Ibrahim Ahmed, 52, is from the Um Khalaf village in South Port Said and is working to raise awareness in his village about child labour with Waai (Awareness), a programme for raising awareness about familial and development issues in Egypt.
Ahmed, the father of three children, had to work to support his family when he was just a teenager after completing his secondary education. “I have never allowed any of my children to work in the same way that I did, and I do not allow anyone to beat my children in lieu of teaching them,” Ahmed said.
He wants to see his children have a better childhood than he did himself, and he has been working at the Um Khalaf Youth Cultural Centre for 33 years to raise awareness about how best to bring up children. “Parents should be taught how to keep their children safe,” he commented.
One programme has been doing precisely that in Port Said and elsewhere in Egypt. Called Alashan weladkom ehseboha sah (Choose your Steps Wisely for the Sake of your Children), it is a campaign implemented by the Ministry of Social Solidarity’s Awareness for Community Development Programme, otherwise known as Waai.
It is working in partnership with the Takaful and Karama (solidarity and dignity) social security programmes, the EU, the UK Embassy, and the UN Development Programme to organise a new phase of the programme in the Port Said governorate as part of a tour of the governorates to raise the awareness of people about the dangers of early marriage, child labour, female students dropping out of school, and female genital mutilation (FGM).
It is also providing families with family planning consultations among other services.
The tour has featured many events including plays, a poetry recital, and dance performances by children from the Folkloric Arts Troupe of the Um Khalaf Youth Cultural Centre as well as a seminar for raising people’s awareness about the issues of early marriage, child labour, overpopulation, and FGM.
The Waai programme was launched in 2020 and the Alashan weladkom ehseboha sah campaign was started this month by Minister of Social Solidarity Nevine Al-Qabbaj to tackle the effects of activities that negatively affect development, in particular by focusing on 12 issues.
It deals with issues concerning the most vulnerable families, including child labour, school dropouts, child marriage, family planning, the economic empowerment of vulnerable families, and maternal and child health. It will eventually be implemented at the grassroots level in all the governorates and last for two months.
Within the framework of ministry plans to raise awareness among vulnerable groups of the consequences of various practices, the campaign aims to foster public opinion in favour of issues that support the rights of the most vulnerable in order to protect them from practices that may make these groups captive to poverty in its economic, social and cultural dimensions, said a ministry press release.
Al-Qabbaj said that the issues of the family and population increase and the latter’s impacts on social and economic issues were the responsibility of all government and other state institutions and the private sector.
Families should keep their sons and daughters in the education system instead of wasting their opportunities and bequeathing poverty to them by introducing them to the labour market early or marrying off girls and depriving them of the opportunity to find a suitable job that would guarantee them an income that would take them out of poverty, she said.
SOCIAL PROTECTION: The ministry is working on two parallel levels. The first is the provision of a package of social-protection programmes so that the most vulnerable families can break the cycle of multidimensional poverty and move from the stage of protection to independence. The second is raising the wider awareness of such families.
Advisor to the ministry for the Waai programme Magdi Helmi listed the 12 issues it has been working on.
“First comes financial empowerment under the slogan Al-amal karama wa mostaqbal [work means dignity and a bright future]. The second is defending the educational rights of both boys and girls who belong in school. They should not drop out of it to work or to get married,” Helmi said, adding that the third issue was the fight against child marriage.
Sehetek tharwetek enty wa osretek [your health is your wealth and your family’s] is the slogan of the fourth issue, namely the health of women and their children. Fifth is family planning through the Etnein kefaya [two children are enough] programme that promotes the idea that each family should have only two children.
“Issue number six is encapsulated by the slogan Nekdar neawad al-eaaka taqqa [we can make a disability a source of energy], in which we help parents detect any disability their child might suffer from at an early stage,” Helmi said, adding that the idea is also to help raise parents’ awareness about the legal rights of those with disabilities and to teach children how to tolerate people with them. They also provide such people with various facilities.
“The seventh issue is cleanliness under the slogan Al-nadafa seha wa salama [cleanliness is health and safety], in which we teach people about personal hygiene. Issue number eight is raising awareness about the dangers of drugs through the Addiction Treatment and Abuse Fund.”
“The ninth issue is the raising of children in a positive manner under the slogan Nerabi bi amana mengheir ehana [raise children with honesty and without humiliation], in which we aim to help parents raise their children without violence. It also teaches parents to spend more time with their children and to treat them equally,” he said.
The 10th issue is about FGM, and the 11th is about combating illegal emigration with the slogan Baladna heya markeb al-najah (our country is a rescue boat). The 12th is about teaching young people more about citizenship under the slogan Kolona misreeeyn, tanawona qowa (we are all Egyptians, and our difference is our strength), in which young people are taught to tolerate people from different backgrounds, whether religious or geographical.
“Waai is the third pillar that completes the three pillars of the ministry, the first being the financial empowerment of families in need, like the Forsa [chance] programme that helps families to escape poverty,” Helmi said.
“The second is social protection for the most vulnerable like the elderly who are unable to work or those with special needs or children without homes. This pillar focuses on changing mentalities and untrue beliefs by changing negative behaviours and inculcating positive values, ideas, and actions that help all family members overcome multi-dimensional poverty,” he said.
The issues tackled through the campaign were chosen after meeting with various parties and with those involved in order to identify the needs of ordinary families.
“We discovered that there were many needs for greater awareness among ordinary families, especially the most vulnerable like those families benefiting from the Haya Karima [Decent Life initiative] who live in rural areas. They are also issues that interest families in general,” Helmi said.
The campaign seeks role models for vulnerable families to look up to. “Our events feature interviews with positive examples of people with success stories so that they are documented and a seminar that targets the inhabitants of the Um Khalaf village in particular to talk about the new campaign,” he added.
“Through this campaign, we are discussing many issues under the slogan of proper family planning. For instance, if a family plans correctly it should only have two children and not deprive these children of education or marry a daughter off when she is still a child or make their son drop out of education to work.”
TECHNIQUES: The Waai campaign uses different techniques to raise the awareness of the most vulnerable groups, including by screening documentaries, organising seminars and societal dialogues, and holding artistic performances.
These activities are organised by 15,000 female community leaders in the 27 governorates. Muslim and Christian preachers are also taking part in the seminars to answer citizen enquires, and they are providing services that match the seminars. If the topic of a seminar is about family planning, for example, families will be provided with free medical consultations as well, Helmi said.
Female social pioneers or community leaders play an important role in educating citizens and correcting misconceptions, particularly in communities that may be conservative in outlook. Direct communication is needed in such communities, with messages being carefully designed to take into account social differences, literacy levels, the degree of social marginalisation, and the gender and ages of the beneficiaries.
The work focuses on implementing direct-communication activities through a programme of home visits or seminars conducted by a group of social workers or public officials.
The role of the community leader is to raise the level of community awareness about the issues raised in the larger campaign. Each community leader is associated with a number of targeted families, 200 families for each. She visits them at least once a quarter, in addition to implementing educational seminars and distributing materials for the various activities.
The ministry is currently building the capacities of community leaders and preparing them to contribute to community communication plans.
“Changing the beliefs, customs, thoughts, or concepts that people might have inherited in their communities can be difficult. However, we have been able to tackle such issues through using positive examples, namely people from the target community that believe in our message and have actually started to change their lives. It is important that these examples are known to other people in the community so that they become a role model for others,” Helmi said.
According to a report from the UN children’s agency UNICEF, the 2017 census showed that over 111,000 women and girls were married before the age of 18 in Egypt, with 84 per cent of the girls coming from or living in rural areas.
A 1997-2012 UNICEF study estimated that 91 per cent of girls and women aged 15 to 49 in Egypt had undergone FGM. While marriage is illegal for those under the age of 18 in Egypt, illegal marriages do occur in rural areas as well as orfi (customary) marriages that the law does not acknowledge, leaving female divorcees and their children without any rights.
“Our teenagers are unable to choose the subjects they study in secondary school without assistance from their parents, so how will they be able to choose a husband at such a young age? We also see cases of young women suffering from induced abortions or ill-managed pregnancies in our clinics because of early marriages,” Helmi said during a seminar held in the Um Khalaf Cultural Centre.
“It is much better for parents to wait until their daughters have grown up before pressuring them to get married.”
WOMEN AND CHILDREN: Mohamed Abdel-Samea, a preacher at the Dar Al-Iftaa religious institution in Cairo who is also lecturing in the Waai seminars, agreed with Helmi.
“The Ministry of Social Solidarity is organising seminars through the Waai campaign that tackle issues like early marriages, FGM, and child labour,” he said, adding that childhood marriages can have catastrophic effects on society.
Young girls have been helped by Dar Al-Iftaa who have either become pregnant or have had children and have been married using orfi certificates such that their husbands do not want to register the children as theirs. This can result in psychological and legal problems, as the young women have no wedding certificates and cannot file for divorce. Dar Al-Iftaa has founded a special department to solve such problems, Abdel-Samea said.
“Egypt saw a phase of stability after the issuance of a law to prohibit FGM, and in 2009 Dar Al-Iftaa organised a seminar about the prohibition of FGM,” he added. It has subsequently raised awareness about the physical and mental damage that FGM can cause for women.
“Some people may still think that FGM is beneficial for women, but this is not true,” Abdel-Samea said, adding that there was a need for more information about this issue, especially for those in rural areas.
A successful campaign to combat overpopulation has been Etnein kefaya (two is enough), which aims to promote smaller families by raising the awareness of women in governorates where the presidential Decent Life initiative has been most widespread. The campaign is also working in deprived areas, with the highest childbearing rates.
It has also secured a family’s right to obtain information on family planning methods that will allow it to have the desired number of children. It aims to establish a balance between economic growth and population growth and improve the lives of all Egyptian citizens.
Some 9,300,000 home visits have been made to beneficiary women to educate them on the importance of family planning, reproductive health, and spacing between births thus far. Some 65 Etnein kefaya clinics affiliated with partner NGOs and institutions are providing family planning and reproductive health services free of charge to beneficiary families.
In response to the campaign, some 345,000 women have used family planning methods, and 4,374 awareness seminars have been implemented, attended by 449,682,000 men and women, in 20 governorates.
According to a 2023 UNICEF report, the latest national estimates from the 2021 Egypt Family Health Survey indicate that 1.3 million children are engaged in child labour, with about 900,000 children exposed to hazardous work environments.
Children in rural areas, especially in rural Upper Egypt, are twice as likely to be engaged in child labour compared to those in urban areas. Child labour is associated with poor school attendance, where 10 per cent of children not attending school are engaged in child labour activities.
“Children who work in construction suffer from poor lung conditions, and some even die before the age of 40 because of the cement they breathe in in construction areas or in the cement factories they work in,” Helmi said.
“The issue of child labour is very important to discuss as it is a source of suffering for many, given rising prices and social problems like the absence of a bread winner in the family for various reasons. The issue also needs more awareness-raising sessions, especially for women who suffer the most in such situations,” Abdel-Samea said.
Hanan Hassan, a community leader working with the Waai programme who started to work in raising awareness when she was 18, is now a widow and the mother of one son. “After training in the programme, I am able to speak about almost any subject with members of the community in Um Khalaf,” she said.
“We used to have many cases of child marriage in the village, as people thought that if a girl was given a full education she would never marry, which of course is not true. Early marriages are now decreasing, which is a sign of progress. Child labour is beginning to decrease too,” she added.
Fatma Salah graduated from the Faculty of Specific Education and is a volunteer teaching women with the programme. “I teach women about proper nutrition. I have discovered that education is not just about school or university, but is also acquired through the real-life stories we witness here,” Salah said.
“We need more activities and training sessions for village inhabitants, especially the men, with people from the village acting as instructors,” she added.
Nagi Fayad is a Faculty of Agriculture graduate and a volunteer working with Waai. “I work in a heath unit, so I chose to educate men about raising their children properly and vaccinating them against disease. I think a financial incentive for the trainees would be a good initiative, since sometimes young men come to attend the lectures from faraway places, he said.
Combating child labour is one of the goals of the social protection programmes adopted by the Ministry of Social Solidarity as part of its support for vulnerable groups and families and to help them get out of multidimensional poverty.
The implementation of this goal is based on the integration of all the social protection programmes adopted by the ministry, among them Takaful and Karama, which includes the commitment of families to follow up on the health of their children and their attendance in education until their completion of the secondary stage.
They are also committed under the programme to not marry off their children before they reach the age of 18, and they benefit from programmes for the economic empowerment of the family, in particular women, and support for equal educational opportunities for the most vulnerable groups.
The ministry provides services for women to support them in domestic work and to encourage them to participate in the labour market through 44 centres for working women in 25 governorates. 27,000 nurseries have been provided for working women to encourage them to enroll children up to four years old in school and to provide health services of high quality.
“It is not enough to tackle these 12 issues through the Waai programme despites its many successes, however, as there are more issues emerging that need to be tackled like the problems faced by the elderly,” Helmi concluded.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 10 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly