Monday,19 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1338, (30 March - 5 April 2017)
Monday,19 November, 2018
Issue 1338, (30 March - 5 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

What women want

Will the designation of 2017 as the Year of Women help to improve women’s lives in Egypt, asks Dina Ezzat in the first of two articles

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Standing before two adjacent vegetable carts in an open market in a relatively poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Cairo, Sayeda Ibrahim, a woman in her late 30s, was haggling with a merchant about the prices he was demanding for three bags of onions, aubergines and tomatoes.
Ibrahim was insisting that the prices couldn’t possibly go up every other week. “Our salaries have not been raised in years, and we cannot cope,” she shouted after having had to succumb to a determined seller whose final words were “no bargaining. You don’t want to pay the price, then you don’t want the vegetables.”
“I can’t put up with this anymore. I really cannot manage. We have forgone so much — all I am trying to do is prepare a meal of vegetables stuffed with rice, and I was not even daring to think about having a bit of minced meat included. I need close to LE100 now to pay for a strictly vegetarian lunch for my family, but how many hundred pounds do we now get paid for our salaries? I really don’t know what to do,” Ibrahim told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Ibrahim’s calculations for a meal for a family of five, including herself, her husband and her three student children, included along with the vegetables some rice and oil she gets from the grocery store because she has failed to obtain a ration-card.
Ibrahim is a civil servant. Her husband Adel Amin is a history teacher at a preparatory school, “which means he does not even have a chance to improve his income with private lessons because people don’t pay for private history lessons for their children, or not that much,” she said.
The combined salaries of Amin and Ibrahim are almost entirely dedicated to the domestic budget. “I leave him a couple of hundred pounds to go out and have a tea at the café and of course for transport. I leave myself LE100 for transport, and I have stopped keeping another LE100 that I used to keep for the hairdresser or to buy something new for myself. This is now out of the question as we cannot make ends meet,” Ibrahim said.
Their joint salaries are dedicated to three items: education fees, rent and bills. “Needless to say the electricity, gas, water and garbage bills increase every month,” Ibrahim said. And then there is the price of food.
It is Ibrahim’s responsibility to manage the family budget, and she started by cutting down her own expenses. Then she informed her daughter that she would have to cut down on visits to the hairdresser’s and basic cosmetics. Then she started to cut down on electricity consumption and finally on basic food consumption too.
Having to look after her family, Ibrahim is keen to save something for a rainy day, she says. “I worry about emergencies, even the most basic of health emergencies. I worry about how we will save to help our daughter get married. The boys can go abroad and get their lives started, but I worry for my daughter. It is our responsibility to save for her trousseau, but this is not happening at the moment. In fact, I had to sell a few items of jewellery I had bought for her to cover some emergencies,” she said.
Ibrahim said that along with her office hours and domestic responsibilities, shared by her daughter but never by her husband or two sons, she would have to “do something extra to generate a bit of money to help keep things going.” She decided to offer her accountancy services on a part-time basis to potential clients who wish to have their books looked at or regulate matters related to taxes.
“This is not regular work, and it does not provide sufficient income. But it is better than nothing, and we have no choice,” she said.
Workers with leading charity organisations operating across the country say that it would be impossible to exaggerate the volume of economic suffering women in Egypt have to put up with today.
Many women, they say, have taken up extra work, mostly in the informal sector, in order to help generate funds for their families. These are often small or looked-down-upon jobs that cause the women concerned and their families considerable distress.
“Women working in the informal sector, and this is not a small group, suffer twice over. On the one hand, they suffer because they have to take up jobs without legal rights to their pay and of course no retirement or social security packages, and on the other they suffer because these are mostly tough jobs that offer very little pay,” said Dalia Abdel-Hamid, head of the women’s division at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a national NGO.
Women who are not able to get such jobs owing to the lack of opportunity or skills, have opted to sell their limited assets or take out loans. Dina Hatem Ali, a worker with the EIPR, said she had seen many women even going to jail for failing to pay the installments on their debts.
“Many charities try to help these women out, but the fact of the matter is that this is a daily nightmare. We see it with women who are trying to provide for education, medication, or marriage expenses or to help out their children, and women provide for no less than one third of all the families in Egypt,” Ali said.
“The trouble is that when women go to jail for having failed to pay back often small amounts, nobody comes to the rescue. The children for whom the mothers took the risk go astray, and this can be all the more devastating for the women because it doubles their loss,” Ali added.

GIRLS SUFFER MORE: For over 20 years, the Banati Foundation has been trying to reach out to girls and young women who end up on the streets of Egypt’s cities for one reason or another. Banati means “my girls” in Arabic.
The reasons for this are many, and they include a lack of shelter owing to the loss of a parent or even both to death, prison or disappearance. They also include run-away girls who suffer so much poverty and anger at home with their families that they find it easier to escape and go onto the streets.
They also include the cases of girls who are born on the streets to mothers as young as 18, and maybe even younger, who happen to be street girls themselves.
“We cannot start to count the reasons that lead girls to be on the streets. It is hard to know how many there are as well, not just because there is no accurate way of doing a proper count but also because some are permanently on the streets and others are there temporarily. What we know for a fact is that there is a problem, and a very complex one, relating to these street girls,” said Hana Abul-Ghar, the founder of Banati.
A paediatrician by profession, Abul-Ghar is very much aware of the many health risks that these girls have to live with in their unprotected surroundings. “It is a very harsh life for the girls, and I am talking about girls as young as four years old who end up being on the streets,” Abul-Ghar said.
“We are talking about endless forms of illness, physical assault and abuse, the lack of basic hygiene, incredibly poor nutrition, psychological disorders, and unfortunately a high chance of rape and unwanted pregnancies that either end in unsafe abortions or yet another street boy or girl,” Abul-Ghar added.
The answer to the problem for her is not clear. But one thing is clear, which is that “we have to do everything in our power to spare as many girls as possible from the uncertain and often disastrous fate they have to face on the streets. It is for this reason that we started our shelters.”
Street girls, no matter how challenged, often do not pursue a way out of their troubled lives either because they cannot think of one or because they don’t know how to do it, Abul-Ghar said. “So we reach out for them. We try to gain their trust and bring them to our shelters if they agree, where we provide them with education, healthcare, and as close as possible to a family home as possible,” she said.
Those who do not wish to go to the shelters are also provided with help, paid for by Banati with donations from individuals and foundations. However, at times of economic hardship these donations go down. “But also at times of economic hardship the number of girls who end up on the streets goes up, and it becomes a much tougher challenge to try to cope,” Abul-Ghar said.
It is always useful to pursue charitable donations, she said, but the real issues also have to be addressed. There is a role for the state that cannot be overlooked. “We have to look at the root causes that get these girls onto the streets, and often enough it is about a broken family or a poverty-stricken family and the subsequent chain of anger, violence and so on,” Abul-Ghar said.
The issue is not just about the protection of girls on the streets, but also about the protection of girls in general who sometimes have to sustain abuse, including sexual abuse, from family members and have to put up with it for fear of ending up on the streets.
“This is a huge responsibility for society and the state to meet,” Abul-Ghar stressed.
 
A YEAR FOR WOMEN: Prime Minister Sherif Ismail is scheduled to meet with Maya Morsi, chair of the National Council for Women (NCW), over the next few days to discuss the implementation of a strategy to improve the conditions and life-chances of women and girls in Egypt by 2030.
The strategy, produced by the NCW after thorough research, was given the go-ahead by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi during his participation in Mother’s Day celebrations on 21 March. According to Nagwa Khalil, a NCW member and one of the women who drafted the strategy, the idea is to develop it into legislation and plans of action. “This strategy is about the multiple empowerment of women on the economic, social and political fronts,” Khalil said.
“We are talking about anything from issuing laws to seeing women included in gender-bias free criteria in decision-making. We are talking about helping girls pursue their education and work and about helping women to be spared from all forms of violence,” Khalil said.
She added that she was “confident about the state’s commitment at the highest levels” and spoke of “a will on the part of the political leadership and clear presidential instructions to the government and all relevant bodies.” She said that “we are very privileged because of the kind of influence that the president himself is willing to lend to the women’s issue, and we really have to capitalise on this,” Khalil argued.
President Al-Sisi has indeed made repeated references to the role of women in society, and it is undeniable that women sided with Al-Sisi in the political changes that started with the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi and led to the election of Al-Sisi himself in June 2014.
Over the past three years, women on many occasions have voiced clear support for Al-Sisi, seeing him as the man who can keep the country together and generate stability. They have also voiced high expectations of the president in terms of economic and security accomplishments.
But today, as harsh political and economic realities continue, it seems hard to see the same levels of expectation, especially with the decline of the president’s popularity three years into office.
“I was there for every single election, and I always voted with Al-Sisi. I really had great expectations, but today I am saddened by what I see. I cannot believe the prices we are seeing, and I cannot believe that we will have to put up with further austerity measures. I have to say that this is not what I expected,” said Dalal Anwar, a civil servant in her 40s.
Speaking while waiting for the train to the outskirts of Giza, Anwar said that if “things keep getting more expensive, and if there are no job opportunities and no increase in salaries, then it will be total disappointment for many. I am not voting again, not for Al-Sisi and not for anyone else. I guess we have no way out, and we have to come to terms with this,” she added.
Women’s rights activist Mozn Hassan said that she was not surprised by the decline in the support women are offering to the head of state. “This is essentially about the women’s role in society. Making ends meet with the family budget is predominantly a woman’s responsibility, and women are suffering considerably from the austerity measures that have been adopted by the state,” Hassan argued.
She added that women “suffer twice in fact, first as part of the larger society and second as the state fails to provide enough money to act upon gender sensitivity promotion in government bodies or to provide for women’s basic health.”
However, Hassan is convinced that Al-Sisi “still has the support of women, and they have not given up on him, and Al-Sisi still sees women as a major voting bloc, which is something we should capitalise on.”
There should be lobbying to make the state act upon its promises to make this year a year of change for women. This, she added, had to be done regardless of the narrow vision of women’s role, “as either as a voting bloc or as mothers we saw that the presidential pledges made to improve women’s status were made on Mother’s Day on 21 March rather than Egyptian Women’s Day on 16 March,” she said.
“Even if we can only secure very limited victories or gains in terms of legislation relating to the rights of working mothers or the right of both parents to have childcare, we should go for these,” Hassan said.
However, she was not confident that much would happen on these fronts. “I think that the constitution of 2014, regardless of reservations we might have on it, offered women considerable rights, and for the most part these rights have not been fulfilled. I guess I have the right to remain skeptical,” Hassan said.
Hoda Al-Sadda, rapporteur of the Freedoms and Rights chapter in the 2014 constitution, admitted that there was “ongoing difficulty related to the gap between the text of the constitution and the policies that are adopted by the government. This is especially so when it comes to the crucial rights of women’s health and education.”

JUST ON PAPER: According to Al-Sadda, many of the injustices that women are subject to could have been tackled had the government honoured the constitution and initiated its anti-discrimination committee.
“This committee could have done a lot in terms of starting to eliminate gender-biased legislation and practices, among other forms of discrimination,” Al-Sadda said. According to Hassan, “there are other signs of failure to honour the articles in the constitution including some related to giving women access to posts in the judiciary and adopting legislation to end violence against women.”
“These are matters that the state signed onto way before the adoption of the 2014 constitution in a series of international agreements, but the state has not really honoured its obligations either before or after the 25 January Revolution,” Hassan said.
According to Abdel-Hamid, it is this “continuous pattern of having commitments made to improve women’s status confined essentially to documents or to senior officials’ statements” that make her reluctant to think that any new pledges will be taken seriously.
“It has been a legacy of mere rhetoric, or lip-service, that was never really coupled with sufficient action to empower women across the board,” Abdel-Hamid argued. Like other women’s rights activists, Abdel-Hamid is convinced that state officials simply “make political gains by talking about women’s rights or issuing documents dedicated to these rights.”
“Before it used to be Jihan Al-Sadat and Suzanne Mubarak who would do this. Now we have the president himself taking the lead. I am not convinced that there was any considerable impact before, and I am not expecting one now,” she said.
During the second part of the rule of former president Anwar Al-Sadat and the subsequent three-decade rule of former president Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s respective first ladies threw their weight behind legislation favouring the improvement of women conditions.
These were mostly attempts to reduce the unfairness that women suffered under the previous personal status law, especially the right to get a divorce or to decline forced polygamy.
But they had very limited impact, essentially because they were based on a top-down approach, which is never really effective. “When you issue gender-sensitive laws in an environment that is firmly gender-biased there is always limited impact,” Abdel-Hamid commented.

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