While huge advances in women’s rights and equality have been made since the beginning of the millennium, women in many Middle-Eastern and North African countries still face social, economic, and cultural challenges. Fluid transition processes across the MENA region have led to increased polarization within societies, dividing those who are trying to advance women’s empowerment. Ideological, socio-economic, intergenerational, and geographic divides hinder the collaboration needed to empower women’s rights activists to advance their agendas. Moreover, the historical lack of inclusion of men in conversations and advocacy to promote gender equality has sidelined them from active engagement, rather than harnessing their potential as allies.
Acknowledging these difficulties, Search for Common Ground launched a one-year initiative to advance women’s rights through innovative, inclusive dialogue among women’s civil society organizations (CSOs) from different ideological, socioeconomic, and generational backgrounds across the MENA region.
Search kicked off this initiative in May 2016 with a 3-day regional seminar in Tunis, which brought together 26 representatives of women’s CSOs from Algeria, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Palestine, and Tunisia to explore the divisions that inhibit CSOs’ collaboration in each country. The participants shared their experiences advocating for women’s empowerment from within national feminist movements and explored the ways in which collaboration could strengthen the impact of their work. The seminar generated policy recommendations on how to advance women’s empowerment, particularly in the realm of countering violent extremism.
The outcomes of the first regional conference informed national-level dialogue processes in Lebanon, Morocco, and Palestine, which focused on understanding country-specific divides among women’s groups, developing strategies to overcome them, and launching initiatives to promote collaboration. In Lebanon, the women’s groups produced a report offering policy recommendations to overcome ideological divides between the CSOs. In Morocco, a collaboratively advocacy campaign raised awareness for girls’ literacy. In Palestine, youth CSOs partnered with women’s CSOs to hold a series of roundtables examining the generational gap in Palestine’s women’s movement and how young women and men can become more engaged to advance the women’s empowerment agenda.
The initiative concluded with a final regional seminar in Tunis on December 15 and 16, 2016, which celebrated the dialogue processes in Lebanon, Morocco, and Palestine (as well as Search’s previous women’s dialogue experience in Tunisia), provided inspiration for the future institutionalization of women’s collaboration and networks, and resulted in more policy recommendations.