Interview: Leila Rhiwi, UN Women Representative from the Maghreb Region

I recently had the honor of interviewing Leila Rhiwi, UN Women Representative from the Maghreb Region

When did UN women come to the Maghreb Region?

UN Women officially settled here in 2010-2011. However, we existed as another organization called UNIFEM before that, dating back to approximately 25 years ago.

What are the resources and the partners that assist you in your activities?

UN Women is supported by all the member countries of the UN within the framework of gender equality on a global scale. This particular regional office has received funds from several different countries, among them Spain, Switzerland, Finland, Norway, France, Denmark, and of course, Morocco. These programs are created in partnership with either national institutions or civil society organisations that want to defend women’s rights, prevent violence, etc. We rally funds from all over the world and develop programs in Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria.

What are the biggest challenges in the countries that you oversee?

The biggest challenge today is violence against women; the studies are showing an alarming situation. The fact is that institutionalized responses to these issues are not yet well-established, so there are problems regarding access to help services. The second biggest issue relates to the economic autonomy of women. This region has one of the lowest female employment rates. And of the ones who are employed, most are in the informal sector, which makes it hard for them to benefit from social security and other working services. There are also a lot of women working in the field of agriculture without any type of payment.

How do you support women’s leadership in businesses?

As an agency of the United Nations, we back national institutions willing to push forward the female cause. In the realm of leadership we work a lot with legislature, which means that we try to provide technical support so that laws and institutional mechanisms include measures to reduce the gap between men and women in leadership roles. We do this through affirmative action, quotas, or even financial subsidies or penalties. Our approach starts with an assessment of the situation, which then leads us to a thorough analysis of the obstacles. After that, we back legal and normative responses.

In what ways do you help women gain access to more and more positions of responsibility in the political sphere?

We try to work a lot on reinforcing women’s presence in elected bodies (parliaments, communal councils.) This happens mainly through the support of NGOs that demand parity and quotas as well as the empowerment of women. We also try to strengthen networking between women who have succeeded in their political endeavors and those who want to enter this line of work.

How do you reduce violence against women?

We don’t have the capacity to intervene directly for individual cases, but, once again, we work hard to help governments tackle them. We carry out studies so that we have statistical data that help us respond to the questions of where, when, how, and why. We then give this data to governments to serve as a base for crafting of specific, well-targeted responses. We recently drafted a special bill in Tunisia on matters relating to violence. Again, we always intervene in the normative aspect. Currently, we are working on what we like to call a “service package” for women who are victims of violence globally. This is a cross-sectoral tool that creates a standard of response to violence against women through all bodies concerned (Police, Justice, Hospitals, etc.)

What are the differences, in terms of gender equality, between the three countries of the region?

There aren’t really any considerable differences in terms of women’s experiences in this region, partly due to the historical and cultural similarity of these countries. The only thing that could be pointed out is that Tunisia’s legislative arsenal is the most advanced one.

How do you communicate with other regional offices of UN Women across the world?

On a global scale, we use skype for business a lot. We mainly report to the office in Cairo that oversees all Arab countries. However, we also have to communicate a lot with the HQ in New York, which we do through forum discussions divided by topic. We regularly organise video-conferences. The distance isn’t really felt as we are always easily and oftentimes connected to each other.

We saw on your website that there is a whole section dedicated to the environment-- how does this relate to women?

In our region particularly, the environment is very linked to women. As I mentioned earlier, women work a lot in the field of agriculture, so any change in the environment can hurt them. The lack of water, for example, can be very hard for women because they’ll have to walk a lot more in order to find water, which directly affects their health and well-being.

What do the teaching and counseling programs consist of?

We try to provide help and advice to women developing their own economic projects. This can sometimes be difficult because we often work with illiterate women. We try our best to teach them how to form cooperatives, do accounting, etc. We also have programs that support women trying to get into communal councils to craft solutions that best fit the needs of other women. This is important for many women often overlooked or forgotten by men.

Have you noticed an improvement in gender equality since UN Women settled in the region?

Of course! We have seen a lot of improvement due to the progressive dynamics of the countries and undertakings UN Women has had the honour to accompany, support, and sometimes fund. There have been significant legislative changes that project a promising future for the universal goal of gender equality.

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