The Arab region — a diverse grouping of 22 countries in the Middle East and North Africa — ranks lowest in the world on both the 2017 Global Gender Gap Report and the Women, Peace and Security Index. Patriarchal societies, growing conservative movements and lack of political will to move towards gender equality are driving the region towards a backlash against women’s rights and freedoms.
Sexual and reproductive health and rights in the Arab region, particularly family planning options, remain highly contested terrain, often subjected to restrictive family laws. Socio-cultural and religious beliefs contribute to a situation where women and girls are largely unaware of their rights and unable to access the services and care to which they are entitled.
In Lebanon, for instance, abortion is illegal unless it is done to maintain the honour of the woman or her family. Male relatives are excused from punishment if they force female family members to abort. There is no comprehensive sex education in schools, and information on sex is obtained online — often through pornography. Marital rape is not recognized as a crime because religious leaders said it would “destroy the social fabric of the family” — which, by consequence, must be built on a man’s entitlement to his wife’s body, regardless of her consent.
“Socio-cultural and religious beliefs contribute to a situation where women and girls are largely unaware of their rights”
In Somalia, women have six children on average — and lack access to contraception. In Jordan, abortions are not permitted in cases of rape or incest. In Egypt, many women are not allowed to be present during the negotiations for their marriage — and as such cannot ask for certain rights as part of the contract. Women must have permission from their male guardian to get married, and 87% of women in Egypt have experienced female genital cutting.
In conflict contexts, the situation is even more severe. For instance, in Syria, women and girls are increasingly forced into trafficking, sexual slavery and prostitution in order to survive. And in Iraq, ISIS recently restricted women’s access to birth control in order to boost population growth. This is demographic warfare, waged on — and in — women’s bodies. Additionally, Yazidi women continue to be trafficked and raped.
The start of a global movement
Worldwide, sexual and reproductive health and rights are on the agenda more than ever. These rights — specifically access to family planning and abortion — have been highly contested in recent years and are under threat. Without access to safe services, the lives of women and girls are at risk.
Restrictions on women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights gave birth to a global political movement called SheDecides that seeks to build a world where every girl and woman can decide what to do with her body, her life and her future. SheDecides was created as an immediate response to US President Donald Trump’s reinstatement of the Global Gag Rule — also known as the Mexico City Policy — which prevents NGOs outside the US from receiving money from the US government if they provide safe abortions or information about abortion.
This resulted in an immediate outcry from many groups, governments and individuals. Initiated by the Dutch Minister of Foreign Trade and International Development in early 2017, Lilianne Ploumen, SheDecides became a rallying call for leaders to stand up as a matter of urgency to protect the rights, health, safety and livelihoods of millions of girls and women around the world.
Building on local knowledge and norms
Given these global challenges, for an Arab SheDecides movement to succeed it must have a strong structure, including local leadership, local knowledge and economic support. Sexual and reproductive health and rights cannot be disconnected from the wider women’s rights agenda. Only a comprehensive combination of rights across all sectors will ensure that women and girls in the Arab region can in fact “decide”.
“Sexual and reproductive health and rights cannot be disconnected from the wider women’s rights agenda”
In the region, there are many obstacles that keep a woman or girl from deciding for herself, and little precedent for her to do so. As such, the SheDecides movement cannot be based on any assumptions of a woman’s ability to absorb — and to act on — this message. In order to have meaning, it must first ensure that women have the agency and independence necessary to decide.
An Arab SheDecides movement must therefore be grounded in local knowledge and context, and must include a comprehensive living skills program. Such a program should empower women with the tools and technical skills necessary to earn and sustain financial resources, and create space for women and girls to speak for up for themselves, their rights, and their bodily integrity. Critically, it must make sense for those who view their rights within an Islamic framework.
“It must make sense for those who view their rights within an Islamic framework”
Women’s empowerment and gender equality are the best predictors of future stability — and the strongest chance the Arab region has for sustainable development. The Lebanese American University’s Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World, which I am the director of, will be critical to this movement. The Institute advances women’s rights and gender equality through education, research, development programs, and outreach at the intersection of academia and activism. As such, it is well placed to take on the challenge of leading the rollout of an Arab SheDecides movement.
But one organisation cannot do it alone: together we must mobilise to ensure that the SheDecides message has meaning to every woman and girl in the Arab region. — Lina Abirafeh
(Picture credit: Flickr/USAID)