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The No-Nonsense Guide to Women's Rights

The forward, Table of Contents and Chapter 1 are available for The No-Nonsense Guide to Women's Rights on our website. 

women's rights nnThe No-Nonsense Guide to Women’s Rights

by Nikki van der Gaag

February was an eventful month. The demonstrations in the Arab world spread across the Middle East  and continue in Libya as I am writing. And on the other side of the world, with much less attention from the world’s press, UN Women was launched. 

Many of the women who were there for the launch in New York, hardened campaigners and young activists alike, found themselves in tears. Michele Bachelet, former President of Chile and head of UN Women said: ‘The decision to establish UN Women reflects global concern with the slow pace of change. It is no longer acceptable to live in a world where young girls are taken out of school and forced into early marriage, where women’s employment opportunities are limited, and where the threat of gender-based violence is a daily reality — at home, in the street, at school and at work.’ 

I documented that ‘slow pace of change’ in 2005 in The No-Nonsense Guide to Women’s Rights. And it was an Egyptian who wrote the foreword. Nawal el Saadawi has spent her life challenging injustice and oppression. As she put it: ‘Women and the poor, in almost all countries, in the South and in the North – but especially in the South – are subjected to a capitalist masculine system based on power and double standards in all domains of life, economic, political, sexual, religious and psychological; at the global, national, family and personal level…Power and money work together to exploit the majority of people, especially poor women and their children.’ 

I saw this exploitation at first hand during a visit to Egypt. Habiba was eight years old. She had charming smile and lots of curly dark hair. She lived with her mother and three older sisters in a poor area of Cairo. She suffers from cerebral palsy and can’t walk, stand, talk or eat by herself. Her father had already beaten her mother for only giving birth to girls. He tried several times to murder his daughter, locking her in a car in the boiling sun for 10 hours and beating her so badly he broke her pelvis. But Habiba survived. Her mother is now divorced and she and Habiba go to a programme at their local community centre where she enjoys the company of other children. 

Or Iman, aged 11, who is one of Egypt’s 1.5 million street children. Her parents send her to beg on the streets. She is not allowed to come home until she has a certain amount of money. Girls on the street face stigma from the public and from the authorities because any girl on her own, however young, is regarded as a prostitute. Ghada, Iman’s sister, said: ‘The police pick us up because they don’t want us on the street but we go back there anyway in the end. When they take you some are good and some are bad and hit us and insult us.’ 

I know from my work on women’s rights that abuse, discrimination and violence is still the reality of life for many thousands of girls and young women around the world. This is the injustice that Nawal continues to campaign against. It is rarely reported. I would like to believe that UN Women can provide a new focus for change, despite its small budget. I want to believe that this is the start of another revolution, one that might help to improve the lives of girls like Habiba, Iman and Ghada; to ensure that their lives are better than the women of previous generations. 

Nawal herself epitomises that hope for change. Although she is now 80, she was standing alongside the young women and men in Tahrir Square. She said that they  told her to leave because it was dangerous, but she refused to go. ‘I may be 80 years old but I am not going to leave. I have demonstrated against King Farouq in the 1950s when I was a child and against Nasser and Sadat and Mubarak. But I have never seen anything like this and we should stick together. I am going to stay. We are not going to submit.’

But even in the new Egypt, the signs are not promising for women. There are no women on the Constitutional Drafting Committee. The new political parties are made up mostly of men. There is no woman in the cabinet and no proposals for a Minister for Women. A recent Egyptian newspaper had a front page headline: ‘We prefer no woman to be Prime Minister or President’ with a diatribe against campaigns for women’s rights. And one man in a coalition party was heard to say that this was ‘no time to be talking about gender issues’. There could be more of that once the real business was done.

Women’s rights are central to democratic change. Nawal has heard all the anti arguments before. And she has shown that she has staying power. Both she and her husband Sherif Hetata have been imprisoned and exiled. At one point there was a move to deprive her of her nationality and at another to force the couple to divorce. But Nawal would not back down. And she is cheering on this latest and most exciting revolution in her home country. Let us hope that UN Women and others campaigning for women’s rights have the same tenacity. They will need it.


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