Research shows that women’s organizations and social movements are the key driver of change and progress in the struggle for gender equality and women’s rights. But for their activism to have lasting impact, the politically powerful—those in government and the legislature—must support their cause. Often that cooperation is not forthcoming, and, as the rising trend towards closing civil space indicates, often governments are instead the primary obstacle to progress.
From Egypt to Iran and Turkey, the state is attacking and shutting down civil society organizations (CSOs). Despite these difficulties, women activists in many countries have devised strategies to draw attention to issues of women, peace and security and offer a framework of mutual interest and collaboration for state actors, working with officials from across the spectrum and levels of governance to support their agenda.
In Uganda, a number of national and local women’s CSOs formed a task force and began identifying allies from among different political parties. Head of the Coalition For Action (COACT), Robinah Rubimbwa—a long-time peace activist, poet and feminist who headed the CEWIGO at the time—was among them. “As time progressed,” Rubimbwa said, “it was mainly parliamentarians from opposition parties that proved to be genuinely interested in working with CSOs on this agenda.”
Rubimbwa and the Task Force worked with parliamentarians to increase government funding for the Peace, Recovery and Development Plan for Northern Uganda (PRDP), and later, to extend its life. The PRDP was designed to stabilize the country, reduce poverty and facilitate the recovery of Northern Uganda as it emerged from 20 years of conflict. The Government of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army had agreed on conditions for peace at the Juba Peace Talks in 2006, which became a formal peace agreement. The government designed the PRDP, then, as a framework for peace-building and designing development programs; the state and international organizations such as the UN and the World Bank had agreed on a framework under which reconstruction and recovery programs were designed.
But in the initial phases of assembling the PRDP, major players left women out—of the discussions and the planning. The women’s task force in response lobbied policy makers and worked with the MPs to ensure women’s involvement in planning and monitoring and integrate peace-building, psychosocial support and livelihoods in the third phase of the PRDP—ultimately launching a National Women’s Task Force for a Gender Responsive PRDP spearheaded by Isis-WICCE.
The task force first worked with women parliamentarians through the Uganda Parliamentary Women’s Association (UWOPA). The leaders of UWOPA helped convene small meetings with Chairpersons of key standing committees of Parliament and followed by workshops of groups of 30-50 MPs. “We were able to really help them understand how superficial the design of PRDP was,” said Rubimbwa. “We shared findings of research projects we had done with grassroots women, internally displaced women and women leaders of community-based organizations to enable parliamentarians to hear women’s voices and appreciate their needs.”
This was during the localization of UNSCR 1325 that Rubimbwa initiated, whereby local governments developed local action plans to address conflict, gender-based violence and inequality at family and community level. Governments that implemented the localization program also passed sets of local legislation known as ordinances to address drivers of conflict and GBV—some confronted alcohol abuse by restricting operating hours for local bars; others passed measures to support implementation of the National Children’s Statute by putting in place punitive measures for parents who let or forced their young daughters to get out of school. All the governments involved in the localization program also instituted multi-sector District Gender Committees to oversee implementation of the local action plan, and cascaded the committees to the lower local government levels.
“Later we would select a few MPs to join us for meetings at community level and encouraged them to educate communities on new peace-centered legislation and policies,” Rubimbwa remembered. “By doing this, they became partners in peace building.”
Initially, government officials had contracted a consultant who developed the PRDP without input from women or attention to the specific concerns and experiences of women. The women’s task force changed that. “Our involvement led to integration of women in the national PRDP Steering Committee where we were invited each month to make a presentation,” Rubimbwa explained. “We were able to influence the structure of PRDP progress reports to include actual outcomes and the role women were playing in its implementation.”
The women transformed the PRDP from being about hardware—building structures only—to addressing the “software”—including concerns such as post-conflict rape and defilement and addressing the needs of women and girls returning from captivity and those of most vulnerable internally displaced women. Parliament supported this work further by increasing funding from government for the program and extending it for an additional five years. Furthermore, women were able to establish district based Women’s PRDP Task Forces that became part of the District PRDP technical committee.
“Our advocacy ensured women’s representation in each PRDP related committee formed at any level,” said Rubimbwa, “and thus, PRDP funds started to benefit women. In addition, many women learnt to negotiate with government officials and to influence priorities and budgets.”
The working group’s main challenge was that while many MPs initially showed interest, only a few remained committed and engaged. Others expected allowances from women’s organizations—and when these were not forthcoming, they dropped out. But those who stayed committed were enough to help achieve the objective: a gender responsive PRDP from design and implementation to monitoring and evaluation.
This is tough enough for citizens of a country, but it seems almost impossible for refugees. Yet after being displaced from Syria in 2012, Najlaa Sheekh became the first Syrian woman to engage and work directly with the Turkish authorities on the issues affecting Syrian women.
“I was sick of what I had seen in Syria from war—killing, destruction and displacement. I found women in the street asking for food and basic necessities,” recalled Sheekh. “It pained me to see the women in such a state.”
Beginning with a simple wool knitting workshop in her own home, Sheekh’s first interaction with government came when she went to Suliman Tabsis, then governor of Kielce, to ask for permission for women to sell their products in exhibitions. Tabsis was the first to attend, and he invited numerous officials along. Sheekh continued to build trust with the Turkish government, and within a year the governor asked her to provide a psychosocial support program for refugees in two camps in Kielce.
The program lasted a whole year, with a weekly meeting for women in each camp. As more women flooded in, Sheekh’s house was no longer able to accommodate them all. She reached out to the government again, this time seeking the help of the Mayor Hasan Karaa. “I wanted the project to continue,” Sheekh said. “He told me not to fear: ‘the government supports you and your amazing work.'” Karaa offered a space for the project, paid for electricity and water bills, and provided all supplies needed for the work to go on.
The center, which Sheekh had named Kareemat, meaning dignified women, was the first in Turkey to provide services for economic empowerment, psychological support and legal awareness—as well as a child care section for mothers who needed to take time to learn new skills. The Turkish government eventually asked her to license the organization as an NGO, and Karaa stepped in again to help Sheekh with procedures.
Kareemat also cultivated community with Turkish people. They organized sessions where Turkish officials talked to Syrian women about Turkish customs and traditions to avoid conflict among communities. The mayor attended one of these sessions, discussing pivotal coexistence points for a peaceful society. “The sudden emergence of our activities as helpless refugees made some Turkish women upset,” said Sheekh, “thinking we replaced them, but after the opening of the other centers the crisis was overcome.”
After two years of cooperation between Kareemat and the Turkish government, Karaa decided to transfer the experience and set up similar centers for the empowerment of both Turkish and Syrians. Sheekh had a role there, too: she gave Karaa all the meticulous details that led to the success of her organization. Within a month, the mayor established 11 centers, all cooperating with Kareemat.
In 2015, the Turkish government decided to form a committee for the Syrian community, and Sheekh was appointed head. She started attending ministerial meetings in Ankara when they revolved around Syrian issues, and conveyed any problems the community faced.
Sheekh’s journey was not without bumps. She recounted how troublesome it was for civil society to work with the Syrian government, and how different her experience was with the Turkish government.
“Of course, some officials support our cause merely for appearances and their own interests, especially those belonging to the Justice and Development Party, which supports the Syrian refugee issue,” Sheekh observed. “However, some do help because they truly want to. The strength of a government is in its humanity.”