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By Women, _ For Women and the World UMD Awarded $2.5 Million Grant from the U.S. Department of State to Support Women Leaders in the Middle East and North Africa


For decades, May Rihani—the director of the George and Lisa Zakhem Kahlil Gibran Chair for Values and Peace— has championed girls’ education and has advocated for women’s rights. In various leadership roles with nonprofit organizations and with the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative, Rihani and her colleagues have identified social challenges and designed and implemented possible solutions. Now, by creating a groundbreaking regional initiative, Rihani has built an infrastructure that empowers women in the Middle East and in North Africa to identify and prioritize the challenges that they consider most daunting, and to work together to plan strategic actions to overcome them.


The U.S. Department of State awarded the University of Maryland a two-year, $2.5 million grant to support this initiative, Women as Partners in Progress (WPP), a forward-looking platform that promotes women’s leadership and gender-inclusive policies in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Rihani serves as the principal investigator of the project. Patricia Flederman, a noted international education consultant, is the project’s deputy director. The Gibran Chair, which is housed in BSOS, leads the project in conjunction with three partner organizations—Jossour, a women’s rights advocacy NGO in Morocco; World of Letters, a social enterprise promoting youth dignity and equity in the Arab Region, founded in Jordan; and Abolish 153, a women’s protection and empowerment organization in Kuwait. These organizations represent the Maghreb, the Levant and the Gulf areas across the MENA region. Rihani’s knowledge and leadership in the areas of girls’ education and women’s rights is drawn from decades of experience designing and implementing programs in more than 40 countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. She previously served as cochair of the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative between 2008 and 2010. Her seminal book, Keeping the Promise, is a framework for advancing girls’ education that is used by global organizations. “Women as Partners in Progress will amplify women’s voices through a knowledge-based, results-oriented program that will help current women leaders—as well as the next generation across the MENA region—work strategically on advancing selected causes, and build a strong network to empower their ideas,” Rihani said.

Participants discussed timely topics at the first WPP knowledge seminar in Morocco.

Finding and Connecting Women Leaders The first phase of WPP, which launched in October, focused on sharing quantitative and qualitative knowledge with women leaders about existing research on pathways and obstacles to increasing women’s rights and leadership in the Arab world. This synthesized knowledge now serves as a basis for the second phase, the organization of knowledge seminars for established and emerging women leaders. The seminars provide participants

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with the opportunity to discuss the findings of the research. Participants then focus on key issues they wish to address in their countries, analyze the constraints they might face, and design strategic plans of actions. This process better equips women leaders with tools to advance priority women’s issues in their countries, as well as to organize effective campaigns and build a network across the MENA region supporting gender-inclusive policies. Selection of the women who participate in the seminars, about 30 for each event, is competitive and rigorous. “We chose powerful women who are political leaders, social leaders, academic leaders, media leaders, legal leaders, leaders in the entertainment industry, and beyond,” Rihani said. Rihani and her colleagues believe that, because they are selecting women who come from multifaceted sectors with different points of view, the action steps and solutions they develop will be multifaceted and far-reaching. “We are working with women across all professions May Rihani and all geographic regions in these countries to effect change. They are in charge of this important work. My role is to play Socrates—I ask them questions and help draw out their responses. But they decide what issues matter the most, and they decide how they will work together to face these issues,” Rihani said. “What all these women have in common is how committed they are to improving their countries and how passionate they are to advance women’s causes.” The program’s first knowledge seminar—conducted in French and in Arabic—was led by Rihani in Rabat, Morocco, in December. There, participants worked for three days to debate and select two key women’s issues on which to focus. The group chose two central issues to work on over the next year: citizenship and equality, and violence against women. The violence against women platform includes violence in the workplace; violence at home; violence in schools; and violence in public spaces. “It was difficult for our leaders to select only two central topics on which to focus, because they are so passionate about making change across all aspects of society. That’s why we made the topic selection process visual, open and transparent,” Rihani said. “It was important that everyone felt they were a part of that process.” After the summit, the working group submitted a draft plan of action to Rihani, who asked further questions and recommended more specificity and detail. As the action plan progresses into concrete action items, the UMD staff of WPP will work closely with participants as they move the process forward in order to complete the action items. The staff of WPP stay in touch with participants online and on weekly Skype calls.


At the WPP’s first knowledge seminar in Morocco, participants elected to focus on citizenship and equality, as well as on violence against women.

“My constant reminder to them is to keep the goals and steps ‘SMART’; meaning: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely,” Rihani said. “This is a practical process. That is the only way to achieve results.” A similar Knowledge Seminar and summit took place in Amman, Jordan in March. There, participants chose to focus on: 1) How to increase the opportunities for women to enter and be retained in the labor force, and 2) How to influence the Ministry of Education to reform textbooks in Jordan so that the portrayal of women and men, as well as of girls and boys, is based on the value of equality. The final Knowledge Seminar and selection process of two causes will take place in Kuwait in May. “This project has an enormous impact on leadership development for women in the Middle East and North Africa,” said Dean Gregory Ball. “The work aligns with our college’s focus on investigating the social and behavioral dimensions of international challenges, and on supporting the development of practical

In Jordan, Knowledge Seminar participants worked together to choose two areas of focus.

applications and policies to bring about lasting change. BSOS is proud to engage in this effort.”

Tracking progress, building community WPP is creating a network of women leaders in Morocco, Jordan and Kuwait—and then linking them together and connecting them with other women’s organizations in other Arab countries such as Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Saudi Arabia. Thus, WPP is establishing a virtual hub that will build community and bring together individuals with different backgrounds and knowledge. “Our virtual hub will help advance key women’s issues and gender-inclusive policies, and will ensure that these activities will grow and achieve greater impact and sustainability in the years to come, well after the project term is over,” Rihani said. “We are working for widespread and lasting change.” The third phase of WPP will focus on training workshops designed to contribute to the empowerment of the women leaders to apply their knowledge and build their leadership capacity. It will also help participants to develop effective decision-making skills and will strengthen their alliances with men and women, civil society, and the public sector, in order to accelerate collaboration and impact. The fourth and final phase will increase regional and national awareness regarding selected women’s issues in each of the three countries through social mobilization campaigns composed of national and local activities that will engage organizations and government institutions. “I believe positive change is happening in the Middle East and North Africa, and I think women leaders are spearheading these transformations. Part of the challenge is to encourage the media to report in an in-depth way on these leaders, these outcomes, and on this good news,” Rihani said.

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By Women, For Women—And the World  

Feature story on Women as Partners in Progress from Be the Solution Magazine Spring 2018

By Women, For Women—And the World  

Feature story on Women as Partners in Progress from Be the Solution Magazine Spring 2018

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