Making our own path: Changing the Present, Envisioning the Future

They’re called Dina, Hoda, Basma or Nagham. They’re bright, articulate, inspiring, and most of all, are determined to keep their region alive and thtriving.

« You are the present and the future of this movement », declared Ms Reem Najjar, World Board Member and President of the YWCA of Jordan, just before the Young Women’s Leadership Dialogue of the Middle East RTI officially started.

The Young Women’s Leadership dialogue was officially opened by Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda’s, World YWCA General Secretary, inspiring speech to the participants, in which she encouraged them to be bold and daring in tackling challenging issues.

Throughout the day, the Middle Eastern young women shared their views and experiences on sexual and reproductive health and rights, HIV and violence against women and on how these issues affected them personnally. « If you speak about violence against women in Palestine, some people will laugh at you, stating that the abuse is against the whole people, not specifically women, or will try and excuse the abuser’s behaviour by the political and social stress he’s under. It’s very difficult to raise awareness about women’s rights in such a context » said Ms Arda Aghazarian, World YWCA Board Member and member of the YWCA of Palestine. The problem of political issues overcoming social ones, or being used as an excuse not to promote gender equality (as guest speaker Dr. Ihab Al Kharrat stated, the Middle East is at the bottom of the Gender Equality list, with all countries in the region ranging from rank 100 to 128) is a very real one, and hinders the potential of tackling every issue together in a more comprehensive (and progressive) way. While it’s true that stressful political situations increase the risk of domestic violence, it should not be excused or treated as a fatality, neither should it miss on the special attention that women require during times of conflict, as their bodies not only become battlefields, but as they also bear most of the burden while their men are fighting.

« In all matters of violence against women, whatever form it might take, the woman often takes the blame on herself, and thinks it’s her fault and that she deserved the abuse » states Ms Madeleine Safadi, a volunteer at the YWCA of Jordan. Mentalities of shaming the woman, of holding her accountable if she gets raped “because she had it coming, with the way she dresses”, is seen as an obstacle by most young women present during the dialogue for them to feel really free and fulfilled. They identify economic independence both from husbands and fathers as one of the key to their emancipation.

The issue of Sexual and reproductive health and rights was relatively new for the participants to discuss and the YWLD provided a safe space for them to do so confidently. The participants benefited as well from a presentation made by Ms Maya Gokul, global programme coordinator at SUPPORT, who emphasized the need for young women to learn about their bodies. Ms Gokul’s presentation was met with great enthusiasm. Indeed, many young women did not even know for example that such things as female condoms existed, or that you could get sexually transmitted diseases from your husband in case he had multiple partners. « We need to know about these things, we need to start talking about them to our friends back home » said Rana, a young woman from Lebanon who started thinking about all the risks friends of hers had been through. A lot of underground workshops will no doubt be taking place in homes in Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt.

The issue of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights is a difficult one to broach in schools with peers or even worse, with family. Another young woman from Lebanon shared with us a striking story. While giving a raising awareness workshop in a highschool in Lebanon, she presented the following case study:

“A young woman is at a party. She meets a young man there, and they just go out on the balcony. He tries kissing her, she refuses as she has just met him, and he ends up raping her. Who’s to be held responsible in your opinion?”

All students, both boys and girls, held the woman accountable, on the grounds that “she shouldn’t have went out on the balcony with him”. A sentence that speaks volume on the need to shift mentalities.

HIV is more often than not met with denial, which puts the region at risk of finding itself with an increasing epidemic some years down the line. In 1992, sub saharian Africa used to think HIV was not a problem in the region, as the prevalence was so low, even lower than the current estimated one for the Middle East. In 1994, sub sahara was weeping under the ever increasing pandemic. The Middle East sadly seems to be reproducing the same mistake that plagued Africa. « HIV? We don’t really have it in our countries, it’s not a priority for us, and even if we have it, it only regards homosexuals and drug users ». I’ve heard these sentences so many times that after a while, tired of feeling my blood boiling, I finally blurted out to an elder Lebanese woman « Do you really think people in Lebanon are not having sex? Young people are, and with no education, they’re doing it recklessly. Besides, we do have an injecting drug use problem in Lebanon, not to mention the rate of marriages that in fact imply multiple partners, aka, cheating husbands and wives. Those are the traditional means of the spread of the epidemic, and the less we don’t declare prevention a priority, the more we’re putting our societies at risk ». As much as we can understand that acknowledging these realities is difficult, they should be said, if only to instigate doubt in minds that might sometimes too confidently rely on past certainties.

Sparking the debate around many issues is rather difficult, even in all Arab women meetings, but I’m confident the new generation is not taking everything from granted anymore, and are starting to question truths that they feel are no longer relevant to their day to day reality.

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