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Ma’an Project:

‘Together’ for Egyptian Families

Ma’an At A Glance:

Learn more about the Ma’an Project >>


Telling Her Story

“I wasn’t planning to get married,” said Hagar, when she began telling her story to a room full of women. “My elderly sister had recently refused someone. And my uncle said to my mother, ‘any girl should marry this man’!”

Hagar Mohamed Ahmed tells her story.

Hagar was participating in a storytelling workshop, one of the many approaches of Pathfinder’s Ma’an project. Ma’an has worked for four years to strengthen the capacity of local service providers to respond to family planning needs in four districts of the Sohag governorate in Egypt.

Storytelling sessions, like the one Hagar attended, give women safe  spaces to speak up about issues that are largely kept silent in Egyptian society, such as forced marriage, female circumcision, and gender-based violence. Hagar’s story was difficult to tell. She was under the legal age  for marriage in Egypt, and when she did get married, she didn’t receive any legal documentation.

“I got pregnant after 20 days of my marriage,” she says.  “I went to the doctor, and she told me, ‘Congratulations! You are pregnant.’ But at the time, I knew absolutely nothing about pregnancy and childbirth.”

Hagar’s story is not unusual. Sohag governorate has  one of the highest fertility rates in Egypt, where women have an average of more than four children.1 In Egypt, only 8% of women and 10% of men believe it is  appropriate for a couple to use family planning before having their first child.

I wasn’t planning to get married. My elderly sister had recently refused someone. And my uncle said to my mother, ‘any girl should marry this man’!”
Hagar Mohamed Ahmed

Ambassadors of Change

Sharbat Hosni, who participated in a Ma’an initiative called “My Mother-in-Law is My Life.”

Pathfinder’s Ma’an project has worked to reach women like Hagar, supporting them to raise their own voices, while at the same time, working with “Ambassadors of Change” to become advocates for sexual and reproductive health and rights in the community. Through interactive theater performances, discussions with religious leaders, storytelling workshops, and initiatives that help secure the support from family and community members for sexual and reproductive health and rights, Ma’an has reached thousands of community members, building support for women to make their own reproductive health decisions.

The program reached Sharbat Hosni, who participated in a Ma’an initiative called “My Mother-in-Law is My Life.” Families participating in Ma’an suggested this specific initiative, recognizing that the decision to have children often involves mothers-in-law.

“Before I attended the initiative,” says Sharbat, “I always said I wanted to have grandchildren, and I said to my son’s wife—have as many grandchildren as you can!” But then Sharbat started attending sessions through Ma’an. “I liked it so much,” she says. “After the initiative I stopped interfering. I realize they must live their lives, as we lived ours. We must respect their opinion, and as for their children, I’m now convinced that they should raise them the way they see fit.”

Making Their Own Choice

Hisham Rabea and Ola Shehata felt pressure from their families to have a large family. “Before participating in the project,” says Hisham, “I initially wanted to have many children with my wife. I used to believe that having many kids is “ezwa” (an Arabic word describing power, pride, and strength, elements which could help a person in moments of weakness). I used to tell my wife continuously that we should have more children.” Ola also felt pressure from Hisham’s mother. “My mother-in-law told me that I should have more children. According to her, the two children we had were not enough. She felt that my husband would be lonely if we did not have more children.”

Hisham and Ola were one of the ‘core’ families identified by Ma’an at the onset of the project, families that then became ambassadors within their communities. Through their participation, they both started to feel a shift in their thinking. Says Hisham, “I admired the initiatives presented, and especially the theater initiatives, the consultant kiosks on the street, and the initiative for mothers-in-law. When I participated at the project consultancy kiosk in the street, I discovered that there are many people who do not know the meaning of family planning. And when I participated in the family interaction day, I was satisfied, there were no barriers between my wife and I… I found myself free!”

Hisham Rabea and Ola Shehate are married and reside in Sahel Tahta Villiage in Sohag Governate. They are participants in Pathfinder’s Ma’an project.

Facilitating Change

In Arabic, Ma’an means together. As a Ma’an facilitator, Hamdia Yassin Ahmed led trainings on family planning  and peer mentoring, encouraging men and women to work together to strengthen families. She has shared vital health information about breastfeeding, maternal health, child health and nutrition, family planning, gender equality, and much more.

She has brought families closer through innovative games called Family Interaction Days, filled with music, dancing, and activities highlighting important reproductive health messages. “Many of the families who attended Family Interaction Day told me: ‘I wish this day had happened years ago’ and others have said, ‘we have never been out together or played together before like this’,” Hamdia recalled.

It wasn’t always easy. One of Hamdia’s biggest challenges was getting men to participate in Family Interaction Day. “Many men were rejecting the idea of learning about sexual and reproductive health. I worked with leaders in the village and influencers to solve this problem. The men grew to learn that it was really important to attend because they gained lots of health information related to family planning. Now men are actively participating and helping us educate other families.”

Building Support

Hagar sometimes wishes she had known what she now does. “Now I am not yet 20 years old, and I am a mother of two daughters. I really can’t afford to educate them, or guarantee a decent life for them.”

Statements like this one are why Pathfinder is under-taking the complex work of building support from leaders and influencers in the community. Today Sharbat is one of these leaders. “I am now convinced,” she says, “that people should use family planning methods. In the past, we thought these methods were harmful, but it turns out that they give women time to regain their health after deliveries, take care of themselves, and raise their children more easily.” Sharbat is also an active advocate for Pathfinder’s trainings. “I still remember all the information I learned, and I advise my neighbors and community. We need to understand the harm of early marriage and the benefits of family planning.”

And Ola and Hisham have learned how to discuss their decisions with their families. Says Ola, “Now I have more awareness, and I explained to my mother-in-law that by having more children, my health will suffer, and no one will be able to take care of my kids if something happens and we have many children. My own mother also wanted us to have more children, but my husband talked to her, saying that this is our life as a couple, and that we should be the only ones deciding what is best for us. He also told her that we wish to provide our children with the best quality of life to contribute to our society!”

Nawara Series

The Nawara series is an animated series aiming to create awareness within families, to address the importance of family planning and maternal health. Nawara is a newly married, educated rural wife, always striving to learn, develop herself and serve her community by sharing what she has learned. One of her activities was attending the “Ma’an” project sessions, which had a prominent role in shaping her awareness and the awareness of those around her.

 

 

 

 

Increased Agency

Across the project, women, couples, and families are learning how to better communicate, and couples are given more agency to make choices that work for them. Ads Ola, “The project taught us to make decisions together as a family, such as giving ourselves sufficient time between having one child and the next. It also taught us to have discussions before we make any decisions pertaining to our life together. We are truly glad that we had the opportunity to spend time with peer families in the program. We would like to seize the opportunity to thank Pathfinder for this project, which has changed a lot of things, both in our family, and in others… things that were difficult to change. These initiatives changed my life completely and made me a fully optimistic person.”

Hisham Rabea speaks during a theater performance held for Ma’an families.

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Header photo: At a Family Interaction Day, Ma’an participants join in a dance facilitated by leaders. Photo: Medhat Saleh