Progress for Women is Progress for Democracy

There was standing room only as Senators, congressional staff, non-profit organizations, and concerned citizens came to show their support for women’s rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) at a hearing held on women and the Arab Spring.  The hearing, presided over by Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Bob Casey (D-PA), focused on how women have played major roles in the Arab Spring, specifically in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya.  In these countries experiencing major transitions in government, the future of increasing gender equality is still uncertain, and requires help from the U.S. to continue to spread democracy and promote social change.  Senator Boxer put it best when she said,

“Nations cannot achieve democracy and standing peace unless women achieve equal standing.”

Witnesses included Melanne Verveer, Ambassador-at-large for Global Women’s Issues at the State Department, Dr. Tamara Wittes, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs and Deputy Special Coordinator for Middle East Transitions at the State Department, and representatives from non-profit organizations, such as Manal Omar, Director of Iraq, Iran, and North Africa Peace Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Mahnaz Afkhami, President of the Women’s Learning Partnership, and Professor Sandra Bunn-Liningstone, President and CEO of Freedom³.   

 Ambassador Verveer and Dr. Wittes discussed some of the State Department’s programs assisting women in the Arab Spring, such as a voting participation campaign targeting women in Tunisia, supporting newly formed NGOs in Libya, and creating a new region-wide communication and coalition-building program called “Vital Voices.”  While progress have been made, there is still a lot of work to be done to uphold, and continue to establish, women’s rights in these countries.

Tunisia is regarded as one of the more progressive Middle Eastern countries in relation to gender equality.  It was the first to abolish polygamy, grant women professional women’s rights, and establish progressive family laws in the Middle East.  Ambassador Verveer said “Tunisians can be rightly proud of their recent elections,” where women won around 25% of the seats in the new Constituent Assembly.  However, many panelists expressed serious concern that women’s rights and democracy activists on the ground are currently feeling; that the pro-Islamic An-Nahda party may not keep their promises to uphold these rights.   

In Libya, also, there is concern during this transitional time. Afkhami said,

“Prospects for women’s rights and democracy seem bleak at the moment, as the chair of the country’s Transitional National Council recently announced that Islamic law, not secular law, will be the basis for Libya’s new constitution, and indicated that practices such as polygamy would be fully legalized."

Ambassador Verveer noted that in Egypt, there is cause to worry that

“previous gains made by Egyptian women will be reversed and that they will be increasingly excluded from the [political] process.”  

No women were included on the committee that drafted the transitional constitutional declaration.  Even worse, in March women peacefully protesting in Tahrir Square were detained, beaten, and subjected to “virginity tests.” 

Afkhami said that these actions show how

“Egypt and Tunisia are prime examples of countries where progress towards women’s equality may be undone without America’s firm and increased commitment.”  

It is clear that there is not only an opportunity here for the U.S. to further democracy and women’s equality, but an obligation. 

Both Senator Boxer and Ambassador Verveer agreed that the United States’ ratification of CEDAW would increase its credibility to advocate for increasing gender equity for women in the Arab Spring.  It is not only the right thing to do for women who have been fighting tirelessly for democracy, but it is also a good strategic move for the U.S.  Women are a huge part of the transition to democracy, as well as stable peace and prosperity.  Ambassador Verveer illustrated how the United States benefits from these transitions when she said,

“I believe that stable and prosperous democracies in the Arab world will directly contribute to our own national security.”

GlobalSolutions.org was encouraged when Senator Boxer said she would do everything in her power to get CEDAW passed. GlobalSolutions.org CEO Don Kraus noted why the United States adoption of CEDAW is so crucial, saying,

“The United States cannot maintain its leadership on advocating for the rights of women around the world when, by failing to ratify the treaty,  it continues to keep bad company with Iran, Somalia, and Sudan. U.S. ratification would provide credibility to U.S. diplomats when they urge other nations to abide by commitments they made when they ratified CEDAW.  Here at home, CEDAW could be used by U.S. organizations to help address gender issues, including maternal health and pay inequities in the workplace. In the U.S., women still only make, on average, $.78 for every dollar a man earns.”

 Click here to read the full testimony of witnesses at the hearing.

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