MANAMA // Eight years after the king began a raft of political and social reforms, Bahrain's civil society is booming. More than 470 non-governmental organisations provide support for those in need among the Gulf island's 700,000 people. Women's groups, special-needs organisations, social clubs and human rights societies now advocate on a variety of issues. About 80 per cent of services provided to the special-needs community are delivered by NGOs, according to the ministry of social development.
Many of the organisations were formed around 2001, shortly after the introduction of political reforms by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, who came to power in 1999. Firas Gharaibeh, the UN Development Programme's deputy resident representative to Bahrain, described the country's civil society as "vocal and active". "There is increasing awareness, for example, on domestic violence," he said. "NGOs can reach these issues at the grassroots level."
Among the NGOs that make up Bahrain's robust civil society is the Migrant Workers Protection Society. One case it worked on this summer has generated a huge response from the community. For three years Lakshmi worked as a maid for a family who would not allow her to leave. The Indian woman did not receive her salary and had no contact with her husband and two children. Cataracts clouding her eyes were left untreated.
Lakshmi became a symbol for some domestic workers. But her case, which came to light this summer, might have gone unnoticed were it not for the action of the NGO set up to protect workers. "One of the saddest parts of this story is that she felt as though this is her lot in life," said Marietta Dias, the head of the society's action committee. "Civil society is growing from strength to strength and the societies here are doing tremendous work," Mrs Dias said. "They are tackling major issues such as domestic violence and child abuse. There is still a lot to be done, but it is moving in the right direction."
The protection society is located in a small, quiet neighbourhood of Adliya, a suburb close to Manama, where clusters of signs point the way to a variety of organisations. "From day one we worked to take care of migrant workers; that is our mandate," Mrs Dias said. Although her organisation was founded only in 2005, Mrs Dias, 65, has been an active volunteer in Bahrain since the 1960s, when as a young mother she joined her husband, who had taken a job on the island. Today, the society has 40 members, both Bahraini and expatriate volunteers.
There still is a lot of work to be done, particularly in changing mindsets in society and advocating on behalf of those who otherwise would not necessarily have a voice, Mrs Dias said. According to Najwa Janahi, the director of NGOs at the ministry of social development, civil society organisations in Bahrain "complement the work of the government through their social role within the community". "NGOs in Bahrain are well aware of its development role in society, and they are actively engaged at many levels, spanning the community, economy and human rights," she wrote in an e-mail.
Sanaa Mahdi, 39, is among 13,000 teachers who are members of the Bahrain Teachers' Society, which advocates for issues including better wages and working conditions for its members. "I became a member because this is the right way [to protect] my rights," she said. "Teachers are important and are the foundation for the country's next engineers, doctors. There is not enough appreciation for what teachers do."
Mrs Mahdi, who is the secretary of the society, said she believes Bahrain has developed a vibrant civil society because of a culture of people advocating for their rights. "In Bahrain the people are more open-minded and it helps to bring more members into so many NGOs," she said. "People here are maybe not as well off as [other GCC countries] so they need to work stronger for their rights." The Bahrain Human Rights Society was among the NGOs launched in 2001 and among the first to deal specifically with rights issues on the island. Today, the organisation, which has about 40 active members, raises awareness about human rights, receives complaints and investigates alleged violations.
One of its main issues relates to allegations of torture in the country - dealing with cases as well as the rehabilitation of victims - according to Abdullah Alderazi, the society's secretary general. "We also work on issues of transitional justice and reconciliation," he said. Abdullah Abdul Malik, the spokesman for the Bahraini Society Against Normalisation with the Zionist Enemy, said his organisation works to keep the Palestinian question in the public eye.
"Palestine is the main issue for the Arab world, from when we were young, Palestine is always in our mind," he said, seated in his Adliya office with iconic images from the West Bank and Gaza posted on the walls. "It has been over 60 years and still it is the first cause for us, the Arab people." Mrs Janahi believes the wide spectrum of organisations also bolsters the democratic nature of Bahraini society, and are characterised by their "transparency, accountability, and co-governance".
"These values have become popular among individuals and the community as a whole, which would help strengthen democracy in the country," she said. A new law to regulate the sector, currently before the parliament, will replace legislation from 1989. "The new law is drafted generally according to the new trends in regard to civil society action and the prospects of the new role that NGOs have to play," Mrs Janahi said.
Not all organisations have been able to operate freely. The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights was officially closed in 2004, two years after it was registered with the ministry, for alleged violations of the current law. Nevertheless, according to the centre's president, Nabeel Rajab, the group is still active. "We have civil society and we have strong communities, which are very influential in the political, cultural and social arenas," he said. "Neither the government or religion are the 100-per-cent players."