by the dictates of patriarchal societies, in which social norms, cultures and political systems shape the structure of life in favour of men and provide them with more power than women. Genuine political will on the part of the state is vital to change this situation, through issuing laws and activating legislative procedures that will eliminate gender inequality in every sector.

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