On International Women's Day: Breaking the cycle of trauma

They say you never forget how to ride a bike... but for girls in Egypt, there's rarely a chance to learn in the first place. The inside of a typical rural Egyptian home is dark and sparse, and the mud bricks and dirt floors form an unchanging backdrop to many young women's lives.

Restricted by certain traditional social attitudes, they have little opportunity to go far from the house, especially on their own.

Something as liberating as riding a bike is unthinkable.

That's why a few old bicycles stand against the wall at the Anafora Retreat Centre, a tranquil oasis of clean sand-coloured buildings between Cairo and Alexandria. Anafora, run by the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of El-Qusiya, is a quiet but powerful hub for promoting women's rights.

You are supporting its Soteria project – named after the ancient Greek word for safety and deliverance – which supports girls and young women who have experienced trauma. They are giving them the skills and confidence to champion gender equality in their communities.

On one of Anafora's peaceful sand tracks, Nabila smiles as she freewheels through the sunshine on a bicycle. There is no one to tell her off; no one to claim that she is acting shamefully or that she should get back within the confines of four walls.

Nabila has suffered abuse in the past; it is clear that she has a lot to come to terms with.

'The pain is all inside,' she says, 'but when I ride the bike it all comes to the surface and I feel free.'

The Soteria project invites young women like Nabila to stay at Anafora for a week or more. Most have experienced sexual violence and female genital mutilation (FGM), which still goes on in spite of being against Egypt's laws. At Anafora, they are safe and have the first chance of their lives to discover self-worth and hidden abilities. The project provides trauma counselling and education about women’s rights, as well as leadership skills and employment advice.

One of the most wonderful aspects of the programme is when the women begin to realise that they could inspire their communities to change things for the better, With help from Soteria, they tell other women all about the project and encourage everyone in their villages to learn more about equality.

Karine, 25, is another young woman who has found freedom and hope through Anafora's liberating atmosphere. Although keen to join the Soteria programme, she found it extremely difficult to socialise with the other participants, and usually remained silent in discussions.

When Karine told us about her past, it was easy to see why she felt so isolated. Rejection had been a part of her life since she was small; her father treated her badly and sent her to live at an orphanage. She attended school, but was sexually abused there. She could not find anyone to help her; even her mother did not stand up for her, and this has been a source of hurt for her ever since.

She asked to stay on at Anafora for longer than most people, and gradually found it easier to join in – she made some firm friends who she plans to keep in touch with. Karine has now returned to her village and enthusiastically talks to people of all ages about everything she has learnt.

Soteria enables women like Nabila and Karine to help other women recognise when their rights aren't being respected, and to find support when they are suffering abuse. Another important part of the programme's work is to run seminars in each village for men, educating them about their own responsibility to make violence a thing of the past.

It's thanks to you, that we can not only change the lives of individual Egyptian women who have experienced a traumatic past, but also help them create a more equal future for the girls of generations yet to be born.

'Things are better for me than they were for my mother,' Karine says. 'And things will be better still for my daughters.'


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