Egypt: Woman by woman, story by story

Embrace is working with the Coptic Orthodox Church to build a gender-equal Egypt. Through the church's Soteria project, you’re helping traumatised women find peace and become leaders of change.

Imagine a desert oasis. The life-giving crystal water; the vivid green of palm trees and the coolness of their gentle shade. The exhausted traveller, who could barely go on, finds rest and nourishment and a renewed drive to complete her journey. At Anafora, on the desert road between Cairo and Alexandria, women find similar respite from lives of abuse and exclusion.

Anafora is a Coptic Orthodox retreat centre that welcomes an international community of Christians seeking uninterrupted time with God. Yet it is also a hub of social change for Egypt. The church runs a range of projects that promote equality and justice for vulnerable people. Your gifts fund an impressive scheme called Soteria, which provides residential courses for rural Egyptian women who have experienced sexual, physical or emotional abuse.

Creating change, one woman at a time

The name Soteria comes from the Greek word for safety and deliverance, and the project aims to give 100 women per year the chance to rebuild their lives. Each week-long course offers trauma counselling and helps the participants to recognise their talents, develop their self-worth and understand of their rights. They receive continued support back in their own villages, where they in turn can help other women.

'The process of change happens woman by woman, story by story,' programme manager Sara Hanna, left, told us. 'As we empower one woman, that woman becomes an agent of change in her community. The development and health of a community grows with each woman who is equipped and empowered as a leader.'

Of course, it's not easy for a traumatised woman to leave her community for a week and step into the unknown. Many face opposition from their fathers, husbands and brothers, as well as having to battle their own shattered confidence. By simply accepting the invitation, they are taking an extraordinarily brave step.

A vital part of the project is to educate men about women's right to live free from abuse. Soteria volunteers organise men's seminars in each village teaching that violence is wrong and highlighting how women's and girl's contribute to the community benefiting everyone.

Sofia's story

We spoke to Sofia, a 26-year-old woman who participated in the Soteria programme last year. Sofia lives in a large village in Upper (south) Egypt. It is home to around 16,000 Christians and 9,000 Muslims.

'Everyone knows each other,' she says, 'and most people have very good relationships with their neighbours.'

Yet the community is not without its problems. As in countless other Egyptian villages, the traditionally male-dominated culture places little value on girls' education and women's rights.

Although all Egyptian children are entitled to a free education, families have to provide books and school equipment – for many, it's difficult to justify spending money on a girl who will be married off as soon as possible. She is considered more useful doing chores at home than sitting in the classroom with her brothers. Too many young women grow up illiterate and unaware of their worth as human beings.

Sofia did not want to go into detail about her personal experiences, but she described the inescapable environment of sexual harassment that begins when Egyptian girls are very young.

'Sexual harassment and abuse are issues for so many women in Upper Egypt and they often don't even have words to describe the shame they feel. Oftentimes a girl's house is open to neighbours and family and so they don't have a safe space away from the advances of men. They don't have any love for themselves – so many have said they felt they had to allow the sexual advances of men as a way to attain a feeling of love.'

A voice at last

Sofia heard about Soteria through a member of her church. Sahar, a trainer for Soteria, invited Sofia and other local young women to spend a week at Anafora. In this peaceful and healing environment, the women shared their experiences and realised they were not alone.

'By helping these girls and women feel like they have a voice;' Sofia told us, 'by helping them to discover who they are and how to love themselves, this project changes their lives.'

Sofia now aims to establish a group in her village to bring women together so they can support and inspire each other.

'Because most women are relegated to home life, they don't feel a sense of deep purpose and belonging,' Sofia said. 'I want to help change this by creating an association that will empower girls to lead better lives.'

Thanks to your donations, Sofia and other young women will be able to change attitudes in their communities and work towards a future where everyone is valued and respected.


This article first appeared in our magazine, Embrace.