Women’s issues, freedom, and rights have always been a passion of thee. Maybe it’s too early for me to call myself a feminist, but still the way I feel when the name of a woman is announced over speakers to star center stage, doing just about anything and everything from giving a speech to awarded an award to giving a lecture is simply priceless.
When I had the opportunity to volunteer in a community service organization for this class, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to volunteer in something women rights and issue related. It was always on my to do list but I never did get to it, until now of course. I volunteered in two women rights organizations, The Egyptian Centre for Women Right’s (ECWR) and Centre for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance Foundation (CEWLA). I felt strongly for one program in each organization after I did my research and paid them a visit. I finally decided to divide the semester to two parts, one month each, so I can fit in both.
I went to CEWLA in the last week of October and the first three weeks of November. I went to ECWR in the last week of November and the first three weeks of December.
In CEWLA, I volunteered in a youth program called “Blossoms of the Future”, that program has many activities and models underneath it; I enlisted myself in a project called “Mini Parliament”. In ECWR, I volunteered in a campaign called “Making Egypt’s Streets Safe for All: Campaign against Sexual Harassment”. Now I will go in details about my experience in both organizations and maybe I can shed a light on many pros and cons I saw.
However, just for objective purposes, this is my account of these two months and my experience through my eyes, so I guess it is only fair for it to be highly subjective.
Centre for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance Foundation (CEWLA) is located in Kitkat, a suburb of Giza govern ate, the easiest way to get there is by metro. I always loved public transport, you never do know how to get the people of any country, or town until you ride as they do. Most of its target audience is women in Kitkat and other nearby Giza suburbs. It started in 1995, simply by campaigns, hitting the streets to issue women national identities and birth certificates, because unbelievably most women in these suburbs do not exist officially. Imagine having to go to a gynecologist to know your age! However now things on the ground are improving slowly but improving thanks to community service outlets like CEWLA, NGOs and other similar organizations, associations, and centers.
That was how it started, later on, they started providing legal assistance to women then actually started taking polls on the ground to see if civil rights laws are really giving women what they need and deserve. The next step was mobilizing through making alliances with other civil society organizations to push for more laws that guarantee women their rights and liberty. It was announced as an official civil society organization in 2003 in accordance to “New Organizations Law” no. 84 that was issued in 2002. The centre had many programs and projects but the one that caught my eye most was the “Mini Parliament Project”.
I was in awe teaching women their rights and getting them ready to be the next woman in parliament, it was a dream. The project consists of three sectors, first, awareness campaigns (What is parliament? Difference between People’s Assembly and Shuraa Council (Upper House and Lower House)? Women’s true presentation in Parliament). The campaign’s methods vary from door to door visits, positioning volunteers in front of mosques, secondary schools, and youth gathering spots (Coffee shops for instance), and online mobilization. Second of all, six-week training program given to young women. The training is diverse from cultural to political to social empowerment. The sessions are twice a week in the centre’s main head quarters, most of the instructors are young volunteers undergraduates or fresh graduates. Most of them are women, which in addition to providing awareness to young youth, stand as a role model to them and sometimes even someone to confide in. The last two sessions introduce new ways to how to pass on what they learned in their training and how to spread the message on. The third and last part of the project is the actual on the ground experience that is provided. That is given through representatives of NGOs that lecture in the centre once a month, providing a real look on how the theoretical sessions apply or don’t on real ground. Diverse NGOs are presented as much as it is possible of course. In addition to that, the centre offers opportunities to volunteer in different NGOs and Political Associations through agreements done with these parties.
I volunteered in schools rounds and assisting in sessions. The school rounds were extraordinary to thee. Government schools I would have never have looked at twice passing by with my car; I actually talked with these people and tried to reach them without letting them run off for the hills. The first time I was wearing jeans and a short blouse and most of them looked at me as if I was an alien from outer space. I used to say I am me and I can’t be anyone else and that’s how I will stay. Now I understand that it’s not really about being yourself, it’s about respecting people with different back grounds and upbringings and knowing that it’s not about you it’s about reaching out to people very different from yourself and getting to them. Therefore, the next time I wore a baggy skirt, a dim colored blouse and a jeans bag (No trademarks of course). That time I actually got through and I think I left a pretty good impression. Two of the girls I talked to showed up in the centre a week later. It was fun and you had an incredible feeling after it, like you really, as little as it was, you had a contribution, left a mark.
Assisting in the sessions was next in line, it was really simple stuff; handing out pen and paper , escorting lecturers in and out, and following with the girls by phone, face book, and emails. It is funny what you can get out of a person if you learn to listen attentively. From what brand of pads to use, to why do parliament candidates pay bribes in blankets and hot meals, to how to deal with an abusive brother or father, questions varied and you just realize that these young girls are dying for someone to trust and pour their hearts out to. It was an amazing experience, I still have many of them on my face book, and I pay the centre a visit whenever I am free.
My second trip or adventure if you would like to call it was to the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights (ECWR). The centre’s is known locally, Trans locally, and internationally. That name and reputation was established throughout the years, through winning the World Bank’s 2000 Development Marketplace Award and one of the world’s 10 Best Development Programs in 2002.
Through allying with more than 800 NGOs and Civil Society organizations locally, rurally, and internationally, it is launching a monitoring centre to collect data on women’s legal rights, political participation, and report problems and violations. The centre will focus on the implementation of current laws protecting women, whether they are sufficient or not. From the functioning of the court and legal Egyptian system to the discrimination women, face daily from court judges, officials, and lawyers. Several Women Right’s Lawyers and Specialists will subject all the data collected to thorough analysis. Advocacy coalitions and Public campaigns will be launched to address all the discriminatory laws and practices discovered.
The aim of this process is to strengthen weaknesses in our Egyptian Legal System that oppress women daily. Because there is no data of such kind in Egypt currently, it is impossible to gauge women’s true status, evaluate the real impact or legal reforms, over see any political promises made, or any NGO or government interventions. Results of that, is that the media portraits women in a light that they have acquired all their rights and complete freedom and that women’s status have been used for political advantage for decades now.
A Monitoring centre like ECWR’s will confront that wrong image with solid data and facts that will lead eventually to similar civil society organizations adopting similar projects and women’s battle against the social norm seen in proper perspective.
Another important aim of ECWR is urging and pushing legislative authorities to reconsider all legislations opposing women related international agreements, at the top of which CEDWA (Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women). A humungous example on that is Personal Status Law Amendments of 1979, cancelled in 1985 under the pretext of being “Gehan Al Sadat’s Laws”! The campaign I volunteered in “Making Egypt’s Streets Safe for All: Campaign Against Sexual Harassment”, started in 2005. The campaign’s main aim is to promote a new culture of respect regarding women and their personal rights, through challenging the the concept of sexual harassment in the eyes of both men and women, and penetrating the taboo that it is not even acceptable to broach the subject in a casual conversation.
Rallying for the concept of accepting sexual harassment as bad phenomena that should be tackled, analyzed, and dealt with paved the way for accepting or beginning to take in other violations against women on the streets, at home, in the work environment, or in the political sphere.
The campaign mobilized in two directions; getting women to break their silence, recognize their rights, and speak out against sexual harassment as a common violation of their rights and at the same time getting the men to support this campaign and address sexual harassment as a social problem in our society. Since 2005, surveys and statistics have shown that a great deal of progress had taken place, in addition to the media catching on and getting more attention and even the “commercial” movie industry caught on producing movies like “678”.
I volunteered in quite an interesting task. Social workers and activists paid weekly visits to police stations and checked their records for any case that has been filed that looks like it could have been a case of sexual harassment. Officers in stations refuse to file cases under sexual harassment and file it vaguely under assault! Even when the victims ask to file a sexual assault, case, which is seldom as our conservative society, condemns and judges those who do so, police officers refuse. So contacts of alleged assault victims are taken, most probably by bribery or scheme and contacted.
Actually, convincing the victims to take action is a whole other story and rare cases do. However, even the ones who do not are offered mental and psychological support and mentoring. It is sad though seeing all these women damaged for life! You do what you can but with every case a pieces of your heart chips away.
Fathers beating their daughters for going to police stations, wives incapable of having any sexual intercourse with their husbands, and young women scared, terrified of men and will be for a while.
Although I saw a lot of pain and hurt, it is comforting to know that if you want to you can change and contribute even if it is in a small way. And I had a Hell of a GREAT Time Doing IT!