Social leaders in Egypt: delving deep into their role in advancing women rights



Fri, 16 Feb 2024 - 06:41 GMT


Fri, 16 Feb 2024 - 06:41 GMT

FILE - Egyptian Women - REUTERS

FILE - Egyptian Women - REUTERS

CAIRO - 16 February 2024: Changing mindsets and ideas is not an easy task. Recipients would not normally accept attempts by individuals they see alien to their community. As such, proximity becomes key. Here comes the role of social leaders in Egypt. The once was a temporary initiative has morphed into a permanent programme run by the Ministry of Social Solidarity. The social leaders are women who belong to rural, Bedouin, and low-income urban areas whose mission is mainly eradicating practices harmful to women and enhancing their socio-economic status.


How It All Started and How It Later Evolved


Head of the Central Administration of Family and Women Affairs Mona El Shabrawy tells Egypt Today that the Social Leaders Programme was launched in 1964, in partnership with the UNICEF, starting with 14 leaders in Qalyoubiyah governorate.


Their current number is 15,000 nationwide and there is a plan for the figure to become 20,000. As for how they join the programme, the ministry makes an announcement, then, applicants are tested and interviewed by local committees in charge of selection and monitoring. The leader has to be at least 21, and enjoys good communication skills and good reputation as well as serves as a role model.


"The leaders play a major role as an interconnection between beneficiaries and the ministry's services. Yet, it is a volunteer work," Shabrawy noted.


Head of the General Administration of Women Jacquelin Mamdouh elaborated that since September 2022, every leader had been bound to deal with 200 families, selecting mainly mothers who have children aged below 18, and direct them on how to get the help they need.




For instance, if a woman has 3-4 children, the leader will have to transfer her to family planning clinics for contraceptives, and then, follow-up if she really went and got the service. For the beneficiaries of the monetary subsidies programme Takaful w Karama, the leader discusses with them opportunities of self-employment and funding for micro enterprises.


The leader also directs families to literacy classes, disabled service centers, as well as societal schools which help with children reintegration in education, in case of dropping out and also make up for the absence of schools in remote areas.


"The governance of the programme has been enhanced as the families' data are now being put into a database. That enables us to record the social and economic characteristics of families," Mamdouh highlighted. 


The leader inserts on a digital platform the visit and the messages delivered. Another visit is paid to follow up. If the woman did not act upon the message, more awareness talk is carried out. It is also a way to mend shortcomings in the service delivery. 


"We created an observatory that tracks the development of women as a survey is carried out regularly. In the first, a woman may be identified as a housewife. In a latter one, she may be identified as self-employed. She may be identified as illiterate at first, and later, as literate," the programme chief stated.


"The leaders are given tablets to register the data of families and carry out the surveys. In that way, the leader, for instance, will be able to monitor some other difficult to track phenomena such as FGM and the use of contraceptives," Mamdouh clarified. Further, the ministry trains social leaders to create vlogs to raise awareness in their communities.


Awareness and Solutions


The social leaders play a role in implementing the "Awareness Programme" that consists of 13 messages, which are child marriage, FGM, family planning, child labor, dropping out of education, human trafficking, illegal migration, drug use, child and mother health, hygiene, illiteracy, violence against women, and women economic empowerment. The messages were devised based on studies on the society's needs, and that included social dialogue.


Another message will be launched soon and that is positive upbringing as well as ways of monitoring the growth of children. 


"The message is often better received from social leaders than through mainstream and new media as they belong to the community they operate in. Not just that, awareness and services are intertwined," Mamdouh underlined.


"The outcome of awareness programmes may happen over decades. A case in point is FGM. In the past, parents would be ashamed that they did not carry out the procedure to their daughters. Now, it is the other way around," the official showcased.


When it comes to sensitive topics such as family planning, FGM, and child marriage, the leader often convinces families to change their mind through her communication skills and credibility by showcasing the negative impact endured by other community members, Shabrawy explains.


Although messages are mainly targeted at young mothers, older generations are addressed as well. "Homes in the countryside are usually inhabited by extended families so the social leader does not just address young women/mothers but also grandmothers. She manages to correct misconceptions and offers financial and social services to elderly women, who influence the family's decisions with regard to children," the official clarified. 


As for the most prominent positive phenomena she is observing is growing interest in education and employment among women. Moreover, the birth rate dropped from 2.7 million in 2011 to 2 million in 2023, according to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS).


Economic empowerment is delivered through various programmes that are highly sought after by women. Those are the "Productive Family Programme," "Forsa," and three others. 


"We have the Working Women Service Centers that help women find jobs. Those include jobs at nurseries where they can both work and oversee their children. That is in addition to professions such as housekeepers, nannies, caregivers for the elderly, makers of cooked and half-cooked meals, and seamstresses," Shabrawy pointed out.


"We focus on promoting the introduction of nurseries in companies' headquarters and factories as both female and male workers can bring in their children. The presence of a child in a nursery helps with detecting disabilities, and consequently, guiding the family on how to act," she added.


With regard to other social diseases, Shabrawy clarifies that, "children drop out of education because the family does not afford the tuition fees or because of crises the family is going through. Sometimes, the child is facing hard time at school either encountering mistreatment or experiencing difficulties and the family cannot pay for extra courses. We provide financial support to the family, and psychological support to the child. Hence, they either resume education or choose to learn a craft given that the law prohibits child labor."


With regard to health, 6,500 social leaders were trained on raising awareness on cervical cancer. In general, more women have become aware of the importance of regular medical check-ups.


Further, the caravans operated in the countryside and Bedouin communities witness high turnout by women who want services offered by the ministry, Shabrawy underscored.


How Is It In The Field?


Hend Menesi Ali has been a social leader for 20 years in Cairo. She spoke to Egypt Today on her success with combating child marriage and FGM.




"In one case, I highlighted the status of a woman who got married while still a minor and gave birth to four children who she could not issue birth certificates for or enroll in school. I succeeded in persuading parents to not let their daughters marry before they turn 18," Ali said.  


"I held a lecture on FGM and brought doctors and clerics. A woman, who attended, refrained from doing that to her daughters," she added.


On the front of women empowerment, "not all girls are discouraged by their parents to not work. There are women who used to work since their childhood the same as men, but were forced to stay at home by their husbands. That choice has always been wrong as they lose autonomy on how to spend the money," Ali said.


The social leader equally noted that many women join Forsa as they get devices and make products at home. They also work at factories. "They want to make things for themselves," she said, showcasing that "young women are much more responsive than older ones."  


Dina Hussein, who has been social leader in the rural areas of Giza for four years, displayed the change in her community.




"At the beginning, I felt that people were lost. They wanted to talk but found no one to guide them. There are still families who insist on FGM, child marriage, dropping their children out of education and tolerate violence against women," Hussein said.


"Now, there are women who got convinced [of the messages I communicated]. They became very responsive," the social leader highlighted.


For education, "there are families who want to educate their children. Yet, they already got so many that they do not afford to educate them all. Many girls want to finish their education rather than get married while still minors. Another reason for not being eager to marry early is that they watch their parents fight a lot," Hussein clarified.


Speaking of adults, "I convince women to go to literacy classes by telling them that the stamp, if stolen, they could endure financial losses," the social leader added.


As for work, some parents encourage their daughters to work. On the other hand, men, in rural areas, would not let their wives work far from home. Nevertheless, rural women are normally productive at home as they are involved in cattle breeding, milk processing, poultry and soap making. That is in addition to taking part in growing and harvesting crops, Hussein highlighted.



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