Instilling Gender Equality from Primary School to Adulthood

For many of the poorest people in Egypt, life can be tough. With a population of 95 million, Egypt is one of the fastest growing and most densely populated countries in the world. Competition for jobs and resources runs high. People with lower levels of education and skill face tremendous obstacles to employment, improving their living standards, and lifting themselves out of poverty. Added to this, societal norms frequently restrict females to simple tasks that are confined to the home. Low pay and lack of access to diverse vocations, financial literacy and economic resources are just a few of the additional forms of discrimination affecting women - not just in Egypt, but all over the world.

Carpentry lessons open to local women at Oikocredit partner, SEKEM, Egypt. Photograph: Oikocredit

Approximately one in four of the world’s poorest people live in rural areas and around 2.7 billion adults still lack access to the basic financial services they need to grow their own ventures and build their own paths out of poverty - particularly women and rural communities.

In September 2015, the United Nations launched the global sustainable development goals (SDGs) with a vision to end poverty, overcome inequality and injustice, tackle climate change and ensure quality education for all by 2030. There are 17 SDGs in total, and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network estimates that it will cost around $1.4 trillion (£920 billion) each year to meet these development goals. Governments alone will not be able to foot the total bill, so it is perhaps down to the investing community to make up the shortfall.

Archie Pearson from international social impact investor, Oikocredit, considered a few of these sustainable development goals on a recent trip to the Egyptian desert. He visited one of Oikocredit’s social enterprise partners, SEKEM, to observe how social impact investment can have a positive impact on disadvantaged groups whilst supporting the SDGs.

Founded in 1977, SEKEM focus on supporting rural farming communities using social impact investment to introduce fair trade principles; adopt biodynamic farming methods, and transform areas of desert land into fertile soil for producing organic herbs, teas and spices among other crops.

SEKEM also use social impact investment to enhance the education of smallholder farmers and their families. They have established a nursery, kindergarten; primary, secondary & vocational schools, and the Heliopolis University to serve the local farming population from childhood through adulthood.

Thomas Abouleish, son-in-law to SEKEM founder, Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish, shows us four of SEKEM’s schools, citing his personal motto: “we are tearing down the adult gender walls, ensuring they are not rebuilt for the next generation”. From childhood to adulthood, both genders are taught the skills they need for working life as well as vision for gender equality as the foundation for sustainable human development.

From primary school upwards, discrimination is ironed out and messages of respect and equality become ingrained.

Male and female farmers working together to plant rosemary. SEKEM, Egypt. Photograph: Oikocredit.

SEKEM’s vocational school is a unique educational establishment in Egypt. It provides inclusive, quality education and skills development for future employment and provides schoolgirls (in particular) with an equal right to learn diverse vocations that were previously labelled as male-only.

Professions such as mechanics, plumbing, carpentry, agriculture, machinery mechanics, electronic technology and welding are among those now being adopted by girls, whereas in the past they tended towards textiles or administration partly for fear of breaking societal norms. Two SEKEM girls are now apprentice carpenters; four are studying to become electricians and, for the first time ever, SEKEM’s head of electronic technology is female. Vocational classes also extend to girls in neighbouring communities so that they can also learn and practise these professions under the tutelage of experienced professionals.

Head of electronig technology, SEKEM, teaching her class at the vocational school. Photograph Oikocredit.

For adults, ongoing technical and vocational education plays a pivotal role in teaching life-changing skills to both genders. Courses on farming techniques, sustainable development training, supply chain management, financial literacy and money management are accompanied by gender awareness training. Konstanze Abouleish, Commercial Manager for NATURE TEX - an organic textile company belonging to SEKEM - explains that ‘Awareness Days’ give men and women an equal opportunity to voice discomfort and help develop collaboration.

SEKEM’s children’s nursery, built in 2013, frees up local women to study, work and earn their own income without having to worry about childcare. And at the top end of the educational journey is SEKEM’s Heliopolis University. Graduates have included female physicians who have gone on to run SEKEM’s pharmacy and health clinic, which provide affordable services to over 41,000 people.

My last day in Egypt is spent celebrating SEKEM’s 39th anniversary where men, women, boys and girls share sentiments about equality and respect. I am struck by how innovatively SEKEM has used social impact investing to build an education system that addresses issues of gender inequality at its roots, at the same time as developing a system of sustainable work and economic growth for previously disadvantaged farming communities.

Yet, I am also reminded of how much more the investment community might need to step up if we are all to reach the UN’s global goals thirteen short years from now.

SDG Icons United Nations

Established in 1975, Oikocredit invest in more than 800 social enterprise partners across Africa, Asia, Latin America and Central & Eastern Europe. They prioritise inclusive finance, agriculture, renewable energy and infrastructure sectors to reach the most disadvantaged communities in the world. Their activities support 16 of the 17 sustainable development goals and they issue Annual Social Performance Reports on social and environmental outcomes.

The investment opportunity for individual and organisations is via depository receipts in the Oikocredit International Share Foundation (OISF), which have delivered a 2% gross return, each year, every year since 2000*. There is no fixed notice period for redemption, no annual management charge, and investors have always had their capital repaid. The minimum investment is £150 (or €200), there is no maximum.
To find out more about Oikocredit visit

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