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IFES Launches Project to Empower Women in the Middle East


The Status of Women in the Middle East and North Africa (SWMENA), a project to improve the legal, political and social standing of women, is underway. IFES, the Institute of Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) and the Canadian Parliamentary Center (CPC), the partners in this endeavor, hope that the project will remove some of the roadblocks to women’s self-empowerment in the region.

The project consists of two parts. The first step is to collect and analyze data about the rights and opportunities that Middle Eastern women have in the political, legal, economic, health and societal realms. This information will help determine what areas SWMENA will focus on as well as what gaps exist in the information available so that they can be filled. This component makes SWMENA unique as advocacy organizations often work on any issues without learning which require the most attention.

In order to compile an accurate account of women’s status in these arenas, a number of indices will be developed. The political participation indicators, for instance, will combine existing data on women in leadership positions with a new survey on perceptions of the role of women in society and their ability to be influential in the political sphere. The legal barometer will analyze how much protection is offered to women by the current laws and whether these laws are enforced. Economic opportunity will be assessed by looking at labor force participation and how much women contribute to household income.

"The data generated from the SWMENA project will, hopefully, be used widely by those advocating for the rights and well-being of women in the Middle East and North Africa to improve the status of women.  Not only will this project produce hard facts that can be used in advocacy and media campaigns aimed at sensitizing the public and providing policy makers with much needed statistics to work on policy reforms affecting women, it will show women where they stand as members of society, whether they are progressing as citizens of their countries, and perhaps give them a common goal under which they can unite and work towards an improved situation," says Ambar Zobairi, IFES program manager for the Middle East and North Africa division and the manager of the SWMENA project.

The second part of the project consists of strengthening the capacity of local NGOs that work on women’s issues so they can better promote the causes that will improve women’s standing.  This will be done by sharing the information acquired with the NGOs, teaching them how to interpret the data and how to use it in advocacy campaigns that target policy makers.

The countries the project will begin in are Lebanon, Morocco and Yemen. The data collection and the knowledge of local NGOs working on SWMENA will help determine the areas of greater need in each country. A quick assessment of the countries SWMENA will begin working in has revealed that in Lebanon, women make only six of the 128 parliamentarians, and only one of the 30 ministers. The Lebanese project might, therefore, examine reasons for the low participation of women in politics. In Morocco, it there is a very low number of girls being schooled in rural areas. The project might investigate reasons for low support for girls’ education in the countryside. In Yemen, the project might examine ways to eliminate laws that currently discriminate against women.

Over the years, IFES has found that local advocacy organizations often have little communication between them. This precludes them from taking advantage of a common pool of information and resources. SWMENA hopes to help reverse this trend by promoting collaboration between NGOs.

It is also common for foreign NGOs to inadvertently leave the countries they work in without having trained the locals to continue the projects on their own. To ensure this is not the case with SWMENA, IFES, IWPR and CPC will at first work as coordinators between the local NGOs. Overtime, the SWMENA partners will shift the main responsibility to in-country organizations so that they can continue conducting, analyzing, disseminating, and using data to inform policymaking and practice on their own.

The SWMENA project is funded by the Canadian International Development Agency.