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The myth of the “local partner”

I recently spoke in Sweden. Again. I seem to do that a lot. Since I became the “local partner”, I have accumulated a lot of unanswered questions about “partnership”, “localization” and the rhetoric of supporting local women’s groups. “Localization” is one of our favorite development buzzwords, and like most buzzwords, it rings hollow most of the time. So the speech and the email are below:


I am the Executive Director of the Arab Institute for Women. I gave the keynote speech for Sida’s “Utvecklingsdagarna” on 14 October 2019 where I talked about the backlash against gender equality. I enjoyed the opportunity and hope that you, your staff and other participants benefitted from the day. The feedback I received indicates that my participation was appreciated.

Today I am writing to express concern. After many attempts to seek a partnership with Sida, including meetings following my speech and positive indications, I am still unable to establish a path to a partnership with the institution. There seem to be no modalities for funding or support. As a “local partner”, I recognize all too well the dilemma of being asked to speak at events and to offer the “local perspective” while we struggle with lack of funding and concrete support. I am sure you can appreciate this tension.

As I said in my speech, I struggled with a moral dilemma when I was invited to speak. Coming to Sweden comes with a cost – to me, to the Institute, and to the movement. We struggle for every dollar, and ultimately I am responsible for the Institute’s survival. We are not unique in this case. The Institute, in turn, is responsible for doing the work that needs to be done to support women and girls. The movement loses momentum when we assume that such absences will yield fruit and they do not.

We cannot use a consistent language of engaging grassroots groups and supporting the local women’s movement unless we provide genuine support. The Institute is doing solid work but despite myriad attempts has never received funding from Sida (not even an offer of honorarium has been provided when asked to participate). In the end, my weeklong absence (preparing the speech, flying to/from Sweden, etc.) is taken as “personal leave”. Is it fair to expect small organizations to bear this burden and ask local partners to act as goodwill ambassadors? If such partners are worthy enough to offer their perspective at events such as Sida’s annual meeting, surely they are worthy of an honest dialogue about funded partnerships.

As you may know, this was not my first trip to Sweden. I also delivered a keynote address for the Stockholm Forum on Gender Equality in 2018. In another process, I am again en route to Sweden tomorrow and would very much like to meet Monday morning 25 November, if you have time? I count on Sweden to be a world leader in the fight for women’s rights and see a continued dialogue about a partnership as an opportunity to courageously rethink ways of working so those on frontlines of the fight for women’s rights can have what they need to get the job done. Women worldwide deserve no less.

Thank you kindly.

Best regards, Lina

AND HERE IS THE SPEECH: Gender Equality, Women’s Rights, and the Global Backlash

Let me take you back in time…

…to the year 1989, exactly 30 years ago, to meet a young Palestinian-Lebanese woman, a child of many conflicts. She takes a high school class called Comparative Women’s History. In this class, rather than discussing women’s history, students looked at the history of violence against women. That young woman was me. And that course set the course for my life.

In that moment, 14-year old me said: I want to change what it means to be a woman in this world. She said: I want to build a feminist future – in my lifetime.

And now, 30 years later, I’m with you today – but I wish I didn’t have to be. The fact that these events, these conversations, these meetings still happen means that we have not yet achieved our goal.

And, it is 2019! Is this where we should be for women in 2019?!

We are living in a world where equality does not yet exist. It’s not the kind of world I had expected. This world – I do not accept.

Today, in this room, we are 600. In the world, there are 3.7 billion women. What does the world look like for those 3.7 billion women?

The gender gap needs 200 years to close. Is anyone planning to wait and see it?! I for one will not. I am not willing to be so patient. Women and girls are still the majority of the world’s poor. 15 million young girls will never get the chance to read or write. Women hold hardly one quarter of parliamentary seats – and an even smaller fraction are heads of state. In about 50 countries, domestic violence is NOT a crime (and when it is – those laws are incomplete – unapplied – or outright ignored). 750 million girls were married before the age of 18. That’s 33,000 girls a day, or one girl every two seconds.

And the one I hate the most… the one that gets stuck in my throat every time…one in three. One in three women and girls worldwide will experience some form of gender-based violence in their lifetime. This violence is the greatest manifestation of our persistent inequality.

Where do you begin to advocate for women’s rights when the world looks like that?! That’s the question that I asked myself 30 years ago. That’s the question I ask myself EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.

And now we are one month away from the International Conference on Population and Development in Nairobi – commemorating 25 years since the landmark event in Cairo in 1994 – our supposed watershed moment. I remember watching it happen and I thought: THIS! This will bring us the equality we’re fighting for.

The following year brought us Beijing – another “watershed moment”. And I thought: This! This will end inequalities for sure! The year 2000 gave us our first UN Security Council Resolution on women, peace and security – UNSCR 1325. And then again I thought: THIS has got to do it. This will different for women.

At that point I was already working to end violence against women in emergencies. I covered 20 countries in 20 years – places like Central African Republic, Haiti, Mali, Afghanistan, Chad, more. And I have NOT done my job.

I have ended violence against women NOWHERE…

I have made the world safer for women NOWHERE…

But it is not just my job – although some days it feels that way. We are not alone in this struggle. Our context is different, but our cause is the same. We know women’s rights should be a “universal responsibility”. On paper, we have all the right ingredients: global consensus for gender equality and women’s empowerment as human rights imperatives. With every event, we claim THIS is the catalyst to achieving real change for women.

Meanwhile – we sound like a broken record. We have discussed and conferenced and workshopped this all before. And still we have FAILED in our duty to women and girls. My heart is heavy. This is not what 14-year old me expected. And this is not a world that she accepts.

However, here is the good news: Movements for rights and equality are increasing – and everywhere!

And – here is the bad news: An undeniable backlash against those rights and freedoms are increasing – everywhere.

Still, we push forward to 2030. Our Sustainable Development Goals gave us our touchstone – SDG 5. Not just a stand-alone goal but a fundamental pre-requisite to achieving all other goals. Under SDG 5 we have reduced prevalence of female genital mutilation (this is the first paper 14-year old me ever wrote about women’s rights!).

And we have reduced early marriage – although it still exists. For so-called “early marriage” – let’s unpack this a little bit. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves of WHAT we are doing – to remind ourselves WHY we are doing it – and to refocus on how we are doing it. And, words matter.

What we call “early marriage” sounds like an adjective describing an action, like saying we’ve had an “early lunch”. We’ve stripped the power, politics and patriarchy from this act.

“Early marriage” is… more often than not marriage of a girl child… more often than not to an older man… more often than not entailing a sexual relationship.

What is sex with a girl child? RAPE.

When we put it this way, we are reminded of the urgence of our work. Our words make way for actions that are stronger and more deliberate. What is a world that allows 1 girl to be married – and raped – every two seconds? It is a world I do NOT accept.

The SDGs tell us that we have until 2030 to eliminate legal discrimination, change discriminatory norms, ensure women’s right to decide what to do with their own bodies, create space for women in politics, in the economy, in leadership, in decision-making…

We’ve got 10 years to go. And in some countries we are going BACKWARDS. For example, recent research in the US revealed that for one in every sixteen women, their first sexual experience was a rape. RAPE.

And Alabama and other states, reversing women’s rights to their own bodies, denying their sexual and reproductive health, jeopardizing their lives. And a president who is deliberately harmful to women, even as he claims our work on rights and equality is “harmful”.

This world? This world, I DO NOT ACCEPT.

This isn’t what 2019 is supposed to look like, in countries we thought were stable, for rights we thought were stable. We can no longer deny: We are living in dangerous times. We have no choice but to show courage in the face of this danger. I owe it to 14-year old me.

Anyway… what is the alternative?! I DO NOT ACCEPT.

We often use money as evidence of our commitment. Looking at research released earlier this year entitled Where’s the Money? revealed that the humanitarian system is letting women down by failing to end violence against women. Let’s review the (unsurprising) facts: (1) Work to end violence against women remains severely underfunded, (2) Global commitment is too slow, too small, too short-term.

Using Yemen as an example (the world’s largest – and most ignored – humanitarian crisis), the report showed that money needed to end violence against women in 2018 was $24 million, the money received intended to have an impact on violence against women was $3 million, and the money allocated exclusively for prevention and response of violence against women… ZERO.

Our rhetoric just doesn’t match our reality. It’s obvious and undeniable. So, what do we actually need? Yes, we need money. Real money. Not just money “in crisis”. Money to PREVENT crisis. We need smart, meaningful money. Multi-year flexible operational funding to women’s organizations… BEFORE there is a crisis.

If we do not fund women’s rights work all the time, we will end up in crisis. Look at early warning indicators – women are a social barometer. We need to pay better attention. We need to see this through the lens of women’s safety. If women are not safe, no one is safe. And too many women live in fear. Even the FEAR of violence is a FORM of violence.

A world where women are not safe? This – I DO NOT ACCEPT.

The Arab region, where I now focus my work, is at the bottom of all social indicators, with the widest gender gap, the greatest security challenges, the longest running crises. Of the 10 worst countries to be a woman, five are Arab.

Meanwhile I run an Institute that was established in 1973. It is 46 years old, making it the first in the Arab region, and one of the first worldwide. We should do better at telling the good stories that come from the region – and the existence of this Institute is a good story!

The Arab Institute for Women covers the 22 Arab states. It is a small but strong hybrid – at once both academic and activist. It is a bridge, a hub, a voice, a network, a platform, a fueling station for feminist activists in the region. For REAL CHANGE in the region.

But: I run this on a shoestring budget – we just don’t get funding. And: I am so often the lone Arab voice in the room… perhaps like this room!

In the Arab region, we say we’re always on the brink of an emergency – in perma-crisis. But what is an “emergency”? If we define “emergency” from the perspective of women – we are living in a perpetual state of emergency in EVERY SINGLE COUNTRY.

In this global state of emergency for women, present approaches are FAILING women. Political agreements, donor programs, aid interventions – and a hell of a lot of acronyms – these DO NOT translate to safety for women.

Even female aid workers are NOT safe. In a survey of female aid workers we recently conducted, we received 600 respondents in 5 days. 41% said sexual harassment was their #1 concern in the field. Over 400 shared personal stories of sexual exploitation and abuse. One of those stories was mine. What hope do we have to end violence and foster equality when the very systems established to deliver equality are unequal?

It is a fact: we have a massive global problem. And we meet again again AGAIN to talk about it – and to ask why. WHY?! Do we still need to hear why? No. Enough why. NOW is the time for HOW.

And now I am here with you – once again on a stage in Sweden. I’ve been invited to speak here a few times, and I’m honored to do so.  I love your people, your politics, your licorice…

But I speak at so many conferences, I lose my voice, I don’t know where my words go. In 2015, I left the UN to work with the underdog. I became the “local partner” (I now say that I am the local partner I always wanted to partner with!).

Suddenly I was asked to speak everywhere, to serve on committees, to offer the “local perspective”, just like other local partners, all without receiving any funding or support. Local partners are not Goodwill Ambassadors! We talk about “engaging grassroots groups”. We talk about “localization” and the “grand bargain”. We talk about “supporting women’s organizations”.

And here I struggle with a moral dilemma: I almost did not come to this event. You see, coming to you comes with a cost – to me, to the Institute, to the movement. I am responsible for the Institute’s survival. The Institute is responsible for doing the work that needs doing, serving women. And the movement loses momentum when we talk more than we act.

What is a movement?! A movement implies that people are willing to move – and move in the same direction! I speak because I believe in what we do, and in what we are fighting to achieve. But speeches alone will not fix what needs fixing.

The description of this forum states that we will…advance real equality…counter those against equality…support those at the forefront of equality.

Sweden, right now there is a global leadership vacuum, and you are the ones to lead us, to take women’s rights to the next level.

Last time I was in Sweden, I taught the audience a word, one Arabic word, that implies a collective motivation to move forward, to advance, to keep going. It is a word many of you might already know, a word that came to be the motto of the Stockholm Forum on Gender Equality. That word is YALLA!

What I told us all 18 months ago is this: YALLA, FORWARD!

YALLA! Because we have a collective responsibility to act. This collective responsibility, it brings a collective ability. We already have what it takes to bring the change we need – probably in this very room. And we have a collective responsibility to be angry! Our anger points to our purpose. As they say: Those who are not angry are not informed.

Look at Extinction Rebellion, who rally worldwide support fueled by a shared belief in the URGENCE of their cause. We need a Rebellion for women’s rights.

Look at your very own Greta Thunburg, whose passion and conviction is waking up, and shaking up, the world. We need a Greta for women’s rights.

We need to connect with our own passion, anger, urgence for our cause. Because, if there is still one woman who is not safe, NO ONE is safe. And if there is still one woman without full equality, our job is not done. And – clearly – our job is NOT done.

I would very much like to be out of a job. But for now – I remain ANGRY. 14-yr old me is ANGRY. This cause… it is the rage of my life. Our rage is right. Our rage gives us courage. And our courage is contagious.

At the Commission on the Status of Women in March 2019, we were told to “push back on the push-back…” which keeps us paralyzed where we are now.

We will NOT go backwards…what we had before was NOT good enough.

We will NOT stand still…what we have now is NOT good enough

What shall we do? We must FIGHT FORWARD. Yes – Yalla, Forward.

SO: I bring a radical suggestion: Let us no longer meet to DISCUSS gender equality – let us TAKE IT. This world – I would like to see it in my lifetime!

There are 3.7 billion women. We have been denied rights and equality for too long. We should not have to wait a day longer. With the rest of the world moving backward, the world needs Sweden to move forward… and forward faster. So, please. Yalla. Forward!

Together, let us change what it means to be a woman in the world – not in 2030, but RIGHT NOW.


#localization #GenderEquality #womensgroups #sida #Sweden #development #humanitarian

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