Many films and TV series have given an unrealistic picture of women in Upper Egypt that has remained engrained in people’s minds inside and outside of Egypt.
The picture includes stereotypical presentations of Upper Egyptian women as the wife of a local official or as a girl who runs away from home because her family is forcing her to marry her cousin. Many films also feature stereotypical images of dancers performing in local moulids (popular festivals) or having secret affairs with local officials who shower them with money.
Of course, such images do not represent the reality of life in Upper Egypt, where many women have managed to break the social and economic barriers that have been imposed on them, often drawing on resources provided by international and local women’s empowerment programmes to do so.
Marwa is only one of many such success stories. Her story features on a UN Website as a case in point for the success of the UN Development Programme’s (UNDP) Egypt Network for Integrated Development (ENID) Programme for empowering women in Upper Egypt.
An Upper Egyptian girl living in a rural area, Marwa had dropped out of school after a few years of basic education like many of her peers in her village. Hailing from a traditional rural family with typical traditional restrictions, Marwa hardly went out or socialised with anyone outside her family circle. Today, however, Marwa’s life has changed after she received assistance from one of ENID’s handicraft workshops that teaches young girls to make products using camel bones and thus helps them to develop skills and sustainable livelihoods.
“Although she faced strong resistance from her parents, Marwa overcame these barriers with the help of the project team, and she was trained in the workshop,” according to a UNDP report. “The workshop gave her the opportunity to learn a new skill, which opened up different horizons for her. One year later, she had a proper job in the workshop.”
Marwa is not alone. Azza Abdel-Razek from Luxor who also received assistance from another programme, this time run by an NGO and entitled “Youth on the Path to Success”, has a similar story to tell. The programme was launched by the Association for Education and Development in cooperation with the Sawiris Foundation for Social Development, and thanks to a loan she received Abdel-Razek has learned how to make handmade wedding supplies and has been successfully marketing her products.
She now showcases her products at various open days and advertises them on Facebook. Her Facebook page, Crystal Cups for Newlyweds, has boosted her sales, and she is now training other women to supply the market’s increasing demand for her products.
Marwa and Azza are only two examples of many women in rural parts of Upper Egypt who are looking for sustainable livelihoods as a means of self-empowerment. Some 60 per cent of Egypt’s poorer population lives in Upper Egypt, and unfortunately women may suffer from poverty the most.
In Egypt, surveys indicate that despite the progress that has been made in narrowing the gender gap, inequalities still persist. Women still too often have fewer opportunities in many domains than men, including education, social protection, and healthcare, all of which can curb their potential and take its toll on overall prosperity.
UPPER EGYPT: This is particularly the case in Upper Egypt, which has suffered decades of marginalisation despite the government’s agenda for development.
The governorates of Upper Egypt still top the list of the poorest in Egypt. According to a recent poverty report by the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), poverty rates in the region increased to 32.5 per cent of the population by the end of fiscal year 20017/2018, compared to 27.8 per cent in 2015/2016. Although Upper Egypt accounts for only 40 per cent of the country’s population, official figures indicate that it is where 60 per cent of those living in poverty and 80 per cent of those living in severe poverty are located.
NCW’s handicraft workshops in Assiut
The CAPMAS report reveals how poverty bites hardest in some 46 villages in the Upper Egyptian governorates of Assiut and Sohag, where 80 to 100 per cent of villagers are poor. Sohag has also been shown to have the lion’s share of Egypt’s poorest 1,000 villages, where about 87 per cent of the villages (236) are poor. Recent statistics also indicate that the governorate of Assiut has high rates of poverty, as 66.7 of its inhabitants are poor. Sohag comes next, recording an overall poverty rate of 59.6 per cent of its inhabitants, followed by Luxor (55.3 per cent), Minya (54 per cent), and Qena (41 per cent).
Minister of Planning Hala Al-Said previously told the media that poverty rates had increased by 4.7 per cent in the period between 2016 and 2018 because the government’s application of its economic reform programme had included some austerity measures, though efforts had been made to counteract those.
There is almost a consensus among economists that unless women are truly empowered in a way that allows them to unleash their potential and encourage their participation in society, development efforts will never pay off. The economic empowerment of women has thus been one of the most prominent goals of Egypt’s national development strategy. The National Strategy for the Empowerment of Women 2030 was designed by the National Council of Women (NCW) in 2017 to guarantee women’s rights.
“Stemming from the belief that the nation’s progress and stability can only be achieved through women’s active participation in the public sphere, the National Council for Women, as the national machinery mandated to advance the status of women, led a participatory process to develop the National Strategy for the Empowerment of Egyptian Women 2030,” the NCW says on its website.
“The strategy responds to the principles of the constitution of 2014 and is aligned to the overall direction of Egypt’s Vision 2030, as well as Egypt’s commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that were adopted by the United Nations as the basis for development until the year 2030.” It seeks to address the needs of all Egyptian women, particularly those in rural Upper Egypt, as well as poor women more generally, female family breadwinners, the elderly and women with special needs.
The strategy promises that “Egyptian women will become active contributors to the achievement of sustainable development in a nation that guarantees their constitutional rights, ensures their full protection, and provides, without discrimination, political, social, and economic opportunities that enable them to develop their capacities and achieve their full potential,” the NCW website says. It aims to provide women with equal job opportunities and increase their participation in the labour market in both the private and public sectors, as well as in the field of entrepreneurship.
According to the strategy, women will also be guaranteed equal opportunities to hold key positions in government agencies and companies. It aims to enhance women’s legal guardianship and independence in a way that allows them to make better and more enlightened choices, as well as to protect themselves against all forms of discrimination and overcome the cultural patterns that may impede their economic participation and growth.
There are hopes that if these objectives are properly applied, they will boost the growth of national GDP and help to attain Egypt’s development goals. However, things may not all be plain sailing, as many challenges remain on the way to the full application of the strategy’s goals.
BARRIERS TO INCLUSION: A 2018 World Bank report on women’s economic empowerment indicated that despite Egypt’s efforts to narrow the gender gap, a number of factors had contributed to its persistence as well as to the low economic participation of women in the labour force.
The financial system in Egypt leaves many women underserved, for example. Financial services directed to women remain largely inadequate, while women’s financial illiteracy remains high. Egypt has 38 banks nationwide, with 4,534 branches per 100,000 inhabitants, or one branch per 22,000 persons. This means that banking services in Egypt remain inadequate when compared to the international average of 12,527 branches per 100,000 adults or one branch per 8,000 people.
Non-bank microfinancing institutions (MFIs) and NGOs attempt to fill the gap in the country’s financial services, but they are faced with many challenges. According to statements by the chairman of the Egyptian Microfinance Federation (EMF), the value of the microfinance portfolio in Egypt jumped to LE11.12 billion in 2017, up from LE6.66 billion in the previous year.
But despite such rapid growth, most microfinance providers are faced with challenges that impede the further expansion of their businesses. One of these is the inability of loan providers to mobilise savings due to the legal restrictions imposed on them that negatively affect the availability of the liquid funds necessary for lending. In the meantime, many NGOs suffer from poor administration and are plagued with organisational and technical problems, making them unable to network or to provide more than small financial and non-financial assistance to startups and established projects.
Many women have attested to these problems by saying that obtaining adequate financing to attain their employment and growth targets can be as difficult as obtaining non-financial technical services and access to the market.
In rural areas there are more challenges facing female financial inclusion and entrepreneurship due to inadequate support services and sometimes also the social restrictions imposed on women’s travel. There is also an obvious gender discrepancy in the distribution of microfinance in Egypt: although it targets an equal number of men and women, men may receive double the amount given to women.
However, the government is making efforts to remedy such problems. At a meeting organised by the American Chamber of Commerce in Cairo last October entitled “Multi-dimensional Poverty in Egypt”, former minister of social solidarity Ghada Wali said that LE18.67 billion had been allocated to social-protection programmes in the previous fiscal year targeting 2.2 million families. According to Wali, more than 563,000 families in 5,630 villages located in 27 governorates nationwide had already received monthly financial support as part of the ministry’s cash-support programmes Takaful and Karama (Solidarity and Karama).
The Takaful and Karama programmes focus on the most impoverished areas in Upper Egypt where 72 per cent of those receiving cash support are located. Sohag ranks top, receiving 16 per cent of all cash funds, followed by Assiut at 15 per cent. More than 88 per cent of the funds have been channelled to women, Wali said, compared to 11.87 received by men.
In the same vein, Minister of International Cooperation Rania Al-Mashat recently met with Phumzile Miambo-Ngcuka, UN undersecretary-general and executive director of UN Women, the UN women’s agency, on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in the Swiss city of Davos to discuss increasing cooperation between the government and the UN in the field of women’s empowerment as part of Egypt’s development goals.
One of the most prominent UN Women programmes in Egypt encourages women’s employment in agriculture and creating decent employment for women in cooperation with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Women’s Economic Empowerment Programme for the period 2019-2024. The programme includes extending financial and non-financial aid to women entrepreneurs and supporting women working in the private sector.
In the same vein, Al-Mashat also met with the president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) to discuss deepening bilateral cooperation, especially since the fund has recently opened an office in Cairo. This is mandated with accelerating projects aimed at promoting integrated agricultural development, particularly in underprivileged areas, as well as supporting startups and empowering rural youth to initiate innovative projects. The office also aims at transforming Egypt into a regional centre for agricultural development as part of its development goals.
“In addition to projects and programmes,” the IFAD writes on its website, “Egypt has also benefited from a number of regional grants focused on soil and water management, taking gender into account in public-policy development, building knowledge-sharing networks, and the promotion of microfinance for poor rural people.”
Other local initiatives seem to be similarly paying off. Women-Up, an Egyptian initiative funded by EuropeAid and coordinated by the Academy of Scientific Research and Technology in cooperation with the Sekem Foundation and the Techno Khair Foundation, is a case in point. The initiative, launched in the governorate of Qena in February 2018, aims at “fostering women’s participation in local development via intensifying the socio-economic impacts of female startups and micro-businesses”, according to its website.
“It targets the empowerment of young social entrepreneurs with special emphasis on women-headed single households who lead micro-businesses.”
MICROFINANCE SHOWS THE WAY: Manager of the Egyptian Microfinance Federation Hassan Ibrahim explains that microfinancing can hold the key to empowering women in Upper Egypt.
“It is a kiss of life for many women in Upper Egypt, especially in the light of the increasing poverty rates indicated by official figures,” Ibrahim told Al-Ahram Weekly.
He said that Egypt’s microfinancing industry has been focusing on the most underprivileged areas in Upper Egypt in attempts to alleviate poverty, bridge the gap in existing financing, and provide technical support to projects there. The Minya governorate, for instance, had the highest number of microfinancing outlets (202), followed by Sohag (156) and Assiut (148), as shown in the 2018 microfinance chart produced by the Financial Regulatory Authority (FRA).
Women were targeted particularly by such efforts, Ibrahim said. “Microfinance outlets focus more on women because they have proven efficient in managing their projects and have the lowest rates of failure,” he added, referring to a FRA report in the third quarter of 2019 that showed that women constituted 65.31 per cent of all those benefiting from microfinance companies and NGOs as a case in point.
Many NGOs have been trying to maintain women’s share of such loans and grants. The Association of Upper Egypt, an NGO, is another case in point, according to Imad Jamil, director of the association’s microfinance programme, in an interview with the Weekly. The association “aims to empower community members, improve their incomes, help alleviate poverty, and maintain the financial stability and social security of many low-income families in Upper Egypt,” he said.
The NGO launched its microfinance programme in 2001 with the help of a LE1 million grant and has since been providing loans through its microfinance offices in Upper Egypt. The programme has expanded to its current portfolio of about LE25 million, and it now has eight offices in Upper Egypt in Assiut, Sohag, Qena and Luxor. It grants microfinance to startups in the field of animal and agricultural production as well as handicrafts, all in addition to providing non-financial services like training, consultation, and follow-up on projects for startups.
“Women in Upper Egypt receive high priority in our microfinance programme,” Ibrahim said, explaining that 33.3 per cent of the association’s loans were to women in the rural areas of Upper Egypt. “We granted LE11 million in loans to women in 2019, which marked a LE3.8 million increase from the previous year,” he concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly