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Where women are
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 11 - 03 - 2010

The National Council for Women is celebrating its 10th anniversary. , the council's secretary-general, speaks to Reem Leila about her agenda for Egyptian women
Egypt, along with the rest of the world, celebrated International Women's Day on 8 March (Egyptian Women's Day is on 16 March). All branches of the National Council for Women (NCW) throughout the country have been celebrating by holding conferences to discuss women's achievements and problems. The conferences will be crowned by the NCW's headquarters conference to be held after the governorates finish their celebrations. All of NCW branches are exerting great effort in the conferences in order to discuss challenges facing women and the possible solutions.
Women's rights have inched forward in Egypt even though gender inequality remains the norm and the situation has taken a turn for the worse. Throughout the past decade, women have been struggling to accomplish some modest gains in education, labour and political participation.
Despite the gains which have led to cautious optimism, women seem to be lagging behind, especially in the legal field. For more than three weeks now there have been continuous demonstrations held by feminists and activists protesting against the State Council's decision which bans the appointment of female law school graduates to the council's administrative judiciary. The most recent took place on Saturday when hundreds of female members of the National Democratic Party (NDP) demonstrated in front of the party's branches all over Egypt's governorates. To most women and all female activists, the State Council's decision violates the law and the principles of justice. Hence comes the role of the NCW whose mission is to give prominence to women's issues and rights.
NCW Secretary-General says women's advancement is part and parcel of the country's social, economic and cultural development. Women cannot play a role, however, as long as their status continues to lag behind that of men.
Hassan, who described the State Council's decision as "shameful", believes that without women's participation in various fields of life, including the legal sector, there can be no genuine progress. "How can the State Council's general assembly issue a recommendation that contradicts with the Egyptian constitution?" she asked. Enhancement of women's opportunities is, therefore, a national priority.
The NCW is mandated to monitor and evaluate policy implementation in government and non- governmental organisations as well as the private sector, and to ensure the systematic integration of women's issues into Egypt's national plans. The NCW follows up on progress in this field, and verifies whether women are participating in and benefiting from policy decisions.
The council, according to Hassan, is consolidating with all non-governmental organisations which are protesting against the State Council's decision. "The State Council's general assembly has issued recommendations, but hasn't yet taken any final decisions that can be challenged in court," Hassan said.
In 2008, Egypt witnessed the appointment of the first female omda and maazoun (mayor and religious registrar, respectively). A year before, a mass swearing-in for female judges took place. In 2003, Tahani El-Gebali was appointed Egypt's first female judge.
In 2004, a law which allows Egyptian women married to foreigners -- regardless of their nationality -- was amended to allow women to pass on their citizenship to their children.
Despite the council's accomplishments, the NCW is still working towards amending the personal status law and the financial ceiling law. This is in addition to adding a new article to Law 77/1943 regarding inheritance to penalise all those who prevent women or a legatee from getting their rightful legacy. The price to pay would be at least one year in prison and a fine of between LE1,000 to LE10,000. The council is also after improving women's abilities to overcome the difficulties which face them, including violence and abuse, by laws that were changed and by the prevailing culture.
There is relatively low female representation in the management of private sector firms and in senior public sector positions. While women constitute 70 per cent of the labour force at the Ministry of Health, only 15 per cent of mid-level and senior management positions are held by women.
Similar discrepancies are found at the Ministry of State for International Cooperation, where women account for 46 per cent of the total number of employees, and the Ministry for Economic Development, where they account for 47 per cent.
In contrast, only eight per cent of the Ministry of Military Production and the Ministry of State for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs' employees are women. The situation is better at the Ministry of Justice; Egypt has 150 women judges.
Hassan believes that women are no longer marginalised players. They are allowed to make a difference at all levels, from grassroots family and community initiatives to regional, national, and international decision-making. "Accordingly," Hassan says, "the NCW engages across a broad spectrum of interests. The council does not have any direct interests of its own other than to see women in their right position, enjoying the stability and prosperity males enjoy."
The NCW has succeeded in initiating the establishment of equal opportunity units in most ministries to look at issues of gender equality in recruitment, promotion and training. Though these units lack adequate funds and the authority to implement decisions, they are still supporting women. The council is also preparing a comprehensive database of women in managerial positions in order to better target their activities.
The NCW organises continuous guidance workshops to help Egyptian women build political careers. The political empowerment training sessions aim to train participants on legislative institutions, the election process and leadership skills as well as help them acquire knowledge on economic and social issues.
Egyptian women were granted full political rights in 1956. However, social and cultural factors have hindered women from fully realising their rights. "This training, and similar efforts, provides a conducive environment to enable and empower women to participate in the decision-making process," Hassan said.
The training programme is divided into two parts, theoretical and practical. Candidates are lectured by professionals on skills in areas pertaining to drafting and implementing legislation, rules and procedures guiding the election process, as well as election systems overall. Their training includes developing their communication skills, building effective partnerships, managing debates and seminars, and being "impressive" to constituents. This is in addition to enhancing the economic and social literacy of women to compliment the objectives. Hassan pointed out that candidates in advanced stages accompany members of the Shura Council and the People's Assembly to see how they deal with day-to-day political issues.
Hassan also stressed commitment to the socio- economic empowerment of rural women as a means of getting them "to fulfil their potential, and actively participate in the development of their communities" as a way of getting them to be "active agents of change and stake-holders in creating an environment conducive to enhancing the overall status of society."
Hassan added that society needed to show gratitude for the efforts of rural women which are "rarely appreciated". Public awareness of the need to enhance the role of women is growing. Momentum is no longer the result of a knee-jerk reaction to international pressure for greater gender equality but rather originates from recognition of the dynamic role women can play in economic development.
The NCW's 2007-2012 national development plan for the advancement of women adopts a holistic approach, using a scientific methodology, and includes participatory planning and decentralisation in addition to on-the-job capacity building of partners from national agencies responsible for planning at all levels. The planning process was based on an assessment of women's status and the identification of their real needs, from the village to the governorate level.
"Intensive meetings were held between the project team, directors of planning in the governorates and Ministry of Planning experts. During these meetings draft plans were discussed, finalised and adopted by the governorates," Hassan said.
A unified framework was adopted under which each governorate plan outlines programmes and projects, providing descriptions, project objectives, principal and ancillary activities of projects, allocations, sources of financing, the implementing body and the time frame for implementation. The governorates' plans, continued Hassan, cover fields ranging from education, health and poverty- combating programmes to raising women's awareness of their rights and economic empowerment schemes. "The plans also include following up on the implementation of projects according to the set timetable as well as a set of indicators to identify the outputs, results and impact of projects versus their resources and inputs."
The governorates' plans were submitted to the ministries of economic development and local development as well as other ministries concerned to integrate them into the five-year national socio- economic development plan.
Women are not more vocal as secretaries-general of the various political parties, as they constantly need to take prompt action to achieve better representation for Egyptian women at all levels. Women are still underrepresented, whether as members or leaders, in the political parties although there is great scope for increasing their role in these parties. This under-representation is due to a cultural atmosphere steeped in rigid, backward concepts which some people still use against women and the development of a more effective role for them. All political parties must put in place special programmes promoting women's capabilities and contributions.
The NCW has scheduled several meetings with political parties aimed at helping each of them improve the status of women. This will take place through a coordinating committee that will put the parties in direct contact in order to solve the problems facing them.
"The NCW cannot interfere with the political parties' inner policies, yet with proper coordination and changing the prevailing culture in the society which underestimates women's capabilities, everything can be done," Hassan said. Women in Egypt have long struggled to reach positions of leadership. They face different challenges than their male counterparts. "Egypt's future female leaders require knowledge and skill to become active players in the country's development."

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