Strong NGOs are vital to protect women

Most discussion about women’s rights in the draft constitution focused on Article 68, which guaranteed women’s equality with men as long as this did not violate Sharia rulings. Removing this article from the draft strengthens women’s rights, since conditioning women’s equality on conformity to Sharia rulings could undermine existing women’s rights laws and hinder new ones.

But the draft remains full of potential obstacles to girls’ and women’s rights because of its weak protections for the rights of NGOs and the media to act freely. These rights are first and foremost essential for women, and men, in their role as citizens of a democracy, but the past decade also shows how important they are in promoting “girls’ and women’s rights” as they are more narrowly defined in this article — particularly attempts to increase equality in family law and to prevent and punish gender-specific violence such as female genital mutilation and “virginity tests.

NGOs have been central in pressing for passage and enforcement of women’s rights laws. The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights played a key role in advocating for the 2004 law, giving nationality to the children of Egyptian mothers married to foreigners, which the government initially resisted as a “threat to national security.

Children’s rights NGOs rallied to support the 2008 Child Law, which criminalized the marriage of girls under 18 and FGM. They also tried unsuccessfully to ensure that violations would be reported by insisting that the “protection committees” charged with monitoring enforcement in the governorates would include NGO members chosen by the NGO community, instead of by the governor, who might prefer to hide such violations.

NGOs also sought accountability for the “virginity tests” of Samira Ibrahim and others arrested in March 2011. Al-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence collected their testimony, and if Egyptian rights groups had not publicized the issue, which was then heavily covered by Western groups such as Human Rights Watch, it is less likely the courts would have banned the tests.

The draft constitution says associations can work freely after notifying the government, which can only dissolve them with a court ruling. This language would not prevent the violations of NGO freedom found in the NGO law proposed this year by the Insurance and Social Affairs Ministry.

The Cairo Institute for Human Rights notes that this draft law would let the government interfere in many aspects of the activity of an NGO’s board of directors, seek judicial dissolution of an NGO if the government thinks it cannot achieve its goals, and prevent NGOs from doing “field research,” which could include activities like the survey of women in 22 governorates by the Center for Egyptian Women Legal Assistance this year to ascertain women’s priorities in the constitution.

The types of NGOs that pursue women’s rights issues have been particularly susceptible to government attack. Al-Nadeem, for example, was one of the groups accused by the Justice Ministry of operating illegally during the attack on NGOs by Fayza Abouelnaga, former planning minister.

More than 180 NGOs have signed a petition for stronger constitutional guarantees of NGO freedom, which are essential for women’s rights.

Free media also plays a key role in changing people’s minds about the violations of girls’ and women’s rights and in exposing their perpetrators. In 2007, a year before FGM was criminalized, Al-Masry Al-Youm repeatedly covered the cases of 12-year-old Bedour Shaker and Karima Masoud, who hemorrhaged to death after FGM procedures.

A year earlier, a Population Council survey in six governorates found that by far the most important reason given by women who had decided against circumcising their girls was fear of causing pain and complications, but only 3 percent of women who had not received anti-FGM training had heard of a girl who died from FGM, and 68 percent said the practice cannot cause health complications.

Media coverage of FGM’s harms may help to discourage it. Now that FGM is illegal, journalists have exposed its continued practice. TV reporters went to the village of Abu Aziz this April to investigate the Freedom and Justice Party’s “medical caravans,” which, in addition to legitimate medical services, reportedly offered FGM for LE30.

While free media is essential to limiting violations of women’s rights, the draft constitution fails to protect this freedom. One problem, as noted by columnist Diaa Rashwan, is that Article 216 gives the responsibility for supervising all media — and guaranteeing press freedom — to a “National Council for the Media,” but says nothing about how this institution, or the companion body for the state-owned press, will be formed.

Rashwan argues that this could allow ruling parties to control the media, which would likely hinder journalists from covering lawbreaking by powerful parties such as the FJP in Abu Aziz.

While Article 68 could have threatened laws to protect girls’ and women’s rights, free NGOs and media are equally essential to passing new laws, ensuring the enforcement of existing ones, and convincing people to renounce practices that harm girls and women.

Vickie Langohr is associate professor of political science at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts in the US

This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent’s weekly print edition.


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