Together for a Healthy Life
By and for young people, a coalition in Egypt brings a human rights-Based approach to health interventions
by Chael Needle
At the International AIDS Conference in July, the grass-roots, Cairo-based Global Youth Coalition against AIDS (GYCA) Egypt, which has recently evolved into Egyptian Youth Association for Health Development (EYAHD), was one of ten community-based organizations that received a Red Ribbon Award. The organization was recognized for its work in halting new HIV infections in children and keeping mothers alive, and addressing women’s health in general.
“It is an honor to any organization to be one of the Red Ribbon Award members,” says Ahmed Tammam, MD, executive director of EYAHD, a small but robust operation with only a few staff and twenty volunteers. “It means a lot for us, for our efforts as a youth-led network that started the work in Egypt four years ago [and] became a registered [non-governmental] organization two years ago. We believe it is just the start.”
GYCA Egypt started as part of GYCA’s global network, which boasts 7,255 youth leaders in over 170 countries. The Egyptian members of the GYCA network developed into a local NGO called EYAHD. Though the name has changed, the mission remains the same: to empower youth to advocate for their health rights by raising awareness and valuing their own knowledge as an important resource.
The Red Ribbon Award bestowed upon GYCA Egypt, one of two MTV Staying Alive Foundation grantees that received a Red Ribbon Award, is a testament to its dedication and its successful outcomes.
But this dedication and success is evident every day, on the ground, as the organization seeks to create positive social change. EYAHD has two main youth-oriented programs: health (HIV/AIDS, pneumonia, hepatitis) and women (gender-based violence, sexual harassment, and women’s health issues that stem from female genital mutilation, early marriage, and family planning). “Our organization is totally led and run by young people between eighteen and twenty-eight and we all share the same dream, the dream to participate in the improvement of the health practices in the communities, prevent new infections,” notes Dr. Tammam.
EYAHD has been responding to an HIV/AIDS awareness level at low tide. Says Tammam: “According to the national statistics, only 7.1 percent have comprehensive information in regards to HIV!” Even though Egypt has a reported low HIV adult prevalancy rate (less than 0.01 percent), that is no reason to slow down, attests Tammam. He says about the lack of monitoring: “[First of all] we don’t have much more information to say the exact numbers, and the variation of numbers is dramatic, but let us say that even if we have only one case, we need it to still be one—not to be even one and half!”
As seemingly everywhere, prevention awareness efforts in Egypt are often undercut by social norms and taboos about sexual and reproductive rights and practices in its communities. Stigma around HIV is linked to “forbidden practices that makes even talking about it is a strange thing,” notes Dr. Tammam, “and the first response of any listener is, ‘We don’t have AIDS—it is only for those who are doing bad things!’” In response to a slow adoption of prevention practices in Egypt, the organization strives to provide access to accurate information through peer interaction and educational systems; condoms; and needle exchanges.
Dr. Tammam points out that the barriers not only derive from a lack of social acceptance but health concerns that have not been prioritized. “Forexample, in Egypt, the prevalence of hepatitis is around thirteen percent (10 million), so when you talk about HIV it is important to link it with the community priority. So we always use hepatitis as an entry point when we talk about HIV.”
He adds: “Also, the massive lack of information and misconceptions around HIV is another barrier—that’s all besides the lack of funding and capacities for grass-root NGOs to conduct awareness activities.” With the resources that the organization has assembled, it has been able to create a Web site and a peer education manual in Arabic, and hold testing events in public parks. It has also partnered with over forty local NGOs concerned with health development and it advocates for national health policies.
As part of its work, the NGO conducts outreach to young women, particularly in low-income communities, whose needs are part of the organization’s focus “because we believe that women can be considered as one of the high-risk groups—sometimes they encounter violence, they are forced to be involved in sexual practices for money, they have less access to information,” says Tammam, noting that the organization has reached more than 10,000 women over the last three years with information and services regarding HIV and reproductive health.
“They can’t even ask for such information, otherwise they will be considered as odd in [their own] communities, especially in the rural communities that we work in.” The women, in turn, are recruited to engage in peer-to-peer HIV education about high-risk practices, such as sexual violence, reproductive rights, and early marriage.
Recently, EYAHD helped develop the Egyptian Women Coalition Against AIDS, which mobilized social workers across numerous NGOs and provided 5,000 young women in slum areas with HIV/AIDS information and voluntary counseling and testing services, as well as a way to join the conversation through such forms as painting and media outreach so that they can express their needs and perceptions.
Asked to reflect on the organization’s accomplishments, Dr. Tammam responds: “We affected the lives of many young people, we discovered new cases, we prevented others, and we feel that we are playing an important role in the lives of hundreds of young people.”
One of its core values is expressed in a quote on its Web site: “Young people are the key.” The organization rallies behind this idea, says Tammam, because “we are young people and we believe in the power of young people to change the world. We learn from the experiences of others but we also apply our passion and new communication and social media to empower our message and let our voices reach young people.” The organization seeks to create a safe space for young people to share their experiences and concerns, bolster their life skills, as well as link up with others of all ages to unify their efforts. Youth are encouraged to amplify their voices and become agents of change.
Tammam has returned from the International AIDS Conference ready to get back to grass-roots work and the next chapter. Says Dr. Tammam: “We are planning to expand our work in other needy areas in Egypt; we plan to work more on the advocacy level and rights of people living with HIV. We also need your support—if you can help us, please do.”
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U.