Moving from individual to collective change for women’s participation in Lebanon, Jordan and Kurdistan Region of Iraq

Julie Diallo Gender

With women making up only 19% of parliament in the Middle East and North Africa region, understanding the factors preventing women from taking part in decision-making processes is vital. Here, Julie Diallo introduces a research report and summary animation that outlines key areas for change.

“Thanks to the Lana project, now I can go on my own to Zarqa, but still I cannot express and defend my political views… I need the permission of my husband, my family and community before taking any steps further! (…) ‘The concept of equality is a new idea for communities, it is not easy to convey and it will take time to bring about change’.

These are the voices of women and men Change Makers working with Oxfam and its partners on Lana (‘Ours’ in Arabic) project in Jordan, KRG (Iraq) and Lebanon. They echo some of the barriers that women face in participating in decision-making processes and ensuring they have a say in the decisions that impact their lives. Rigid interpretations of culture, patriarchal practices and laws, are some of the obstacles these women are confronted with.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is a region with one of the lowest rates of women’s political participation

Change Makers in the three countries have reported that stereotyping and traditional gender roles that depict women as weak and unqualified for political office are fuelling women’s limited participation in these countries. They also highlight the important role the media plays in spreading this stereotype.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is still a region with one of the lowest rates of women’s political participation, with only 19 % women in Parliament. Women’s leadership and political participation being one of the core pillars of Oxfam’s work on gender justice, the Regional Gender Justice Programme and  the American University of Beirut (AUB) carried out a research titled ‘Women’s Participation and Leadership in Lebanon, Jordan and Kurdistan Region of Iraq: Moving from individual to collective change’. The research was conducted to explore the dynamics at individual, community and systemic levels that lead to the limited participation of women in decision-making processes. It also explores how people and institutions change their perception, attitudes and practices towards gender justice and women’s rights.

The research findings are aimed at informing development practice, especially Oxfam’s programming and advocacy on women’s leadership and participation in the Middle East. The research was done over seven months through interviews with women, men, women’s rights organisations (WROs) and civil society organisations (CSOs).

The main findings are:

  • The level and type of women’s leadership and participation varies greatly across age, status, religious and socio-economic background and living areas (rural/urban) of women. This shows us the importance of investing in sound gender analysis of the communities that we are working with; and in ensuring intersectional approaches into our work on women’s leadership and participation. In few words, we should avoid the ‘one size fits all’ approach.
  • Women’s economic participation is seen as an important entry point to foster women’s leadership and political participation. Interlocutors mentioned that in the current context of fragility and increased economic instability, the acceptance of women’s participation in the public sphere is primarily economically and instrumentally driven rather than values driven, not because the male ‘accepts and is avant-garde, but because he can’t afford to support a family on his own’.
  • Religious interpretations, rather than religion per se, are seen as an obstacle to women’s leadership and participation. People interviewed, especially men, expressed the challenges they face in responding to religious interpretations when used to legitimise status quo and patriarchal structures and practices.
  • Strong gendered socialisation with associated roles and responsibilities on what it means to be a woman or a man in a given context plays an important role in limiting women’s leadership and participation. It demonstrates the importance of engaging with opinion makers to challenge restrictive social norms and promote norms that contribute to active and meaningful participation of women in private and public spheres.
  • Disconnect between stakeholders, such as WROs and CSOs, and individuals’ perceptions of the main obstacles to women’s leadership and participation. While stakeholders identify structural obstacles such as absence of quota laws or lack of child care services for women to be able to balance work and unpaid care work responsibilities; individuals emphasise personal and societal obstacles.
  • Positive messaging showcasing how change at the individual level and women’s leadership and participation can bring about positive changes to individuals, communities and the society are seen as critical to rally a mass of supporters.
  • Finally, media and social media can play either a positive or negative role in conveying messages on gender equality and women’s rights. The research proposes to engage with media and social media as key player to facilitate a chain of change from individual to the society.

To spark a discussion on barriers that women are facing to participate, we have released a short video animation presenting some of the findings of the research and look at the factors limiting women’s participation at individual, social and institutional levels.

We hope you find them both useful!


Andrew Bogrand