Paula Manley and Rita Singh from Women Making a Difference, Wales, explain how they are inspired by their linked community in Egypt through shared learning and social action.
The British Council’s Active Citizens programme is a community empowerment and social action programme that builds lasting partnerships between communities in the UK and others around the world.
Through these community partnerships, the programme encourages long-term intercultural dialogue and global citizenship through shared learning and social action.
Last month, a group of Active citizens from Wales undertook an exciting visit to their linked community in Egypt in the aftermath of the revolution, to find out more about their work on the ground, share their learning on social action and forge closer links between their communities. Their visit followed a visit earlier in the year when Active Citizens from Egypt and Jordan came to Wales to visit the social action work there.
Pioneers for female empowerment, in a country reborn
The Welsh Active Citizens, from the social action group Women Making a Difference, who are part of the Women’s Institute, are partnered with the Association for the Development of Women in Cairo; both organisations work to empower women in society.
'We landed in a country reborn', says Sarah Page, Active Citizen from Wales, 'revolution and social change was the topic of everyone’s conversations.'
The aim of our visit was to visit the communities and social action projects our partner group work with and see the positive changes made, so that we could build upon and add value to our projects here in Cardiff.
The group were met with exuberance and energy as they visited the projects. They visited a literacy project for marginalised groups, a street lighting project in a poverty stricken area of Cairo, and an NGO which helps children overcome their disabilities through education, creativity and engagement in society.
They also met 12 of the 42 female Judges in Egypt and the first female president of a university in Egypt, to share advice on getting women into powerful roles.
This made a real impact on Sarah: 'Only six point six per cent of judges in Wales are women. As the UK aren’t doing so great at getting women into powerful roles either it is time to change this together. We are incorporating the advice from the judges, who also act as pioneers for female empowerment in Egypt, into a course that our group runs through Women into Public Life Course. And we can make this available to women in Egypt and the UK.'
Manal Kasban Said, from the Association for the Development & Enhancement of Women (ADEW), Egypt, said: ‘I realised there are as many similarities as differences in the problems facing Egyptian women in their communities and those faced by British women. Even in the most developed countries they still need to push their women onwards.’
Learning intercultural values and skills through training and exchange
Through a programme of training, community development and international exchange, the Active Citizens programme aims to equip community leaders with the intercultural values and skills needed to help them engage with and build meaningful links with other cultures. So were the group able to share real learning with their partner group?
Rita Singh, Active Citizen from Wales and Chair of Ambassadors for Change, explained, 'Before our exchange we had undergone the same training as our partners in Egypt, this meant that we were on an equal platform, having learnt the same skills and approaches, for example, of project management. Despite speaking different languages and coming from different cultures, we could understand what each other wanted to achieve from our visit and how we wanted to learn from each other.'
An inspiring visit was made to a social action project in the poverty stricken area of Old Cairo, where determined and motivated women in the community set up a street lighting project, on a minuscule budget, making their local area a safer place.
Rita explained how the Cardiff group were able to learn from the visit: 'The common approach through training and shared understanding went beyond cultural differences to how we are Active Citizens and want to achieve our objectives in order to help our communities. We were able to see the similarities in the challenges we all face in terms of setting up social action projects – and see how we can overcome them.'
The importance of community leaders in times of change
Revolution was on everyone’s lips, and the Welsh Active Citizens got an insight into the role grassroots community leaders played over recent months. Stories of hope, democracy, and social development brought the concept of societal change to life for the group from Wales.
Rita explained: 'Everyone we met – from the women in the village to the female President of Alexandria University – felt moved and committed to do something for their community and their country as a result of this incredible experience they went through. People have a real sense of community and belonging. Everyone was talking about the revolution and how their local action is linked to the bigger picture, nationally and globally. That is what the Active Citizens is all about: acting locally and thinking globally. It inspired us all.'
The influence of digital communication on the revolution
This increased sense of participation has without doubt been influenced by advances in digital communication. The importance of the literacy project in Cairo bringing the marginalised into the digital age is starkly apparent.
One active citizen from the group in Egypt said: 'A camera, a phone and the internet is the sword that people now fight with. It is as equal and powerful as any minister talking in a government building.'
Rita emphasised that message: 'The knowledge and understanding we got through the Active Citizens training gives us the motivation to get our message out, through blogs and other media. Our voice is as valid as any minister’s or any journalist’s. We all talked about how we can use every tool available to us.'
Longevity and dissemination: learning and working together
On return, the visit has sparked further joint working between the communities. The group in Cardiff and Cairo are communicating via Skype to develop a joint programme with the Women’s Centre for Health and Development in Cairo about empowering women to become community leaders, with the aim of getting young people to use their vote and engage in democracy.
The Cardiff Active Citizens from Women Making a Difference already run the course in Wales and are now helping to adapt the course to the local context in Egypt, with the main aim of helping women build their confidence to stand for public positions.
Paula from Cardiff says, 'It’s about longevity and dissemination. We are acting locally and globally to change mindsets. Women Making a Difference in Wales is about engendering change at the heart of the community. Now, thanks to the Active Citizens programme, we can share our skills and learning with our counterparts in Egypt.'
Aya Faissal, from the Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women (ADEW), said: 'This encounter is and will be a turning point in each one of our lives. It was very touching to see that we’re all working towards the same goal, which is empowering women to be active citizens in their communities.'
Inspired to take action
It is clear that the active citizens are inspired. As Paula tells us: 'The Active Citizens programme forces you to think beyond your everyday life, and makes you consider how your actions affect the community.'
She continues, 'If the Active Citizens programme didn’t exist, we wouldn’t be able to deliver local social action with a global perspective and impact. I feel lucky to have taken part – it has changed my life.'
'The impact that this trip has had on us is huge', Rita explains, 'We are incredibly inspired by the link with our partners in Egypt. The struggle continues, from the women in the villages fighting for the right to work, to the President of the University of Alexandria struggling to be seen as equal. The revolution may be over, but there is so much fight left in them.'