Cairo - Egypt has a long-standing history of feminism, but gender-related problems in the country are far from resolved. Issues affecting society as a whole, including corruption, poverty and illiteracy, affect women in particular.
Egyptian women suffer in different ways. Marriage is sometimes imposed on extremely poor girls by their fathers so that their “economic burden” might be lifted off families’ shoulders. Discrimination occurs at work, and 83 per cent of Egyptian women report being sexually harassed at some point in their lives, as revealed recently in a study conducted by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights.
In cooperation with the EU, Egypt’s National Council for Women (NCW) opened an ombudsman’s office in 2002 to receive complaints from women about the problems they are facing and to work toward solving them. The ombudsman acts as a guide who tries to find solutions for women facing discrimination or unfair treatment. The NCW's establishment of the women's ombudsman was a positive step that enabled the council to communicate–directly–with ordinary women.
However, the fact that the NCW is a governmental organisation affects its credibility, because the Egyptian government is widely viewed as undemocratic and corrupt. Concerns about the NCW were highlighted in a 2004 Human Rights Watch report: "[T]he autonomy of the NCW, which is presided over by First Lady Suzanne Mubarak, is questionable.… The independence of the NCW and its willingness to publicly criticize laws or policies adverse to women's rights is also undermined by the fact that it is housed in the ruling National Democratic Party headquarters."
But the ombudsman is indeed effective, though on a small scale; it works toward solving the problems of thousands of disadvantaged women every year, whereas millions are in need.
Its effectiveness is also limited by an environment characterised by inequality in gender-related laws, corruption and a lack of education about women's rights across the country.
Yet despite this environment, the ombudsman has gained respect as a player who genuinely listens to women and is committed to addressing their concerns.
The independent Egyptian newspaper Almasry Alyoum reported in April 2008 that the ombudsman received 2,047 complaints over three months, of which 414 were personal status- and family-related, as women wanted to file lawsuits for divorce or demand alimony from their former husbands. Given that many such women cannot afford the expense of a lawsuit, the ombudsman offers considerable help by providing legal assistance through its hundreds of volunteer lawyers across Egypt.
The problem ultimately lies with the Egyptian court system, in which such cases take years to resolve. Human Rights Watch and local attorneys point to the bribery of lower-ranking court officials–usually by the men against whom the lawsuits have been brought–as a key problem that draws out family law cases, which already progress slowly due to the small number of judges.
What these problems require is radical solutions reaching to the roots of the problem: corruption, poverty, illiteracy and a lack of awareness of basic rights.
The ombudsman’s office frequently analyses the grievances it receives and provides recommendations to the NCW's legislative committee. This committee reaches out to lawmakers and, in some cases, takes part in drafting new laws or amendments.
While this is a step in the right direction, the NCW should go beyond making recommendations to launching far-reaching awareness campaigns that address these root causes that negatively affect both women and men.
Campaigns must be launched to educate women about the laws that affect them so that they can more successfully articulate their rights within their families, their workplaces and their society.
Above all, NCW must dare to vigorously criticise the deep corruption that is embedded in the regime, because its eradication is central to solving gender-related discrimination in Egypt.
Only then will Egypt begin to address abuse against women.
* Sara Khorshid is a journalist in Cairo. This article is part of a series exploring the evolving role of ombudsmen as conflict resolvers in changing times written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 20 October 2009, www.commongroundnews.org
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