When people think of Egypt, they may conjure up images of the grand ancient sphinxes guarding towering pyramids or pharaohs dripping with golden threads. While this is certainly a part of the Egyptian story, it does not paint a comprehensive picture. Unfortunately, there are also strikingly high rates of disability and poverty in Egypt. While the 2006 Egyptian census determined that around 1.4 million Egyptians have disabilities, the U.N. estimates that approximately 12 million people— or almost 15% of the population– are disabled.
Statistics on Disability and Poverty in Egypt
Here are some statistics regarding disability and poverty in Egypt:
- Of the poorest 20% of Egyptians, around 18% have disabilities, compared to only 14.8% to 15.7% of people within the other quintiles.
- About 22.9% of disabled Egyptians considered themselves food insecure, versus 13.8% of non-disabled Egyptians.
- As of 2018, the employment rate for all disabled Egyptians was only 44%. Not only is this quite low, but it is also a drop from an employment rate of 47% in 2012.
- For Egyptian women, who are less likely to join the workforce in general, the disabled employment rate is a staggering 17%.
- Illiteracy rates for children with disabilities are quite high — 61% of disabled boys and 70% of disabled girls in Egypt do not know how to read.
The Vicious Cycle of Disability and Poverty
As with many developing countries, disability and poverty in Egypt create a vicious cycle. Consequences of poverty, such as unsanitary living conditions, poor access to clean water, malnutrition and diseases regularly precipitate disabilities, especially for children. These disabilities include but are not limited to blindness, developmental and cognitive disabilities, stunting and physical deformities. Additionally, early pregnancies and high fertility rates (which correlate with high poverty rates) often result in disability. This is true for the mothers who become weak and illness-prone from so many pregnancies, and for the children born to exceptionally young and old mothers.
To make matters worse, stigma and prejudice around disabilities tend to perpetuate poverty among the disabled population, because they make it harder to find good work, if at all. Specifically, 82% of women and about 35% of men with “narrow disabilities” are not in the workforce. Many of the women who are in the workforce work in the informal sector, meaning they may do their work from home and are not on official payrolls. This puts them at a further disadvantage because they do not receive health insurance and rarely have legal labor contracts. Even employers who hire people with disabilities to official roles tend to disincentivize them from coming to work or pay unfair wages.
Technically, the Egyptian government has taken steps to ensure the rights of disabled citizens. For example, article 81 of the constitution states that disabled persons must have the same rights and opportunities as all other citizens. It also promises that the State will work to provide jobs and accessibility to accommodate special needs. Egypt also ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and the U.N. 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development. Both agreements require countries to regularly report what their government has done to help those with disabilities.
Despite this, Egypt has scarcely done anything to implement laws or policy, nor has it reported to the U.N. committees. Prejudices, such as the belief that disabilities are punishments from God or malevolent spirits called jinn, have meant officials rarely follow through with the policies’ promises.
Help is on the Way
Lack of governmental action does not mean that there is no hope for disabled Egyptians. Many organizations are giving individuals with disabilities the tools to succeed in the workplace and minimizing the stigma around disability in general. For example, the Egyptian nonprofit Helm has equipped more than 1,500 disabled people with the skills they need for a variety of jobs. They also train employers to create accessible and equitable workplaces and have already trained more than 5,000 corporate employees. The nonprofit has also won multiple awards and gained support from American institutions, such as MIT and Harvard for the work they have done. From curb ramps to corporate guidance, NGOs like Helm are creating inclusive work environments so that people with disabilities can avoid or transcend poverty.
Corporations are also joining in the fight to empower disabled workers and erase the stigma around disability. One such corporation, the mobile phone company Orange, is partnering with the Smile Foundation, a nonprofit that has already provided skills training to hundreds of neurodivergent Egyptians. The Smile Foundation also recognizes the connection between socio-economic status and disability, so it focuses its efforts on people coming from poverty. These efforts mean many disabled Egyptians can become equal members of the workforce and work their way out of poverty. Additionally, the Smile Foundation has organized multiple campaigns that convince the public that people with disabilities are capable employees and hard workers who deserve respect and equal rights.
The Positive Perfect-Storm
Disability and poverty create a negative feedback loop that can seem inescapable. However, a nonprofit advocacy and government policy can also work together to create a positive self-reinforcing cycle. First, many groups are already working to minimize the stigma around disability in Egypt. Less stigma will make authorities more likely to intervene when there are breaches of disabled people’s rights. Moreover this, in turn, will give current government policies more power to improve the lives of people with disabilities. These improvements — specifically equal treatment in the workforce and quality education — provide clear paths away from the spiral of disability and poverty in Egypt. As a result, while the present may seem bleak, change is emerging right over the horizon.
– Elyssa Nielsen