Community Voices: Mobilizing for women’s rights in North Africa
The Community Voices series highlights the work of our community — civil society organizations, governments, companies, human rights defenders, and startups — in the lead up to, during, and after RightsCon.
Mobilising for Rights Associates (MRA) Women is an international non-profit organization working to promote women’s rights in North Africa since 2000. Based in Rabat, Morocco, the organization collaborates with women’s rights activists and associations in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Libya to promote women’s full enjoyment of their human rights.
According to Stephanie Willman Bordat, a founding partner of the organization, MRA Women relies on a “holistic approach” to changing the laws, mentalities, structures, and relationships that govern women in the Maghreb, especially those related to gender-based violence. The organization’s diverse network of partners — from women living in underserved areas like shanty towns or rural villages to those residing in popular urban neighborhoods, as well as coalitions operating at the international level — allows them to achieve local and global impact. To that end, MRA Women relies on an array of strategies, including grassroots-level education and awareness raising, legal accompaniment, monitoring and documenting state responses to women’s rights issues, action research, strategic litigation, national law reform, and international advocacy in pursuit of progress for women.
From the outset, MRA Women recognized the power of technology in advancing women’s rights. In 2000, when cyber cafes were first introduced in Morocco, the organization saw an opportunity to integrate the use of internet and email into their advocacy work. This led to a series of innovative workshops called “Wired for Women’s Rights” that offered technical trainings unprecedented in both their content and in their location — cyber cafes at that point remained a male-dominated space. The success of MRA Women’s early work championing digital literacy for women has remained a guiding force as they continue advocating for accessibility and inclusivity in the latest digital innovations.
While technology can serve as a tool to improve the lives of marginalized groups, including women and girls, unequal access means those who are not connected face exclusion offline and online. Digital spaces are also increasingly being used to inflict and amplify gender-based violence.
In response, MRA Women has launched an initiative to conduct action research on Technology-Facilitated Gender-Based Violence (TFGBV) in Morocco. MRA Women, in collaboration with seven other Moroccan NGOs, is conducting interviews, focus group discussions, and an online survey with the goal of understanding the experiences of and societal responses to women who are victims of TFGBV.
This ambitious and crucial action research was itself a product of MRA Women’s participation at RightsCon Toronto in 2018, where the organization was “inspired by the different panelists and speakers from across the globe talking about this emerging issue.” After attending various sessions and panels addressing TFGBV, MRA Women recognized the need for increased awareness within Morocco and set out to share their RightsCon experience with local partners, all with the goal to bring the issue into the public consciousness and improve state response to this form of violence.
In line with its holistic approach, the organization’s greatest successes to date have been achieved cumulatively and over time. The transformation of social norms, attitudes, and laws is a process, and Bordat points to the way in which relationships and power hierarchies between local-level constituencies, NGOs, and public actors have evolved. For instance, legislation introduced in 2018 in Morocco criminalized certain forms of TFGBV, and elected representatives are increasingly seeking out input from civil society groups on issues of concern to women.
MRA Women’s successes thus far reveal the powerful role ICTs can play in combating gender-based violence and advancing the rights of women. However, the organization and its partners encounter a variety of challenges, including the insufficient implementation of laws and an absence of appropriate accountability mechanisms, as well as a lack of transparency and inadequate state response. Systemic issues, such as the persistence of the digital divide and disparities in access due to inequalities in regional development, further complicate their efforts. The organization has utilized ICTs to bridge these gaps and ensure that the voices of women in remote areas are heard, and cultivated an expansive network of partners to tackle a diverse portfolio of actions to empower women.
Looking forward to RightsCon Tunis, Bordat envisions the summit as an opportunity for activists from other regions to better understand the MENA context and its challenges, in order to support the local actors more effectively. She hopes it will expose groups in the region to cutting-edge issues and strategies in digital rights from across the globe. The integration of French and Arabic into sessions for the first time will facilitate an enhanced linguistic integration of the digital rights movement.
To learn more about MRA Women’s work you can visit their website.