Sunday,17 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1235, (26 February - 4 March 2015)
Sunday,17 December, 2017
Issue 1235, (26 February - 4 March 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Mission empowerment

Men can also be involved in the struggle for women’s rights, as the story of one foundation reveals, writes Mai Samih

Mission empowerment
Mission empowerment
Al-Ahram Weekly

According to the social scientist Dina Ayman, there are two challenges facing women, the first and most important being gender-specific. Ayman is the author of Female Entrepreneurship in Traditional Economies, a study of the challenges facing female entrepreneurs in Egypt.

These challenges include psychological pressure, often translating into a lack of understanding and a supportive partner, lack of mobility for women, such as banning girls from travelling alone, societal pressures, such as stereotyping women by saying women’s main role is being a housewife, the lack of dividing house chores between men and women, and the absence of widespread childcare.

Country specific challenges to women’s entrepreneurship can include the difficulty of access of women to funding, lack of business incubators, no informal social capital, a weak entrepreneurial framework, a weak transportation system and the absence of properly enforced legislation to protect competition.

 It is the first form of challenges that most feminist movements have concentrated on, in many cases seeing them as an exclusively female problem. One organisation is determined to include men in the process of recalibrating gender relations. The Misr Foundation for Health and Sustainable Development (MFHSD) was established in 2014.

Amr Hassan, a professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at Cairo University and a founding member of MFHSD, was awarded the United Nations Arab Women Award for 2014 as one of the most influential people in women’s lives in the Arab world.

“The Foundation consists of the head of the board of trustees, Nasr Al-Shorbagy, myself, the medical manager of the Foundation, Amr Harras, the executive manager, and Gamal Shaban, head of the Heart Institute in Cairo,” Hassan said. The foundation also includes experts in mass communication, economics and political science.

Explaining the work of the foundation, Hassan said, “We started with the ‘You are more Important’ campaign in which we focus on health, education and the empowerment of women, including by fighting domestic violence, sexual assaults on women, the marriage of teenage girls which leads to early pregnancy and an increase in maternal mortality rates or the delivery of stillborn children, female genital mutilation (FGM), and the mental and emotional abuse of women.”

 The idea is to help build a culture that recognises the importance of medical attention for women and improving maternal health, among other aims.

The foundation also works in education by working on improving women’s literacy and lowering female drop-out rates in schools, also encouraging women to study fields that are not traditionally female-oriented like engineering and medicine and helping to build their self-confidence. On the economic level, it encourages women to start their own businesses and works to help change the mentality of managers in the private sector who may believe it is better for them to employ men.

There is a need, Hassan says, to open communication channels between public policy-makers and community representatives so that the former put more emphasis on women’s entrepreneurship. “Sustainable development means giving future generations the right to a better life, and this means enhancing the status of women. We also work to change the image of women in the media by presenting examples of successful women,” Hassan says.

Medically, the foundation has started a “Your number is your Life” campaign to raise the awareness of women about their blood sugar levels, cholesterol levels and blood pressure so that they are as aware of them as they are of their phone numbers. The idea is to raise people’s awareness of preventive medicine, including by working with the media, and to organise awareness sessions about pregnancy and its relation to blood pressure and sugar blood levels.

The foundation has carried out awareness-raising exercises at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Dar Al-Hilal publishing house, and the National Laser Institute by carrying out spot blood-sugar and blood-pressure testing. “We discovered that there were people with blood pressure problems who did not know about them. You should always know your numbers as this can help you counteract serious health problems,” Hassan says.

 “We have started an initiative that focuses on raising the awareness of children about health under the slogan ‘Raise the awareness of your Child’,” he adds. “This campaign was triggered by the bad habits that we sometimes observed when we went to different institutions and that were very difficult to change. We found that it was much easier to teach children a healthy lifestyle than to change the habits of grown-ups”.

“We wanted information to reach children in an indirect way, so we organised a puppet show at the El-Sawy Culture Wheel in Cairo that was designed to raise the awareness of children about health issues. We provided colouring books that contained health information, and the surprise was that the children knew all the information when they were quizzed at the end of the day. This is what we call education via entertainment and art.”

For the International Day of Combating Violence against Women, the foundation started the Egmady (Pull Yourself Together) initiative that aimed to raise awareness of violence against women. The actress Boshra was given a special award for her role in the film Seta, Saba, Thamanya (Six, Seven, Eight), and a special session was organised at the Misr General Library in Cairo for the mother of Zeina, a young girl who was raped and killed by two boys.

“There is also an initiative called Ebdeha Sah (Start Correctly) that encourages women to breastfeed their children, as many working women neglect this after they give birth and return to work. With the help of a private company, we distributed booklets about this issue to raise women’s awareness of the issue. It is better for a mother to breastfeed her child as this helps to protect him from diseases that can be prevented via the immunity given to the child via breastfeeding”.

“As for empowerment and education, we are organising workshops with the help of academic Amira Tadros to teach girls and women crafts that can lead to future job opportunities,” Hassan says.

“In September 2014, the United Nations started an initiative called ‘He for She’ along similar lines, enrolling the British actress Emma Watson to front it. The idea is that men are the ones who can help ensure women’s rights. The Prophet Mohamed called on Muslims in his teachings to respect mothers and thus every woman,” Hassan adds.

“He for She”, conducted under the auspices of United Nations Women, attempts to end all forms of discrimination against women on the social, political, cultural, and professional levels.

The foundation’s “Go Red for Women” initiative was launched in cooperation with the American Heart Association as a result of reports that the number one killer of women is heart disease. The project aims to raise the awareness of women about this deadly disease, and foundation workers toured supermarkets and other places in order to take blood pressure, blood sugar levels and cholesterol levels of women.

“For the past 30 years the disease has been increasing in Egypt due to the habit of smoking that has increased among women. There is a belief held by many that they are protected from heart disease until the age of the menopause because of the hormone estrogen, but after this the harmful cholesterol (LDL) percentage in the blood increases over the beneficial one (HDL). This makes a woman more liable to suffer from heart disease, especially if she smokes or gains weight,” Hassan comments.

“The fact that the veins of women are smaller than those of men and can be blocked more easily makes the symptoms of heart disease different in women from in men, and this fact can make them more liable to developing the disease.”

 According to the United Nations World Women Report of 2010, globally the average marriage age for women is 30 or older, while it is below 20 in many developing countries. Fertility rates have declined to 2.5 births per woman in the developed world, unlike in developing countries, which still have the highest rates of women bearing five children or more. Early marriages also limit women’s opportunities for education, employment and advancement in life.

In all countries women live longer than men, but in developing countries women’s exposure to risks associated with pregnancy and childbirth, along with bad habits such as smoking, can be life-threatening and so equalise life expectancies between the two sexes. According to recent data, in sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and the Middle East, women account for more than half of people living with HIV.

In education, women account for two thirds of the world’s 774 million illiterates due to the persistent disadvantages they face. In almost all countries literacy rates are higher in the younger generations than in the older ones. But of the 72 million children who drop out of school each year, 54 per cent of them are girls.

Over 35 per cent of women in Egypt experience physical violence, irrespective of the perpetrator, at least once in their lifetime (for 1995-2006), and almost the same percentage experiences it from their intimate partner at least once in their lifetime. Over 10 per cent had experienced it in the last 12 months prior to the UN survey.

In 2010, women’s labour force participation rates remained below 30 per cent in North Africa and West Asia. Women are rarely employed in jobs with authority. There is also a persistent gender pay gap in some developing countries. In all regions, women spend twice as much time as men on unpaid housework, and girls aged five to 14 take on a large amount of household chores like cooking, caretaking and cleaning while their school attendance declines.  

 “The biggest problems we face include changing the thoughts of some people and their concept of women. There is also a lack of enlightenment or even ignorance about health awareness even among educated people. We are working on changing this through teaching the generations to come the correct way to think about women”.

“But the economic situations some people suffer from means they cannot always participate in our projects, and it is true that projects in the countryside require more money to implement them,” Hassan says.

An event called “You Are More Important” was recently held at the El-Sawy Culture Wheel in cooperation with the Children’s Cancer Hospital and the Friends of the National Cancer Institute. The event was marking International Cancer Day, which aims to raise awareness of the disease. Dr. Ahmed Mustafa, a professor of oncology at the National Cancer Institute at Cairo University, Dr. Amr Hassan, professor of gynaecology and obstetrics at Cairo University, took part.

“We plan to spread initiatives like ‘Your Number is Your Life’ in the countryside and in villages that need awareness the most. I would like to see a puppet theatre in every village to raise the awareness of children about health. I would also like to see a branch of the foundation in each governorate to help raise people’s awareness. But we cannot do this without the help of governmental organisations, which could make our mission much easier,” Hassan says.

Visits to the Press Syndicate are planned to encourage people not to wait until they have a health problem before having check-ups. “We plan to initiate what is called medical media. There is almost no house in Egypt that does not have a TV, and the media — television, newspapers and the radio — can do a lot to raise medical awareness”.

“ Current TV programmes only air paid medical pieces in which doctors only speak about operations, and no real health-awareness tips are given, like how to eat healthily and how to lead a healthy life. If you compare our lifestyle here in Egypt with those abroad you will find that a person aged 80 there is healthier, and you will rarely find people here who live to that age as we have bad eating habits,” Hassan says.

“Every year the numbers of those suffering from diabetes and heart disease are increasing, and billions are spent to cure them. But nobody has thought of reversing this trend through prevention, which would cost a lot less for all concerned. The slogan of our campaign here is ‘Prevention Eliminates Medication.’

“We also plan to produce an application on android and IOS in the form of a game to raise the awareness of children about health. We met with the songwriter Ayman Bahgat Amar who has written a song that raises the awareness of children about health, but we are still deciding who will sing it.”

In the summer they plan to organise an initiative with the El-Sawy Culture Wheel called “Discover the Talents of Your Daughter” that will feature competitions in music, sculpture, photography, Arabic, computer skills and painting”. They are currently working with the Ministry of Education to include indirect teaching materials in the national education curriculum.

“We are working on medical comic books that raise awareness of reproductive health and forms of birth control, for example, so the Ministry of Health or the Ministry of Education can make use of them. We are also planning to go to more distant places to raise people’s awareness there. We are starting in Cairo as our initiatives are most successful there, but the hope is that they can then be generalised to other governorates.”

The Ayman study says that the long-term solution to women’s problems could be to change the mind-sets of people who believe that women are inferior to men. Short-term solutions include building nurseries, providing land free of charge for a certain period of time for those who want to start projects, facilitating bank requirements and providing information about suppliers via the Internet.

“We need the cooperation of governmental institutions like the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Health, and the Ministry of Higher Education in order to avoid the problems of red tape that slow the process down and lead to slow decision-making in some institutions,” Hassan says.

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