Empowering Egyptian women at work and in their unions

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Empowering Egyptian women at work and in their unions

'Women in Egypt sorely need a voice in their workplaces; to demand the right to decent work and to insist on a place in their unions,' said Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, at the TUC Congress fringe on Egypt.

Kate's speech is below. For more information see Amnesty International UK's web page on Women's rights in Egypt and TUC Congress motion 72 - Egypt.

Egypt: Empowering women at work and in their union

Kate Allen, Director, Amnesty International UK

Remarks at the Amnesty UK-UCU TUC Congress Fringe Meeting, London, Tuesday 13 September 2011

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It is my very great pleasure to welcome you tonight to this event on the fringes of the TUC Congress.

I am especially pleased that this evening is co-sponsored by the University and College Union, whose own conference in May resolved to work more closely with Amnesty International and committed the union to support women's and workers rights in Egypt.

We are happy to be working with UCU in these endeavours, and with our partners in the TUC and amongst affiliated unions as you debate the situation in Egypt at your Congress this week.

I want to set the scene before we hear from Nawla Darwiche of the New Woman Foundation, with three observations which I believe are crucial as we consider how best to show solidarity with the human rights struggles in Egypt, and in particular with the struggles for women's and worker's rights.

First, This year, within the mass chorus of people demanding their rights, the voices of women could be heard loud and clear. From Egypt and Tunisia to Syria and Bahrain women were equal partners with men during the popular uprisings. They were out on the streets, leading demonstrations, protesting, being beaten, arrested and killed - and breaking decades of social barriers along the way.

I have had the privilege to visit Egypt twice since the revolution. During these visits, women activists told me they felt truly equal for the first time - how Tahrir Square was free of the sexual harassment that had previously marked their daily lives - and that at last they were able to share the public space with men and take part in deciding the fate of their country.

They spoke about the need to end discriminatory family and criminal laws, the rights of women to work and to a decent wage, and of their continuing struggle to end violence against women. They also described their vision for equality and non discrimination for all.

Secondly, though much has been made of the importance of new media in mobilising and organising the protests, we need to acknowledge that it was years of struggles - particularly the labour struggles since 2004 - that gave the people the confidence and sense of community to be able to stand up in defiance of despotism and in demand of their fundamental rights.

And it was women who led many of these disputes - often with support from the New Woman Foundation, - striking for months at a time in garment factories and textile plants. Women, who were usually segregated into the lowest paid jobs in these industries and in the tobacco and agriculture sectors, not only stood shoulder-by-shoulder with their male colleagues but were sometimes more resilient and more militant, than the men in these pivotal struggles.

Third, we need to put on record - as Amnesty did in a May Day statement in 2010 - the scale of failure and corruption within the official union structures. Not only did the Egyptian Trade Union Federation seek to monopolise workplace organising, in doing so it persistently ignored the voices of women workers and those who challenged authority. Only 5.5% of seats on local union committees were held by women in the 2006-2011 period.

The work that Nawla and the New Woman Foundation are doing is critical in shaping and responding to these realities.

And women in Egypt sorely need a voice in their workplaces; to demand the right to decent work and to insist on a place in their unions.

The statistics are sobering. Two thirds of Egyptian families cannot survive on a single income and 22 per cent of all Egyptian households subsist entirely on a woman's income. Egypt was ranked 120th out of 130 countries in the 2008 World Economic Forum Gender Gap Index. The percentage of unemployed women in 2010 is still about the same that it was thirty years ago in 1981. Women are too often consigned to the most insecure, the lowest paid and most marginal jobs.

As I travelled from meeting to meeting, visiting the informal settlements where community leaders have had to fight hard for basic facilities and infrastructure, where young people were disenfranchised and unemployed, I was struck by two things; a palpable sense of destiny and possibility, especially amongst the young, coupled with a very great deal of uncertainty. There was no way of going back, but the journey ahead is unclear and potentially fraught.

The challenges are certainly great. The military authorities have continued to arrest, imprison and torture many thousands of activists since the fall of Mubarak.

While I was in Cairo I was able to meet and offer our solidarity to the family of Maikel Nabil Sanad, a 25 year old blogger who has been on hunger strike since the 23rd of August to protest at his three year sentence, inhumane conditions and solitary confinement, resulting from a charge of 'insulting the army'. He remains on hunger strike today. Please support our urgent action to demand his immediate release. The military tribunals are sometimes taking just 48 hours to charge, try, sentence and imprison protesters - often for lengthy jail terms.

Disgracefully, women were entirely absent from the committee empowered to draw up a new constitution. The virginity testing of women marking International Women's Day, points to efforts to close down the space that women have occupied in the public sphere. The outcome of the forthcoming elections for workers and for women is as unpredictable as it is entirely without precedent.

Our Agenda for change for the Middle East and North Africa points to the scale of reform needed if fundamental rights are to be realised. I agree with those women who I met in Cairo who told me that a social and cultural revolution is needed if the political revolution was going to last.

But there are glimmers of light and opportunities to be seized. Some of the government officials seem committed to change. When I met the Cairo planning authorities, they asserted that in the 2050 plan for the city there would be no enforced evictions. We will hold them to their word.

The new labour minister appears to be moving fast to improve basic workers rights. Proposals to dismantle the monopoly of the old ETUF have been announced. We have also witnessed the establishment of an Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, and a strengthening of independent workers organisations. Inevitably there will be some internal tensions and conflicts but these are far better circumstances to organise women at work and into unions than those that have confronted the New Woman Foundation in years gone by. The ITUC and global unions are on the ground to support capacity-building and offer solidarity.

We need to ensure, though, that women gain their rightful place as these transitions take place.

Independent trade unions need to be representative trade unions; effective trade unions need to give voice to the voiceless, and to fight for those most marginalised, including migrant workers.

Equality in education, in the labour force, at work - and in the union - needs to replace privilege and prejudice. There are plenty of precedents; we need only look to see the participation of women in politics and in their unions in Tunisia to recognise what is necessary and achievable after the Arab Spring.

Amnesty has stood up for fundamental workers rights, whether in the USA, Fiji or Turkey, wherever these have been under attack. We are steadfast in our defence of the brave jailed Iranian trade unionists, of land workers in Zimbabwe, of activists in Colombia and in the many struggles in which we collaborate with the TUC and our global union partners.

But let me be clear; we are equally determined - and it is our priority in Amnesty UK in the MENA region - that women will find their voice and play their part in determining a future in which their rights will be respected whether in or out of work, in the political as well as the social sphere.

'A woman's place is in her union' has long been a progressive labour movement rallying call; but one which, to be realised, requires women to also have the right to decent work; to participation; and to a voice.

Nawla, you can count on us in your efforts to empower women in their workplace and in their unions. I look forward to your contribution. Welcome.

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