In Egypt, Fighting for Women's Futures

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In Egypt’s poorest governorate, outside everything looks gray—the narrow roads, goats sleeping in them, and homes of concrete brick, shuttered to block 100-degree heat. Life is hard in Assuit. Especially for women and girls.

“Here, a women is treated like she’s born only for housework and raising children,” says Azhar Hamdy, a woman with two daughters. “She doesn’t get rights and can’t work like a man. A girl’s only destiny is to get married.”

Azhar is divorced, meaning she faces extreme stigma in her community. Many believe she shouldn’t work. That she shouldn’t leave the house. How then can she earn an income to feed and care for her daughters? How can she free 12-year-old Shayma and 14-year-old Sherine from a life of poverty?

Azhar had only one answer: follow tradition and find men to marry her young daughters.

In the world’s poorest regions, at least 1 out of every 10 girls is married by 15. Child marriage not only robs girls of their human rights, it threatens their health and futures. Soon after marrying, girls are often pressured to prove their fertility by getting pregnant before they are ready. The result is devastating. Complications during pregnancy and childbirth is the second leading killer of girls 15-19 worldwide.

Azhar didn’t know the danger. She believed marriage was the only way to improve her daughters’ lives.

Until she met an outreach worker named Um Marwan.

Taking Her Power Back

In 2011, Pathfinder launched the Fostering Opportunities in Rural Southern Areas (FORSA) project, supported by USAID. FORSA trains outreach workers to visit families like Azhar’s in their home, spreading economic opportunity and health information.

Just look at the results:

“Um Marwan helped me,” says Azhar, refusing to mince words.  “She saw I was a woman in need—divorced and raising two daughters. She did research and found a food bank where I can get a box of food every month. Thanks to her, my family has meat. We have blankets to stay warm. She even helped find me a job in a nursery.”

That’s just the start. Azhar even joined a six-day “Egyptian Women Speak Out” training, learning skills for her life, business, and better health.

“I learned to make soap, sheets, and sweets. How to make the most of everything I have in my house. About home economics—like when tomatoes are cheap in the market, you can buy a lot and freeze them.” Azhar smiles. “All of this gave me more self-confidence.”

Perhaps one of the best things Azhar learned was to believe in herself.

“Um Marwan told me not to pay any attention to the people who criticize me, who talk about me because I’m divorced. Just focus on doing things the right way—for my work, my house, and my children.”

Fighting for Her Daughters' lives

As Azhar tells her story, her youngest, Shayma, nestles close beside her.

“Thanks to Um Marwan, I learned my daughters need to be treated in special ways at their age. I know about their nutrition and hygiene. That school and exercise are good for my girls.”

And that child marriage is not.

“I was planning to take my daughters out of school soon and get them married,” Azhar admits. “But Um Marwan said, ‘You’re going to make them go through what you did? They’re still young. They can’t take on the responsibility of taking care of a house and family.’ She told me how pregnancy could be dangerous.”

Today, Azhar has a new plan. She wants health and opportunity for all three Hamdy women. With her new skills and monthly salary, she is closer than ever to achieving it. She refuses to marry her daughters off.

It’s difficult to know what came first—Azhar’s change of heart or the economic empowerment that allowed for it. For Shayma, who lovingly links arms with her mother, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that she is free.

Photo by Kareem Reda

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