Tag Archives: women

Ambition vs. Tradition: How Egypt’s Widows Are Claiming Their Future, 1 Business at a Time

Small Business
In Egypt, starting a small business is no small undertaking.

Every day in Egypt, smart women — aspiring entrepreneurs — face challenges that would shred most people like a dry leaf in a wood chipper. For starters, most women there contend with crushing sexism and soaring inflation.

But Egypt’s widows face even huger challenges. Traditions restrict how they dress, who they speak to, where they go. Often, they can’t leave the house to work and put bread on the table. That’s even if their children are malnourished.

B’edaya is a microfinance initiative designed to handle exactly these hostile conditions — the everyday life of a widow in Egypt. It tailors small loans to the needs of the mothers of orphans. The aim is to give them an income, more ability to feed their children, and more control of their lives.

Of the 30 women now taking part in B’edaya, from mid-January to October 2014, only one (because of severe illness) was unable to make her monthly loan repayments. In the harsh climate I just described, how is that possible?

In answer, I want to share the story of one of these women. Some details of her life are unique among the B’edaya widows. But her fighting spirit and will to secure a better future for her children are not.

Warda is a 30-year-old who lives outside the city of Sohag. In this region, where the searing-hot desert is split by the Nile’s waters, her husband died on the roads while transporting stone.

Since 2012, she’s run a grocery out of her house — since tradition dictates that she can’t leave it. She feeds her two children with the profits she makes selling sugar, rice, cheese, oil, and some canned goods to her neighbors.

Warda started her grocery with a loan of 1,700 Egyptian pounds that predated B’edaya. It came through Coptic Orphans, with the encouragement of the volunteer representative who mentors her children.

So far, the income she sought is arriving — not all she hopes for, yet, but enough to put food on the table. Today, she’s part of B’edaya, and makes regular payments on her loan through the program.

Why has her business succeeded so far? Warda attributes it to her own:

  • Courage and lack of fear of the situation surrounding her
  • Ability to take into consideration the culture of the people and their needs
  • Selection of a project that fits the nature of the restrictions imposed on widows in her region
  • High ambitions and desire that the project become her main source of income
  • Basic knowledge about reading and writing
  • High level of organization and awareness of her business environment

Michael, the B’edaya staff member who works with Warda, says her success is a function of her:

  • Drive to secure a sustainable monthly income
  • Courage and determination to change her status as a widow
  • Ambition to use her personal abilities to become self-reliant
  • Flexibility in the face of shifting conditions
  • Ability to search out alternatives and solutions
  • Awareness of how to properly manage her project

To these factors, Michael adds the encouragement Warda has received from both him and the Coptic Orphans “rep” who helps meet her children’s education, health, and other needs.

Lastly, mixed into Michael’s list, among many other factors, is the B’edaya loan. In other words, this is so much more than “take one entrepreneur, add loan, watch the results.” The widow herself must bring positive qualities to the table.

At the end of the day, this last aspect of B’edaya is what sets it apart from so many other approaches to charity and development.

Unquestionably, the loan and the income it generates are good things. But the loan is only a catalyst — a means for Warda to harness her inner drive and latent abilities, and in the process, be transformed.

This aimed-for transformation from helpless, house-bound widow to self-sufficient businesswoman is the opposite of traditional charity, which (even if well-intentioned) creates a dependency on handouts.

Which brings me back to the question posed at the beginning of this report: “How is it possible that 29 out of 30 widows made their B’edaya loan payments over almost a year?”

I would say the critical answer is this: The loan program does not focus on these women’s weaknesses — instead, it harnesses their strengths. It unlocks what’s within them. And that’s the key to success.

*Image and names changed to protect the privacy and dignity of B’edaya participants

We Talk About ‘Breaking the Cycle’ — These Girls Are Doing It

Valuable Girl Project participants share a laugh during a learning activity in Matay, Upper Egypt.
Valuable Girl Project participants share a laugh during a learning activity in Matay, Upper Egypt.

Paper crowns and graduation caps — bright orange and red, they decorate this airy, sunlit room overlooking the dusty streets of Upper Egypt. Hand-written on each, in black marker with silver flourishes, are the words “Valuable Girl!”

I’m back here in the town of Matay, at this site of the Valuable Girl Project. Here, Big Sisters and Little Sisters ages 7-22 learn together in a safe space. Both Christians and Muslims are paired in these Big-Little mentoring relationships, and at the moment, there’s mayhem as they get set to play a game.

A moment later, though, order is restored. The 20 or so young women and girls get themselves arrayed in a circle, and all eyes are fixed on one young woman, Maryam. She leads the group into a mathematics game, soaking up all their youthful energy in hopping, gesturing, and laughing.

Once the game winds down, Maryam joins me on a balcony to bring me up to speed on the site’s accomplishments and challenges. It’s private there, so she’s able to be frank about some of the more difficult things she’s encountered here in Matay.

As manager of this Valuable Girl Project site, she says, she deals with the hard cases. Not every girl who walks through the door is an angel. But Maryam still has to bring out the best in them.

One young woman comes to mind — Samia. “She used to hit,” says Maryam. Her father, a known criminal, was behind bars for what amounted to life. For her part, Samia seemed to be following in his footsteps, in a cycle of violence and poverty passed from generation to generation.

“She cursed a lot, stole, and was pretty violent,” Maryam says. “She didn’t have any friends.”

As Maryam tells it, she decided to tackle Samia’s problems — but without singling her out for shame. Instead, she did things like involve all of the girls in an activity on the importance of honesty. She gave Samia opportunities to practice not stealing. And she kept Samia close to role models, the kind of teens who would introduce her to healthy behaviors.

In short, a community of sorts was surrounding Samia, perhaps for the first time in her life. The young women of the Valuable Girl Project were opening her eyes to a way out of the cycle she was trapped in.

And these days? Samia’s not an overnight miracle, Maryam observes. There are still times when old habits creep back. But overall, she’s a happier girl, she’s stopped hitting, and she’s holding onto friends.

“The other day, she saw one of the girls return something that had been lost, and get praised for it,” says Maryam. “Not long after, she found 300 Egyptian pounds and brought it to me. I started to thank her, and do you know what she said? ‘Miss, this is my responsibility. I shouldn’t be rewarded for it.'”

It’s not a small thing to break — or even bend — the cycles of violence and poverty that afflict families, in Egypt or anywhere. But I was seeing just that in Matay. Consider Samia’s transformation through the multiplying effect of seven sites and 420 Valuable Girl Project participants, and you’re looking at many lives changed.

Lots of people talk about breaking the cycles of poverty and violence. As I stand there talking to Maryam, I think to myself, I’ve caught a group of young women who are doing it.

Here’s another post about these girls and their site: Girls, Tolerance, Pyramids, (And Other Wonders of the World).

Stay tuned to learn more about the Valuable Girl Project by subscribing to this blog! More updates coming soon.

* Names and details in story are changed to protect the privacy of the young women in the Valuable Girl Project.

Educating Women: How Copts Led the Way, and Why It Matters

A Big Sister-Little Sister pair tackles a learning experience in the Valuable Girl Project.
A Big Sister-Little Sister pair tackles a learning experience in the Valuable Girl Project.

Did you know that a Coptic pope was responsible for the first modern-day steps to educate women in Egypt?

The first instance of modern female education in Egypt came about “not by the efforts of a secular ruler,” but through the vision of His Holiness Pope Kyrillos IV, as I was just reading in an interview with Sam Tadros.

That insight from Tadros, the author of Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity, gave me pause. Right there, it struck me, is the spiritual root of Coptic Orphans’ Valuable Girl Project.

What’s amazing is that Pope Kyrillos IV, as far back as the period 1854-1861, anticipated not only the need to teach women, but also the importance of making more educational resources available to Muslims. As Tadros notes, “He established five modern schools that offered free education, even to Muslims — indeed, to all Egyptians.”

It’s no coincidence that the Valuable Girl Project, in practice, follows the trails blazed by Pope Kyrillos IV. The project focuses on bettering young women’s education, while being inclusive of both Christians and Muslims.

If you’re not familiar with it, in a nutshell, the Valuable Girl Project aims to promote the academic retention, education, and literacy tutorship of girls and young women in high-poverty areas of Egypt. Local coordinators based in our partner organizations oversee one-to-one mentorship programs through which young women in secondary school, the “Big Sisters,” become role models for girls in primary school, the “Little Sisters.”

The net effect is to support young women in their efforts to stay in school and gain dignity at home, in the classroom, and in the community. We’ve been running this project for 12 years now, and it reached a peak of 15 sites around Egypt. At total of 3,976 girls and young women have participated in the Valuable Girl Project — and we’re only getting started.

Why does all this matter?

Well, if you love the idea of a more prosperous Egypt, and you love unlocking the God-given potential of young women, then pairing education with girls is a match made in heaven.

Here’s where my love for data comes in. The World Bank report Measuring the Economic Gain of Investing in Girls: The Girl Effect Dividend cites research showing that educating girls “boosts long-run growth by 0.58 percentage points per year.” Moreover, a World Bank study in 1999 demonstrated that “increasing the secondary education of girls by 1% results in annual income increase of 0.3% per capita.”

When you look at percentages this small, they seem insignificant. But because they apply to the economic activity of the gargantuan that is Egypt, they end up meaning enormous progress.

These are the huge gains that Egypt can reap if we educate women, and I’m excited that we can achieve a more prosperous, developed motherland by following the vision of a Coptic pope.