It's not easy being a young woman in Egypt, nor is growing up as an orphan. That being said, one can only imagine the challenges encountered by orphaned females in the country, particularly those in less fortunate areas.
In the face of this devastating reality, Egyptian university student Nancy Awad took it upon herself to help orphaned young women change the narrative and pave their way towards a more productive, less discriminative future.
The result was the "Benat Seshat" initiative, a digital literacy initiative aiming at empowering Egypt's underprivileged female orphans, enhancing their self-advocacy skills, and guaranteeing a meaningful path towards higher education and self-realization.
StepFeed spoke with Awad, a rising senior at elite liberal arts university Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, U.S., to learn more about how the initiative came to be and what it has achieved so far.
Born in Benha, Egypt, to a family originating from Upper Egypt, Awad is now studying political science as well as peace and conflict studies. She then plans on pursuing a law degree and focus on human rights-based legal work, advocating for the rights of minorities and disadvantaged communities - and she is already well on her way there.
As a recipient of the Lang Opportunity Scholarship (LOS), a grant offered by Swarthmore College and the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, Awad decided to launch a program targeting orphaned girls in Upper Egypt. After conducting a community assessment at an orphanage in the area, she found digital literacy to be among the most pressing "gaps" in the community.
"I picked digital literacy because access to the internet can open up many more doors and opportunities. The possibilities with technology are endless," Awad told StepFeed.
She launched her program this summer, naming it after the Ancient Egyptian goddess Seshat. "Seshat is the goddess of knowledge, wisdom, and intelligence. In her footsteps, this initiative hopes to instill the same love and commitment for learning amongst Egypt's young girls," she explained.
When it came to choosing her subjects, Awad - a daughter of two orphaned parents - decided to tackle orphan stigmatization, particularly with regards to the sexism and neglect associated with the topic.
She cited a TIME magazine article, which reads, "Being an orphan in Egypt is akin to being in a lower caste of people. Orphans are widely labeled as 'children of sin' and assumed to be the illegitimate and abandoned products of extramarital sex. This label follows them throughout life, making it difficult for orphans to attend public schools or universities and nearly impossible for them to marry a non-orphan."
"Since orphanhood is a life-long identity marker in Egypt and many organizations tend to assist only orphaned children, I decided to focus the reach of my initiative on older orphans, and specifically women," said Awad.
"I hope to challenge average Egyptians to rethink their own prejudices and mentalities. My goal is to paint orphans, especially orphans in Upper Egypt - the laughingstock of Egypt- , in a different light," she added.
During the months of July and August, 40 young women from marginalized communities, aged 14 to 30 years old, hit the computer labs at "Benat Seshat" to enhance their digital literacy skills and delve into the tech world.
The program aims at boosting participants' resumes, widening their global exposure, and introducing a wide array of career options within their reach. Armed with computer skills and a certificate to validate the latter, participants can now integrate them into their future career plans and thus improve their chances at success and sustainability.
"For example, if someone has an artisanal skill like jewelry-making or carpet-weaving, they can advertise and sell on different online platforms. Technology can make reaching an audience easier, and therefore, can create easy accessibility to different online markets," Awad noted.
Awad concluded the pilot program in August and described her experience as "the most meaningful summer of my life."
Among other topics and activities, participants learned about Microsoft programs, computer security and privacy, as well as digital lifestyles. They also attended empowerment sessions and joined forces in cooking local dishes based on online recipes.
Awad said she has received plenty of positive feedback from her students, adding that she has clearly noticed the impact of the project on them.
"They have become more critical in their thinking, and towards the end of the course, they started challenging many of my thoughts/ideas as well as each other's thoughts/ideas. They have become more confident and they now think, talk, and carry themselves in a different manner. Ultimately, the long-term impact of this project can only be assessed with time and the continued sustainability of the project," she explained.
However, this is definitely not the last we will see of "Benat Seshat," as Awad plans to offer the program again in Summer 2020.