The period since the 2011 Arab uprisings has seen an increase in regional instability, with countries in transition dealing with complex social changes. A particular focus for Saferworld has been a project involving women in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, which has sought to discover the causes of insecurity and to empower regional activists to work together, along with government representatives, to increase safety and security for women.
When the regional transitions began, there was a period of optimism when women felt they were able to participate politically. However this period ended all too soon as women found their voices silenced in the public sphere – our 2013 report, It’s dangerous to be the first, showed that women’s political participation had declined because of security concerns. This evidence base was used to continue our work, which attempted to increase networking between women in the region and support their national and international advocacy efforts.
In 2013-14 we continued work with local civil society organisations and government representatives to analyse and address women's safety and security concerns. The range of security issues faced by women is diverse, and includes everything from slander if a woman has a public presence, to gender-based violence, to economic effects if they are unable to travel safely to work or run street stalls. The pressure on women comes from both public and private influences; as one Egyptian woman noted, “How can a woman be courageous and participate in street demonstrations when she is always under threat that her husband can have another wife, can divorce her, throw her out of the home and beat her for no reason?” With similar testimony coming from others across the MENA region, Saferworld organised regional conferences to bring women together to discuss problems in their respective countries. As well as building relationships between women activists at the national level and with policymakers in the region, Saferworld facilitated advocacy tours to present the findings and recommendations to policymakers in London, Brussels, New York, and Washington.
In each of the MENA countries we are engaged in, activists examined specific concerns and have sought to work with authorities to come up with solutions to those problems. In both Egypt and Yemen, for example, there is recognition that in order to have representative policing, there needs to be more inclusion of women. However, there is more to a representative police force than increasing the numbers of women; it would need to be gender sensitive, involving women throughout the entire structure – from decision-making and overseeing and monitoring security systems to providing shelters for women escaping domestic violence to having more women prison officers – as well as tackling the important issue of staff retention in contexts where women working outside of the home is disapproved of.
Saferworld staff and local activists examined concerns around local level policing in more detail in Sana’a, Yemen. Following discussions with the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Human Rights (MoHR), Saferworld and MoHR staff visited police stations to discover some of the obstacles faced by women (complainants and suspects) as well as the challenges faced by local police officers. Common issues to be dealt with were domestic violence, street harassment, and theft. Lack of legal recourse and social housing mean that cases of domestic disputes and violence are often dealt with informally, as ‘social elders’ are asked to mediate, ultimately still leaving women vulnerable. When women are taken into custody, procedures are sped through to prevent them spending too much time in police stations, with successful prosecutions leading to women being moved to the central prison as smaller, local prisons do not have segregated, women-only areas. A large part of the problem is the lack of women police officers – a small team of women police officers are required to be on duty and serve the wider area, making it difficult for them to dedicate time and expertise, and build up relationships in a community.
These findings, along with other research, will inform continuing work on security sector reform in the region. One theme of our project on policing in Egypt will address gender sensitivity and how to improve the responsiveness to women’s concerns. In Yemen, a new project will seek to improve women’s security by supporting civil society initiatives addressing gender, peace and security concerns and conducting participatory research to improve understanding of women's security needs. By working with civil society and linking up with formal governance processes, we hope that women’s voices will once again be included in debates about the futures of countries in the MENA region.