Hibaaq Osman campaigns to end violence against women in North Africa and the Middle East
In many countries women are active participants in the political process and have made progress toward some economic equality.
However, women’s rights to life, to physical integrity, to health, to education, to freedom from violence, remains largely unfulfilled.
Nowhere is this more evident than for women living in poverty.
International Women’s Day, March 8, is an occasion marked by women’s groups around the world.
On the occasion of the Day, Al Jazeera interviewed Hibaaq Osman, the founder and chair of Karama, a regional movement of activists collaborating across eight civil society sectors to end violence against women in the Middle East and North Africa.
In 2002, she was appointed the Special Representative to Africa, Middle East, and Asia for V-Day, a global movement to stop violence against women inspired from Eve Ensler’s play, The Vagina Monologues.
Osman was in New York attending a UN commission on the status of women.
Al Jazeera: Global activists have often complained of challenges in translating good will into action. What are these activists up against?
Osman: Without the full and active participation of girls and women and the incorporation of their needs and concerns, UN meetings will not have much substance.
Without their perspectives on all levels of decision-making, the UN’s goals of equality and development cannot be achieved – no matter how many conventions are ratified, no matter how many resolutions are signed. It’s a reaffirmation that without the participation of women, a commission on the status of women would not be here today.
Their needs and interests must be taken into account because it’s an integral ingredient for democracy to properly function. It’s their very pain and strife that can bring us together in solving global problems.
How have conventions and UN resolutions helped the status of women around the world?
They touched bases with the issues of violence targeting women at a conference in Nairobi in 1985, but governments didn’t really negotiate on how to stop such atrocities within their own countries.
The Vienna World conference on Human Rights in 1993 was a watershed moment for women’s rights because it was the first time for people to start realising that women’s rights are an entirely special set of issues, recognising abuses like violence of all kinds targeted against women.
It was only through intensified efforts of women’s rights groups that brought along more change, they are the ones who can take a lot of the credit of transforming goodwill to action. So it’s no longer alien to talk about women’s rights.
But women’s rights are still lagging in so many countries, such that women can’t drive in Saudi Arabia or women who run for public office in ultra-conservative societies like parts of Pakistan are targeted in honour killings.
What concrete steps can governments do to drive social and institutional change?
Governments can enforce women’s rights from the best document there is, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw), an expert body was that was established in 1982.
It’s a fantastic guideline that can really put governments in check on how to ensure that their women feel safe and protected.
Therefore it’s a matter of education, governments need to invest in their children so they can utilise what their country has to offer. They need to put an investment into empowering their women.
It’s not just about building 10 schools and saying, “hey – I did my job”’ it’s about making sure the government can protect them on their way to school, making sure that they get jobs after graduation, that they can enter all levels of employment their country has to offer.
And you see stories like that happening in Egypt and Kuwait where it’s possible for women to come out on the top.
But then there are governments who assign their women political positions but they’re just trying to do some “PR” for their country, like in Zambia when they boast about how 20 per cent of their national assembly is comprised of women.
But then you talk to these women and they don’t even know the first thing about how to change policies in their own country, or the obstacles they would have to face simply because of their gender.
Governments need to facilitate and maximise the role in women, not just pretend they’re doing so.
In Egypt for example, there are mechanisms for monitoring the government’s commitment to Cedaw, and then delegations are sent to New York to report on what their government has done and what they haven’t done.
What should women’s rights organisations focus on within the next decade?
It’s hard to say because so long as there is war, there will be poverty, so long as there is poverty, women’s rights will always be an issue.
The onus is really on the governments and NGOs to come together and fight what unfortunately seems to be a trend within the human condition, and NGOs will always have to focus on ending violence against women.
The stronger and more homegrown these efforts are from a domestic level, the stronger of a role the international community can play in solving global issues, and it’s the international community who has more control in fixing these issues.
When international organisations are better informed, the policies they come up will affect everyone alike.
One of the reasons why I set up the Arab Women’s Fund was to help women in the Middle East to find the resources to change society in their own way with their own agenda cause it’s different everywhere.
The Netherlands, Norway and EU are the most generous when it comes to women’s rights. The US even has some of the best private organisations.
But I really think the UN’s Millennium Development Goal-3 (MDG3), which is a global call to action in promoting gender equality around the world promoted by the Dutch ministry of foreign affairs, is a great idea.
The Netherlands came up with the money and other donor governments to give NGOs around the world the resources they need to finance gender equality and invest resources for women to do their work and fund their groups.
After a certain period of time, they look at the results. These are matters worth praising.
Do you think a woman could become a president in the Arab world?
Why not? I’m extremely optimistic.
Women can’t be afraid of running for political office, nor should they be afraid of finding the resources their country might offer in helping them help themselves.
If Barack Obama could become president of the US, why can’t a woman in the Middle East be president? You have to be optimistic because hope, optimism, faith - these things are the catalyst for change.
Like Ellen Sirleaf, she had no idea she’d be the first female president of Africa, let alone, Liberia. But she made it. A female Arab president - that’s just a matter of time.
Women are on the move for bringing change, not just in the Arab world, but everywhere, and nothing can stop us.
Media reports show an increase in the trafficking of women in the sex trade, with some countries used as conduits. What do organisations such as yours do to raise awareness of this issue?
This is a decisive issue for women’s rights. If we were to legalise prostitution for example, the sex trade would increase, if we were to keep it illegal, then women will continue to be beaten, enslaved, etc.
Everything goes back to poverty and I think that women should always have a choice at the end of the day.
I absolutely believe that when you’re living in Europe or other privileged parts of the world, you’re in a position to believe that sex trade is something that women are forced into, but that’s precisely because people say this from privileged areas.
But when you’re living in these poor countries, and you try and put yourself in their shoes, and someone offers you money, of course they are tempted. Surely, no mother would sell their kids in their own right mind, but their minds aren’t right.
Poverty is so bad that it drives them to do things that we normally would not. And if we don’t resolve poverty as a global challenge, then we’re going to have the problem of sex workers constantly popping up in all parts of the world.
It’s a lucrative business, unfortunately.