A group of some thirty young women have arrived to a weekly training on local governance to Tahrir Lounge in the town of Tala. The Tahrir Lounge, its name meaning freedom, is an open space for people to gather for trainings and cultural activities. The women are part of a program of the El Sadat foundation, funded by the Finnish government.
The goal of the program is to give women necessary skills to run for office in the upcoming communal elections. The intensive training spans over a period of 5 months and the topics of sessions vary from soft skills to participatory planning to understanding of the mechanics of local governance.
Today is the final session of the participatory planning training. The participants have been divided into sub-groups according to the geographical location they come from. Earlier they did interviews in their villages of origin in order to come up with the most urgent problems in their home communities. They are about to come up with a list of priorities to be introduced to local government officials.
Training to change the society
The workshop is the first of its sort arranged in an impoverished governorate of Menofyia. "We are used to have trainings for people in politics in Cairo and with a cost, but to take the program here and offer it for the marginalized is something unique" explains Islam Sharaf, who is one of the Executive Directors at the El Sadat foundation. The organizing of such events is not without challenges as some of the participating women are struggling even to pay the cost of public transportation, which is around one euro, to attend the trainings once a week.
The Egyptian electoral law guarantees 25% quota for women in local councils. In order to be also effective decision makers the women need to know how the political system works. The program provides women with the tools and confidence to change their communities.
The ultimate goal of the project is to get women to take part in the elections, be elected and become effective future decision-makers. But how about those who do not get elected? "The skills we learn are not good only for politics, but for life in general. Even if we do not become politicians we can still use the skills to improve our communities" says one of the participants in the program.
Even though the training focuses explicitly to the upcoming elections it has wider goal as well. "Organizing this training is a good learning experience for us. In the future we hope to see these lessons learned to be put into a form of leadership academy perhaps" Islam says. With the funding from the Local Cooperation Fund of the Embassy of Finland in Cairo El Sadat Association has been able to build a comprehensive curriculum together with experts in the fields of local governance and leadership and pilot it. "Already now we are contacted from other governorates asking if we could arrange similar activities" Islam reveals.
The training will continue for three more months until the end of August. By then the women should be ready to face the challenges of the real world. With the skills learned from the workshop they will hopefully contribute to changing their society. After spending an afternoon with these enthusiastic and brave young ladies I am sure they will. When asked how many of the young women will take part to the upcoming elections, a handful of enthusiasts rise. In a conservative society like Egypt it is not an easy task for young woman to take part to politics and step into a sphere that's traditionally reserved for men. Being able to build confidence in a friendly environment with a group of other women only is very important. "When we take part to the elections we have to face some opposition. It is good that we have been able to build confidence here and are prepared for that" participants explain.