Al-Ahram Weekly
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM
25 Nov. - 1 Dec. 1999
Issue No. 457

Life Under The Lens

Can a video camera change lives and solve major problems?
Amira El-Noshokaty zooms in

Improving communication skills and fostering local community leaders: these are aims listed on the agenda of just about any NGO. Recently, however, a new tack has been taken in broaching such issues, with the introduction of modern technology. CEDPA (the Centre For Development and Population Activities, a USAID-funded project), in collaboration with the Coptic Evangelic Organisation for Social Services (CEOSS), has introduced a participatory video component to their partnership projects. The project aims at upgrading the status of women in rural society.

In the spring of 1997, Communication for Change (C4C), formally known as Martha Stuart Communications, a project that has been going on for the past 15 years in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, China and Nigeria, was selected to carry out the partnership project's participatory video training programme. Communication for Change has established a reputation as a pioneer in participatory video programmes and has demonstrated the possibility of building local leadership through the development of grassroots communication skills.

This basic message was first conveyed by CEDPA's New Horizons, an informal educational programme designed to communicate essential information in the areas of basic life skills and reproductive health. The new video training programme addresses a wide range of related issues, including female genital mutilation, financial barriers to marriage and local environmental problems.

The new programme has been implemented in different sectors of Egypt. Among these, Talal Zeinhom in Sayeda Zeinab has been singled out as one of the most successful examples.

According to Safwat Fadlallah, a member of CEOSS, the experiment did not go smoothly at first. "At the start, we thought we should discuss the idea with influential community members. Once they were convinced of the programme's merits, we decided to train girls and women who were already facilitators in the participatory classes that have been taking place for over two years in Sayeda Zeinab. We taught them how to operate a video camera, and how to plan 15-minute programmes."

The target community's initial reaction, however, was one of rejection. "Do they want to show the problems in our society and exploit our misery to obtain foreign financial support?" one community member demanded. The facilitators explained that the films would be exclusively shot by and for the community and would not be shown elsewhere. Furthermore, the focus was not solely on social traditions perceived as harmful to women.

From the project emerged A Woman of Zeinhom -- a film focusing on the importance of women's access to education and work opportunities. "It's my mother's story," explains Marwa Abdel-Khaleq, an 18-year-old CEOSS facilitator.

Abdel-Khaleq's mother, Rawia Saleh, married young, before she had even had time to finish school. After giving birth to two children, however, she went back to school, got a university degree, and is now working as a volunteer at CEOSS.

"The video encouraged people to let their daughters finish their education before getting married," Abdel-Khaleq believes. "Education must come first." And what does Saleh herself think? Well, she was unavailable for comment; she was at work at the time of the interview.

One taboo that inevitably came under the camera's lens was female genital mutilation. It was discussed with sensitivity, however, through conversations with a Sheikh, a doctor and two girls, one circumcised, the other not.

After the video was shown, Rania, the youngest of four daughters, the rest of whom had already been "circumcised", was spared the experience. Her mother and sisters were convinced that it was harmful.

Na'ima Mahmoud, a 31-year-old facilitator and member of the video team, also had to put theory into practice a few weeks ago. When her husband insisted that their 10-year-old daughter, Shaimaa, be circumcised like her cousins, Mahmoud refused. "The most important person involved in this decision is the mother," she asserts. "If the mother is convinced that circumcision is bad, she will be able to influence the husband."

The video team has shot almost 10 films. Beginning as a group of four women, who were trained for two weeks in basic video procedures, the team has grown to seven as the women teach others in the community.

The themes chosen are conveyed to a wider audience at maternity clinics in Zeinhom. As the women await their turn, they watch and have a chance to discuss the films with the video team. The films are also shown at the monthly classes at CEOSS's Zeinhom centre. Nor has the video project affected only the lives of the target community: the team members have felt the change too. "The video project has increased our self-confidence. We couldn't be shy when we had to address the whole community," exclaims Mahmoud. She feels the team members are now perceived as role models in the community.

In an attempt to take the project beyond Cairo, two villages in Minya were also targeted. They have their own stories of initial reluctance, and eventual success.

Al-Tiba's people are known for their generosity. Such kindness, however, has come to cause real material difficulties for the village, where custom dictates that certain stipulated amounts of money, gold jewellery and food be contributed by both bride and groom before a couple can marry.

Discussing the themes of the films made in Al-Tiba, Madeleine Soliman, the CEOSS facilitator in the village, says that most participants focused on the "marriage problem".

According to Soliman, FGM and female illiteracy are far less widespread in Al-Tiba than in other rural or urban areas. With these urgent matters more or less settled, the issue of material obstacles to marriage has been able to acquire greater importance.

In the participatory classes (which include both young men and women), marriage is discussed. Girls aged between 14 and 29 were discussing the criteria they would apply in choosing the right husband. Most are not married.

"Young women older than 25 who are not married are very depressed. In this society, if you are older than 16 and still not married, you are branded a spinster," explains Soliman. The problem affects men too: the villagers' means do not meet the ideal financial standards stipulated for marriage in Al-Tiba. This problem has been aggravated as the job opportunities in countries like Libya or Iraq have diminished to a trickle, or dried up altogether. So most young men from Al-Tiba either marry women from other villages or do not get married at all. The video team, appropriately enough, planned a film titled I Want to Get Married.

"My daughter has been married for two years now and we have not covered the wedding expenses yet," comments Umm Maged. According to tradition, the bride's family is responsible for providing all the food for the wedding celebration. Umm Maged spent three whole days making bread and pastries. The biscuits alone, she says, required 800 eggs. There have been cases, say the villagers, of families selling off their land and falling into debt in order to avoid dishonouring themselves at the wedding.

Such customs seem to make little sense, given current material conditions, but they are deeply rooted in the community. The video team tackled the issue courageously. The films were shown in church, in the open space in front of the mosque, or in the village's largest homes. Here too, the films seem to have played a role in crystallising the debate around the issue of lavish wedding ceremonies.

"The women who saw the film asked why we had never spoken openly about the issue before, and one of the villagers decided to buy his daughter a washing machine instead of using the money on the traditional pastries," says Samia Fawzi, a member of the video team.

Mansour Eid is a 27-year-old with a BA in social work. During his year-long engagement to Mariam, he had managed to convince her parents to accept 100gm of gold as a wedding gift instead of the customary 120gm. The matter of the celebrations, however, had yet to be settled.

"I just couldn't afford it," remembers Eid, who was required to furnish the house and provide the meat for the wedding banquet. After seeing the video film, he managed to convince Mariam's parents to forego the 80kg of meat customarily offered by the groom. "Instead, I bought LE120 worth of meat, and saved the rest to buy a refrigerator."

In Etsa, too, "at first the problem was in the term 'video' itself. The villagers were reluctant to have their women appear on film. They would throw stones at us when we walked down the street," recalls Iman Ibrahim, a CEOSS facilitator in the village.

Because the community had previous experience of CEOSS projects, however, and because many of the facilitators are villagers themselves, the video project was accepted gradually. In Etsa, too, local problems with nationwide significance were addressed. Here, it was the environment that provided the subject matter for the first film.

The canal that runs through the village and which was meant to channel excess irrigation water away from the fields is no longer limited to that purpose. "Waste from the sugar factory and sewage are being thrown into the canal, which flows directly into the Nile," explains Ramadan Abul-Ela, the secretary of a local Islamic association.

This pollution affects agriculture as well, for a water pump by the canal allows the villagers to use unrecycled water in irrigating their plots. "This damages the soil," notes Abul-Ela.

"The canal was our first priority," adds CEOSS's Ibrahim, explaining how the 25-minute film about the environmental crisis was planned and executed.

A copy has been sent to the Minister of Environment, and the villagers are waiting for a governmental decree to fill in the canal.

"We have shown our film at the CEOSS centre, and people have seen the Zeinhom team's films too," adds Ibrahim. Among the Etsa teams future plans: a monthly meeting with CEOSS centres in neighbouring villages. "We want to organise regular meetings at which each village's video team can show their films as a way of exchanging experiences," she concludes.

[NOTE: This article appeared in Al-Ahram Weekly, Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM, 25 Nov. - 1 Dec. 1999, Issue No. 457]