From March 3-15, Middle East and North Africa Program Team Program Officer Zeina Zaatari, and Program Associate Bessma Mourad traveled to Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates for a trip to learn about issues facing women in the region and the various movements that are growing; and to introduce individuals and organizations to the work of GFW. While the region is well known for its resources and wealth, very little is directed towards women’s rights work. Our grantmaking in the Gulf region was close to non-existent, except for few grants in Iraq and Yemen. In 2005, we made our first grant to the Bahrain Women’s Society. Since then, we have been networking and researching avenues of learning more about current issues, women’s groups, and ways to do effective grantmaking.
After a long struggle for women’s suffrage in Kuwait, which began in the early 1950’s, women were able to exercise their new right to vote and run for election for the first time in May 2006. Women had a very short window of one month to prepare and run for the emergency elections held in May. Even though no women won, in total 30 women ran for election. During our trip we had the opportunity to meet with two of the candidates, who described the struggles and challenges that they faced while campaigning in a traditionally patriarchal society and where women’s political participation had been severely curtailed for years. While the recently acquired political right was at the forefront of many groups’ agenda, we also learned extensively of the issues facing the bidun community in Kuwait. The bidun, which means “without” in Arabic, are a large population who carry no nationality, and therefore have no access to state programs such as education, health, vaccination for children, most employment and other state resources. In particular, some women’s groups are addressing the rights of Kuwaiti women who marry non-Kuwaitis, and lose many of their rights, as they are unable to pass citizenship on to their husbands or children.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is currently undergoing rapid transformation and growth, as it is becoming a major hub of international business. Most of our discussions with women’s groups, professors, and activists were based around the migrant worker community, as a majority of the population in the country is non-Emirati (approximately 85-90% are foreign workers.) From working in homes, to those working in factories, migrant women face numerous violations to their rights. In one visit to a women’s shelter in Dubai, we learned the wide range of violations facing women; from physical and mental abuse by employers, to absconded women who are now caught in the legal system. The shelter houses 20-30 women, of different backgrounds and religions. Legal and psychological counseling is provided, and new programs for vocational training are being created. Despite the challenges of civil society organizing in the UAE, efforts are being made to support women’s rights, and the need is evermore apparent at this time.
Read Kavita Ramdas and Maria Luisa Sanchez's Op-Ed in New York City's Spanish language daily, El Diario, on the recent abotion law passed in Mexico City. If you prefer English you can read the piece on Alternet or the Huffington Post.
During a recent visit to the United States, María Suárez, co-founder of Global Fund grantee Feminist International Radio Endeavor (FIRE) and Global Fund advisor, visited the Global Fund's office to share with us how media can nourish conversations that support democracy.
"These visits have always been at important thresholds in my own life, and at important moments in the Central American women's movement," she said. "I want you to understand the importance of the Global Fund for all of us in Latin America, and I can speak on behalf of women in the world, because I do feminist radio all over the world. The Global Fund is a reference for us not only because of what it is doing, but because of the way it does it."
When Maria first met the Global Fund, it was 1991. FIRE was a small organization in Costa Rica, funded by one individual who envisioned what seemed almost impossible at the time - a short-wave radio station that beamed women's voices over the airwaves, uncensored. The impetus for this bold idea came from an experiment at the recent UN women's conference in Nairobi. An unofficial women's tent became the site of critical, unprecedented conversations between women from countries in conflict with one another. Women from Palestine talked to women from Israel; women from the United States sat down with women from Soviet Union; women from Nicaragua exchanged ideas with women from the United States.
In 1991, when the Global Fund learned about this radio station, we funded it, becoming the first foundation to do so. Another visit at a critical juncture came in 1998. FIRE could no longer do the short wave radio broadcasts from Radio for Peace International, the home of its programming since the beginning. FIRE re-evaluated its work and came up with a new plan.
"We came to the Global Fund because we wanted to create the first Internet radio station for women in the world. This was a time when women in Central America weren't listening to the Internet, and didn't have the resources for a radio station. People told us that we'd need a million dollars, but we knew that we would do it for $25,000." The Global Fund believed they could too.
Since FIRE's inception, the Global Fund has awarded the ground-breaking media organization $135,000 to support women's voices and perspectives. Over the years, FIRE has taped and broadcast live at UN and international conferences such as the World Conference Against Racism in South Africa, and the UN Conference on Human Rights. Committed to presenting alternatives to militarization and corporate-dominated globalization, the group has covered events such as 1000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize 2005 and the 2006 Great Lakes Institute on Women Building Peace and Good Neighborliness, which brought together African women from DRC, Kenya, Sudan, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi. In line with its strategy to connect all the women doing community radio all over the world, FIRE broadcasts their programs, and supports the media development of other women's groups, by providing training on how to produce radio and communications materials.
Like so many of our partners-grantees, advisors, donors and board members, Maria Suarez is involved in a number of projects and social movements to advance women's rights. This latest visit showcased highlighted her most recent threshold-not just for herself personally, but for the Central American women's movement and her home, Costa Rica.
In partnership with Guadelupe Urbina Juarez, who joined Maria on this visit, she is writing and producing Wings of a Butterfly, a multi-media theatrical show that blends music, history and images. The product of research and reflection, the show highlights women's invisible and undervalued contributions in disciplines as varied as physics, systems biology and environmental science. Emphasizing the message that we need art and media that affects all our senses-that touches our rational mind as well as our emotions, and sparks us to action-Guadelupe Urbina Juarez picked up her guitar and began to play. Her voice, an ocean wave of sound, filled our conference room. At the same time, pictures and poetry were projected onto the wall; images of Mileva Marec, the little known brilliant mathematician and wife of Einstein, and Rosa Parks, civil rights heroine, and Lucy - the oldest hominid skeleton ever unearthed. By documenting and reclaiming women's knowledge and role in advancing our societies, the play seeks to fortify women's confidence in their ability to participate in shaping the future of their countries.
"Our country is an endangered species," Maria and Guadelupe said when we asked why this play and the ideas that it conveys are so important. And we need a population that is thinking and engaged to save it. Much of what has made Costa Rica a role model for democracy has been placed at risk because of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and other economic policies. For the past 60 years, Costa Rica has been a country without an army. Maria explained that when the decision was made to dismantle the army, Costa Rica created a social system dedicated to providing services for people and protecting human rights. In addition, Costa Rica safeguarded the commons, which includes the environment (of which 60 percent is protected), and the notion that electricity, telecommunications and water belong to the society, and should not be privatized. Costa Rica developed a constitution and political process that established a space for people to work together to improve their nation. This is what has allowed the women's movement to achieve constitutional amendments that protect women's rights.
To push against the adoption of these free trade agreements, which set the stage for privatization of public services and weapons building in Costa Rica, there has been unified protest among the social movements, including women, churches and academics. A recent report by the Statistical School of the university of Costa Rica stated that 60 percent of Costa Ricans do not want CAFTA ratified. Thousands of people have taken to the streets to call for Costa Rica to pull withdraw support for CAFTA and instead negotiate separate bi-lateral agreements that will honor Costa Rica's constitution and a democratic process that takes into account the voices and perspectives of its people.
As we go to press, we learned that as the next step of her transition, Maria will turn over leadership of FIRE to Katerina Anfossi Gómez, so that she can devote more time to Wings of the Butterfly.
Betty Makoni, founder of Girl Child Network in Zimbabwe was named the winner of the annual World's Children's Prize for the Rights of the Child this week. Makoni, founder of the Girl Child Network in Zimbabwe, was also awarded the Global Friend's Award for her work to help Zimbabwean girls escape trafficking, sexual abuse, child labor and other assault.
"I won't say it's my dreams coming true, because dreams shouldn't come true that fast. I have a long way to go and I have a great commitment," said Makoni.
The awards were set up in 1999 by the Swedish Children's World Association to recognize the outstanding contributions of those who defend youth rights.