Seham Negm

“Literacy is about knowing the world around us“

Interview by Rabab Tamish, Betlehem University, Palestine

© Women & Society Association

Seham Negm is the founder of the Women and Society Association in Egypt, which has been active in women’s empowerment and education since 1994, and of the Arab Initiative for the Social and Economic Empowerment of Women who overcome Iliteracy. She has dedicated her work over the last three decades to fighting illiteracy and promoting social justice and equity. Seham is active in international and regional networks on adult education and was elected Vice President of the Arab Region of the International Council for Adult Education (ICAE).

I am curious about how you perceive the impact of adult education in the Arab region. But first of all, how did you get into adult education?

My engagement in the field came in two stages. It started in 1971, when I was at high school and a member of the “Egyptian Youth Organisation”. We led literacy programmes in which I volunteered as a literacy teacher.

Then when I started my university studies in the Faculty of Business, we were asked to organise community projects. At that time we were engaged in highly marginalised, very rural areas. This experience helped me link my academic life with the community. As a result, I learnt a lot about my people and that illiteracy is not only about reading and writing, but also about knowing the world around us.

We were three young women who after obtaining our University degrees established the “Women and Society ­Organisation” with the aim in mind of increasing women’s participation and empowerment. Cairo was a destination for internal immigration at that time, and people were coming from rural areas in search of job opportunities. The engagement with these groups taught us about their living circumstances, in which their inability to read and write, as well as their social backgrounds, limited their opportunities to manage their lives in Cairo. For instance, they could not obtain official documents for their jobs or residence status in Cairo. Many of them did not have birth certificates for their children, so they could not register them in schools. We paid considerable attention to these groups and arranged literacy classes, with a special focus on women. I would say that this period led to a shift in my understanding of adult education. I found that conducting hundreds of classes for women had not achieved the expected results. Women were less motivated, and we started to think of empowerment beyond imparting reading and writing skills.

How did you do that?

There were many women’s organisations in Egypt in the early 90s which provided different services aimed at bringing about gender equity and empowerment. We started networking and engaging in some forms of partnership with these organisations in order to exchange experiences and expertise. We found that women were more likely to attend literacy classes if they could be induced to take an interest in learning about social services, legal aid and reproductive health. The partnerships were effective because each organisation provided sessions related to its expertise. We organised training on literacy programmes, and in some cases we offered this service to women who participated in their programmes. What was helpful here was our links with female university students, whom we targeted for specific programmes. Their academic background was needed to conduct needs assessment studies in order to collect data that could be used at the planning stage of our programmes. For instance, they interviewed women in rural areas in order to identify topics that interested them, as well as collecting data on their knowledge and on stereotypes regarding specific issues such as misconceptions on reproductive health and the level of awareness of legal rights. This experience was crucial for extending the networking and the engagement of all partners in the process, as well as for ensuring that the work was not limited to specific organisations.

You mentioned earlier that the process went through two phases. What was the second one?

During our engagement with illiteracy programmes for adults, we noticed that the number of young learners was increasing. We arrived at the conclusion that the real crisis lay in the fact that the educational system marginalises children and excludes them from receiving a good education. We decided to extend the scope of our services and provide classes for the early years, in other words for Grades 4 to 6. We paid further attention to these groups by investing in keeping them in school. We managed to cover the financial expenses of 1,200 female pupils every year so that they could stay in school. We have records of hundreds of students who managed to complete high school and even reach university level. Here we learnt about the importance of intervening in the early years, and developed networking with the formal education system.

Why target female learners?

In common with other countries, literacy is an economic and social issue in Egypt. Poor families cannot afford to send their children to school, and when they have the opportunity to do so, they invest in the education of their boys, assuming that it will be they who can find jobs and support their families. We often provided the same opportunities for male students when we encountered a situation in which a family ­refused to let their girls attend if the boys were not enrolled as well. But we prioritised girls in order to help counterbalance the lack of equal rights for women.

We shifted the intervention by also reaching out to the policy-making and decision-making level in order to enable these young learners to gain access to the regular school system. The Ministry of Education was very cooperative at that time, and opened up the regular schools for use as community sites, helping young learners to overcome their difficulties when it came to attending school. This helped us influence the policy-making and decision-making level. I readily acknowledge that we received genuine support for adult education here, mainly when it came to literacy.

So do you argue that the term “adult education” in Egypt is equivalent to literacy programmes?

No. Our active engagement in the local, regional and international debates has extended our understanding of the field. This is what I call Phase III, which reflects this type of engagement. ALECSO (Arab League Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) took the lead here when it came to establishing networks at regional level by providing forums that discuss possibilities for engaging civil society in the process. As a result, our first cooperation with the General Directorate on Adult Education in Egypt (which was established by the Egyptian Government in order to take the lead at national level) was about organising the first conference, which was attended by more than 150 civil society organisations. Here they called for adult education as a right and a tool for development. This conference led ALECSO to support the call for establishing the Arab Network for Literacy – in close cooperation with UNESCO’s offices in Cairo and Beirut – and my role was to work with members of the network on developing its vision, values and constitution.

This regional and international communication helped me to see that the term “adult education” embraces other elements, and we extended our activities in the region with the support of ALECSO. Thus in 2004 we became a member of UNESCO’s network on adult education, and I was twice elected as the regional coordinator of UNESCO’s initiative “Learning for All”. The engagement at international level also kept us involved in the challenges and the new concerns of the field and how to update our methods and tools. In 2010, the political changes in Egypt created a need to invest in debate and citizenship skills in order to help the population play an effective role in the election process, as well as encouraging women to take on leading roles.

Has this led to an impact on other sectors?

Yes. I would like to share our latest initiative, which is entitled “the Arab initiative for empowering women who have managed to overcome illiteracy”. We decided to reward female learners who overcome illiteracy and manage to lead new projects in their lives. We thought that by doing so we would, firstly, motivate other women to do the same, and secondly that we would increase people’s awareness of the importance attaching to education. We decided to engage the private sector by asking them to be partners and share ownership of the project. The council included representatives from the private and civil sectors. Our main aim was to engage the social and economic powers in society to take responsibility for leading social change. For instance, we integrated the media into the process by calling for awards for initiatives that helped enhance the quality of adult education. This motivated many young journalists and television producers to pay attention to adult education issues at work. The media sector reached out to popular actors and singers, who developed short films and songs about the importance of education. These products were easily spread, and touched the hearts and minds of poor Egyptian families. Music is an influential tool, and our media partners were able to make it popular, even in rural areas. Some famous actors became very interested in adult education and produced drama series on gender issues and on the role of women in society.

So how do you assess the impact of adult education?

I believe that this type of engagement has led to an impact. But I agree that we do not have the appropriate tools to measure it. We have conducted studies and collected evidence from the field on the quality of education that adults receive. We share this with the community, and such sharing has an impact. For instance, we conducted a study in cooperation with the media sector in which we analysed the six main newspapers in Egypt for a year. We arrived at the conclusion that none of them had covered issues related to adult education. We were thus able to influence journalists’ and editors’ concerns, so that they put the topic on their priority list. This year we awarded prizes to exceptional journalists who contributed to the field.

Seham Negm (right) with Mahmoud Saad (middle), chairman of the jury of the “Women liberated from illiteracy award” and Islam Qandil (left) executive manager of Qandil, a partner of the initiative,
Women & Society Association

All of this has helped us to reach the policy level, which is now working hard to improve the quality of adult education despite the political and economic instability in the region, particularly in Egypt. I see that our work, as well as that of our partners, has an impact on the community. We feel that different sectors are more open to play an active role. Our links with the people made it easier to seek help. We have evidence of hundreds of people who were able to cooperate within their respective contexts in order to boost awareness of adult education or share successful models. Today, we can easily contact newspapers, television and radio stations as well as actors and ask for their help to cover a specific topic or provide space for learners to practice their skills. They do it with motivation and love.

Statistics about the Arab world nevertheless provide warning indicators regarding the quality of adult education and that there is an increase in the percentage of ­illiterates. How do you explain that?

I agree that the political situation has influenced sustainability and change. I have learnt that networking and building debates is not easily achieved, especially when funding and human resources are limited. Arriving at a common practice is also a challenge because decision-makers think from a quantitative perspective, and not in qualitative terms. This has provided inaccurate statistics which do not reflect the reality in depth.

I also think that genuine efforts on the part of governments to achieve change are still limited. Young people remain marginalised, and decisions taken at official level do not consider the full participation of the community and partners who have been engaged in the field. Formal literacy programmes do not follow up on former course attendees, and thus learners feel that their education has not improved their social and economic lives and, accordingly, many of them have relapsed into illiteracy. We are at risk of creating a situation in which young people join fundamentalist groups in order to feel that they belong and are valued. I believe that there is a need to seriously invest in education as a tool for development and sustainability.

We need to build on the current initiatives in the Arab world and learn from them how to bring about change. For instance, our interaction in the Arab world and the international discourse helped us to improve services for women and increase their participation in our programmes. Sometimes the solutions are not drastic, but there is a need for a readiness to take action and to think outside the box.

What do you hope to see in the future?

I hope that my work, and the work of our associations, will help to influence policies that increase partnerships between the public, private and civil sectors in order to improve the quality of adult education in Egypt.

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