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Breathe deep and think pink
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 27 - 11 - 2008

Women are being invited to attend high-profile business education classes, Nashwa Abdel-Tawab reports
"It's the first time I have really felt I have a purpose and important role in life. I never realised my ambitions and potential until I joined the programme," says 21-year-old Shaimaa Mustafa. "It proved to me that I could achieve more than ever before, since I am from a poor neighbourhood that didn't have any good schools where I could graduate with such high-quality tuition, free of charge at the same time." Mustafa graduated from a technical institute and joined the Young Women's Leadership Programme (YWLP) in the Cairo NGO Economic Liberation Association.
"As girls from a poor neighbourhood who see the world in movies, we used to dream of being doctors, rich businesswomen, or even actresses," Mustafa says. Parents in such economic conditions usually leave their daughters to dream since they will either get married, take the first job that comes along or suffer from depression and frustration. "There is a big gap between what we see and how we live. But this programme was our unexpected chance to breathe deeply and pave a way to the life we choose, not something chosen for us."
Mustafa is one of the 3,360 lucky Egyptian women who enrolled on the nine-month programme, mostly after hearing about it by word of mouth. She first aimed at learning English, but soon discovered an importance that exceeded language proficiency. She saw that such a programme could have long- term effects not only for herself but for her family, her neighbourhood and her country. In the future she wants to open a small centre to pass on such important skills to other serious young people in her neighbourhood.
So what is the YWLP? For an answer one may look at the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), conceived in the business and civil work fields. The YWLP is a practical model for the successful applicability of the business case for CSR. The steps taken show the corporate sector does not compromise profit-making for company owners, but companies now are voluntarily improving their behaviour to help their workers, the environment suppliers and the communities in which they operate. In its effort to promote a win-win scenario for businesses and societies that adopt the CSR concept, the Centre for Development Services (CDS) has succeeded in encouraging other business donors to support the YWLP.
The YWLP is a USAID-funded project designed and implemented by CDS in partnership with IREX (International Research and Exchange Board in the US) and six local NGOs in the governorates of Minya, Beni Sweif and Cairo, targeting 3,360 young women aged from 18 to 25. It promises to enhance their participation and empower them with skills that will help them in the business market, according to Passinte Isaak, senior programme specialist at CDS.
The YWLP was designed to meet a specific need identified by CDS through the needs assessment conducted in the three governorates. It involved interviews, a variety of focus groups with NGOs and target groups of young women and their parents and spouses, and discussions and questionnaires. The outcome of the research work formulated the programme and defined leadership needs and the necessary basic and effective skills. The programme started October 2007 and will end in September 2009.
"First we spent some time choosing the NGOs we will work with," says programme manager Manal Salah. Six out of 17 NGOs passed the institutional assessment where they proved gender equity in their board of directors; practised what they preached; and sheared the programme's goals. "W equipped the six NGOs with Internet cafés and a resource centre. Then the girls were chosen by local members of the NGOs," Salah adds. "We don't take school dropouts. There are other projects for them but this one is not suitable. Girls must read and write and hold at least the obligatory education certificate."
The course runs at the NGOs three times a week and focuses on developmental topics, advocacy and leadership. In an attempt to respond to a local problem, the girls are asked to design their own community-based initiative either in advocacy or leadership for their graduation. "The course also provides them with IT skills, interpersonal developmental skills and English as a foreign language," Salah says.
The girls go on educational trips to successful NGOs, companies and governmental organisations. They also meet business figures, mainly women. "They are not good public speakers and they think they are underprivileged. But by the end of the course they should know how to be entrepreneurs and market themselves well," Salah says.
Isaak says private sector has a role in society. In the past they used to give money; now they have to link up with the societies they support. "We see what these societies need and how the private sector can help, and then make programmes for the sake of all partners. No more old philanthropic work, we have to institutionalise the CSR concept to see tangible work. We link the private sector and their donations to the civil societies to meet both needs in sustainable programmes to see tangible work," Isaak says.
Barclays Bank and Microsoft have expressed an interest in supporting the YWLP. Barclays Bank is providing financial support equivalent to LE1 million and is encouraging its employees to volunteer in the project's different activities. "Both organisations are moving from social responsibility to opportunity," Isaak says.
"This positive contribution will help us a lot. They will have a strong and favourable idealistic reputation, and thus will attract more new customers as well as qualified human resources."
Microsoft is providing the needed computer software for the six established resource centres plus an annual financial support to the programme. It will also train the core team in basic ICT and will license the programme to use the same curriculum to train the project's beneficiaries.
Throughout this programme, the CDS will establish the NGOs with resource centres, provide training curriculum, train trainers of the six NGOs and give technical assistance.
When it ends, partner NGOs will have women of calibre to sustain and continue the YWLP, tailor technical assistance services, and run community resource centres and IT services for their community. Target women will be provided with opportunities to practise their skills, thus gaining practical experience and exposure in the public, private and civil sectors. The YWLP will thus simultaneously build the capacity and the sustainability of the six NGOs so they can better continue supporting young women in their communities, emerging informed and equipped with the skills, confidence and experience to assume leadership and serve as skillful employees.
With the help of international funding, women may one day be greater than men. So how will Egyptian men still make suitable marriage partners? Mustafa is adamant that she will not marry because she will be better qualified than the men she knows.
According to CDS, young Egyptian women experience gander-specific frustration, underemployment and disenfranchisement. The lack of access to information and skills are key obstacles. By enhancing the skills of young women, the YWLP aims to fill the gap between job vacancies and the qualifications potential employers require. The programme is expected to contribute to decreasing the rate of unemployment, one of the main obstacles to development in Egypt.
"The target is not to find for them jobs as much as making them cultured, aware of their potential, and rational in taking decisions," Isaak says. "We give them knowledge, skills and the tools to help them be successful." Yet Isaak does not deny that the programme can help them train, work if they need to, or even provide them with micro grants if they want to open their own project.
Some psychologists hold other views. "It's a great thing to educate women well to guarantee a developing society, but what if women became better than men?" warns Ali Suleiman, professor of social psychology at Cairo University, "Years and years ago men hindered women from education and thus we are suffering from ignorance prevalence, unfairness among opportunities for both genders, who are the country's power, as well as lots of social sickness. Now we shouldn't repeat the mistakes in another form by doing the opposite.
"Funds from abroad are a great chance but it should be implemented to be suitable for our traditional and communal agenda. We should evolve more than metamorphose. Funds should be directed within the light of communal culture. Women won't find their friend's brother as suitable as they used to. She'll be far better, since she was provided with high-quality education, skills, care and opportunities. Both sexes suffer from a low education, and if a woman became better she'll have two ways to tread: either give in to her family and forget about her new level of education to marry someone suitable as traditions go, or take up arms against her family and reject marriage until she meets an understanding and suitable mate from home or abroad. And in both cases, funded money will either be wasted or cause other problems that will need other funds to re-correct.
"I think funds should target both genders to guarantee a balance in the Egyptian family. Everyone in Egypt now needs help. Girls' rights are wasted, but bear in mind that the society's rights of good education, health and job opportunities are wasted as well, so if we want to raise the efficiency of the society, all genders should have an equal share now, without privileging a gender or discarding another."
"I never want to be better than my husband," Mustafa said. "But I believe a man at home is like a king, owns but doesn't rule, and the true leader of a house worldwide is the woman. So women should learn leadership skills to be good leaders at home and outside if they want to work, but I hope to find someone in my surrounding that will appreciate my change."
Of course after such women communal inhale, exhale is expected. Tens of highly-tailored projects for ignorant women, underprivileged women, and young businesswomen, are currently in service as compared with men's projects or for society as a whole. Is it good to wait for the exhale and see its good or bad impact on society, or see funds directed to villages and towns as a whole, or why not think pink and see what girls can do if they are given a chance to lead?


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