Gender Concerns speech at EU Parliament in Brussels

(Sabra Bano, second from left, in Brussels on Monday. Photo courtesy of EU)

Text of speech by Ms Sabra Bano, Director of Gender Concerns

at the European Parliament in Brussels on 17 March 2014

The event was a roundtable and an interactive dialogue on International Observation of Egypt’s Referendum - Challenges Ahead " held at the European Parliament in Brussels. The event was hosted by the Global Network for Rights and Development (GNRD) and Eija-Riitta Korhola, Member of the European Parliament (MEP). The aim of the conference was to explore the findings and recommendations of the international observers on the Egyptian’s new constitutional referendum and the challenges that lay ahead for the Egyptian’s parliamentary and presidential elections.

Speakers included Mr Jacek Włosowicz, MEP, Mr Maged Mosleh, Deputy Chief of Mission of the Arab Republic of Egypt in Brussels, Mr Ala Abu Dakka, Programme Manager, GNRD-Brussels and the hosts of the event Mr Ramadan Abu Jazar, Director of GNRD-Brussels and the Head of the GNRD's observation mission to Egypt and Ms Eija-Riitta Korhola, MEP.

‘On International Women’s Day, just nine days ago, the EU High Representative Her Excellency Catherine Ashton expressed that “where women prosper, societies prosper”. With this notion in mind, I am honoured to be here today to speak about Inclusive Electoral Participation in the context of the Upcoming Election in Egypt. My name is Sabra Bano and I am the Director of Gender Concerns International. I firstly wanted to extend my sincere thanks to Eija-Riitta Korhola MEP and the Global Network for Rights and Development for having me here today as we approach the topic of the Challenges Ahead given the International Observation of Egypt’s Constitutional Referendum.

Gender Concerns International works towards gender equality with specific focus on increasing the political participation of women. In 2005, we campaigned for the first Egyptian female candidate Nawal Saadawi. Having undertaken multiple Gender Election Monitoring missions internationally, including many in the MENA-region, we hope to undertake a future mission in Egypt. Thus, GNRD’s findings are warmly welcomed and will be considered in our future projects. I would like to praise all the wonderful work you have undertaken in Egypt.

With Eija-Riitta Korhola MEP here today, I would like to also acknowledge the European Parliament for their constant support to our organisation. On 8 March, in coordination with the European Union, we launched our Dastoor project in Libya focused on achieving gender-inclusive constitutional drafting and implementation. This occurred on the 103rd International Women’s Day, which had the theme of Inspiring Change.

This theme, Inspiring Change, permeates through the entire MENA region, as countries continue to transition into democratic states. After the Arab Spring, our organisation has had an increased focus on the MENA Region. As democratisation occurs, there is a real chance for change to achieve gender equality in these nations. Timing is crucial. Essentially, women’s participation is imperative in a stable democracy. Only with the equal representation of men and women can gender related issues such as discrimination, child care, education, political representation, rape, domestic violence and divorce law be addressed. A gender-balanced society is a strong, prosperous and fair society for all.

Therefore, with the upcoming elections in Egypt, it is highly important to include women in electoral processes. In 2011 when anti-government protest began in Tahrir Square, women bravely played their part in the protests against Mubarak. The women of Egypt have been instrumental in the revolution – but their equality, namely in the political sphere, is far from a reality.

That said, following the failure of the parliament elected in 2012 to make significant women’s rights reforms, Egypt was under significant pressure from women’s rights organisations. Feminists had seen the elections as an opportunity to push for gender equality. In response, Egypt passed a more gender equal constitution into law on 16 January 2013.

Gender Concerns International was pleased to see the development of Egypt’s new Constitution, which will provide increased protection of women’s rights. The constitution, winning 90% approval, is a commendable step to support Egyptian women’s empowerment. The Egyptian Centre of Woman Rights issued a statement about the new constitution, calling it “a victory for women’s rights."

These 2013 amendments include Article 6 which guarantees women’s rights to full citizenship. Furthermore, there has been a shift in terms of women’s involvement in decision-making processes. According to Article 11, measures will be taken to ensure “women are properly represented in representative assemblies,…, and shall guarantee women the right to hold public office and the highest administrative roles in the country, [including]… judicial bodies and authorities, without discrimination.” Also, Article 180 clearly stated that women are entitled to a 25 per cent of seats at local councils. This means that out of 54,000 seats, women are to be represented in 13,000 seats across local municipalities.

However, the real issue relates to how these amendments are implemented.

In 2011, I remember being in The Hague, hosting a high level international consultation on International Women’s Day with women in Egypt. They were optimistic and enthusiastic about the Women’s March they were attending later that day. While we waited for a news that this event went on successfully, world watched with much sadness and pain. On that very International Women’s Day, Egyptian women were assaulted right at the Tahrir Sqaure. Shocked and disappointed they dispersed, but later these women returned to Tahrir Square to occupy their space as they saw it fit.

That is, in the revolution, women’s participation was welcomed and needed. But when it came to women asking for their rights, and for an open democratic space, there was no tolerance for equal rights. Egyptian women, supported by organised and effective women’s rights organisations and civil society, seek and deserve the basic rights of involving themselves in elections – not only as voters, but as electoral candidates.

That is why inclusive electoral participation is so crucial in Egypt. However, electoral inclusion is a complex and a sensitive issue and requires political consensus and genuine resources. In monitoring elections, as the GNRD has acknowledged, there are various challenges and issues to consider. These include ensuring females are voting and are aware of elections, complying with national electoral management bodies, and issues surrounding security forces in planning, conducting and management of the elections.

In our previous election monitoring missions in the MENA region we have found that female voters are not equally represented. In our recent Libyan Constitutional Drafting Assembly election monitoring on 20 February, our Electoral Assessment Team observed significant differences between male and female voter participation rates. In comparison to the 2012 General National Congress elections that we monitored in Libya, in which 45% of voters were women, the percentage of female voters has declined slightly. In Tunisia in 2011, we found that women voted actively but we recommended that the electoral institution guarantee the parity of men and women. In Morocco in 2011, we were not satisfied by women’s participation in the voting process. We recommended focused awareness campaigns to encourage women to vote. If women are not voting, then democracy is threatened and minorities and women are not represented.

Additionally, inclusive political participation needs to be supported by Electoral Management Bodies. These bodies are central to the inclusivity of elections and politics. With various stakeholders invested, we hope these bodies will consider the recommendations of other observer missions and implement changes in the interest of achieving gender-equal elections.

There are also issues surrounding the security forces in planning, conducting and managing the elections. Given our experiences in the General National Congress in 2012 in Libya, we found that prior to the elections, there was a slight concern regarding to security and how many security agents would be women. The presence of female security agents in an Islamic context is important to ensure that women voters feel comfortable, both physically and culturally. It is especially pertinent in security-afflicted areas and to ensure that women are able to be clearly identified under full face veils. Furthermore, there have been many occasions where women in other electoral processes have been subject to electoral violence and harassment by other male voters and security forces. However, we found that in Tunisia, problems with security were kept at a minimum. Observers reports revealed that a high number of female security agents as well as male security agents were present in almost all of the stations. In Morocco, we found that there was a need to include women among security and police officers in the voting centers.

These issues of equal female participation, compliance with electoral management bodies and gender-balanced security forces are important in an Egyptian election context. Inclusive Electoral Participation, particularly for women and other minorities, is a clear “Challenge Ahead” in the International Observation of Egypt’s Constitutional Referendum. Women must be equal in political participation. As the theme of the 103rd International Women’s Day expressed on the 8th of this month, women can Inspire Change. They are catalysts for change. Change to ensure women have a political voice. Change to ensure engagement in a strong women’s and civil society movement. Change to achieve equality, justice, peace and development.

In the revolution, Egyptian women’s voices were strong and this voice must continue to loudly resonate throughout Egypt’s democratic transition and as the constitution is implemented. In the pursuance of democracy, gender equality is crucial – because all voices must be heard. Looking towards the future with optimism and hope, we can work together to achieve our common goal of a gender-inclusive electoral participation in Egypt’.

Sabra Bano

Director, Gender Concerns International