A day with the ladies in Upper Egypt

Egypt, April 8, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Tara Noronha/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Sohag, nestled on the Nile, is one of Egypt's poorest governorates. Photo: Tara Noronha/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Tara Noronha/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Across Egypt, the labor force participation rate for young females is just 13.4 percent, compared to 61 percent for males. In Upper Egypt, the participation rate for young females hangs as low as six percent. Photo: Tara Noronha/Mercy Corps

Egypt’s Sohag governorate sits approximately 475 kilometers south of bustling Cairo. The quiet region offers a stunning blend of just about everything — desert, mountains and lush greenery, all while perched on the magnificent Nile. However, the Upper Egypt governorate is also one of the country’s most vulnerable. According to the Egypt Human Development Report, 59 of the country’s 100 poorest villages belong to Sohag. Youth face unique challenges in Sohag and surrounding Upper Egypt, as opportunities for employment and economic engagement are few.

As part of Mercy Corps’ Egypt youth assessment, I recently held a focus group discussion with 15 female youth from Sohag’s Bardis village. The young women were eager to begin the discussion by talking about Egypt’s January 25 revolution. Sohagian youth are hopeful that the “new Egypt” will continue to bring positive change.

“We weren’t actually in Cairo or Alex during the protests,” shares one young woman. “But we all felt like we were there and participating. And are very happy and proud.”

Says another youth, smiling widely, “After January 25, we all feel free.”

The young women expressed that they would have been fearful to have been seen talking to me pre-revolution. “We can now talk about how we feel and what we need as women,” shared one female.

A critical piece of Mercy Corps’ assessment is to understand the barriers to income generation and employment for young people, understanding that the needs of urban youth in Cairo vary greatly with those of young Sohagians. The majority of the young women who participated in the discussion work as data collection officers for the local government. Before Egypt’s January 25 revolution, the young women received a salary of just 90 Egyptian Pounds (approximately US$15) per month. They were nearly working “for free,” shares one youth. However, two weeks post-revolution, the women now earn 300 Egyptian Pounds per month and are better equipped to care for their families and personal needs.

“Do any of you have a means for saving money?” I asked.

The room erupted into a fit of wild giggles. There are very few formal financial institutions in Sohag and when asked if they used any informal means of setting aside money, I received many eye rolls. “But if we saved money at our home, someone would steal it! Or we wouldn’t be able to eat!! We can’t save money!!!” they exclaimed. I had a room full of smiling young ladies, shaking their heads at me in amusement.

Youth unemployment has significantly impacted social norms in Sohag, including delayed marriage. For young men, no job means no apartment. No apartment means it is unlikely to find a wife…more specifically, young men are unlikely to get approval from a potential wife’s parents. And from Cairo to Sohag, I have heard young women tell me that delayed marriage significantly increases sexual harassment. My young Sohagian friends labeled this as a pressing social issue inextricably linked to low employment for males.

At the end of our discussion, the young ladies decided that they had a few questions for me as well. It’s only fair, after all. Here’s a selection of some of the most popular inquiries:

  • Miss Tara, can you tell us what life is like for young women in America? (Where to begin?!?)
  • Miss Tara, are all youth in the U.S. very rich?
  • Miss Tara, does unemployment exist where you come from?
  • Miss Tara, do you know Amitabh Bachan? (Um, not personally, no. Sorry ladies!)

The discussion was filled with equal amounts of candor, respect and laughter. I feel privileged to have been able to talk to so many diverse Egyptian youth over the course of the past few weeks.

Every conversation has led to new insights and new ideas, all of which will inform the many wways Mercy Corps can work meaningfully with youth, in Upper Egypt and beyond.