CAIRO: “I feel so safe knowing that no one can tell me anymore in the name of society or religion that these are my rights. I can now tell them I know my rights, says one beneficiary of a new program being rolled out across the Arab region.
Arab women, many of whom are illiterate and poor, are learning about their rights from a CD-ROM through the UN Development Program’s (UNDP) Women’s Rights and Children through Access to Information (WRCATI) initiative, launched in 2005.
It helps them answer questions like: “Am I allowed to keep my children during the period of abandonment? and “Can mistreating the children cause the loss of child custody?
Complete with searchable legal text, frequently asked questions, legal forms, and religious ordainment, the CD is designed to answer such questions through a user-friendly composite of all a woman needs to know to protect herself and her children on topics including custody, divorce, labor, adoption, marriage, and abuse.
To different extents, they also include listings for doctors and NGOs the women may turn to if in need.
Lawyers, judges, and religious clerics all engaged in dialogue to agree on the content of the CDs, which go beyond simply listing legal tips.
In order to make the project more feasible, local counterparts were responsible for the content of the CDs. In Egypt, the partner was the National Council for Women.
“Development can’t come from outside, says WRCATI regional coordinator Najat Rochdi, a phrase often repeated by development workers.
The quality of the CDs themselves range from Egypt’s most basic and primitive format, with few listings, interpretations or interactivity, to Lebanon’s highly specific, searchable, and comprehensive site.
Additionally, Egypt has made audiotapes available in order to reach the significant segment of illiterate women in rural areas, and all the countries focus on training intermediaries who can use the CD as a reference point to educate other women.
The website, however (with uploaded versions of the CDs) has often been accessed by those outside the Arab region itself, leading the organizers to think that the information and religious references are also useful for immigrant communities abroad.
Over 3,000 CDs have been distributed in the pilot countries of Egypt, Lebanon, and Tunisia, sponsored by the European Union, and the plan is to roll out the program across the region with new sponsors for each group.
The next countries to implement the program will be Morocco, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories. African ministers too have shown interest in running similar programs in their countries.
Rochdi explains that the initial countries were carefully selected on the basis of religious diversity within the country, in order to see how religion affects women’s rights
In contrast to the usual biases, however, Rochdi says she wanted to show that Islam does promote women’s rights, but that society often misconstrues scripture. Some mosques and churches have even integrated the content into their weekly sermons.
Additionally, having covered the different religions within the initial countries means the program can be used as a model for any other country seeking to implement it.
Rather than having each faith simply providing answers independently, religious leaders and NGOs from all three pilot countries participated in an interfaith dialogue before providing answers, although there are necessarily questions specific to each religion.
A concurrent initiative is the automation of alimony claims, though this has not yet been implemented in Egypt.
“Some women wait two to eight years [to receive their alimony], says Rochdi, while others live with tumultuous marriages out of fear of financial insecurity.
Thousands of community/women support centers were also established to provide a center for knowledge exchange.
In addition to tackling the obvious UN Millenium Development Goal of empowering women, Rochdi says the program is also seen as a way to attack poverty, if indirectly.
“Ignorance means you can’t make good decisions.
Rochdi says the CD’s beneficiaries develop self-confidence, and become more “active players in their communities, often seeking work that they would not have before and becoming better parents.
“Dignity is the most important part of poverty alleviation.
On a larger scale, Rochdi hopes that by showing women the international codes rather than local law, pressure will mount to change the laws or develop new ones.
The WRCATI project was developed under the Information and Communication Technologies for Development in the Arab Region (ICTDAR) program, which runs concurrent projects for youth empowerment, support for the blind, medium and small housing, and e-government.
For more information, visit www.wrcati.org or www.ictdar.org.