Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1230, (22 - 28 January 2015)
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1230, (22 - 28 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

E for empowerment

An innovative project is coaching girls and women in Upper Egypt on how to enter the workforce, reports Mai Samih

E for empowerment
E for empowerment
Al-Ahram Weekly

More than two million young people in Egypt are out of school and 80 per cent of them are girls from rural areas and Upper Egypt. This is according to a 2011 survey of young people in Egypt prepared by the Egyptian Cabinet Information and Decision Support Centre (IDSC) and the Population Council,

Higher education is still largely the privilege of richer and urban young people, with 46 per cent of university students coming from the richest households and only four per cent from the poorest, the survey found. Labour force participation among female young people aged 15 to 28 years old was 13.4 per cent, compared to 61.4 per cent among males of the same age.

Young women aged 15 to 29 continue to work in traditionally female occupations such as teaching, clerical, and domestic work. Young women with permanent jobs are more likely to work part-time (42 per cent) than their male counterparts (17 per cent). Seventy-one per cent of young men and 49 per cent of women believe a girl must obey her brother even if he is younger than her, and three quarters of young men and women believe that she must obey her husband’s orders in all situations.

 According to Population Council statistics, in Upper Egypt only six per cent of women participate in the labour force. They also suffer from poorer access to education and restricted mobility, backed by conservative social norms.

The council, along with three local NGOs and 30 community development associations (CDAs) with funds from USAID, has been tackling the social and economic marginalisation of women in the Upper Egyptian governorates of Fayoum, Qena and Sohag. It aims to build the capacity of young women to become economically and socially active community members.

In December last year, the Population Council’s Egypt Office hosted the final conference of the “Neqdar Nesharek” (We can Participate) programme to promote women’s social and economic empowerment in rural Upper Egypt. The event took place under the auspices of Minister of Social Solidarity Ghada Wali, with ministry representative Kamal Al-Sherif attending on her behalf.

Secretary-general at the Ministry of Local Development Essam Barakat attended on behalf of the minister of local development, and Nahla Abdel-Tawab, Egypt country director of the Population Council, also attended.

 The event featured an exhibition by women beneficiaries in which they displayed the products they had produced as part of the project. A panel discussion, “Enhancing the Effectiveness of Women’s Economic Empowerment Programmes in Egypt,” followed a programme overview and was attended by the director of the AUC’s Social Research Centre, Hoda Rashad; the vice-president of the Population Council in New York, Ann Blanc; women and development consultant Fatma Khafagy; and the president of the Egyptian Businesswomen’s Association, Yomna Shereidy.

 The programme offers life skills and civic-engagement training essential for social and economic empowerment. Programme manager Khaled al-Sayed said that it started in November 2011 with young women recruited for eight-month periods. They were then trained both theoretically and practically so that they were ready for employment, either starting their own private businesses or working in places like pharmacies or factories.

The programme also promotes changes in community norms by challenging assumptions about girls’ use of public space and employment and participation in the public sphere.

The aim of the programme, according to Al-Sayed, is to empower 4,500 girls and women in the 16 to 29 age group. “Economic empowerment means teaching her a craft and giving her information that enables her to open her own private business, or be qualified to find a vacancy in existing entities,” he said.

“As for social empowerment, this means a person who is able to participate on the economic, social and political levels in order to participate in public life.”

 According to Population Council and USAID statistics, 8,000 parents, spouses, siblings and community members have been reached through community mobilisation activities and are becoming more accepting of women’s work and engagement in the public sphere. More than 200 female promoters have been trained to design and implement similar livelihood programmes.

Some 76.5 per cent of the women surveyed by the programme strongly agreed on their right to equal economic opportunities, while only 66.5 per cent of women from control villages acknowledged this right; 85.6 per cent of women participating in the programme also strongly agreed on their right to equal social empowerment, while only 79.8 per cent agreed in control villages.

The vast majority of women in the programme, 99.2 per cent, can manage their own time, while only 36.5 per cent can in control villages; 78.8 per cent of the women scored above average in business knowledge, while only 54.1 per cent of them did so in control villages. Just over 60 per cent of programme women had a savings account, while only 9.1 per cent had one in the control villages; 13.3 per cent were entrepreneurs, while only 2.3 per cent were in the control villages, and 7.4 per cent of programme women were wage earners, while only 3.6 per cent of them were in the control villages.

 The programme combines business-skills development with support in starting a business or finding employment in an existing business. In addition to this, it emphasises life skills and civic engagement, which are vital for young women to become economically and socially empowered. It also creates an enabling environment for young women through community awareness events and meetings with husbands and parents of the beneficiaries as well as community leaders.

It also included a four-month training course in which girls gain basic business and employment skills to help them become economically active. They learn how to develop a business plan, how to make a feasibility study, and how to write a funding proposal and where to go to get that funding. Another activity was starting a business and finding employment, in which young women receive vocational training and mentorship from staff and learn English through software provided by a well-known computer company. This helps them to start a business like a supermarket, a catering service, an Internet café or just find employment in offices, community development associations, or elsewhere.

The young women typically attend three modules in life skills, legal rights and civic engagement taught in weekly sessions by promoters over a six-month period. A module in life-skills training prepares participants for work by building self-esteem and providing them with verbal communication, conflict resolution and leadership skills.

They are also taught essential women’s and child health information, including healthy nutrition and cooking in a “five minutes for your health” wellness programme in donated demonstration kitchens. In the legal rights training, information is given on personal status laws as well as labour laws. It explains what constitutes hazardous or exploitive work and trains young women on ways to address possible harassment or abuse.

In the civic engagement training, girls are taught about their rights and responsibilities as citizens in their local communities. In the community engagement events they then hold awareness conversations and events with beneficiaries’ family members and the community at large.

During these events, the benefits of women’s work and the positive impacts of their businesses and work on the women, their families and the entire village are discussed in order to help create a community that accepts women’s employment and empowerment. So far, the project has reached more than 8,000 parents, spouses, siblings, and community members encouraging them to recognise the value of women’s work and engagement in the public sphere.

Programme promoter Manal Mohammed described some of the challenges encountered during the programme. “The project was a life saver for many girls in Upper Egypt as most of them had been deprived of education because their schools were in other districts or because of the traditions that did not allow them to be educated or to challenge a boy and work,” she said.

“The project educated a lot of girls and enabled them to learn from each other, and we were helped by local sheikhs and village residents who helped convince families to send their daughters to the programme.”

“We trained the girls theoretically, practically, and in vocational skills and provided them with fun activities to make sure they did not drop out. We encouraged them to choose the crafts they wanted to work in, even if they were not traditional ones, as some girls did not have the courage to choose any craft that was different to sewing, for example. We also provided them with the opportunity to be trained by professional trainers in their villages as it was difficult for them to leave their governorates.”

“The biggest challenges were that some girls were not allowed to go to the market to buy the raw materials they needed for their crafts, and others were under the age of 21 and were unable to get loans.”

One beneficiary from Qena described how her life changed after the programme. “At first, my parents refused to allow me to leave the house as our traditions say that no girl can leave her parents’ home. But the promoters from the programme managed to convince them to allow me do so.”

“I chose the field of computers and went through theoretical and vocational training. This raised my self-confidence, and now I am planning to open a computer centre and train other girls in my village to work with computers.”

 “What makes this project unique is that it empowers women on the economic and social level at the same time. She is not only helped to start her own project, but she also acquires social, medical, legal, economic and political information, as well as participating as a citizen.’’Said Al-Sayed.

“We also encourage them through programme clubs to communicate and build entities together. These are like country clubs for women, or gathering places for girls to be able to talk, exchange expertise and see what they need together, whether it is marketing or more legal studies or whatever. As for safe places, these are the classes in NGOs or youth centres that the girls go to. We call them safe because they are accepted as a concept and known to be so by society.’’

“We carried out a similar project in association with the International Population Council and some NGOs under the name Eshraq to help reintegrate girls who had dropped out of school from the age of 12 to 15. More than 1,420 girls have already started their own projects and 664 have found jobs in other places,” he added.

“The biggest problem we have faced is for people in the villages to accept the concept that their daughters can leave their villages to learn vocational skills or have their own shops or even work in a work place. Accepting that a girl can have an economic role outside the house or in a far-away place was out of the question for some parents, unfortunately.”

Programme manager Rania Roushdi listed the results of the programme at the Cairo meeting: 78 per cent of the girls who participated in the programme acquired new knowledge, compared to 66.7 per cent who had knowledge before the project; 91.4 per cent gained reproductive health knowledge; 22 per cent of them worked at the end line of the project, and 13.3 per cent started their own business.

Project officer Ahmed Ramadan listed the lessons learned from the project and the recommendations of the conference. “A database for innovative ideas, raw materials, market demands and similar products should be established,” he said. “A market status study should be conducted to know the needs of the market. More productive family exhibitions should be created and NGOs encouraged to create markets for them. The procedures of getting loans should be simplified and interest rates should be reasonable.”

For Khafagy, an empowerment project consists of four elements, economic, social, political and cultural, leading to political empowerment, and these were all features of the programme. “Making a living means controlling an income and spending more on the house, food and supporting children, especially girls. This results in better living standards and enhancing women’s abilities,” she said.

“After a woman escapes the fear of being economically dependent on a man or subjected to violence by him she is able to move around freely, more markets will be open to her, and there will be more political participation which finally leads to equality with men. In any project there should be a profit margin which guarantees its continuity, and the beginning should be to study the needs of the market, which is what the programme did,” she said.

 “We are the ones who determine what field we will work in. Traditions or age should not be allowed to hinder us,” commented Shereidy.

“When a girl is starting a new project, she needs to know where she can go to get a loan. There are more than 18 places to get help for a project loan, but nobody in these villages knows about them. So we hope that there will in future be one place they can go to that will raise their awareness about interest rates, especially since some people spread incorrect information about these in the name of religion saying that loans are forbidden in Islam, for example,” Al-Sayed added.

“Development means better co-ordination between the ministry and NGOs. We intend to put the results of the programme into circulation, especially since there is a department in the ministry of social solidarity for empowering women on the social and economic levels,” Al-Sherif said.

“We are waiting for the final outcomes of this project before deciding what we will do next in terms of similar projects,” said Al-Sayed, adding that it was important for the girls to have strong wills and determination as this would help them advance in life.

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