On Tuesday, Population Council – Egypt hosted the Final Dissemination Conference of its ‘Neqdar Nesharek’ Programme (We Can Participate), under the auspices of Minister of Social Solidarity Dr. Ghada Wali. ‘Neqdar’ is one of the council’s leading programs in promoting women’s social and economic empowerment in rural Upper Egypt.
The clever women of the area shined bright at the conference, held in their honour, where they proudly presented their social and economic achievements. They, along with the concerned officials, shared their experiences and lessons learned in the hopes of informing future programmes that target rural women.
Although both men and women face high levels of unemployment, the situation is worse for young women in rural Upper Egypt where only six percent participate in the labor force. Young women in rural Upper Egypt suffer in terms of poorer access to education, while conservative social norms further restrict their mobility and participation in the public sphere.
In an effort to tackle the problem of social and economic seclusion of women in the area, the Population Council’s Egypt office implemented ‘Neqdar Nesharek’ Programme.
The programme is in partnership with three local nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and 30 community development associations (CDAs), and with funds from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
‘Neqdar Nesharek’ programme was launched in September 2011 and targeted 4,500 marginalised young women aged 16–29 in 30 villages in the governorates of Fayoum, Qena, and Sohag. It aimed at empowering young rural women economically by providing them with business skills and support that enables them to join an existing business or start a new business.
‘Neqdar’ built the capabilities of young women to become economically and socially active community members. In addition to learning how to gain an economic livelihood, the programme offered life skills and civic engagement training, which are indispensable tools for social and economic empowerment.
With ‘Neqdar’, 1,427 women have launched businesses in their own villages, including handcrafts/sewing businesses, poultry-raising, hair salons, kiosks, food catering services, cell phone/computer repair stores, garment stores, and nurseries. Around 664 participants also found employment opportunities in their own villages or nearby communities.
Furthermore, the capacities of three governorate level NGOs, 30 CDAs and 240 female promoters (also known as mentors) have been enhanced to design and implement similar livelihood programmes.
Obstacles and challenges
Meanwhile, more than 8,000 parents, spouses, siblings, and community members were reached through community mobilisation activities. This was necessary due to the conservative social norms and with their work, ‘Neqdar’ found that these societies have become increasingly accepting of women’s work and engagement in the public sphere.
“Parents, husbands are reluctant to let their daughters and wives to leave home. It’s difficult sometimes to get them outside their villages for vocational training or job opportunities,” noted Neqdar Program manager Khaled El-Sayed. “However, by working closely with those communities we were able to address their concerns and rectify misconceptions about role of women in society.”
El-Sayed added women also face issues marketing their products to enable them to compete with international ones that are of the same quality.
Meanwhile, there is the fear of “going to jail” because of the high interest rates they believe are difficult to repay and the concept of “usury”, which is religiously forbidden, is also considered a hindrance.
“We try to create religious awareness and simplify the procedures and look for members who can provide low interest rates. We convene exhibitions for them at the governorate level,” El-Sayed noted.
Country Director of Population Council – Egypt, Dr. Nahla Abdel Tawab, also added that one of the council’s missions is to see more women-sensitive policies that enhance rural women’s social and economic participation.
She noted that some of the women faced challenges in securing funds to establish their projects, such as loans that are easy to pay back with low interest rates. “Some of the women found it difficult to secure loans and interest rates could reach to up to 18 percent, which was discouraging,” she said.
Nevertheless, the programme has renewed the hope of many women who would have been trapped in unfeasible circumstances.
“When the council first presented me with the programme, my family refused because customs and traditions reject girls engaging the public. But council promoters sat with them and convinced them with my participation,” said Hana Al-Sayed Nomani, one of the beneficiaries of the program.
She said she learned computer repair and was able to begin a project from her home to compete in her limited social market.
“It changed and benefited my life and I’m so happy that I was able to convince my brother to allow me to come to the conference,” she delightfully expressed.
For his part, USAID Acting Deputy Director Bill Patterson said that one of his favourite success stories is that of a young woman named ‘Evan’ from Sohag, who has received business skills training and was able to launch a feasible business for her and her husband.
“She helped her husband apply for a loan from the local community development association and together they bought a small food cart to launch their business. Her husband said if it were not for this project and his wife’s new found skills, he would never have had the courage to start his own business,” he relayed.