In Egypt, adapted technology improves women's lives

Women from the Siwa oasis of Egypt use computers to learn how to read and write
Women from the Siwa oasis of Egypt use computers to learn how to read and write. (Photo: UNDP Egypt)

Fatma Ibrahim, a poor mother of six, has been illiterate all her life. As a child, her hardworking parents made simple handicrafts and sold them to make ends meet.

Like many girls growing up in Siwa, the largest oasis in Egypt’s western desert, Ibrahim was deprived of an education due to her family’s poverty and a community tradition biased against girls’ education. These factors, in addition to the harsh living conditions in the oasis, resulted in an illiteracy rate reaching 40 percent among women, who make up half of Siwa’s population of 23,000.

In 2008, UNDP’s ICT Trust Fund —established with the Egyptian Ministry of Communication and Information Technology—joined forces with the World Health Organization, Vodafone Foundation and the Siwa Community Development and Environment Conservation Association to launch an initiative aimed at both eradicating female illiteracy and helping women find new or better employment.

Highlights

  • A US$ 300,000 project has helped 8,800 women learn to read and write and acquire skills and materials to take control of their lives.
  • Aware of prevailing social norms, programme instructors brought the classes into women’s homes.
  • In 2012, the initiative trained 120 women to read and write using information technology; 10 women received instruction on how to train future students.
  • UNDP and its partners are preparing to expand the initiative to five more oases in Egypt.

In addition to teaching 8,800 women how to read and write, the initiative is providing women the skills and materials needed to take control of their lives. For example, the programme put a special emphasis on computer skills. In addition to providing training in business development and problem solving, it equipped the participants with their own personal computers.

As a result, women enrolled in the programme learned to read and write, improved their agricultural and handicraft production abilities and acquired online marketing skills. Siwa women now promote their products through an online store.

Aware of prevailing social norms in the oasis, programme instructors brought the classes into women’s homes. They transformed the traditional tableya—a low, round dining table around which rural Egyptians sit cross-legged to eat—into a so-called tabluter. A tabluter is a customized, ergonomic computer embedded in the tableya; the computer hosts a single central processing unit that can run up to four independent computers. The newly tailored tableya is foldable, making it easy to carry around from home to home.

In 2012 alone, the initiative trained 120 women on the device, in addition to 10 more who were taught how to be literacy instructors, ensuring the ongoing life of the project. Fatma Ibrahim was among the first group of women to complete the literacy programme on a tabluter.

Ibrahim did not stop at reading and writing. She joined the programme’s business development training course and eventually opened her own successful tailoring business.

“When I first joined the literacy classes I was told that learning to work on computers can make our lives easier and help reduce inequality between men and women,” Ibrahim says. “I found in computers life itself. Now I can read and write, I can earn my living and give my children a better life. And as a mother, I am a better role model for them to follow.”

The project team is currently training non-governmental organizations (NGOs) around the Siwa governorate to use the tabluter to teach reading and writing. UNDP is also creating a business model for these NGOs so they can offer free literacy classes. UNDP and its partners are preparing to bring the entire initiative to five more oases in Egypt.

Marwa Elnokrashy is Deputy Director for Partnerships in Egypt’s ICT Trust Fund.

Karim Ezzeldin is a Communications Analyst in UNDP Egypt.

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