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Women in development create space for hope in Egypt

Women in development create space for hope in Egypt

©Albin Hillert/WCC

15 June 2017

The Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services (CEOSS) in Egypt is working on an advanced gender approach. In a country which is facing enormous challenges, more than ever a development agency has to be up to date on the needs of the people.

According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Egypt occupies a place at the lower end of the Gender Inequality Index, 126 out of 148 countries. Early marriage, female genital mutilation, domestic violence and sexual harassment are issues which have been problems for a long time – and they still shape the daily life of women at the Nile. The Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services (CEOSS), one of the major development agencies in Egypt, has been working with women for decades. But there is no special department for women’s issues. “Gender is a crosscutting field in our work”, Margrite Saroufim says. “The gender question is incorporated in all our programs.”

While talking about gender the local development manager is quickly directing the discussion on questions concerning the whole Egyptian society. “Achieving sustainable development would not be possible without the participation of women at various levels whether social, political or economic”, she says.

For this CEOSS implemented, in the early 1990s, gender mainstreaming in its work, long before many other development agencies even in the Western world mainstreamed their programs. “We felt that we needed a change and that we should make our program wider and more inclusive to empower women in all fields we are working on”, Saroufim says.

No wonder, that there are success stories of women in education, health care, housing, agribusiness or micro loans. Like Rasha from Al Sheikh Ali village, a mother of three children. Due to a disability in her left foot, she never received an education as a child. She attended literacy courses and received a certificate. “Now, I’m able to help my husband at his work at the buffet. I write the drinks and I’m responsible for the accounts. I’ve also begun to teach my son math and Arabic. Education is a blessing from Allah”, she concludes.

Or Ahlam, a young woman from Beni Suef, who couldn’t find a job lacking the needed skills. She learned how to print on clothes and could then start a small business. “The training helped me to start my first steps in realizing my dream.”

The story of CEOSS as an institution is a success story itself. This Christian non-governmental organization (NGO) was founded by the Presbyterian pastor Samuel Habib in the 1950s. Habib started with literacy courses in Upper Egypt. He simply wished that all Christians in the rural parts of the country could read the Bible themselves. This evangelization strategy quickly became a comprehensive educational program. Those who had learned to read and write brought it to others. Knowledge was shared in a kind of snowball system.

Today, CEOSS is one of the major players on the field of development in Egypt with more than 5.000 volunteers and a full-time staff of 750 in the country, among them the 150 employees in its modern headquarters in El Nozha El Gedida, a residential area in the outskirts of Cairo.

CEOSS is presided over by Dr Andrea Zaki who is at the same time the president of the whole Evangelical community in Egypt. CEOSS is supported by 350 partners around the world. It’s no longer involved in education only, but also in health care, intercultural dialogue, programs for children at risk or people with disabilities. In numerous projects between the Northern Cairo area and the Upper Egypt city of Assiut, the organization reaches out to two million people, Christians and Muslims alike, according to its annual report 2016.

A trademark of CEOSS is the cooperation with local associations and NGOs. In 2016, it worked with 142 NGOs and 171 elected local committees. This means that the organization is, on the one hand, widely networking with other social partners across the country, on the other hand, it is much closer to the people and their needs.

But things have been changing very quickly in the last years in Egypt. The country has experienced two revolutions, one in 2011 and one in 2013. People are challenged on all levels, politically, economically and socially. For this CEOSS is working on a new strategy which combines gender mainstreaming and women’s programs.

“We need gender as a tool which works with the mentality of women and men for they can see each other with their different abilities, opportunities, duties and skills”, Margrite Saroufim explains. “But we experience that there is still a constant threat towards women in the Egyptian society. Women are still vulnerable and underprivileged. For this we think of a special program for women which works on their safety and which fights against all obstacles women are facing because they are women. They need to be empowered because we need them as development makers.”

The discussion on a new development strategy of CEOSS is directly linked to a very critical question concerning the whole Egyptian society – the question of resilience. “Many people feel lost in all these dramatic changes. If you are not strong enough to overcome them, you will collapse”, Saroufim says. “For this we are thinking of how to make people resilient to this. What do they need to be able to plan their future to survive?”

When talking about resilience, Margrite Saroufim shows how important this point is for herself. “CEOSS is a Christian organization and one of our rules is to create space for hope”, she says.  “Each of us at CEOSS has the mission to show the image of God. We are not only employees. We act as Christians who want to find the opportunities for real hope, for we all in Egypt overcome the feeling of depression and powerlessness.”

By Katja Dorothea Buck is a political and religious scientist based in Tuebingen (Germany). She often conducts research in the Middle East and writes on topics concerning the Christian minority there.

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