Flowers among the Garbage

Cairo (WFS) In the Mokattam Hills southeast of Cairo, 17,000 garbage collectors or zabbaleen live in dusty squatter settlements of teeming, narrow dirt lanes. There they sort and recycle the garbage produced by Cairo's burgeoning population.

Among them are Gehan Guirgis, 19, and Shayeda Atteya, 17. At the NGO Forum alongside the 1994 International Conference on Population, they displayed the multi-coloured cotton rag rugs, bags and development cushion covers they weave as part of a model project that has changed their lives.

Since donkey-pulled carts were banned from the city's modern section of Cairo, the zabbaleen have used pick-up trucks to collect garbage from residences. They sort, separate and recycle garbage for sale, under a programme sponsored by the Association for the Protection of the Environment. The health and well-being of the children of zabbaleen families, particularly girls, is a focus of the NGO's activities.

At the Women's Centre in Mokattam, a bright modern building that stands out from its drab surroundings, a rag recycling programme targets the community's most disadvantaged girls – those who come from the poorest families, have not been to school and must help their families sort garbage.

Since 1988, 20 girls have been trained to weave discarded cotton scraps into rugs, using two-pedal hand looms. There is also training in patchwork quilt-making, and a new project to transform scrap paper into stationery, envelopes and embroidered folk art tableaux. After three months of training, the girls receive their own loom or sewing machine and continue to weave or sew from their homes. They are paid by the piece; the Association sells their products at expositions, hotels and a shop in the suburb of Heliopolis.

But this project is more than a cottage industry. By raising the status of young women, it has improved their quality of life and that of their families in unexpected and tangible ways. "Most of the girls come from very large families," explains Samira H. Abou Seif, a volunteer with the Association. "Legally you cannot be married until age 18, but illegal marriage at 15 or 16 or younger is common. The Association pressures the girls who participate to remain single until age 18. If they wait to get married, they receive a gift of 500 Egyptian Pounds and a wedding party."

The programme also provides literacy classes and drama presentations on the dangers of early marriage and child-bearing and the importance of preventive maternal and child health care. The result, Abou Seif says, has been a radical reduction in family size among the women who entered the programme at age 11 or 12 and are now married. "Those who got married four or five years ago have only one child and most of the girls say they want only one or two," she says. "Approximately 75 per cent of the women who have remained involved in the programme use contraception."

Some of the teenage weavers, such as Gehan and Shayeda, have also been trained to be primary health visitors. "We go to visit homes," Gehan explains, "talk about prenatal advice, tell children not to go barefoot in the garbage, give first aid, take children to be vaccinated, talk about family planning and escort women who want to go the clinic."

Gehan, who is from a family of eight children, is engaged to be married. "I want only one child," she says. "My fiancé also agrees. I have seen so many problems in my work as a health visitor, so much misery in the lives of women who have so many children. How can we put ourselves in the same situation?" Shayeda, from a family of seven, says she wants only two children.

"Before I came to the programme I never left the neighbourhood," Gehan says confidently, "I could not meet people and used to be very shy. Now we even go outside the community on field trips, even as far as Greece for a meeting." Shayeda adds, "This has given us a kind of freedom we never had before."

Copyright 1994, Women's Feature Service