Cynthia Okerfelt and Lea Jones

For the past two years, the Youth LEAD Project has worked with young Southern Sudanese men at-risk for participating in crime and violence, through four locations in Greater Cairo to provide them with Leadership, Education, and Access to Development. These young men have been marginalized by institutional and community barriers that inhibit access to education and unemployment. The limited means of survival and social support has prompted many to engage in negative behaviors including the formation of street gangs. Youth LEAD runs safe spaces for refugee youth to learn language, music, and vocational skills, play sports, and develop identities and interpersonal relationships which are not based on gang-related violence or illegal activities. The centers have seen great success – and in January 2010 we received funding to open our first center for women.

The opening of our women’s center was fueled largely by the comments and hopes of the young men participating in our program who saw the positive opportunities provided through LEAD centers and were concerned about the lack of safe spaces available for the young women in their lives. They reported the girls didn’t have anywhere to sit and socialize, some were young mothers with no access to school and little hope of earning their own income. The boys would say, “they are smart, they need a center of their own.” The LEAD center for young women provides a space for female youth between the ages of 16 and 29 to gather and create positive female networks, to access educational and development opportunities. The girlfriends, wives, sisters, cousins, and friends of current program participants are coming together in the new center for twice-weekly continuing education courses, and with IWHC’s support we can take our activities to a new level.

Young Southern Sudanese refugee women in Cairo face increasing isolation and marginalization from the greater refugee and Egyptian communities. Though South Sudanese women often pride themselves on their outspokenness, displacement to Cairo has broken many of the social support systems that permitted women to safely self-advocate and forge positive self-identities. Often times, the young women associated with our centers identify themselves – and each other – by their romantic attachments to the young men. This is largely due to the fact that there are very limited spaces available for young women to gather in groups.

In the past year Southern Sudanese tribal elders, local service providers, and youths themselves have recognized the detrimental effects of this situation: youth engaging in multiple concurrent sexual relationships without condoms; sexual coercion and violence; and a rise in teenage pregnancy. Youth often do not access health services and testing available to them, as they are suspicious that service providers will not keep information confidential. Through our women’s center, we hope to address these gaps in education and to advocate for our participants to access the available resources in Cairo.

We believe that a young woman’s reproductive health is not only dependent on her knowledge and attitudes; she must have confidence in her ability and right to self-advocate, some of which will come from positive social support for her decisions. With the $1,000 Young Visionaries contest grant, activities that specifically address women’s reproductive and mental health, leadership development and role modeling, and social support development will be implemented. Participants will learn about family planning, STIs, stigma, and relationship communication and negotiation skills. Artistic self-exploration through dance and music therapy along side intergenerational discussions between old and young southern Sudanese women will promote positive self-identity and social support.

IWHC funding will be used to:

    1. Open the centre for extra programming one day per week
    2. Host regular reproductive health workshops
    3. Provide local materials for music and art-based activities
    4. Cover the costs for older Sudanese women to lead discussion based workshops

In the six months of operation, we anticipate that approximately fifty young at-risk women regularly attending will have:

    • Gained the knowledge and understanding to limit risky sexual behavior
    • Developed the confidence to take control of their sexual decision making
    • Created and become a part of a supportive social network of women

We will evaluate the impact of these activities through end line data collection corresponding to baseline data collection already under way.
Youth LEAD is in an excellent position to hit the ground running with IWHC support. We already have relationships with these women; in fact, the proposed activities have been synthesized from conversations with these women about their health and social needs. In addition to social support, through our longstanding partnerships with service providers we have the technical capacity to provide quality activities that respond specifically to Sudanese refugee women’s concerns and needs in a culturally acceptable way.



8 responses to “Cynthia Okerfelt and Lea Jones

  1. This is an incredible organization. I have seen there work first hand and been inspired. Please help the organization by voting for them and spreading the word.

  2. I cant wait to see these ideas come to pass! A vision for real change and an empowered future generation. The ideas deserve your vote!

  3. I vote for this entry! They are making an amazing difference in women's lives. This project is more than worthy of consideration.

  4. There is a direct correlation between the empowerment of women and the success of civilization. I pledge a vote for this cause!

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