Gaz Mohamed Mohamed Hussein Al Masarah comes from Masrah, a small village on the Nile about 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of the governorate capital of Asyut, Upper Egypt. She is 25-years-old and delighted to be included in a group of 20 young women selected by the SMART Project (Community-based Initiatives for a Better Life, funded by USAID) to work as Community Health Workers (CHWs) in their own communities. This class of 20 future CHWs is part of a total cadre of 1,200 women who have been trained.
The SMART project—a USAID-funded MCHIP project that focuses on improving maternal and neonatal health and nutrition—works through community development associations in Upper and Lower Egypt to train physicians and CHWs to improve newborn care, nutrition, and the use of modern family planning methods. Providers and CHWs are trained to focus on the nutritional habits of pregnant and lactating women, implement perinatal practices (such as intensive care for preterm or low birth weight babies), and encourage exclusive breastfeeding for six months.
During a break in the training on infant nutrition, Gaz recounts how, as one of six children, her family was never able to afford to send her to school. Her older sister married young and her brothers attended primary school, but Gaz was kept at home to help her mother. However, when she was 10-years-old, a relative started a literacy class in the village, and persuaded Gaz’s father to allow her to attend.
Gaz laughs when she tells how happy she was to carry her books around like the other students she had seen. She worked hard at the literacy classes and was soon able to join Year 5 in Primary School. She finished with good results and, with the support of her father, went on to secondary school, where at graduation her marks were good enough for her to have entered the faculty of agriculture, education, or commerce. However, her father did not want her to move into Asyut to continue her studies.
Not wanting to stay in the house all day, Gaz began to look for something she could do in her village. At the beginning of 2012, she was nominated by a local community development association to participate in the SMART training course for CHWs. The Smart Project selects CHWs in every community in the targeted governorates to visit pregnant and breastfeeding women in order to disseminate messages about healthy nutritional habits and infant care. Gaz’s best friend from school, Manal, was also nominated, and they were very excited to join the training together.
Gaz excitedly shares her knowledge from the training. She says she has learned about the benefits of breastfeeding and is convinced it will help mothers who traditionally start feeding their children different drinks and soup after only 40 days. She speaks confidently and enthusiastically about her new role in the community, saying how happy she is to be able to help her neighbors and friends in the village. Thankfully, her father has also accepted the idea that his daughter is working.
Gaz’s mother is proud of her daughter, too, especially for choosing to help other women. As the first woman in the family to have received an education and worked outside the home, Gaz contributes some of her monthly salary toward the family food bill. The rest she is saving for her marriage expenses. Although she is engaged, she is in no hurry to marry and insists she will continue working after she marries. She recognizes that the knowledge she has gained during the CHW training will be very useful for her when she has children of her own.
And reflecting back on her childhood desire to go to school, Gaz says she never would have imagined that she would one day have the information and confidence to go into women’s homes to discuss health and nutrition issues. “I just wanted to be educated like my brothers,” she says. “And that gave me the chance to be working and helping people. I wish that all the girls in Masrah could have an education. With education we could chase the ghost of malnutrition from Asyut!”
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