Ongoing Activism Despite Shrinking Civil Society Space

Taking a look back at how the events of 2016 affected women in the Middle East and North Africa cannot be less than exasperating. Failure of the international community in Syria, ever-growing humanitarian crisis and violence in Yemen, and breakdown of the rule of law in Iraq, among many other events in other MENA countries, are not the most hopeful images one could witness. Despite all the challenges, WILPF has never seized to capitalise on the potentials of feminist solidarity, peace building, and advocacy, even amidst conflict settings.

Many believe that change at the international level is a too big and distant of a shot, and that it’s way beyond our reach – but we believe it’s not. Change is indeed a comprehensive and long-term process, whose efforts take long to reap; but it’s not an impossibility. We believe that every effort counts. We believe in the power of bringing feminist activists and women’s organisations together amidst a shrinking space for civil society in the MENA region. We also believe that not fighting for women’s rights in the international fora will undoubtedly expand the space for militarised powers to take over and control.

Below is a couple of highlights from our MENA project in 2016:

A safe space for strategising, capacity building, and feminist solidarity

Since 2011, we have worked with and brought together women activists and women groups from countries experiencing conflict and affected by conflict in the Middle East and North Africa, including Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen. In 2016, we pursued our contribution to the feminist movement building and supported the efforts of local women organisations to build peace and combat militarisation.

This year, we gathered activists from Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen to exchange experiences, share lessons and best practices, in an attempt to set the first building block of a common regional strategy for human rights defenders from these countries.

Engagement with human rights bodies is now needed more than ever

Amidst the ever-degrading faith in international law and the growing distrust towards the international community, bridging the gaps between the local and international levels becomes relentlessly challenging. Despite these complex and difficult dynamics, we have continued to engage with our partners in the international human rights mechanisms. This year highlights one of our most consolidated engagements in the human rights mechanism. We supported ten Syrian partner organisations in their efforts to engage with the Universal Periodic Review of their country at war from A to Z: from building their capacities around submitting a UPR summary report, to holding consecutive advocacy activities in Geneva. And we plan on continuing this cycle of unified action in 2017!

The international community has failed us – but advocacy is still a valuable tool for change

Advocacy is key for WILPF, as it constitutes one of the most substantial mechanisms to recalibrating the political debates on conflict and crisis, and influencing how states conceptualise and address issues of gender, militarism, peace and security. Advocacy is one of our strategic tools because it provides feminist grassroots activists with the opportunity to convey a localised and gendered analysis of security developments to state representatives, diplomats, international stakeholders and the general public.

We do not only conduct advocacy in Geneva, but also make sure that channels in New York are also open for our partners from the MENA region. On the occasion of the Women Peace and Security Debate, we hosted a delegation of women human rights activists from Libya, Yemen and Syria in New York to participate in several civil society events bringing their vast range of expertise in women’s rights, law and justice, documentation and peace building. We facilitated for several events, including a high-level roundtable, a public event, and an interactive dialogue with Columbia University graduate students.

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