Strengthening the Voices of Women

by Sara Stuart
September 1999
written for the Rhodes Journalism Review in South Africa

During the last three years, Neama Mohamed, a mother and a housewife, has become a health educator, an outspoken advocate for girls and a leader in her community. Through her work, she is helping to change the attitudes and actions of her neighbors with regard to literacy, girls education, sanitation and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) a practice which is nearly universal in her Egyptian community. Once, Neama would have hesitated to confront such issues; after gaining communication skills and learning to effectively use media tools, her confidence as a spokesperson has soared. At the same time she has earned the respect of her peers.

Neama lives in Tellal Zenhom, a slum area in the southeastern section of Cairo. CEOSS, the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services, an Egyptian non-governmental organization, has worked in Tellal Zenhom on a range of local development issues for over seven years. Neama became familiar with the organization as a young mother; later, she was recruited to serve as a nutrition teacher for groups of women. Then, she agreed to lead New Horizons classes which promote self-empowerment among adolescent girls though training in life skills, education and health. (The New Horizons curriculum was developed by a group of Egyptian organizations with CEDPA – the Center for Development and Population Activities – and funded by USAID.) As she took on each new role, Neama received training, teaching materials and on-going support from CEOSS staff.

The New Horizons classes covered a wide range of reproductive health information, everything from the basics of reproductive biology to sexually transmitted diseases and from breastfeeding to the harmful traditional practices of FGM and the virginity proof. As these are very sensitive issues, the community was briefed about the curriculum and the topics it would cover. For many Egyptian girls living in villages and slums, adolescence is a time of increasing restrictions. Often, education of girls beyond the most elementary levels is viewed as unnecessary, and there are few activities available to them outside of the home. Parents agreed because they trusted CEOSS and because they wanted their daughters to have access to the important information the classes provided.

In February of 1998, Neama and three other New Horizons leaders from Tellal Zenhom learned to use a home video camcorder and to make simple tapes (edited "in-camera") about issues in their communities. The training was provided by Communication for Change as a part of the New Horizons project. This participatory video training was intended to strengthen the voice of women at the local level and to extend the reach of the New Horizons curriculum.

At first, the group was afraid to be seen carrying the camera in the streets and filming in their community. Although the community project community agreed to the video activity and the trainees were eager to learn, the support of their parents, husbands, fiancés and in-laws had to be reconfirmed on many occasions. As Neama and the others began to gain confidence in operating the camcorder and interviewing, they progressed from recording inside CEOSS's office and people's homes to shooting in the streets. With each step they overcame fear and the capacity of the team grew. Within ten days they began showing their first tapes to members of the community. These tapes were about the importance of literacy, good nutrition and a local woman who is doing exemplary service as a teacher of disabled children. These screenings allowed the team members to facilitate and lead discussions about the issues the tapes present. Various audiences included of friends and family members, girls in the New Horizons classes, the project committee and groups that were more intimidating to the team members such as men and community leaders.

After the training the Neama and the other team members chose to produce a tape about sanitation and garbage issues which plague Tellal Zenhom. This tape was widely screened and demonstrated the value of the community video team's work to many people.

The team feels that its greatest achievement has been making a program on female excision. It is significant that the team took up this issue only after honing their production abilities and gaining general community approbation for their work. Careful planning preceded shooting. There was consensus among team members that the perspective of a religious leader was absolutely necessary, as well as that of a doctor, so that religious views would complement the "scientific" arguments against the practice.

Certain obstacles proved unavoidable: one 12-year-old girl in the community, who had expressed her strong wish to appear in the video and speak of her experience of being excised, was not permitted by her mother to do so. Team members persisted. The final program includes interviews with one young girl who recalls undergoing the procedure, and another who successfully convinced her mother not to subject her to it. The tape concludes with words from team member Neama', a Muslim woman and respected community volunteer who has rejected the practice for her daughters.

The Zenhom team members were anxious about the first showing of the tape, which was held among community women. Although there were those among the audience who expressed continued support the practice, the majority recognized its detrimental effects; a few women indeed announced their intention to discontinue the practice. The tape has since been shown to diverse groups, including young girls, men, and local leaders. Among the comments made by audience members is that upbringing and education govern girls' behavior, not FGM. Girls who never before discussed their experience of excision have spoken out following screenings. Both video team members and community members have expressed the feeling that the program has helped to break the silence that once surrounded this topic.

While participating in a local conference on health, Neama was asked to be interviewed for Spanish television. When asked what it was like to be interviewed by the foreign TV crew, Neama said that prior to the video project she had been quite shy and would have found it difficult; now, though, she has a lot of confidence, and since she feels that FGM is a wrong practice that must be ended, she doesn't hesitate to talk to anyone about it.

In the 18 months following Neama's training, levels of participation in the Zenhom project have remained high. Team members have grown increasingly confident in using their technical skills, addressing challenging or sensitive topics, and presenting their work for discussion. The team members have a new visibility in their communities as spokespeople and leaders. They have helped to break down stereotyped concepts of what women can and cannot do. Community members, the local council and officials are expressing support for the team's work, often suggesting ideas for video programs. The video team's tapes are being used to spark discussion and promote the search for local solutions.

This experience demonstrates the power of media that is not "mediated" by outside forces, but rather conceived and produced by individuals determined to depict their own reality and effect change. Self-representation is profoundly linked with self-determination. As individuals and communities become self-determining, they gain a greater capacity to obtain social and economic justice. They develop the strength to demand that their governments and other authorities be responsive and responsible in their policies and decision making. The experience of Communications for Change's collaborating organizations suggests that participatory communication approaches can be powerful assets in achieving peaceful social change and participatory democracy.