Illustration: Arab women
Illustration: Arab women Israel news photo: Flash 90

On Tuesday, NGO Monitor published a report evaluating the NGOs Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) in terms of their coverage of women's rights in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region from 1995 to 2012. The report found the NGOs are failing to advocate for women in the region.

The report, entitled "Second Class Rights: How Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch Fail Women in the Middle East," was timed for release on December 10, the same day as International Human Rights Day.

"It was hoped that the ousting of dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya in 2011 and the mass demonstrations elsewhere, would bring about fundamental reforms, particularly, for women. Unfortunately, these changes did not materialize, and the NGO network shares responsibility," summarizes Anne Herzberg, NGO Monitor's Legal Advisor and author of the report.

The report notes that women's rights in the MENA region is one of the most crucial human rights problems in the world. Islamist groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir have openly opposed women's rights in the name of Islam.

Furthermore a study released November found Egypt had the worst women's rights in the Arab world; a UN report in April found 99.3% of Egyptian women and girls had been sexually harassed.

"Nowhere in the Arab world do women enjoy equality with men,” according to UN Arab Human Development Reports. In the 2012 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, MENA ranked the lowest of all regions worldwide, and six of the ten lowest ranked countries were from the region.

In confronting this challenging rights situation, the two major NGOs hold an image of championing women's freedom. However, their advocacy in the region is well below par according to the new findings.

"As NGOs with huge budgets, rivaling those of multinational corporations, and with tremendous influence among policy makers and in UN frameworks, Amnesty and HRW have a distinct advantage in championing women's rights in the MENA region, having the power to give women's rights issues international prominence," remarked Herzberg.

Nevertheless, the report shows that ideology and politics seem to take priority for the two NGOs over women's rights.

An example from the report is Saudi Arabia, which HRW acknowledges has a shocking rights situation for women. In March 2002 religious police stopped schoolgirls from escaping a burning school in Mecca because they were not wearing headscarves and black robes, nor were they accompanied by a man. As a result 15 girls died and 50 were injured.

However, HRW's only major campaign in Saudi Arabia was to press for Saudi women's participation in the 2012 London Olympics, a move that gained publicity but achieved little impact on women's freedom in the Gulf state.

In a similar state of affairs, external auditors hired by Amnesty International found that the NGO's work on women's issues "had been small-scale and not central to the organization's approach."

Only six reports about the MENA region were published by Amnesty International in their 2004-2010 "Stop Violence Against Women" campaign, whereas 58 reports were produced concerning women in Africa, the Americas, Europe, Central Asia and Asia.

Furthermore, Amnesty International's Gender Unit head was suspended in 2010 after speaking out against the organization's collaboration with an alleged Taliban supporter. Taliban is considered the worst regime against women, and in 2012 shot a schoolgirl in Pakistan who pushed for girls' education, later threatening another schoolgirl.

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