Women spring up in Egypt, engage politically

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In the wake of the Arab Spring, women turned out in record numbers for Egypt’s first free parliamentary election in 80 years. Equitas is no stranger to this promising change, having grown strong ties with partners building civic engagement in the country since 2005, including one who has his rightful claim to fame. Akram Amin was on Tahrir Square in Cairo from the first day when what he calls the “freedom revolution” sparked on Jan. 25, 2011, forcing an election months later. Despite the curfew, “people of all ages, men and women, were chanting for bread, freedom and social justice,” says Akram. They were denouncing corruption and repression, and called for democratic reforms and a responsive non-military government. Women played an important role in the events, participating effectively in the demonstrations, voicing their opinion and being part in many ways of the national movement for democracy,” stresses Akram. In the largely conservative and poverty-stricken Menia region where Akram had worked tirelessly over the previous two years to increase women’s political participation with his colleagues of Together for Development and Human Rights Education, many of the women he had trained got involved. In the election that followed, 19,550 women of the 30,000 he reached cast ballots, a resounding success given the region’s 2006 low turnout of 17%. Originally, the women whom Together for Development supported in the region were left out by their communities and local author ties, many were illiterate with no access to education, and traditional practices and harassment limited their capacity to participate effectively in social and political life. “Discrimination against women has had negative impacts over the years on women and their perception of their roles as active citizens,” explains Akram. With a dozen colleagues and field workers, Akram involved women from eight of the poorest communities across Menia, Beni Suef and Cairo slums in literacy classes and life skills workshops centred on economic, political and health awareness. Akram used Equitas approaches “to reflect with them on the importance of their vote and broader participation.” It was following his 2005 experience with Equitas’ International Human Rights Training Program (IHRTP) in Canada that Akram founded Together for Development with colleagues back home to instil a rights-based approach to national civil society efforts on good governance. He came back to the IHRTP in 2012 to facilitate workshops and gain new skills relevant to his work with the women of Menia. Over the years, with the guidance of Equitas, Akram gained the confidence and skills to work more effectively with marginalized women. He empowered them to draw on their rich personal experiences and knowledge to seek their own solutions to the problems affecting their lives. They learned they could make a difference by seizing opportunities for greater social and political participation, not the least in elections. With the new political context, many challenges remain. The new Parliament is wrapped in the cloak of religious conservatism and fewer women are represented. “Our hope is that genuine democracy will be the solution,” says Akram. “Human rights defenders must organize better to weigh on political organizations so all Egyptians are heard.” Equitas is working with Akram and others in Egypt to make this happen.

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