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MENA Regional Summit Tackles Digital Violence Against Women

We were honoured last month to convene a summit of researchers and practitioners who are responding to digital violence against women (DVAW) across the MENA region—while enriching the Arabic library on this issue. 

For women across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), DVAW is a sinister flip-side to the barrier-breaking, empowering potential of the Internet. And while this violence manifests differently in different places, there are clear commonalities across the region—in the gendered norms offenders exploit and in the impacts women endure. That’s why women and allies across the Arab world are increasingly joining forces to tackle DVAW together.

That collective strength was showcased this April 21-22 at our event in Amman, Jordan: “DVAW in MENA: Prevention, Response and Sustainable Solutions.” This first-of-its-kind regional summit brought together nearly 100 researchers, practitioners, government officials and international organizations. Together, they represented 12 MENA countries: Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Iraq, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. And they came here to validate and synthesize the results of a groundbreaking region-spanning research initiative on DVAW—to continue shaping frontline efforts to support and advocate for women across MENA.

Images from DVAW in MENA: Prevention, Response and Sustainable Solutions

The event began with a minute of silence for Gaza, where tens of thousands have been killed since last October. Shifting from somber to determined, opening remarks featured host-country luminaries: Maha Al-Ali (Secretary General, Jordanian National Commission for Women) highlighted her commission’s work to empower women and spoke of civil society’s critical role in achieving Jordan’s national strategy on gendered violence. Dr. Khalil Al-Abdallat (Director, Human Rights Unit of the Prime Minister’s Office) outlined his government’s own efforts to combat digital violence and cybercrimes.

Next came framing thoughts from the event’s convenors: Dr. Raed M. Sharif (The SecDev Foundation), Dr. Ayman Halasa (Information and Research Center–King Hussein Foundation), and Dr. Ruhiya Seward (International Development Research Centre). Finally, participants moved into two full days of sessions focussed on both legal and psychosocial dimensions of DVAW—while identifying new opportunities for research and advocacy, and expanding the regional community of practice that has been forming around this work.

DVAW research: groundbreaking progress

To tackle a pervasive, intractable challenge, we need to understand it. Over the last two years, there’s been a concerted effort to fill the profound gap in evidence-based research on DVAW in the MENA region. And many of the women behind this push were on-site in Amman to share and discuss the results of their work.

This event was convened, in part, to validate and discuss their research results. But it was also very much a celebration—of the groundbreaking progress achieved by this group of all-female Arab researchers, esteemed and emerging academics alike, spanning the MENA region.

A fan of three country reports on TFVAW.

22 research studies on DVAW across MENA are available now, in Arabic and/or English.

Already 22 research studies have been published, unpacking psychosocial and legal complexities of DVAW in 16 countries. In many cases, these are the first national data sets on the topic. Many are available in both Arabic and English. And the work continues, with deft guidance from lead researcher Dr. Nadia Al-Sakkaf and senior program manager Dr. Raed M. Sharif.

The Foundation and our Salam@ team have been honoured to convene this effort, with crucial funding and support from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). The results will inform and shape advocacy and support for women on the road ahead. At the same time, this project is strengthening the region’s research infrastructure. And we especially value the community-of-practice that’s forming among contributors to carry the momentum forward.

Extraordinary gathering of women

Beyond reviewing the growing body of research, the two-day event featured deep-dive sessions with an extraordinary slate of MENA researchers, journalists, lawyers and other thought-leaders on DVAW. Panel-style sessions included:

  • Building a Regional Research Community of Practice—moderated by Dr. Nadia Al Sakkaf, featuring Prof. Merium Noumeur (Algeria) and researchers  Rana Akabani (Syria/Libya), Dr. Lubna Bahamam (KSA), Halima Aljundi (Morocco) and Bassant Helmi (Egypt/Germany).
  • Legal, Policy and Governance Responses to DVAW—moderated by lawyer Esraa Mahadi (Karak Castle Centre), featuring Judge Anouar Mnasri (Tunisia) and legal specialists Entesar Saeid (Egypt), Roula Zayat (Lebanon), Kawther Gasmi (Algeria).
  • DVAW: Psychosocial Impacts and Support services—moderated by Dr. Reem Mahmoud and featuring psychologist Dr. Malak Al-Soudi (Jordan) and experts Aya Mohamed (Egypt), Dr. Houda Haj Kacem (Tunisia) and Soha Rashed (Finland).
  • DVAW: Women on the Front Lines—moderated by Harder Hamzoz (INSM) and featuring Asma Fathy (Egypt), Dr. Sahar Qartani (Iraq), Rita Ammar (Palestine), Dr. Amel Grami (Tunisia), and Dr. Lubna Bahamam (KSA).
  • DVAW in Conflict Zones—moderated by Dr. Nadia Al-Sakkaf, featuring experts and researchers Haneen Boshosha (Libya), Etana Khoshaba (Iraq), Redha Qarhash (Yemen), Haneen Alsayed (Syria) and Ahmad Qadi ( Palestine).
  • Regional Initiatives to Combat DVAW—moderated by journalist Rania Al-Sarayrah (Jordan), featuring researcher Assiya Alomrani (Morocco), lawyer Entesar Saeid (Egypt), Assiya Anwer (Iraq), and Prof. Merium Noumeur (Algeria).

Vigorous debate, strong recommendations

Jordanian psychologist Dr. Malak Al-Soudi supports women in prisons.

The gathering featured plenty of the vigorous debate you’d expect among a diverse group of thought leaders. For instance, esteemed psychologist Dr. Malak Al-Soudi, who provides free counselling services to female prisoners, proposed psychotherapy for DVAW perpetrators to reduce re-offending. Aya Moneer, founder of the Superwomen initiative in Egypt, disagreed: she argued that full focus should remain on survivors—and that it’s too early to explore treating abusers, when digital violence is often not even recognized as a crime. This generated fascinating debate among participants, leading to a special impromptu session to continue the dialogue.

That legal black hole around DVAW that Aya Moneer flagged came under heavy scrutiny in several sessions. The research confirms how few MENA countries recognize DVAW as a crime. Most do not have cybercrime laws—or recognize digital violence as a distinct phenomenon. Practically, these gaps allow a world of harassment, doxing and digital harm to fly under the radar of enforcement. So one outcome this week was a renewed strategy to press for criminalization of DVAW—with more regional collaboration since cybercrime commonly crosses borders. And many participants also highlighted the need for an even more holistic approach. To be effective, laws require public awareness and capable enforcement. At the same time, women must feel safe and supported in reporting offences as well as dealing with impacts of violence.

Dr. Amel Grami, the Tunisian writer and academic, cautioned against “the trend in Arab countries of pinning all hopes on the magic wand of changing laws.” She spoke of patriarchal societies enforcing women’s silent denial of experiencing violence. But she also spoke of the power of documenting women’s testimonies, to transform vulnerability into stories of resilience that can inspire others. The Foundation’s Raed M.Sharif spoke of two circles of protection for survivors: an outer shell of law/authority, and an inner circle of family/community. When the inner circle is strong, he said, women are less vulnerable and more empowered to access legal recourse.

So alongside legal reform, participants left here determined to continue collaborating on priorities that include:

  • Raising public awareness of the reality of digital violence and how it uniquely impacts women, while targeting the stigma that can stop survivors from reporting DVAW.
  • Strengthening agencies’ capacity—from law enforcement to support services—to interact with survivors so they feel welcomed and not stigmatized or re-victimized.
  • Expanding access to support services (psychosocial and legal) that are specifically capable of recognizing and responding to the experience of DVAW survivors.
Around 40 participants of the DVAW regional forum smile for a group photo.

Stronger together: some of our regional forum participants gather for a group photo.

The road ahead

From Amman, participants fanned back out across the region to continue important work and conversations. The DVAW research project is expanding its reach to more MENA countries, and Arabic-English translation work continues as well. The group is also gathering insights into book form—to engage a wider audience of researchers, but also journalists and policy-makers.

At same time, work continues on the front lines of supporting women. Some participants stayed in Amman for an extra day to join a meeting, at the same venue, of the Jordanian Network Combatting Digital Violence Against Female Journalists. Since launching 18 months ago, the Network has grown into a vibrant hub for advocacy, peer support and public awareness, counting nearly half the country’s female journalists as members. We’ll share more from that meeting soon.

Meanwhile, the Foundation also took the opportunity to kick off an exciting new project by bringing together our Jordanian and Iraqi partners. This is the new “ecosystems” response to DVAW that we recently announced. Building on insights from the research project, as well our Salam@ team’s frontline experience, this project seeks to build conditions for resilient governance, health and educational ecosystems that can support female tech users and survivors of DVAW.