On Monday, March 21st, 2011, Salwa Marcos, from the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, spoke about her work, supported by Christian Aid, in Egypt’s villages.
The present population of Egypt is about 80 million people, 95% of whom live on only 5% of its land (most of the rest is desert, and Egypt has always depended on the Nile River for its water and agriculture). 40 percent of the population live on less than $2 a day, many of these in rural villages.
In recent months popular protests led to the resignation of President Mubarak on February 11th. There is now an interim military administration, with constitutional reform and elections happening. But the situation is still unpredictable, with continuing pro-democracy demonstrations, pay-related strikes, and inter-community violence. Some argue that the constitutional referendum has come too early, giving groups and parties that were already well organised- such as the military and the Muslim Brotherhood- a great advantage, which may be to the detriment of minorities and women.
Perhaps 14% of the population belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, though official statistics tend to understate this. The Church has always worked closely with poor and marginalised people, though in the past its approach has been based on charity- the weakness of this approach is that the poor then always remain dependent on others. In the 1960s, however, the Church adopted a new approach. A bishop was appointed to lead a country-wide new organisation, known as the Bishopric of Public and Ecumenical Social Services, or BLESS.
The purpose of BLESS is to help poor and marginalised people discover and develop their potentials and improve the conditions of their communities in all ways- socially, culturally and economically- for an abundant life for all. It is based on Christian principles: to restore human dignity through social justice, to develop a sense of responsibility and commitment, and to respect diversity and strive with others for a better life.
BLESS uses four criteria to choose which villages to work with: a village should be among the poorest communities in the diocese; it should have a population no more than 5000 people; one with poor government and NGO (non-government organisation) services; and with a Christian majority, where there are good relations between Christians and Muslims. This last requirement is one that is advised by the Egyptian police, in order to avoid any fears that BLESS will use its presence to attempt to convert Muslims to Christianity.
Christian Aid has four Partners in Egypt, and with BLESS supports their Comprehensive Integrated Development Programme. This works with a community for 7 years – a 5 year programme phase followed by a 2 year exit strategy. During this time BLESS works intensively with members of the community to improve every facet of life – depending on the needs of each community this can include: – increasing agricultural yields – improving access to export markets, health facilities and education – combating the practice of Female Genital Mutilation – school support classes, kindergartens, inter-faith committees, literacy – women’s training and micro-credit – water and sanitation. By the end of the exit phase, the community has taken full responsibility for the running and sustainability of all this, and Bless can move on to spread the impact.
Crucial for the way BLESS works is that the local village should identify its own problems, and the tasks and needs which should be tackled. But then the structure for community development which is built up to tackle those tasks is similar in each place: usually there will be several “Development Groups”- for example Education; Children; Youth; Health; Economic; Rural. In each group there will be a Field Worker, chosen from the community (often these are women), and paid by BLESS. The Moderator of each Group is a member of the overall Development Committee for the village, where strategic decisions can be made.
One of Christian Aid’s Communication Officers visited El Gawley, one of the communities that BLESS had been working with and said: “BLESS had pulled out of the village I visited in 2008, and everything I saw demonstrated that the community had not only benefited but had been energised and empowered to reach even greater heights themselves. El Gawley village association calls itself ‘Salam’ (which means ‘peace’), demonstrating its commitment to inter-community relationships (Christian- Muslim) as well as development for all.”
These are examples of the work of BLESS in El Gawley:
The committee formed a cooperative of poorer farmers, those who only own small plots of land, to trial the project. It was a huge success – two of their four annual bean harvests are organic and are exported to Europe, getting a price five times higher than they would have locally. They divide the profits according to what they put in. Also, they make an unofficial policy of hiring the poorest of the poor (those farmers who don’t even own any land at all) as labourers on the project, to spread the impact further and reach the poorest.
The cooperative includes both Muslims and Christians and has improved community relations. The regional university has come to their village to study the project, to include it in their agronomy course!
BLESS is a Christian organisation but does not proselytise. Village committees are made up of Muslims and Christians together – not only does this mean that benefits are shared by all, but it improves community relationships in a country where these are sometimes tense.
BLESS helped the village set up a nursery, to get little children off the streets during the day and out of their mothers’ hair. This means they get a head start, playing in the clean inside and doing educational games, which prepare them to start school. A token contribution from most families covers the nursery’s expenses, and means that the nursery can accept the children of the poorest for free. Finally, not having children at home means that mothers can work, increasing family incomes. After-school classes: School drop-out rates in Egypt are high because of the poor quality of education. BLESS set up an education committee in the village to improve the level of education the children receive, increasing parent-teacher communication etc. They also run after-school classes. Like the nursery, there’s a small fee that covers the cost of the poorest.
Eradication of Female Genital Mutilation:
90% of women in Egypt are subjected to female circumcision (genital mutilation) – the practice of cutting out a woman’s clitoris. It’s not a religious practice but has become tied up with both Islamic and Christian tradition in Egyptian culture, supposedly to stop a woman having extra-marital relationships. It’s usually done when a girl is 8 to 12 years old, without anaesthetic, with a razor blade, at home by the village midwife. It is dangerous and a few girls have even died from blood loss and/or infection.
Anti-FGM education is an integral part of all BLESS projects. In El Gawley, just as in the rest of Egypt, it was widespread, but now, due to BLESS and Salam’s health education programme, they have completely eradicated FGM – there’s been no case since 2006. Bless and Salam then started working with surrounding villages to change attitudes and practices there, and the next door village has also recently eradicated the tradition.