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On October 25, the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, with Vital Voices Global Partnership and the Project on Middle East Democracy, hosted policy advocates from the Vital Voices’ Policy Advocates for Women’s Issues in the MENA Region program, which brought together representatives of the public and private sectors and civil society to embark on advocacy campaigns to improve the lives of women in their home countries.

The event discussed the campaigns with four policy advocates from Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan who, with the support of MEPI, conducted unique advocacy campaigns on women’s rights in the MENA region. These teams, despite challenges and difficulties on the ground, managed to work through one of the most uncertain times in the history of the Middle East and North Africa.

The auditorium was packed and you could feel how people were eager to finally hear from women about how and what they managed to accomplish trough this transitional and challenging time in the region. When Brookings Senior Fellow Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy and moderator of the panel, asked how forming alliances, collaborating with men, and networking helped the women overcome their challenges, the answers were unanimous. Engaging men, forming alliances across private and government sectors and networking with other teams were crucial to advance the campaigns. 

Randa Naffa, one of the leaders of the SADAQA campaign in Jordan, was highly successful in raising public awareness about a law in her country that mandates companies provide daycares for their employees’ children.  Randa said that the lead supporter of her campaign was a man, the Minister of Labor, who joined the campaign’s awareness walk. But she also stressed that progress will not take place if women are not included in the society.

Lina Ali-Ahmed, co-founder Lebanese League for Women in Business, focused on advocating for women’s rights in the workforce. Through networking with other policy advocates teams in the region, Lina said she discovered that lack of public awareness was a common problem faced by many teams. Lina explained that one of the biggest challenges is the political situation in her country along with the belief that working on women’s issues is “not a priority, but rather a favor.” She added that Vital Voices provided a networking and support platform for the teams. Unlike other funders that grant money and wait for results, “Vital Voices was always there, all along, to provide support,” she said.

Marianne Ibrahim, co-founder and executive manager of Egypt’s Al Gisr Center for Development, explained that in the current climate, the civil society is excluded from building the future in Egypt. “Women rights are not a priority right now,” she said. “It is women’s battle in the region because they are the first to be affected.” she said she will continue their campaign because once the constitution is written, it is basically over. “Other positive changes might be short-term, but the constitution is long-lasting.” She explained. She also emphasized the power of Vital Voices network. “Vital Voices gives the opportunity to meet other amazing women to feel empowered,” Marianne said. “When you get to know women from different countries that have similar circumstance, you feel very empowered.”

Souad Slaoui, founding member Isis Center, worked on ending underage marriage in Morocco. With her team, she managed to raise awareness about problems related to child marriage. Souad explained that not only men believed in their cause, their campaign was headed by a man and targeted the entire population to raise awareness among both men and women.  She explained that meeting other policy advocates teams helped her a lot. “Networking [among teams] allowed us to learn from each other,” Souad said.

One of the most touching and perceptive questions for the panel actually came from the audience. It was simply: What inspired you to do the work you do? The women’s answers differed widely, but provided an insight into how their different journeys led to the same common goal.

For Marianne, her dad is the person who pushed her to do more. She explained that instead of complaining and being upset at the situation in her country, he encouraged her to take action and this is when she formed her non-profit organization. Lina said that when she met other MENA businesswomen through a MEPI project, she was inspired to start an organization to support other Lebanese businesswomen. Randa explained that she comes from a progressive family with ants and a grandmother who worked on women’s rights. She felt it was her duty to continue on the same path to ensure that her children have a better future. Souad, on the other hand, described her family as conservative with a mother who was herself married at 13, which influenced Souad deeply. But Souad’s husband support encourages her to continue her work.

Even though The Policy Advocates program grant ended on October 31, 2012, many of the campaigns are still running and the teams are still working hard! This program was a catalyst that encouraged women in the MENA region to take a lead in shaping civil society and the future of the region. It proved that women can and are leading change in MENA. “The Arab woman is much more powerful than anyone could expect,” Slaoui said.

If interested in reading more, Vital Voices has published case studies documenting each campaign. These case studies tell the stories of each of those teams, showcasing their amazing achievements and their challenges.