UMD Awarded $2.5M Grant from U.S. Dept. of State to Support Women Leaders in the Middle East, North Africa

The U.S. Department of State has awarded the University of Maryland a two-year, $2.5 million grant to support “Women as Partners in Progress,” a new initiative that will promote women's leadership and gender-inclusive policies in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

The George and Lisa Zakhem Kahlil Gibran Chair for Values and Peace, within UMD’s College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, will lead the project in conjunction with three partner organizations—Joussour in Morocco, World of Letters in Jordan and Abolish 153 in Kuwait—representing the Maghreb, the Levant and the Gulf areas across the MENA region. The UMD team will work closely with the three partner organizations to identify established and emerging women leaders to participate in Women as Partners in Progress workshops and seminars. The initiative will help expand women leaders’ access to policy-making and increase gender-inclusive policies by building their knowledge, skills and leadership capacity.

“This project will have an enormous impact on leadership development for women in the Middle East and North Africa,” said Dean Gregory Ball. “The work aligns with our focus on investigating the social and behavioral dimensions of international challenges and supporting the development of practical applications and policies to bring about lasting change. Our College is proud to engage in this effort.”

The principal investigator (PI) for the Women as Partners in Progress project, Gibran Chair Director May Rihani, is a pioneer in girls’ education and a tireless advocate of women’s rights and empowerment. Her knowledge on the subject is drawn from years of experience designing and implementing programs in more than 40 countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. She previously served as co‐chair 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.

Leadership panel

Gibran Chair Director May Rihani, fourth from left; Project Deputy Director Patricia Flederman, fourth from right; with President Wallace Loh (center) at a symposium on women in the Arab world at UMD in 2016.

“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, grow and develop their skills, and build a strong network to advance their ideas,” Rihani said. “We are very pleased to be working with three local women's organizations in Morocco, Jordan, and Kuwait on such a promising project.”

Through Women as Partners in Progress, a total of 90 women leaders will receive training to increase and deepen their knowledge about gender roles and women’s rights in their specific countries and in the Arab world. The program will equip women leaders with tools to organize effective campaigns and build a network across the MENA region supporting gender-inclusive policies. Program participants will decide upon key women’s issues to advance, and engage civil society organizations, political leaders, media and a newly established virtual hub in an effort to achieve progress in establishing new policies that address these key issues.

The first phase of the project will focus on sharing knowledge with the women leaders about existing research on pathways and obstacles to increasing women’s rights and leadership in the Arab world, and in particular, the three countries where the project activities will take place: Morocco, Jordan and Kuwait. This synthesized knowledge will serve as a basis for the second phase, which will focus on the organization of knowledge seminars for established and emerging women leaders beginning in Morocco in December, then Jordan and Kuwait, in coordination with the partner organizations in each of the three countries. The seminars will provide the women leaders the opportunity to focus on key issues they wish to address in their countries. The third phase will focus on training workshops designed to empower the women leaders to apply their knowledge and build their leadership capacity in order to further address the key priority issues previously identified through the seminars. The fourth and final phase will increase regional and national awareness regarding these key women’s issues in each of the three countries through a social mobilization campaign comprised of a variety of activities that will engage civil society organizations and government institutions.

Panel discussion

The Arab Women Peace symposium organized by the Girbran Chair in 2016 was a catalyst to the Women as Partners in Progress project.

By creating a network of women leaders in each one of the three countries with help from the partner organizations, and then by linking them together and connecting them with other women’s organizations in other Arab countries, Women as Partners in Progress will establish a virtual hub that will build community and bring together individuals with different backgrounds and knowledge. Building and expanding this 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.

The three partner organizations will be important contributors to the project’s success:

Jossour logoJossour is a non-governmental organization in Morocco that advocates for women’s rights. Established in 1995, Jossour’s efforts have focused on joining with political entities to advance women's rights and providing platforms to find solutions to the issues concerning women and their communities.



World of Letters logoWorld of Letters is a social enterprise established in Jordan in 2006 with the vision of fostering pride, dignity, and equity among youth in the Arab region. World of Letters hosts the "Girls Education Champion Network" to empower and strengthen girls’ education leaders in the MENA region, and collaborates with local communities to target key issues, such as altering the discriminatory gender norms that young Jordanian women face when transitioning into the workforce.


Abolish 153 logoAbolish 153 in Kuwait seeks to create a safe environment where mothers, daughters, sisters and wives are protected from all forms of violence; raise awareness of violent practices and the legislation that sanctions them; and ensure the creation of safe houses for women under threat of violence.



The U.S. Department of State support for the Women in Partners in Progress initiative is part of the U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) program, which supports governments and their citizens to achieve shared political, economic and stability objectives.

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