The team behind the Egyptian programme, led by Dr. Hania Sholkamy, a feminist researcher from the Social Research Centre at the American University in Cairo, took the existing CCT policy framework and rebuilt it with women’s rights as its core.
The Egyptian team decided that women should be compensated for any time spent fulfilling the conditions, recognizing and rewarding their unpaid care work, and that payment should be made through bank transfers so women could keep control of their own finances. They launched a pilot scheme in 2009 with 400 families in Cairo’s Ain El-Sira slum.
“We were aware of the criticisms of conditionalities, but we soon realized that, designed well, they could actually strengthen women’s decision-making power in the household,” says Hania. The Ain El-Sira women told the team they wanted their children to be educated, well-fed and healthy, and if the state was endorsing their wishes, this gave them license to spend money in the ways they thought most important.
“We talked to the women in the area, we talked to social workers, and developed our programme in consultation with women and with field workers who also happened to be women themselves,” says Hania.
Perhaps the most significant change came when the women were issued with their bankcards. When they went to collect them, the bank manager closed the branch and called the police because he had never seen poor women in his bank. After some diplomacy, Hania got the cards to the women, and then trained them how to select a pin and use a cash machine.
“These women were so focused on protecting their money, on how never to lose this card, never to give this card to anyone, never to forget the pin,” says Hania. The thin piece of plastic gave the women a new sense of dignity. They possessed something powerful that belonged to no one else in the family.
The role of the social workers was also key. Mostly low-income women themselves, these workers provide support and information. They also organize monthly meetings, bringing together programme participants, to cover topics including housing, voting and health.
After a year, children’s school results were improving. The women were working fewer hours but in better jobs: the reliability of the payments meant they knew their minimum needs would be met, so they didn’t have to take on badly paid, exploitative work for survival. More than a quarter of women who had reported domestic violence said it had stopped now that financial pressure on the family had eased and they no longer had to ask their husbands for money. The pilot was a success.
Just as the team prepared to roll out the programme to 25,000 families in 65 villages in Upper Egypt, the Arab Spring came. The project was put on hold. In 2012, the Government said they planned to scrap the entire programme, outraging the women of Ain El-Sira. “I got a phone call from the head of security at the Ministry of Social Affairs telling me that these women were protesting and were barricading the building,” Hania smiles. “They’d got on public transport and taken themselves to the Ministry to demand the programme not be scrapped.” In the end their protests proved fruitless. The programme was deemed against the interest of Egypt. There was no longer political will for it.
Yet the idea for the programme remained in people’s minds. When the regime changed once more in June 2013, a new minister was appointed, Ghada Wali, who in her former role at UNDP had helped Sholkamy raise funds to cover research costs. She invited Sholkamy back to relaunch the programme and it’s now finally going national, with a budget allocation to cover half a million families in six months.
For Hania, it’s been a steep learning curve. “Initially I was hoping no one would realize that this money is going to women, that it would just be under the radar, but the revolution meant we were put under tremendous scrutiny,” she says. “Now at every juncture you’re never sure if this will continue or not.” But if the team can continue their work, she says, its momentum will become unstoppable.
“These things have to build like sedimentation. You need to have layer upon layer of people who have a vested interest in empowering women, particularly poor women, all working in union, building up one thing after the other. That’s when you have an achievement on which there can be no U-turn.”
Story: Jenny Kleeman. For more information on the Egypt’s Conditional Cash Transfer Programme see Sholkamy 2014 and the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment website: www.pathwaysofempowerment.org