Justine Mbabazi has worked for years in various post-conflict countries on issues such as rule of law, transitional justice and gender equality. As a lawyer she was involved in drafting the Rwandan constitution and contributed significantly to the fact that Rwanda today counts with 64 percent women in parliament. In May 2015, she participated in the National Dialogue Forum on Women’s Participation in Egypt, organized by PeaceWomen Across the Globe (PWAG), and gave her expertise to Egyptian women’s rights activists. Caroline Honegger, PWAG communications manager, interviewed her right after the event in Alexandria.
What motivated you to participate in the Dialogue Forum?
When you look at the headline news about the Arab spring, you immediately think: What is happening with women? How are their lives being protected? And what happens after it? At the end of the day, women have to be part of the reconstruction; they have to get an opportunity to be the change if change is needed.
In 2013 already, I have been in contact with Egyptian women. I provided my inputs on the new constitution and on what claims they should bring forward to the government. Participating at the Dialogue Forum was for me the possibility to reconnect – with people and with the process: What happened since? What are their plans? I thought that my inputs based on Rwanda’s experience would probably be useful to them. I also really wanted to know how the women are coping with the situation: How involved are they? How frustrated are they? All that comes with the package of being an activist.
Did the Forum meet your expectations?
In many ways it did and in many ways it left me hungry for something. I was impressed by how many women and men participated, that was incredible! I think the major point in the process is to be there and to learn from other individuals, from different fractions of the Egyptian women, and from different organisations. So for me that exceeded my expectations! I was especially impressed with the young people who took part. Many countries are suffering from a generational gap between the pioneers of gender activism and the younger generation growing up in a global world. In this conference there was a mixture of different ages, views, understandings and they were all in the same room ready to take action.
What left me hungry is that Egypt still is so behind in terms of building up instruments. It seems that the constitution of 2014 is very vague and does not provide a framework for really building institutions for implementing women’s rights. The will is there, but I think the process is still somehow behind in terms of really providing a platform. When I went to the UN World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, women from Egypt were on fire! They had the torch, they had the education, and they had everything we needed. And I thought: “I want to be like them when I grow up.” I don’t know what happened in between. I would like to learn more about what went wrong and about how the young generation can mitigate it. But Egyptian women are still active and understand what they want. So I am really looking forward to the follow-up after the conference and to see how we can share best practices.
Talking about best practices… Rwanda has a gender quota and over 60 percent of parliament members are women. This is incredible! What was the key to this achievement?
There are many factors. One of them is that you need women activists who understand what gender mainstreaming is all about. You need women who are interested in understanding gender analysis and gender budgeting. I think one of the best practices, and we share it with Egyptian women, is that you have a mass of women willing to push their claims in the political agenda. In Rwanda, women made a decision to work together. You cannot achieve equality if you don’t have a unifying voice around the issues you are trying to advocate.
The most incredible thing I remember during my early years of activism is also that we made a very conscious decision to say: when we meet, we meet because there is a problem. And when we meet, let’s talk about solutions. Because talking about problems over and over again does not help. I heard from the Egyptian women yesterday that they are all frustrated that things are not working their way. And in the dialogue discussions they spent a very good 50 percent of the time talking about the problems, repeating problems again and again. That isn’t helping! When you meet, talk about solutions! Those solutions don’t have to be effective, but they have to be there on the table. And every solution you have on the table, honestly, is the best that you have. Tomorrow you might come up with another solution. But don’t ignore it, don’t devaluate it, don’t despise it, because that’s what you have.
Another thing that frustrates women is that they are afraid of not knowing enough. But you don’t have to know it all from the beginning; you just have to know a little. When you are a member of the parliament, you don’t have to perfectly master how the parliament works. You are there because women in the community, in the grassroots, in the rural areas, have problems. And those problems can be solved by reforming the laws, initiating other laws and drafting new legislation. That’s why you are there. So if you care too much about whether you are smart enough or not to do the job, you are putting yourself in the centre of the problem. But actually, the problem is women’s lack of fundamental rights, and that’s why you push yourself to do what you can.
What are the most important institutional reforms that Egypt needs for women’s rights to be implemented?
Well, for women’s rights to ever be effective they have to go through different channels. Those channels have to be initiated by the government. And the government must have a structure for those channels. Egypt has a National Council for Women as we have one in Rwanda. It is a good thing but not enough. Egypt also needs a Ministry of Gender: the National Council for Women is not an executive body, it does not participate in the cabinet meetings, it does not have a voice every week in front of the President, it does not meet with the judiciary. The Minister of Gender on the other hand, if you have one, meets with the president, participates in the cabinet meeting, and her (because most of the times it’s a woman) agenda is to push women’s rights little by little every week through the cabinet affairs. That’s how you penetrate. I think Egyptian women’s rights activists also need to deepen their understanding of the structures of a democratic government and of the international legal framework. The Egyptian government has signed international conventions and so it can be held accountable. It’s a hard process but women need to do it.
What do you think will be the main challenges for Egypt’s women during the next years?
During the Arab spring women were on the streets claiming their rights. Now, these women still have the opportunity to change things but they are lacking a strategy. And even once they have a strategy, pushing the political agenda will not be easy. The government is already overwhelmed with other problems, and to persuade it you got to act quickly, you have to be clear in your messaging and you have to be short and precise. “Women’s rights” is a broad and a vague sort of terminology. But if your issue is education, approach the education and talk about what women are facing. If the issue is employment, tell the government to change something that is tangible, visible, right there.
You are a women’s rights activist with a long-time experience. What would be your advices for other, younger activists?
Being an activist is an endless process: you are advocating one thing today, you go through with it, you don’t relax, you pick up the next issue. If the issue you are advocating doesn’t go through, don’t be discouraged, just find a different strategy. Don’t relax and think that things will just work themselves out. But don’t be too hard on yourself. Just feel comfortable that you have the right calls and you are doing what you can.
I also learned that you have to share your knowledge because you cannot deal with issues by yourself. You have to share the knowledge with other women, with the next generation… My other learning experience is that every generation, every time comes with other challenges. When I started in the early nineties, we didn’t have easy communication, emails, WhatsApp and everything. We have to keep ourselves updated about how to communicate and how to share the knowledge. Now that we really share a global platform, as global citizens, I don’t even see myself as belonging to a country anymore. Sharing the knowledge might not change the life of a woman in your country, but it could change the life of a woman that you have never even met.
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