Over the last decades, Egypt has made significant investments in closing the gender gaps in health and education, however, such progress has not been translated into increased female labor force participation. In fact, labor force participation for women stands at only 15.4% compared to 67.1% for men. Of course, COVID-19 shocked the labor market dynamics, particularly for women, as the pandemic forced, notably women, to drop out of the labor market altogether.
But the country is committed to empowering its women, and in 2017 launched the National Strategy for the Empowerment of Egyptian Woman 2030, which is aligned with the country’s sustainable development strategy and aims to enable women to develop their potential and achieve self-fulfillment. This in turn will help Egypt’s development as it drives creating more and sustainable jobs.
The World Bank has been supporting Egypt to help its women work and generate income through several projects.
One successful economic inclusion program the World Bank has supported is “FORSA” which means opportunity in Arabic and is being piloted in eight governorates (Qalioubia, Sharkia, Fayoum, Beni Suef, Menia, Assiut, Sohag and Luxor). This is part of the ongoing “Strengthening Social Safety Nets Project” which supports Takaful and Karama, meaning Solidarity and Dignity” in Arabic, the country’s flagship social safety nets program.
Takaful and Karama provides conditional and unconditional cash transfers to poor, elderly citizens as well as those that are orphans or have a disability. To date the Government of Egypt reached 5 million households, 4.1 million under the ongoing operation in addition to 320,000 households under Daman (old social pension) pending issuance of new law and 600,000 households covered by the National Coalition for Community Development Work.
FORSA is implemented by the Egyptian Ministry of Social Solidarity. It supports transition of Takaful and Karama beneficiaries from depending on cash transfers to generating sustainable incomes to enhance their economic resilience and financial independence. It does this through a diverse set of interventions which focus on rural activities and women. The interventions comprise wage employment and providing assets that enable to generate sustainable incomes.
FORSA also provides technical and financial know-how needed to effectively operate and profit from those assets, With the help of local non- governmental organizations, to date the program has proactively reached out to over 60,000 potential women beneficiaries through behavioral change trainings which introduce the program and disseminate information on its objectives, as well as encouraging participation in economic inclusion activities. Around 4,000 women to date have received assets through which they can sustain their livelihoods.
“I learned about the FORSA program when the team visited me at home and explained what the program has to offer,” said Sabreen Abdel Zaher, a 39-year-old mother of three children who lives in the Upper Egypt governorate of Luxor and is an asset transfer beneficiary. “I joined the program and received three sheep two of which were females and one of them was pregnant and recently birthed another sheep which I will sell. I will combine the money I get in return for the sold sheep and add it to some other money I had been saving and will buy another two female sheep who will in turn give birth to more sheep. I hope to be able to keep expanding my business, generate income which will allow me to get my family everything they need.”
Another woman, Eman Ramadan Abdel Rahman, 41 and from Minya in Upper Egypt, is also able to provide for her family through FORSA. “I have seven children my husband is currently unemployed, and my youngest boy needs a lot of medication as he is very ill,” she told us. “To provide for my family, I buy vegetables from the market at night and sell them in front of my house the next day.”
Eman is a wage employment beneficiary and had fallen into debt as she did not have enough money to pay for the vegetables she needed as well as the cost of her elder daughters’ marriages and youngest son’s medication. But when she heard about the FORSA program, she applied, she received training on peach picking and got a job. “Now, that I have a steady income, I am paying off my debts,” she happily stated.
She is now able to buy and sell more vegetables, get her son medication, and support her children’s education. “In addition to the vocational experience, this job also allows me to interact with a lot of people. I feel happy and healthy. I believe all women should gain experience, see different things, and enjoy life.”
Supporting entrepreneurship to help women get and create more jobs is a key goal for the World Bank across the globe. In 2021, Egypt launched the Catalyzing Entrepreneurship for Job Creation project which has supported over 76,000 women to start their businesses, thus far. But the project in general is helping a wide-spectrum of businesses across the country through financial and non-financial support, covering traditional MSMEs (Medium, Small, and Micro-Enterprises) as well as innovative high-growth firms through debt and equity instruments. Non-financial support includes training and capacity-building sessions which enable beneficiaries to manage and grow their businesses. The project not only focuses on women but on reaching underserved governorates and marginalized groups and youth.
Samira Negm, 35, benefitted from this project by working with one venture capital fund, Endure Capital, that is under the project umbrella supporting high-growth startups. Through funding provided by the Catalyzing Entrepreneurship for Job Creation project, Samira and her business partner launched SHUNA, Egypt’s first Agritech startup that supports businesses of small-scale farmers by giving them high quality agricultural supplies like fertilizers, the latest agricultural best practices, and linking them directly to companies who buy their harvests without intermediaries.
Samira said, “Endure Capital suggested that my technological expertise would be suitable for SHUNA. They linked me to my business partner and gave us the funding that helped us build our technological capacities, efficiently reach farmers, grow our team and be able to track harvests throughout the supply chain. We hope to have a nationwide footprint and expand.”
Eman Rabie, 22, lives in the governorate of Fayoum and has benefitted from the project’s support to MSMEs. “I used to have a very small wicker goods workshop where I worked alone to produce goods like baskets and trays,” she said. “One day the project team approached me and asked me if I wanted to expand my workshop and informed me about the project and what it has to offer.” She applied and was able to get funding and this allowed her to buy more material and expand her workshop.
She then employed three of her in-laws at her workshop. She now has income to support the edcuation of her four daughters’ and buy what her family needs. She sells her products to merchants who re-sell them in their stores. “I hope to be able to one day expand my workshop and have my own shop in a central area where I would be able to sell my products directly.”
Empowering women doesn’t just include generating employment and income asset ownership is a huge obstacle and challenge to their stability and achieving their potential. One of the biggest assets that can be owned and leveraged is a house. Findings show that many MENA countries, including Egypt, have socio-cultural norms that normalize the ownership of such big assets for men only. In 2018 only 5% of Egyptian women owned assets (jointly or alone) versus 95% of Egyptian men.
One such program to help with this challenge is the Egypt Inclusive Housing Finance program, which aims to make decent housing affordable for low-income people. Since its inception, the program has supported women in owning their own property, with 23% of the project’s over 480,000 low-income beneficiaries being women and 80% of those women being from the poorest 40% of the population. The project is contributing to bridging the asset ownership gap. This program remains a top priority for the government and continues to perform well.
From Cairo, Rasha Soliman, 40, applied to the social housing program to seek security and stability for her husband and children. “When we were living in a rented unit, the landlord often threatened to end our contract or raise the rent,” she mentioned. “I now feel secure to be the owner of my home, we are paying an installment much lower than what we paid for rent, and we live near our three children’s school. The good location of our home also enabled me to find a good job nearby.”
The World Bank remains committed to its ongoing support of Egyptian women. Successive global shocks have taken their toll on economies worldwide, and women are often being disproportionally affected. As Marina Wes, World Bank Country Director for Egypt, Yemen & Djibouti, said, “We believe that women’s inclusion is a very valuable catalyst of growth for countries and that is why our support to women’s empowerment through projects and policy work is paramount. It is a key cross cutting theme in the World Bank’s upcoming partnership framework with Egypt for FY23-27.”