Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Promoting women

Egypt’s celebration of International Women’s Day on 8 March was an opportunity to draw attention to the special role of women and the organisations helping to promote their rights, writes Mahmoud Bakr

Al-Ahram Weekly

March is the month when Egypt, together with much of the rest of the world, celebrates women and their role in public life and in raising future generations.

In 1977, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming an International Day for women to be observed by UN member states on any day of the year. Most states chose 8 March, a focal day in the women’s rights struggle.

On 8 March 1908, thousands of women textile workers marched through New York City in the US carrying pieces of stale bread and bouquets of roses to demand shorter working hours, better pay, a halt to child labour, and the right to vote and to run for office.

It was for this reason that the US chose 8 March to celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD) and European and other countries followed suit. March is also the month of Mother’s Day, which in Egypt is celebrated on 21 March.

IWD is an occasion to honour the contributions women worldwide have made to social, economic, cultural and political achievement. This year’s theme is the “Pledge for Parity” by 2030. To mark the occasion, the HEYA Centre for Public Policy and Women’s Empowerment, a regional NGO, has launched a number of initiatives aimed at increasing the participation of women in public life in the Middle East and North Africa region and particularly in Egypt.

The efforts seek to produce just and sustainable policies and practices that will promote gender parity and enable women’s voices, especially those from poorer and more marginalised areas, to be heard.

Hiam Elgousi, HEYA’s national coordinator in Egypt, said the organisation wants to build female leadership in participating countries through capacity-building and awareness-raising, and by influencing decision-making circles and monitoring policies. It targets both women and men and women’s organisations in the framework of its rights advocacy activities.

HEYA works directly with 3,600 women in participating countries through local and regional activities aimed at capacity-building and giving organisational support to women’s civil society associations. Activities range from workshops and round table seminars to conducting sociological research studies and analysing policy papers.

Elgousi added that these would eventually be presented in a series of regional conferences. The organisation also plans to create an Arab regional team to monitor electoral processes in participating countries.

The HEYA Centre for Public Policy is the fruit of the HEYA programme to support women leaders. A regional programme being carried out in five Arab countries (Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Jordan and Yemen), it seeks to increase women’s participation in public policy formation by promoting their roles as active citizens in public affairs.

According to Elgousi, the programme, through its partner organisations in the governorates of Cairo, Alexandria, Buheira, Qina and South Sinai, has reached 720 women leaders with activities aimed at enhancing their abilities to design public policies and promote them in the media.

Activities have included workshops and training courses, round tables with decision-makers, and regional meetings aimed at building partnerships and developing a regional public policy set by women participants from the five countries.

Healthcare policy: Among the papers that the programme has produced is one addressing the healthcare system in Egypt, developed within the framework of the HEYA Centre’s “Our Health is a Right” campaign.

In the paper, author Nagwa Hamed Abdel-Karim argues that one of the main sources of problems in the healthcare system is the government’s withdrawal from providing a number of healthcare functions to the public in tandem with the shift toward privatisation and a market economy. This has paved the way to a two-tier healthcare system, in which “five-star” healthcare services are available for the wealthy, while the rest of the public is left with deteriorating services.

Other dimensions of the problem include a weak health insurance sector, foreign intervention on the part of international agencies to restructure the healthcare sector in Egypt, and a lack of integration in healthcare services. Abdel-Karim also cites a reluctance on the part of the authorities to compel people to pay a portion of the cost (a quarter or a third) to receive necessary treatment, thereby perpetuating a system of at best token fees.

At the same time, profit-making organisations, whether state-owned (holding companies) or private, refuse to provide most healthcare services and insist that these should be provided by non-profit agencies such as health maintenance organisations, thereby keeping the private sector as only a supplementary provider.

As part of the solution to such problems, Abdel-Karim proposes the creation of an independent body that would arbitrate on complaints lodged by patients against healthcare practitioners in both diagnostics and treatment. This arbitration body would have the power to impose professional penalties.

In general, she argues, healthcare services should be seen as a commodity to which the rules of quality control apply. In this framework, the state would act as regulator rather than a service provider. Nevertheless, there should still be a focus on providing free healthcare to the poor and commercial healthcare to the wealthy, she said.

However, the public in general should be expected to pay more for medical and surgical interventions, while a system of graduated health insurance policies should be developed in a way that ensures that high-quality healthcare services are affordable and available to low-income families.

A second paper produced by the HEYA Centre, prepared by a research team of five women, addresses the need to develop a health insurance system that would increase recovery rates from various illnesses and improve quality of life in general. The paper proceeds from the premise that the often substandard medical treatment and services available to the public are the result of poor job performance and low production levels.

The researchers attribute the problem to an array of interrelated causes: dissatisfaction among service providers due to poor salaries and incentives, poor training programmes, a lack of effective medicines at appropriate prices, shortages of medical equipment, and a lack of the advanced-technology scanning machines needed for accurate diagnoses.

These problems are at least in part due to the failure to find more funding sources to reform the medical system and a lack of coordination between the Ministry of Health and health insurance companies.

The researchers also underscore the many problems that plague public hospitals, including poor facilities, shortages of equipment and supplies, and generally lower professional standards among many members of their medical staff. They add that the healthcare sector and public hospitals receive a relatively small share of the national budget.

In their paper, the five researchers encourage labour and professional syndicates and insurance companies to work together to create collective health insurance coverage for their members and their families. In addition, regulations should be introduced to prevent excessive costs of medical procedures and to facilitate the discovery of cases of negligence or exploitation.

They also urge that statutory regulations be drafted to ensure that hospitals meet certain quality standards in terms of both their medical services and the non-medical services provided to patients. Finally, they recommend allocating a portion of the taxes paid by all workers in the public medical and healthcare sectors directly to a budget dedicated to the public healthcare sector.

MP Sameh Habib has vowed to press such issues in parliament to help alleviate public concerns. He has quizzed the prime minister and minister of health on the conversion of supplementary hospitals to family medical units, for example, which has had a negative effect on public health.

In Habib’s opinion, national healthcare coverage should be extended to low-income citizens so that they can be treated at government expense like public-sector employees. He has also identified other problems in the healthcare sector, the first stemming from an uneven distribution of nurses and the second from the fact that university hospitals are managed by the Ministry of Higher Education and not the Ministry of Health.

Political participation: On the empowerment of women and their participation in elections, Warda Mohamed Mohamed, one of the HEYA Centre’s trainees, maintains that the political parties’ failure to field more women in parliamentary elections stems from the erroneous belief that women would be unable to win the votes needed to secure parliamentary seats.

She stressed that this impression has been shaped by the relatively recent experience of women’s participation in political party life, and by their only token representation in the higher echelons of party leadership structures.

Mohamed remarked on the relatively low political participation of women after the 25 January and 30 June revolutions, holding that women have been discouraged by their apparent inability to be selected as candidates in electoral races, leading to their disappearance from public and political life in general. This has been evident in the ratio of women to men in the political parties and in the low number of women’s candidacies.

Mohamed believes that women’s organisations need to work to raise awareness of the need for women to participate more effectively in political life in order to maintain the struggle to reach decision-making positions. However, she stressed that such awareness-raising efforts must be comprehensive, meaning that they must be aimed at society at large in order to help create an environment that provides women with the moral support they need.

In addition, the laws and constitutional provisions that promote modern civil societies need to be applied more stringently, especially in the Arab countries, she said. In general, Mohamed said, women must be encouraged materially, morally and in the media to run for parliamentary and municipal bodies. They should also receive training in the skills needed to mount effective political and electoral campaigns.

To help boost women’s political participation, civil rights advocacy associations should martial their efforts together with the National Council for Women. It would also be useful if these associations forged alliances with political parties, she said.

Harassment of women: The HEYA Centre for Public Policy is also involved in another area that is no less important than the healthcare system, namely sexual harassment.

As Hind Al-Toukhi, one of the five women who developed a policy paper on this issue, put it, sexual harassment is a “form of racism” that can inflict physical and psychological damage. It can occur anywhere, Al-Toukhi said, whether in the street, at the workplace, on public transport, at schools and universities, in restaurants, in stores and markets, and in the privacy of the home, and even in the presence of others, such as family members, relatives or colleagues. It can also occur over the Internet and through other media.

Al-Toukhi notes that a UN study released in 2013 revealed that in 85 per cent of the cases of sexual harassment recorded in the streets in Egypt no passers-by or other members of the public tried to intervene. A study conducted by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights, an NGO, also reports that 61.4 per cent of male witnesses of incidents of sexual harassment preferred to ignore them and that only 0.1 per cent of them attempted to intervene. According to the same study, 39 per cent of the harassers are children, but married men and men with relatively high incomes also engage in sexual harassment.

Yasmine Muawwad, a fellow member of Al-Toukhi’s team, stresses that there is no correlation between sexual harassment and the dress or behaviour of the victims. Seventy-two per cent of the victims of sexual harassment wore the veil or niqab, according to the same study conducted in 2008. This figure was roughly equivalent to the ratio of women in Egypt as a whole who wore the veil or niqab that year.

At the same time, more than 60 per cent of Egyptian men confess to having committed sexual harassment at some time against women. The majority of these men blame the women who, they say, want men to “flirt” with them when they go out.

According to the study, 53 per cent of the men interviewed blamed the women for inviting such behaviour. They believe that women “enjoy” it, or that they dress immodestly, which encourages young men to harass them. In 2005, a man was charged with committing sexual harassment, found guilty and sentenced to four years in prison and a fine of LE5,000. But in November 2012, another man was found guilty of the same crime, sentenced to two years in prison and a fine of only LE2,000.

Nihad Abul-Ela, also on the team that put together the policy paper, urges the passage of a unified anti-harassment law that would combine penal and child law provisions to create a comprehensive law against all forms of harassment, whether against men, women or children. She believes that such a law should include immediate financial penalties that the perpetrator would have to pay upon arrest and that the penalties already outlined in the penal code should be harsher.

The law and penalties should be posted in all government agencies, and neighbourhood and village leaders would be accorded the right to take measures such as publicly posting pictures of those found guilty in cases of sexual harassment, she said. Such measures would greatly reduce incidents of sexual harassment in the short run.

She has also urged the creation of trained anti-harassment emergency teams, especially during holidays and feast days, to work in crowded areas. The teams would wear special uniforms and carry official IDs. As a longer-term measure to counter sexual harassment, awareness-raising activities should be conducted in schools and at all educational levels.

Doaa Buheiri, another author, suggests that NGOs involved in women’s and children’s issues and human rights should develop year-round awareness-raising programmes targeting the environments where these organisations operate. At the same time, she said, efforts should be made to attract more civil society organisations into joining the drive against harassment.

In addition, syndicates and political parties should be encouraged to hold an annual “anti-harassment” day, while Muslim and Christian institutions should promote a discourse that opposes sexual harassment. Buheiri would also like to see short documentaries, infographic films and other media such as billboards and posters published in the media and in the electronic media in particular.

Dina Mohsen Abdel-Latif, the fifth member of the team that developed the policy paper on sexual harassment, argues that the chief causes of sexual harassment stem from a divergence from religious and moral values, the failure of the family system to perform its basic function to raise children properly, and the failure of the educational authorities to perform this function properly in schools.

The phenomenon has been aggravated by high levels of unemployment, the spread of informal housing areas, the rise in the average marriage age and the rising costs of getting married, and the growing phenomenon of bachelorhood (some eight million young men in Egypt are unmarried).
Sexual harassment has grown in such a way that it has become “like a beast,” Abdel-Latif said. It is no longer confined to the individual harasser, who will vanish into the crowds for fear of being punished. Instead, it has evolved into a gang activity that has become apparent in public squares, in front of cinemas and at sporting clubs, as well as during political demonstrations and even religious festivals.

Among the psychological effects of sexual harassment on women are shock, depression, a decline in self-respect and increased anxiety. Women may also cease going to work in order to avoid sexual harassment, and this saps the labour force of a significant portion of its human resources and simultaneously renders women vulnerable to economic impoverishment.

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