A few days ago, I arrived at Dulles airport to a crowd of demonstrators cheering and waving signs with messages like “Muslims are loved!” and “Welcome ALL refugees, immigrants, and visitors!”. I was proud to see the continued support for people impacted by the U.S. President’s recent executive order that temporarily barred entry into the U.S. to refugees and people from seven Muslim-majority countries.
This travel ban came up often in my conversations with women’s rights activists in Morocco and Tunisia over the last two weeks. Through an exchange with the Professional Fellows Program implemented by Hands Along the Nile Development Services and sponsored by the US Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, I had the chance to meet one of our Alliance members in person and begin building new relationships with other organizations that fight for equality. They expressed concern about policies that promote fear instead of tolerance, but rather than get discouraged or angry (like I was feeling about the travel ban) they shared strategies and lessons they’ve learned from successfully advocating for human rights in their own countries.
The advocacy efforts shared by these diverse organizations all followed a similar path:
- Step 1: Connect women together and turn them into activists;
- Step 2: Collect activists in strong, sustainable civil society organizations; and
- Step 3: Make sure women’s priorities are heard.
Step 1: Connect women together and turn them into activists
One morning, I had the pleasure of spending time at a workshop with the leaders of the co-operatives of Reseau Femmes Artisanes, a network of women’s handicraft collectives in Marrakech, Morocco. They shared how participating in their co-operatives and joining together in the network has changed their lives, has turned them into activists. They’re now able to network with other women and share their skills with a new generation.
One co-op leader, Saida, said that her goal was for the network to grow bigger so that there would be more possibilities for other women. She wants to help other women affected by violence and discrimination to find jobs and build better lives. “We want to be a model for other women,” she said, to help them come together and be independent of men.
Another co-op in Tunisia shared the same sentiments. Situated in a rural region with few opportunities for women to create their own income, Groupement Féminin de Développement Agricole d'Oued Sbayhia allows women to build their independence, learn and apply skills, and provide a model for other women. One member said that even after many years, her husband does not approve of her participation. She said that she’s not stopping, though, because the co-op provides too much good for the community and is helping break down barriers that hold women back.
Step 2: Collect activists in strong, sustainable civil society organizations
Once women’s rights activists get together in co-operatives, associations, or organizations, it is still challenging to find allies and partners so that you’re not working alone and so that your advocacy is most effective. Sarah from Association Tanmia said that in Morocco “there is little networking here, associations don’t know each other.” Tanmia fills this void by providing a networking space that connects NGOs throughout Morocco and offers support to improve their capacity, visibility, and advocacy. Tanmia’s website is one of the most visited in Morocco, laying claim to the vibrancy and sustainability of Morocco’s civil society organizations.
The Tunisian Association for Management and Social Stability (TAMSS) also works to build sustainable institutions. TAMSS’ Lylia said, “We have a responsibility to share our knowledge” with other civil society organizations.
Step 3: Make sure women’s priorities are heard
Women Thrive Alliance member, Association Ennakhil, in Morocco is doing impressive advocacy to help women access their rights and improve laws and policies that impact women. Despite the great work Ennakhil is doing to ensure women’s priorities are heard, they highlighted a challenge that other organizations also shared: the need to support female political leaders.
LET, the League of Tunisian Women Electors, improves the ability of women to effectively participate in public affairs, especially in politics, as voters and candidates. As a feminist organization, they help women to know their rights and reinforce the capacity of women leaders. They also observe elections to ensure fairness and parity and work with political parties and government offices to make sure women’s priorities are heard and heeded.
The work by organizations like Ennakhil and LET was reinforced by a chance encounter I had when I met with some female parliamentarians in Tunisia. The parliamentarians shared with me that while Tunisia has the highest proportion of female representatives in the Arab world, there is still a lot to be done to ensure equal rights for women and men, especially in politics. One remarked, “We have a dream to see more women in government. Tunisian women must lead now.”
These are the stories from just a few of the organizations I visited. I spoke with many other activists who shared their experiences in advocating for human rights and gender equality, from promoting cultural exchange, to making schools more inclusive, to fighting for democratic reform. Their work may differ but their lessons are universal (and timely): when women are connected, they are powerful.