Women's Rights in Egypt Hindered by Knowledge Gap

New York

Progress for women in Egypt remains impeded by large gaps in basic public knowledge, according to a new Freedom House study released today.

The study, "Women's Rights in Focus: Egypt," finds that advances in women's rights remain blocked by Egypt's closed political system, inadequate public education, and a population largely disengaged from political life. As a result, men and women are poorly informed about women's rights. However, an ongoing media revolution led by the explosive growth of satellite television is helping to better inform Egyptians of women's rights, among other issues.

"Egyptian women have realized some important gains in recent years, but this research shows that much more work needs to be done to improve the rights of women in Egypt, as well as of all Egyptians," said Freedom House Executive Director Jennifer Windsor. "More efforts are needed to raise broader public awareness of basic women's rights, and the government needs to take bolder steps to reform its political system so it is responsive to its citizens' basic needs."

The study is based on focus groups conducted with a broad-cross section of the Egyptian public in May and June 2004 in Cairo, Alexandria, and several villages in the Nile Delta and Upper Egypt. The research, consisting of 16 focus groups, captured views from an equal number of women and men. The subjects represented a wide range of education levels, from illiterate Egyptians to college graduates, and ranged in age from 20 to 65. Directed by Brian Katulis, a research consultant with Freedom House, the research was designed to give voice to citizens whose views are often excluded from discussions on women's rights and democracy. Freedom House partnered with an Egyptian research organization to conduct the research.

The study is available online.

Many respondents attributed their increased awareness of women's rights to greater access to literacy programs and a more diverse selection of media programs in Egypt. Television programs focusing on social issues have become a popular staple of rapidly spreading satellite television. Competition from satellite programming has in turn spurred the domestic media to offer an even greater variety of informative programming. Many women say they find interactive and participatory programs addressing social problems appealing. The media revolution underway in Egypt partly helps offset the disadvantages many young girls and boys face in Egypt's substandard education system, a chief complaint among many of the study's participants.

According to the study, "the increase in television programming options has created new openings for advancing women's rights by expanding knowledge and information available to women in particular on general news, politics, and local affairs."

Women also complain about a unique challenge they face in participating in Egypt's political process. While most Egyptians acknowledge that their equal voting rights are essentially negated by a relatively closed political system, many women complain they have difficulty obtaining voter identification cards.

The preference of many Egyptians to mediate disputes, especially on family matters, outside formal legal structures tends to disfavor women, the study found. Some women who took part in the survey also rationalized violence against women, citing the frustrations of daily life and economic pressures as triggers for wife beating.

The study outlines several recommendations to help Egyptian civic groups, the government, and international donors in efforts to expand women's rights, including:

  • Invest in efforts to increase knowledge and awareness among the Egyptian general public.
  • Continue to target women in literacy programs; Increase adult civic and legal education programs;
  • Examine ways to use new media programming to increase public knowledge; and
  • Test public awareness campaigns in advance before airing them.
  • Reform government institutions and procedures to make them more responsive to the Egyptian people's demands.
  • Implement comprehensive political reforms that will allow a broader spectrum of political voices to freely debate public issues;
  • Streamline voter registration procedures;
  • Improve teacher training programs to enhance the quality of education; and
  • Introduce reforms to stop corruption in schools and prevent teachers from demanding payments for private lessons.

The study also covers public attitudes toward female circumcision and women's legal rights.

The study is one component of Freedom House's Survey of Women's Freedom in the Middle East and North Africa, a project to facilitate and support national and international efforts to empower women in the region. A previous focus group study was conducted in Morocco. A forthcoming report on public attitudes towards women's rights in Kuwait will soon be issued.

Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

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