Opportunity Now: Jobs & Health for Women in Egypt

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"The project gives opportunities to a particularly disadvantaged part of the community: young people, especially women. This is about more than just money and health awareness. It’s about empowerment. This is their opportunity to be heard."In 2011, Pathfinder launched the Fostering Opportunities in Rural Southern Areas (FORSA) project, supported by USAID. Last week, Pathfinder Project Director, Reem Mehanna, sat down to share an update. Read why she says FORSA is a “women’s project” and why it couldn’t have come at a better time.

“FORSA” means “opportunity” in Arabic. Why is this name so appropriate?
We work in Assiut and Souhag, two of the poorest, most remote governorates in Upper Egypt. The project gives opportunities to a particularly disadvantaged part of the community—young people, especially women. This is about more than just money and health awareness. It’s about empowerment. This is their opportunity to be heard. Their opportunity to gain experience and exposure to things outside of their day-to-day challenges and obligations.

This is an integrated project. How exactly does FORSA bring together microfinance, economic growth, productivity, and improved health outcomes?
Young women in these communities face dire poverty, so improving their health is not a priority for them at all. If there is money available, she will take her kids or her husband to the doctor. She will not take herself. So we cannot talk about improving health without addressing the extreme poverty.

FORSA is doing both. To spread health awareness in communities and create new jobs, the project trains outreach workers to conduct home visits. Later, we continue to build outreach workers’ skills through the “Egyptian Women Speak Out” program. Some community women who attend this program are offered in-kind microgrants to start their small businesses to secure income for themselves and their families.

What kinds of microenterprises?
Soap making, accessories crafting, bed sheets and linens tailoring, candle making, mushroom farming, pickling, vegetables freezing, food drying and preserving, jam making, or whatever the woman chooses.

Tell me more about these outreach workers. They seem to be at the heart of the project.
They are FORSA’s first target group—community women selected and recruited to work within our local implementing partners to spread health awareness to their neighbors through home visits. So far, we have trained 947 outreach workers from partner NGOs and community-based organizations. The project provides two types of trainings—a course on interpersonal communication skills and counseling, as well medical training for sharing health messages.

According to our project design, 90 percent of these outreach workers are women between the ages of 18 and 30. These outreach jobs help empower women with income, training, experience, and exposure.

"In these communities, women face poverty, poor education, stereotypes, and discriminatory traditions. They often lack self-esteem and awareness about much outside of the role they are given within the family, related to childbearing and rearing. They need information, so we are giving it to them."Take me through a home visit.
Each outreach worker is in charge of 100 households, visiting every one once a month. When she arrives, she assesses the needs of the family and tailors her health messages accordingly. For example, if the household has a women who is breastfeeding, the outreach worker will share information about breastfeeding, nutrition, hygiene of the baby, and so on. If the woman is pregnant, she will talk about safe delivery. Other times, she will spread awareness of healthy timing and spacing of pregnancy.

You’ve said that outreach workers carry more than just health messages. With their actions, they are saying, “We, WOMAN, can make a difference.” Why has FORSA chosen to focus specifically on women in this way?
I used to work in the Takamol project, a Pathfinder-led, USAID-funded project in Egypt. I was the gender specialist. Because of my experiences, I have come to see FORSA as a women’s project. The main beneficiaries are women. 

Why women? In these communities, women face poverty, poor education, stereotypes, and discriminatory traditions. They often lack self-esteem and awareness about much outside of the role they are given within the family, related to childbearing and rearing. They need information, so we are giving it to them. For me, this is the challenge facing any female empowerment project—how women see themselves. If a woman is empowered to change how she sees herself, she can change how the whole community sees her. Women can change societies from within. This is also what makes the project sustainable; whatever skills, training, or awareness we give this woman, she is going to act as a positive deviant all the time, if she is convinced.

And don’t forget—in these communities, women are the main actors within the household, even if this is not said openly. If a woman is empowered with greater awareness about her health, she can shift the whole attitude of her family toward health and hygiene, toward using health facilities. At the very least, she can influence the attitudes of her children.

What is “Egyptian Women Speak Out”?
Based on "Arab Women Speak Out," a program developed by Johns Hopkins University Center for Communication Programs about 10 years ago to promote women's empowerment and participation. It has been tailored for each of the Arab countries, presenting a model for training women from similar backgrounds.

FORSA took the program and tailored it to increase its economic focus. Now, during the six-day workshop, women are trained in decision-making, prioritization, and negotiation skills, as well small projects or handicrafts to start their own businesses. We engage women to consider their roles in their families and communities. We also show them how to build on and utilize social solidarity and the safe networks around them.

Looking back on everything you have been able to accomplish, which of FORSA’s achievements are you most proud of?
Honestly, the fact that we have been able to implement the project without delays. The political atmosphere and security issues in Egypt did affect us. There were times when we couldn’t go down to the field or administer trainings or home visits. It was a challenge, but it was out of our hands. Yet, we developed some tools and processes, and changed our implementation strategy. We move in teams, choose the right routes, and check security situations before visiting communities. Our priority is always for our outreach workers and staff to be safe.

Were there any other issues related to security and how did your team overcome them?
Remember, we are working in two governorates in Upper Egypt where we have a lot of vengeance situations. Families face problems—shootings, killings. Accordingly, when the work started, some of the households decided they could not be part of the home visits; it might endanger them to have people coming into their homes. We certainly respected that and took steps moving forward:

First, we made sure to involve community leaders and the heads of our partner organizations (NGOs and community-based organizations) to ensure no household would be entered unless the family was completely comfortable with the project and visits from the outreach workers. Second, we immediately replaced all of the households that withdrew, so other families could benefit from the services.

And you continued successfully, meeting your targets?
"If a woman is empowered with greater awareness about her health, she can shift the whole attitude of her family toward health and hygiene, toward using health facilities. At the very least, she can influence the attitudes of her children."Yes! We are moving according to schedule. Everything is going quite well. This is not the case for most of the development projects in Egypt.

To go back to your previous question, one of our main achievements is that we actually got this project started in the first place. It took a year and four months to get the approvals from the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs. This is something. If you think about it from the government’s point of view—this is American money to be spent on women in Upper Egypt, working with 75 community-based organizations on health awareness. This would have been easy to reject because the very turbulent times we are going through, the political instability. Having fundamentalists in power for a year, women empowerment is something few want to hear about.

So for over a year, we followed up daily with the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We went everywhere. We wouldn’t stop. And we succeeded. That is the message of our project. We will not stop.

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