Women and peace: challenging structural inequalities in MENA region

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Domestic violence and rape rank higher than cancer, motor vehicle accidents, war and malaria in the global estimates of selected risk factors for increased morbidity, disability and mortality, accounting for an estimated 5 to 16 percent of healthy years of life lost by females aged 15 to 44 years of age (WHO, 2002).

During internal and external conflicts women and girls are in high risk to become victims of rape and other forms of gender-based violence, therefore they are the ones that are most motivated to build and sustain peace.

Nowadays the nature of conflict has changed significantly from what we were used to. We see much more individual extremism at the same time as trust in governments drop worldwide. International community struggle to find ways to resolve these new forms of conflicts. In fact, the remedy for successful conflict resolution and prevention lie in front of our eyes, it’s in our communities and it is WOMEN.

Women are the antidote for conflict as women are the ones that know their community best. This is one of the reasons extremist groups are recruiting and exploiting women as sources to gather intelligence. Sadly, potential of women is still not acknowledged and utilized in conflict resolution and peacekeeping.

Importance of intercultural dialogue

Non – governmental organizations (NGO’s) globally are tackling issues of women’s underrepresentation and gender – based violence. One of those NGO’s is Women’s Issues Information Center, based in Vilnius (Lithuania). We have met with their program manager and lawyerRugilė Butkevičiūtėto learn more about her recent trip to Middle East and North Arfica (MENA) region.

Rugilė told us that in 2018 during her Community Solutions fellowship, she met women from different backgrounds and countries and realized that although women in different parts of the world are different, but they are struggling with the same challenges. One of these were gender – based violence as well as lacking active participation of women in decision making processes.

There is one universal truth, applicable to all countries, cultures and communities: violence against women is never acceptable, never excusable, never tolerable” – United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon 

During her time in the U.S Rugilė developed interest in the subject of conflict resolution and role of women in it. In June, 2019 Rugilė was selected as a part of Europe and North America (EUNA) cohort to participate in United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC)programfocusing on the theme “The role of women in peace-making and conflict prevention”, where she search for ways to build platforms for women to be included in peace processes in MENA region. Between 26 June 2019 and 10 July 2019, the cohort travelled to Casablanca and Rabat (Morocco), Cairo (Egypt), and Doha (Qatar) and met with stakeholders working on different levels in their respective countries on issues relating to the theme of the Program.

We all have stereotypes, some are adopted from our families, others picked up and enforced by society we live in. I wish we would challenge those stereotypes by meeting people and vulnerable groups from different countries that suffer from them and become ambassadors of inclusivity and peace in our community. I am grateful that UNAOC gave me opportunity to come closer to this goal. – UNAOC Alumni, Rugilė Butkevičiūtė


Structural inequalities jeopardizing ways forward

In Morocco Rugilė visited Mohammed VI Institute Training for Imams[1], institution that train Imams from different countries. Their main aim is teaching how to interpret the Holy text of Quran[2]the right way and prevent extremism. To our surprise we found women who were students and trainers at the Institute – said Rugilė. Governments of different countries have quotasfor men and women to be send to this training institution. Women have significantly less qoutathan men, also majorityof women students are not able to become Imams in their respectivecountries.

A young student explained that one of the reasons women could not be Imam and lead prayer is because while leading the prayer they must place their back to the people in the Mosque, which could potentially attract unwanted attention and sexual harassment. Also, according to the student women are the ones who raise the children, so due to this commitment they would not be able to lead the prayer for several hours. This means that women cannot hold certain leadership positions not only due to religious practice or personal choice, but due to structural inequalities such as family and work reconciliation, women carrying the burden of the household as well as gender – based violence.

Having said that, this student also shared that there are women that have children, leave families behind and coming to study in the institute. She said it is all about support of the family, as her father travelled a lot with his work in Nigeria and always told her to go explore the world and learn, so she got two degrees and now is studying to obtain her third. After graduation she said she will go back home and become a leader in her community. She intends to interpret the Quran for women groups in the Mosque as well as talk with them on domestic violence and other pressing issues.

Reclaiming the streets from toxic masculinity

Phenomenon of sexual violence is widely spread worldwide, as well as in the three countries visited by the EUNA fellows. The 2015 UNICEF report found a sharp contrast between boys and girls: in Cairo, for example, 56% of girls experience verbal harassment compared to only 9% of boys[3]and it became clear from the meetings during the trip that young boys are encouraged to harass women and girls in the street to show they are” real men” according to gender stereotypes prevailed in their society.

During her two weeks of travels, Rugilė noticed some good practice initiatives of tackling problems of gender – based violence (GBV), in particularly sexual harassment. One of the examples is  #ZankaDialnamovement in Morocco, a spontaneous citizen initiative that was born in June 2018 out of despair of the situation of women in Moroccan society following the worrying increase of harassment cases, rape and violence towards the women, that demand relocation of the public space for women. This movement was created by three women activists.

I am a 50-year-old accomplished woman that has to keep her head down and be as discreet as possible not to attract cat calling from boys as young as 9-year-old to senior men. I feel safer walking with my own son that is 20 years old. Do you think that is normal?

– One of the founders of #ZankaDialna movement[4]

By exploring the public space, you can feel what is going wrong in the society. Gender-pay gap and gender stereotypes lead to phenomenon commonly referred to as the “feminization of poverty”, leaving women earning much less than men. Therefore, women spend more time in the streets walking and using public transportation. They are the ones who accompany children to school, to sports, to shopping, to work, to laundry, and who take care of their parents. But they do not feel safe, and more women than men experience sexual harassment and sexual violence in the streets. Rather than advocating for separate spaces for women to feel safe offered by the government (which clearly do not solve the problem), the #ZankaDialna movement tackle this issue by creating safe spaces for women and men to share their stories of sexual harassment online in a Facebook group followed by 10 000 active members. They have also initiated infamous silent walks and performances in front of the Parliament in Rabat, Morocco, where groups of women in silence have made statements to reclaim the streets.

This movement is a great example of how women and men in the society could be involved in ending sexual violence and creating safe space for women in the streets. It is important to include men in solving of this issue caused by toxic norms of masculinity in societies worldwide. Gender issues is not exclusive to women alone and without the actions and change of attitudes of men and boys it will be difficult, if not impossible, to tackle deep-rooted gender norms to improve gender equality.

It is also important that after awareness raising campaigns, women, who disclose their experiences of sexual harassment get professional legal, psychological support which is now in some cases is provided by sporadic private initiatives that remain widely unknown for the public.

Tackling gender stereotypes in media

Great example to tackle old advertising staple “sex sells” as well as sexual violence against women is an initiative of the Moroccan Parity and Diversity Committee[5]of the  2M TV channel. They reward the most respectful TV commercial of the image of women with the award, which is an initiative that contributes to promoting a healthy image of women and the ending of sexualization and objectification of women in media. The Committee also attract women to share their stories of sexual harassment and feature them in the media to show the magnitude of the phenomenon. 

If women are being portrayed as strong, they are viewed as “crazy” women, so we wanted to raise awareness by introducing this award” – Khadija Boujanoui director of The Parity and Diversity Committee[6]

Views on intimate partner violence 

Global estimates published by the World Health Organization (WHO) indicate that about one in three (35%) women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime[7]

My son, 23 years old, with his friends called me and asked: if I am in bed with my girlfriend and she says she doesn’t want to have sex, what should I do?I said: NO is NO. Even after 26 years in bed with my own husband if he would require sex and I say NO, it is still a NO  – Women rights activist in Morocco

Legislation play an important role in eliminating intimate partner violence and laying the grounds for development of infrastructure of support for survivors of GBV. Women rights activists argue that having laws are not enough. E.g. in a survey conducted in Morocco, more than 54% of Moroccans acknowledged the equality between men and women, but when asked if wife and husband should have the same rights in marriage, in the same survey, 50 % said no. So, there is a need to tackle gender stereotypes and challenge traditional roles of women and men in society to be able to implement passed laws.

There is still a huge stigma existing around intimate partner violence in the societies of all three countries, and women are reluctant to talk about thee violence to their friends and report it to law enforcement authorities. There is a lack of institutional support for organisations providing support for survivors of intimate partner violence and victims do not have sufficient funds to go to therapist, and in addition, GBV is still perceived as a fault of a victim. This social context of GBV prevail in the different societies, and in turn this prevents governments from taking an active role and actions ensuring protection of victims by adopting necessary laws and creating infrastructure.

Women also lack information on services for survivors of intimate partner violence as these services are sporadic, unknown, and supported by private initiatives and funds rather that the government. There are good practice initiatives to inform women on their rights, e.g. National Union of Moroccan Womenthat work towards eradication of poverty of women by empowering them to build their own economic wellbeing as well as tackle illiteracy and train women on how to access their rights as well as talk about GBV.

During some of the meetings, perceptions unravelled that Islam is being used as an excuse for intimate partner violence, derived from different (usually personal) interpretations of the Quran. Also, for many years there was a problem of women being illiterate (especially in the rural areas), so they relied on interpretations of the Holy text made by men. This issue of misinterpretation is tackled in all three respective countries visited by the EUNA fellows: Morocco, Egypt and Qatar, where religious institutions such as the Mohammed VI Institute Training for Imams in Morocco, the Al-Azhar Islamic Institution in Egypt are working with future male and female religious leaders, training them on how to properly interpret the Holy text to avoid wrong presumptions and dangerous interpretations. However, as has already been mentioned, there are still improvements to be made in terms of women’s role in those interpretations.


Calling to reread and redefine Quranic concepts regarding women to rediscover the egalitarian spirit that motivates the spiritual message of Islam, in order to analyse and understand questions about women and men in our contemporary context. – Asma Lamrabet

As already mentioned, women are to a high degree subjected to the consequences of conflict and they are also the ones that know their community and its problems best: therefore, women are the missing remedy to conflict resolution, prevention and sustaining peace worldwide. Because of stereotypical roles in the society, women have and are still not given a chance to use their power to lead their nations and their communities. When asking about women in leadership positions during the different meeting the answers were “We have a lot of women in education” and “You see a lot of women in schools and in the streets”, which is problematic since it, on the one hand, sees representation as equal to gender equality which is not always the case and on the other, because it neglects all the women who are not able to get leader positions, or regular with equal pay, because they are women.

There is a need to stress the importance of role models, and the fellows met a lot of influential women leaders, who indeed are true role models in their society that young girls and boys follow. These women are the voice of human rights, they work to bring peace to their communities, and they need to be trusted and placed in power positions where they can actively participate in peace processes within and outside their respective countries.

photo: Academy for cultural diplomacy 

On competence of women in politics

“They always use a card that competence is important. I say that look at our country, community’s world, we struggle with economy, hunger, situation is bad. Who is in power? Men are, so who is responsible? Men are. If the situation is so bad for years and years, maybe let’s give the floor to women and see how they do. Women are driven by love to their communities and societies. Also, women are more educated and there is no base for that”

On how to encourage women to vote for women

 “When my mum was 15 her husband died, she was left with a bunch of small children, with no money, so she empowered them to seek for education, children became doctors, pilots and etc. Is it bad management? It is not. That is the management our country need! – Moroccan politician Nouzha Skalli

Ways forward

The UNAOC Alumni network represents community leaders from different countries in the EUNA and MENA regions, and this is a great resource for sharing good practices regarding the creation of safe places and opportunities to actively engage women in peace processes. In turn, the Alumni network could work together with different actors identified throughout the fellowship (NGO’s, government organisations, interfaith organisations etc.), through intercultural dialogue, to support local initiatives for women empowerment.

As Maya Angelou once said “When you learn, teach, when you get, give”. Therefore UNAOC fellows are now spreading the knowledge gained in MENA region in their respective communities back home, bridging the gap between different cultures and encouraging peace and acceptance of others in their communities.

More information on the fellowship: www.unaoc.org


This article reflect views of the fellow Rugilė Butkevičiūtė and in no ways it represents or reflects position of UN and UNAOC. 


[1]Imam – is an islamic leadership position.

[2]Qur’an or Koran, is the central religious text of Islam

[3]UNICEF (2015), National Council for Childhood and Motherhood, “Violence against Children in Egypt Report.”

[4]#ZankaDialna movement 2019

[5]The Parity and Diversity Committee was created in 2013 with the mission of fighting stereotypes and clichés in the media of the 2M group. Clichés that are reproduced and broadcast totally unconsciously and automatically in television programs and commercials

[6]The Parity and Diversity Committee, 2M TV, Morocco

[7]Global and regional estimates of violence against women: prevalence and health effects of intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence, World Health Organization, 2013 [Accessed, 22th July, 2019]

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