Functional workshop: Realizing the Vision of the International Women’s Democracy Network (IWDN)
October 15, 2012

IWDN Session, World Movement for Democracy, Lima, Peru, October 2012

Organizer:
International Women’s Democracy Network, http://www.iwdn.learningpartnership.org
Moderator:
Mahnaz Afkhami, Iran (Women’s Learning Partnership Founder& President)
Presenters:
Network members will provide updates on women’s political and civic participation in their respective countries and regions, focusing on opportunities for and challenges to the full realization of democracy:
Lina Abou-Habib, Executive Director, Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action (CRTD-A) (Lebanon)
Selima Ahmad, Founder, Bangladesh Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BWCCI) (Bangladesh)
Perry Aritua, Executive Director, Women’s Democracy Network Uganda Country Chapter (Uganda)
Masuma Hasan, Board President, Aurat Foundation; Chairperson, Pakistan Institute of International Affairs (Pakistan)
Soraida Hussein, General Director, Women’s Affairs Technical Committee (WATC) (Palestine)
Mma Odi, Executive Director, BAOBAB for Women’s Human Rights (Nigeria)
Andrea Romani, Program Officer, Cidadania, Estudo, Pesquisa, Informaçao e Açao (CEPIA)
(Brazil)
Atifa Timjerdine, Vice-President, Association Democratique des Femmes du Maroc (ADFM) (Morocco)
Betty Yeoh, Programmes Manager, All Women’s Action Society (AWAM) (Malaysia)
Rapporteur:
Layla Moughari, USA (International Women’s Democracy Network Coordinator & Women’s Learning Partnership Program Associate)

IWDN Session, World Movement for Democracy, Lima, Peru, October 2012

Summary:
The International Women’s Democracy Network (IWDN), a functional network of World Movement for Democracy (WMD) and whose secretariat is housed at the Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP), convened its fifth meeting during the WMD’s Seventh Assembly. Moderated by WLP President and CEO Mahnaz Afkhami, the session included a short history of the Network; an overview of recent achievements, including advances in women’s educational attainment worldwide, and for Network members, a new website with regional resources and new social networking pages; updates from Network members—the session heard about women’s political and civic engagement in Bangladesh, Brazil, Iran, Lebanon, Malaysia, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine, and Uganda; and a discussion of next steps and priorities for the Network, including how to expand its reach.  Also during the session, participants utilized WLP’s forthcoming toolkit Leading to a Culture of Democracy: A Handbook for Women in Transitioning Societies, which draws on numerous strategy sessions organized by WLP, held over the course of a year on advancing women’s rights during democratic transitions.
The panel heard from Network members about achievements and challenges faced by women all over the world, including successful advocacy campaigns, quotas and political advances, attacks on reproductive health, the rise of fundamentalism, and the obstacles of illiteracy and lack of access to education.
  • Specifically, Betty Yeoh spoke about successes in Malaysia: through the women’s agenda, women were able to secure quotas and relax draconian laws that have ultimately increased freedom of movement. Women’s rights activists continue to advocate, not just for increased rights but also for voter rights and environment issues.
  • In Brazil, the women’s movement has made significant contributions to civil society and democracy, largely focusing on reproductive rights, access to land, and labor issues, according to Andrea Romani.  Brazil recently elected its first woman president, Dilma Vana Rousseff, which reflects a changing of the times.  However, in terms of formal political participation, women are vastly underrepresented.
  • Lina Abou-Habib spoke to major policies that would further women’s rights in Lebanon: 1) reforming nationality laws so that women receive the same citizenship rights as men, 2) implementing laws to protect women from domestic violence, 3) implementing quotas to increase women’s political participation, and 4) reforming family laws. Implementation of the aforementioned policies is difficult due to opposition by powerful religious groups. In Lebanon, the women’s rights movement must remain vigilant and politically active.  Women need to continue to mobilize, raise consciousness, hold leadership positions, and maintain the right to challenge religious institutions.
  • Selima Ahmed reported on her efforts to create the first women’s chamber of commerce in Bangladesh, which works to encourage women’s equal decision-making in the home.  Ahmed stressed the need for additional female entrepreneurs and the importance of building women’s economic capacity.
  • Soraida Hussein of Palestine explained that the women’s struggle in Palestine is closely tied to the fight against occupation.  Though the movement is also working to increase women’s rights within the Palestinian government by advocating for family law reform. Palestine already has a quota system in place and the education gap between women and men is very small.
  • Mma Odi spoke of the many challenges facing women’s political participation in Nigeria, including cultural constraints, such as “women should be seen and not heard,” and the high-cost to form political parties.  However, when Nigerian women do come together and mobilize, their efforts are successful.
  • In Iran, prior to the 2009 elections, the status of Iranian women’s civic and political engagement was among the strongest in the region.  The women’s movement gradually moved away from factional politics and focused largely on legal reforms, while simultaneously engaging civil society.  Today, women are bearing the brunt of the political uncertainty, economic sanctions, and the threat of war.  This environment has forced the Iranian women’s movement, along with other civil society groups, underground.
  • Masuma Hassan stated that in Pakistan, the greatest need for women is to enter the political mainstream. To do this, Pakistan should implement political quotas, create an environment where women feel comfortable taking leadership roles and being active in the public sphere, and encourage more women to run for office. The greatest threat to women’s rights in Pakistan is the rise of political religion.  The women’s rights movement should revise its strategies to respond to these challenges.
  • In Uganda, 35 percent of the parliament in comprised of women and Rebecca Kadaga is Speaker, one of the best individuals to hold that position, according to Perry Aritua. On the other hand, political structures must be strengthened and low-levels of education and literacy among women hinder access to equal rights and opportunities.
  • According to Atifa Timjerdine, in Morocco, the women’s movement is working towards progress, but is held back due to high levels of maternal mortality, illiteracy, and low-levels of educational attainment. Building alliances and coalitions has proven a successful tool for the women’s movement in Morocco.

IWDN Session, World Movement for Democracy, Lima, Peru, October 2012

During the second half of the session, IWDN members tested four sessions from WLP’s toolkit on advancing women’s rights and resisting backlash, breaking out into four groups to discuss 1) the meaning of democracy; 2) alliance building; 3) the impact of religious fundamentalism on women’s rights; and 4) women’s political participation and integrating women’s rights advocacy into larger democratic and civil society movements.  Each group chose a rapporteur to report their conclusions to the larger group, concluding the following:
  • Democracy is based on the concept of equal citizenship and must include women’s equal participation for it to thrive. In order for democracy to be truly representative, women and others who have been traditionally excluded from power must be included. Quotas are often a useful tool to achieve this goal over a period of time. However, it is not enough for women to merely have political representation. Rather, elected women must adopt an agenda which advances women’s rights and democratic principles in general. Furthermore, universal human rights are a core element of democracy, which cannot exist in their absence.
  • Fundamentalist religious groups are becoming increasingly politically empowered in many countries. Therefore, democrats and activists must analyze and address how these developments affect women’s rights. It is critical that those seeking to advance women’s rights enter into national debates and discussions being influenced by these extremist forces. However, women’s rights activists must not be reactive, but we should instead define and follow our own agenda, while at the same time making our voices heard vis-à-vis the agendas of other groups. If we are silent, we will be overtaken. We must oppose censorship and refuse to be silenced.
  • Each local context must be analyzed in addressing the challenges and opportunities for advancing women’s rights and full democratic participation. In many countries, a woman’s identity as part of another group – such as indigenous groups –has a significant impact on her ability to realize her rights.
  • Impediments to systems of justice disproportionately affect women and are among the many factors that have adverse implications for women’s rights.
  • Forming alliances is key to achieving our ends. We must include men’s voices and work with male advocates for women’s universal human rights and to realize full citizenship rights. Teachers have a strong ability to shape society, and thereby must be engaged as allies to advance gender equality and encourage girls to take on leadership roles. Women politicians must work together and should be supported by civil society groups to advance a shared agenda. Critically, women rights groups must form alliances and work with other democratic and social justice activists both to advance democratic platforms and to obtain support by these groups for women’s rights and women’s political representation.
Afkhami concluded the session by reiterating the points and conclusions set-forth by the rapporteurs.  She requested the support of the WMD and asked to see these values represented by WMD itself, and other democratic civil society organizations across the globe. Additionally, Afkhami stated that we need culture change. Women’s issues are not just “women’s issues,” but include a wide range of areas that impact all levels of society. For society and democracy to thrive, we must advance cultures that embrace full gender equality, tolerance, and participatory leadership, which recognizes the full rights of all citizens.
Finally, IWDN pledged to circulate among the group the session report and WLP’s toolkit Leading to a Culture of Democracy: A Handbook for Women in Transitioning Societies to solicit feedback and to continue the conversations that began at the Seventh Global Assembly.

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