Tunis — Tunisia's First Lady Mrs. Leila Ben Ali, and the Chairwoman of the Arab Women's Organization (AWO), gave an interview to United Press International (UPI) agency.
Mrs. Leila Ben Ali reviewed the achievements accomplished in the first stage of the Tunisian term of AWO's presidency to promote the conditions of Arab women and strengthen their capacities in various areas.
She also emphasized the qualitative change made by Tunisian women who hold today leading positions in all political and economic decision-making institutions and in public life, thus becoming full-fledged partners in the nation-building process.
Tunisia's First Lady also stressed the importance of establishing quotas, which act as positive discrimination, to help achieve equality and partnership between men and women. She highlighted the need to increase contribution of civil society, with all its component parts, to promote women's status and strengthen their role.
Mrs. Ben Ali addressed the phenomenon of violence against women, underlining that this scourge cripples the development process and excludes half of the society.
Mrs. Leila Ben Ali called, in this context, to tear down the wall of silence to face up to this phenomenon, insisting that AWO will be at the forefront of the forces working to prevent and eliminate it.
She also spoke of Palestinian women's sufferings, pointing out that her initiative to create an Arab Commission for International Humanitarian Law, under AWO's aegis, is an evidence of the indefectible solidarity of Arab women with Palestinian women.
Here's the full text of the interview:
Your presidency of the Arab Women Organization has constituted a qualitative leap that has led many observers and others concerned with women's issues to feel optimistic about the possibility of enhancing the process of Arab women action. How do you assess what has so far been achieved in this regard?
I would prefer that somebody else assesses what has been achieved during the first stage of my mandate at the head of the Arab Women Organization. I prefer not to enumerate achievements, as I am more concerned with what has not been accomplished yet, or what is being accomplished. It is to be pointed out, first of all, that the Arab Women Organization was created with the aim of unifying efforts for promoting the situation of Arab women, achieving further co-operation among Arab states and joining actions to increase women's capacities in all fields and all positions. I am convinced that we are on the right track, and that the Tunisian presidency of the Arab Women Organization has consolidated and enriched this orientation, and has conferred more efficiency on it.
When I assumed the presidency of the Organization, I did not start from scratch. My action was, in fact, based on already existing achievements and assets, the fruit of the efforts of the First Ladies who chaired the Arab Women Organization before me. Since I was handed over the presidency of the Organization by Her Highness Sheikha Fatima Bin Mubarak, President of the UAE Women's Union, I have buckled down to pursue action for improving and promoting the conditions of Arab women in line with our societies' expectations and ambitions.
To go back to your question, I do not hide my deep appreciation of the large consensus we have reached during the 4th meeting of the AWO Supreme Council, held in Tunis last June, concerning the choice of "Arab Women : An essential partner in sustainable development" as a theme for the 3rd AWO Congress, to take place in Tunis in October 2010. This choice reflects a growing awareness within the Arab Women Organization as to the important role of women in the development action in Arab countries and their active involvement in the systems of work and production. This meeting was, for us, an opportunity to suggest the establishment of an observatory on social and political legislation relating to women in Arab countries. For we are aware of the importance of legislations in laying the foundations for qualitative changes in societal realities, cultural structures, behaviors and mindsets, which can only accelerate the pace of social modernization.
Mention should also be made of the adoption, on December 20, 2009, by the Council of Arab Ministers of Social Affairs, of our initiative for proclaiming an "Arab Elderly Day", to be celebrated on September 25th of each year. This reflects the response of the system of joint Arab action to the proposals of the Tunisian presidency of the Organization. As part of the attention we give to the issues of societal and family realities related to women, we have published a general documentary work that addresses violence against women and the ways and means to fight this scourge at the cultural and legislative levels. A large number of Tunisian and Arab men and women researchers contributed to this work. As I stated in the preface, this book lays the ground for a wider and more comprehensive strategy that we are actually committed to establishing and implementing, in order to preserve the dignity of Arab women and consolidate their rights. The 3rd AWO Congress, to be held in Tunis next October, will be the opportunity to launch the Arab strategy to fight violence against women.
I also believe that one of the main achievements of the first stage of our mandate at the head of the Arab Women Organization is the effective establishment of the "Arab Women Commission for International Humanitarian Law", which held its first meeting in Tunis last February. According to the results of its constitutive meeting of which I took cognizance, this body will endeavor to establish the policies and programs of action that can help spread the culture and knowledge of International Humanitarian Law. This will help create a supportive and secure societal environment for women. For our countries cannot be secure if half of society feels threatened and insecure. No doubt, this commission will help provide an Arab vision for women's human security that is in line with the relevant international vision.
We will pursue action to anchor the concept of human security in the Organization's programs and policies. We have also organized training sessions, conferences and seminars which have made of the cause of Arab women a civilizational challenge that we have to achieve if we want to really win the battle for reform, development and modernization.
This is part of what we have achieved during one year of the Tunisian presidency of the Arab Women Organization. We hope, and we are endeavoring to make sure, that we will achieve more and better in the future. This will certainly be the fruit of a collective effort within the Organization, and a true reflection of the will driving the First Ladies members of the AWO Supreme Council to enhance the performance of the Organization and further reinforce its mechanisms, presence and prestige.
There is unanimity around the fact that Tunisian women have accomplished qualitative gains, thanks to progressive laws and legislations that have made them aspire to full-fledged partnership with men. Do you think that these gains have had their impact on the realities of women given, for example, their presence in decision-making positions?
Since Independence, Tunisia has striven to promote gender equality and to anchor and consolidate women's rights by developing the relevant laws, particularly the Code of Personal Status established by Leader Habib Bourguiba, since the country's independence, and promoted by President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali into a constitutional principle; it being a national gain that should be preserved.
Various mechanisms, plans and programs have been established to open up new prospects for women and encourage them to develop a sense of initiative and be involved in all areas of public life.
Today, Tunisian women hold advanced positions in all institutions of political and economic decision-making. They are effectively present in all spheres of public life and in all fields of material and cognitive work and production. This has elevated them to the level of effective partners in national construction in all its dimensions and components. Such qualitative leap in the life of Tunisian society finds its practical illustration through figures and indicators that match those of deep-rooted democracies. Tunisian women currently represent 27.52% of the members of the Chamber of Deputies, which is higher than the average rate of industrialized Europe (17.4%) and much higher than the Arab average (8.2%). Women also represent 16% of the members of the Chamber of Advisers, the second Parliamentary chamber. This evolution acquires more significance if we know that before the Change of November 7, 1987, women's presence in Parliament did not exceed 4.26%. Moreover, 15% of the members of government are women.
As regards local democracy, the percentage of women in regional councils of Governorates amounts to 23%. In municipal councils, the percentage increased from 16% in 1956 to 27.4% after the latest municipal elections of 2005 (857 female municipal councilors, including 5 mayors). Moreover, women hold 23% of high-ranking administrative positions. They also represent one-third of judges and over one-third of lawyers and university teachers. The rate of women's participation in the associative fabric has also increased during the past couple of decades as women now represent 42% of the members of organizations and associations, and 20% of the managerial staff. There are about 140 women's associations acting in various developmental, social, economic, cultural, sports and political fields. As regards work and production, women currently represent 27% of the working population. The increase of the number of businesswomen and female heads of enterprises, currently 18,000, reaffirms the fact that Tunisian women are today one of the pillars of the development process, an active element in economic life and a powerful factor for progress and prosperity.
All these figures and indicators are expected to be further enhanced in the years to come as the country's political leadership has set, in the Program for the five coming years, an ambitious objective which consists in increasing to 35% the rate of women's presence in constitutional institutions and elected bodies by the year 2014. Tunisian women are indeed entitled to be proud of the gains they have accomplished which have promoted them to higher levels, and thanks to which they have invaded all fields and all production and decisional positions. Still, they are called on to develop their activities, increase their contributions and further enhance their abilities in terms of management. For tomorrow's Tunisia expects a lot from its women; and we are convinced that Tunisian women will be in the forefront of the active forces to meet the challenges facing our country at this crucial stage of its history.
Do you think that the quota system, also called "positive discrimination", is likely to consolidate the status and participation of women in political life and will, therefore, get them out of this system in the long term ?
I think that all the means and mechanisms that can help consolidate the role of women as an active engine of change, social modernisation and development are welcome, pending the advent of the objective and historical conditions that would make it unnecessary to resort to them. It follows that the quota system is a needed step in our Arab context, so as to give women greater chances for participation and for exercising their right to take part in the decisional Independently of the polemic debate between those who are for such a mechanism and those who are against, I would say that its advantages overshadow its drawbacks as, in the end, it seeks to achieve gender equality and partnership and to ensure women's access to elected councils and bodies. For we should not lose sight of the fact that some of our Arab societies still have a negative vision vis-à-vis the presence of women in political life and in decisional positions. The quota system is a form of positive discrimination adopted by the United Nations as well as by countries with deep-rooted democratic traditions. It is used in over 80 countries to reduce the gender gap in terms of voting and to bypass the vision that looks down on women's right to political participation. For these reasons, we consider that the quota system is an efficient means to deal with the problem of under-representation of women in decisional and responsibility positions. It helps to activate and reinforce women's role in society by dismantling the obstacles that prevent women from exercising their rights and accomplishing their duties as full-fledged citizens.
I am convinced that such a temporary system to achieve an effective gender equality will lose its raison d'être given the efforts exerted for the advent of a societal environment that supports the idea of women's political participation and believes in their pivotal role in the action for development and progress.
With this social dynamic we are currently witnessing, I think that this day is not too far.
How do you perceive the nature of the role to be played by NGOs and the various components of civil society to further improve the situation of women and enhance their role in the process of development of Arab countries ?
Civil society is today one of the modern aspects of civilized action. Civil society organizations do play a fundamental role in our world today. We are all aware of the importance of this role in anchoring the values of citizenship and the sense of co-operation and solidarity to achieve the objectives set in all fields of economic, civilizational and societal development.
Given the forms of co-operation and the common projects of civil society institutions which today go beyond borders, countries and nations to reach higher levels of partnership and coordination, it is quite normal, and even ineluctable, not to say obvious, that the efforts of national organizations and associations and all the components of Arab civil society be joined in the service of a civilizational and decisive cause for the progress of our societies and the future of modernization therein, namely the cause of women, the promotion of their conditions and the consolidation of their role within the family and within society. The Arab Women Organization being the natural extension of the collective Arab will for reform and progress, we insist on coordination and co-operation with all national organizations and associations so as to further promote women's rights in Arab countries and establish the necessary mechanisms to safeguard their rights as part of society's effective practices.
NGOs and all components of the Arab associative fabric are called on to assume their share of responsibility, to show a sense of initiative, to expand their scope of action, to develop their programs and mechanisms and to exert further efforts for participation in spreading the values of gender equality and deepening the sense of joint action for supporting this cause and winning its battle. The promotion of women is not incumbent upon governments only. It is, in fact, the responsibility of all in which roles are complementary and not contradictory. We will spare no effort, within and outside the Organization, to encourage the components of civil society to contribute and to fully assume their role in eliminating all forms of discrimination against women in our societies and in promoting an organized institutional action aimed at improving the realities of women in Arab countries.
Some people term violence against women a scourge that destroys society. How do you see the consequences of this scourge and the way to overcome it?
Nobody denies that violence against women is a phenomenon that is particularly harmful to the very essence of humanity and is particularly revealing of the very long road humanity has still to tread to break away from this phenomenon and act so that human rights constitute a virtue that women can access in the same way as men.
The violence that women are subjected to at a physical, psychological, social, economic, political and cultural level is undoubtedly one factor that hinders the work of development, in that such violence excludes and paralyses the potential of one half of society.
Certainly this phenomenon is of no one social, racial or religious kind, for it is widespread throughout the world. Its eradication from our Arab societies is all the more vital as our developing countries cannot permit themselves the luxury of excluding or marginalizing half of their workforce potential while fighting the battles for development and progress on more than one front.
I believe that the first way of overcoming this scourge involves breaking the wall of silence that often hides the extent of women's suffering and the damage done to them. When women withdraw into silence, it allows this phenomenon to persist or even worsen.
Already we have often had to insist that fighting violence against women is mainly a cultural, educational and media struggle first and foremost rather than a legal or coercive one, if we wish to attack the roots of this phenomenon as part of a consistent strategy whereby promoting women and consecrating their role within the family and society are ways to prevent any material or physical harm against them. We think that an additional effort remains to be made so that this social scourge can be definitively eradicated, although we admit that progress has been made by Arab legislatures in the matter, and that there has been a decline in the phenomenon because of social evolution and the increasing number of national strategies to fight violence against women. The protection of women is basic to the building of a balanced family and a close-knit, mutually supportive society. The Organization of Arab Women will continue to lead its supporters in preventing and struggling against the scourge, so prejudicial to the dignity of Arab women and so harmful to their human condition.
To this end, a draft general framework of a regional strategy to protect Arab women against violence has been crafted. As I have already said, the implementing of this five-year strategy will be made official at the Organization's 3rd Congress. This is a strategy with six elements, dealing with participation, prevention, protection and awareness building as well as making available data, studies, monitoring and assessment.
What can the Organization of Arab Women do to support Palestinian women?
The Palestinian cause generally, and that of Palestinian women in particular, continuously appear on the Organization of Arab Women's agenda. They are at the heart of my personal concerns. And we should not forget the unconditional support given to them by my country and the position of which has so often spoken President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who also sees it as his personal cause.
Everybody knows that our awareness of the sufferings of Palestinian women in the face of arbitrary power, abuse, detention and other kinds of humiliation from the Israeli occupation authorities was, as I have already stated, at the origin of our suggestion to set up a Commission of Arab Women for International Humanitarian Law within the context of the Organization of Arab Women, as I have said. Our initiative springs from our vision and our wish to express in concrete action our full solidarity with Palestinian women and our support for them in their tragic situation and their great sufferings due to the blockade and the attacks of which they are victims, along with their families and society. This body will be among the effective mechanisms likely to serve our movement both internationally and with regional and international bodies and organizations, and will enable us to truly depict the situation of women and children in Palestine and commit the UN bodies to guaranteeing protection for the Palestinian people as a whole.
We are working both inside and outside the Organization to diversify and make more effective the forms of assistance and support we offer to Palestinian women, so as to increase their capacity to resist and help them protect themselves and their families until their land is liberated and the attributes of their human dignity recovered.
On 8 March the world celebrates International Women's Day. What does this Day mean to you, and what message would you like to send women on this occasion?
Women's Day, instituted by the international community, marks a recognition that women now have a central place in modern societies and an active role in making these societies stable and prosperous. It also offers a renewed opportunity to remember past struggles and explore future prospects now that everyone agrees that social progress is closely and directly linked to women's progress.
Celebrating this day, also gives us an opportunity to measure how far women have advanced and how their condition has improved throughout the world; it allows us to state once more our solidarity with all oppressed women everywhere in the world, especially the valiant women of Palestine. As we celebrate this Day, we can legitimately be proud of what Tunisian women and their Arab sisters have achieved and of their now more favorable situation in which they can exercise their full citizenship and play their part to serve towards the development of our societies.
We have great hopes, at a time when we are participating alongside the international community in celebrating International Women's Day, that all those who make up our Arab societies will become increasingly aware of the need to work even harder to give greater depth and real content to the process of Arab women's emancipation; to make sure that the values of gender equality and partnership are an asset in building a true Arab modernity, based, among other things, on stamping out all forms of discrimination and marginalization against women in a close-knit society that believes in gender equality.
Our ambition is equally great to see the anticipated aims of the women's struggle everywhere in the world become fact, and to bring about a world that is more balanced, more stable and more just, one in which women will be among its builders, protectors and main actors.