#HearMeToo: Arab Women Raise Their Voices in “16 Days of Activism”

The International Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women on November 25, and the following 16 Days of Activism that are now underway are a reminder that gender-based violence (GBV) is still prevalent throughout the world, and that proactive engagement and education are the only way to eradicate it.
#HearMeToo Arab Women Raise Their Voices in “16 Days of Activism”

Gender-based and sexual violence remain chronic problems throughout the world today despite decades of activism and recognition of the problem. One in three women and girls experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, usually by an intimate partner, according to the United Nations. Women are more likely to suffer violence by someone they know than by a stranger.

The United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women on December 20, 1993, during the General Assembly that year. The UN defines “the term ‘violence against women’ as any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”

The UN lists the following examples of violence against women:

  • intimate partner violence (battering, psychological abuse, marital rape, femicide)
  • sexual violence and harassment (rape, forced sexual acts, unwanted sexual advances, child sexual abuse, forced marriage, street harassment, stalking, cyber-harassment)
  • human trafficking (slavery, sexual exploitation)
  • female genital mutilation
  • child marriage

The genesis of International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women goes back to 1960, when Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered the assassination of the three Mirabal sisters, political activists that opposed his dictatorship. Two decades later, activists at the Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Encuentros marked November 25 as a day to raise awareness of violence against women. A few years after that, the UN officially recognized the date as the International Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women.

In 1991, the Center for Women’s Global Leadership created the “16 Days of Activism” campaign, and it has become one of the longest-running campaigns for women’s rights in the world. It is intended to encourage people to take action throughout the world in the days leading up to Human Rights Day on December 10. The many recent sexual assault allegations and the online public awareness and protest campaigns such as #MeToo, #TimesUp, #BalanceTonPorc, among others, have precipitated this year’s theme: “Orange the World: #HearMeToo.” Throughout the world, workshops, conferences, and events will honor victims of gender-based violence, raise awareness, and advocate the end of GBV.

Throughout the past week, a number of countries in the Middle East and North Africa have held events marking the International Day for Elimination of Violence against Women and the 16 Days of Activism. In Jordan, the UN Women’s organization attended the Speak Up Jordan fair highlighting handmade products made by Syrian refugee women. In the Azraq refugee camp, Syrian refugees created inspiring artwork using the concept of harassment as part of a competition.

On November 24, Morocco marked the start of the 16 Days of Activism campaign with an orange balloon launch over the historic monument of Chellah in Rabat. About 300 people of all nationalities attended the event that featured interactive booths that offered information on the prevalence of gender-based violence.

Egypt marked the campaign by lighting up the great pyramids and Bibliotheca Alexandria with orange spotlights.

One of the most widespread forms of violence against women in the MENA region is female genital mutilation (FGM). According to the World Health Organization (WHO), FGM is the cutting or removal of all or some of the external female genital organs, or the injury thereto for non-medical reasons. The procedure is usually performed on minor girls, is excruciatingly painful, and can lead to severe complications and even death.

According to the UN, 200 million women and girls have undergone FGM worldwide. In Egypt, 92 percent of women and girls between 15 and 49 years of age have experienced FGM. Although some believe that FGM has a tie to religion, typically it has to do more with cultural traditions. The practice is also rooted in inequality between the genders.

The UN views it as an extreme form of violence against women, mostly targeting young girls. There are no health benefits to FGM. While it is typically performed by traditional circumcisers,  some falsely believe that having FGM done in a medical facility is safer. The WHO and the UN have attempted to counteract the practice of FGM through education, community work, and changes in public policy.

Another prevalent form of violence against women is underage marriage. 650 million women alive today were married when they were under the age of 18. 14 percent of Arab girls marry under the age of 18. Child marriage can mean an end to girls’ education and may take away girls’ rights to make their own future choices. According to the UN, girls who marry in childhood have a greater risk of future partner violence than girls who marry later.

Several UN declarations call for the minimum marriage age to be 18. Several countries in MENA have laws governing the minimum age for marriage, but they are not always followed, especially in smaller, more traditional villages. In Iran, the minimum age is 13 for girls and 15 for boys. In Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, and Morocco, the minimum age for girls is now 18.

As violence against women remains a significant problem throughout the world that restricts economic development and the rights of women and girls, it is important to continue to have a day that raises public awareness and recognizes the need to eliminate such violence. Experts and world leaders agree that economic growth and women’s empowerment go hand in hand.  Full equality will not be achieved until gender-based violence is eliminated.