A Diamond in the Rough

TEDx Alex Talk, Bibliotheca Alexandria, December 9th, 2018

Hala Abu Khatwa
Hala Abu Khatwa Tedx
TEDx Smouha

12 March 2019

It goes back in time 30 years ago, in our rural home in Kom Hamada, Beheirah governorate in Egypt. I came across a wedding invitation card that my late father had received. It was a fancy one sent by families of the bride and the groom expressing their pleasure to invite him and the family to the marriage of their daughter Miss “X” and her groom Mohamed.

Why Miss “X”?  Because for them, it was shameful to say the name of the bride/young women in public and to further disseminate it on cards... I was furious. Why did they hide the name of their daughter? I was thankful that such thing was not the tradition of our family as my father was a strong believer in the value of education and work, and the right of girls to take full opportunities and choose the lifestyle they prefer.

I was not in Miss’s “X” shoes, but I felt sorry for her, I felt pain for being deprived  of her right to have an independent identity, for limiting her to being the wife of so or so…

At that time, I felt that my cause was the right for every woman to hold her own name, her right to education, to make her choices and to get her inheritance.

I then joined university, majoring in Mass Communication and became the President of the Community Service Club as well as Arabic Copy Editor of the Student’s Newspaper. I also volunteered to teach girls at the SOS village (girls without parenting care). It was important for me to engage and speak out and attempt to contribute to bringing change to women’s rights… After graduation, I worked with the British Broadcast Cooperation (BBC). I travelled throughout Egypt and abroad… and I discovered many issues, like the case of Miss “X”.

 I discovered that we continue to be prisoners of several practices and traditions that hold our lives and communities back.

I travelled to Libya, and I met a young boy who was a victim of HIV-infected blood transfusion. It was a major case in Benghazi at the time, for the blood received by a big hospital had caused the infection of more than 400 children.

The night preceding the visit of the boy’s family was very long for me. I couldn’t sleep.

I knew little about HIV/AIDS, how it was transmitted, how should I behave with the boy… so I searched and read many articles about the disease. Then I bought a toy for the boy and when I arrived at his home, handed it to him and shook his hand. When the visit came to its end, we were already friends. Before leaving, I hugged him and gave him a kiss. His mother’s eyes were full of tears, she explained to me that people in their neighborhood, including family and friends, had stopped shaking their hands and no children play with her son anymore. Do you know why? Because misinformation and rumors can hurt, hurt deeply and exclude beautiful people from our lives… And the stigma against this child and many other children like him needs to change.

Through media, we project the stories with details, and feel we contribute to clarify issues to people to help them to better assess things and change for the better.

I moved from BBC and joined the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). I travelled to Saudi Arabia, it was 11 years ago. There, I met young highly educated women still struggling to have the right to vote and to get a driving license… This year, they got it!!

With every travel and story that I cover, I feel more and more that my role in making change is possible, doing much more than just transmitting the story. I wanted to contribute more to tangible change and affecting the ending of that story. So, I decided to leave the media and turn to development. I joined UNICEF 10 years ago, as Communication Specialist. I realized, from the first journey in the remote areas in Upper Egypt that the scale of poverty that I had seen in the Delta and throughout my previous travels were only the tip of the iceberg. I entered a house in Upper Egypt to document installing the drinking water connection, the mother came to greet me with a genuine smile, though, you could see how her body has been eaten away by anemia. The nerves of her hands were swollen by having to carry water containers, doing house chores and providing for the children and her house was almost empty with no furniture, yet her face was peaceful and friendly. I remained dazzled by her insistence on sending her daughter to purchase a portion of tea and sugar to offer us as hospitality drink, knowing quite well that she could hardly afford this; with her husband working a day or two out of ten or fifteen… Her life is indeed hard but you know that the family living condition can change to the better, starting with the household water connection they were about to receive.

In UNICEF, I came closer to data and research that shows that many children are deprived of their most basic rights to health, education services and protection from all forms of violence.

Link to video on it's hosted site.
TEDxSmouha 2019
Working in UNICEF must bring a lot of precious stories that most people know nothing about. Hala enlightens our minds by some chosen stories and how we should thrive in the society we live in. This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community.

Children whose height and weight are below the normal references for their age because of chronic malnutrition which affects their physical and mental development; girls being circumcised because the parents see that practice as safeguarding their chastity and attracting the grooms; fathers who would only send their boys to school while sending their girls to serve in houses and earn money for them;  boys and girls who went out to the street because of domestic violence which reached the point of pulling nails off a young child.

But I also saw all this changing …

The last campaign I worked on was about peer to peer violence, bullying. In this National campaign that started last October, under the auspices of the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM) in partnership with the Ministry of Education and in cooperation with UNICEF and funded by the European Union, we worked with parenting specialist and held sessions with children, mothers, fathers, and teachers... and found out that the issue was pressing. Many children are causing harm to others unintentionally, parents and teachers are hurting their children by ignoring them sometimes or due to little ingenuity.  

As soon as we had started the campaign, we were overwhelmed by the public engagement. We encouraged celebrities and public figures to talk about their childhood experience with bullying. People began sharing their stories, and children began to call the child help line 16000 affiliated with the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood, asking for help to deal with bullying; parents called in as well, and teachers undertook personal initiatives in their schools to address bullying among students...

In a TV show addressing the campaign which I took part in, a boy called the program and he shared his story with bullying. He told us how he was bullying a friend of his and didn’t know how much he was hurting him, and how after being touched by the campaign he decided to call in the TV programme to apologize to his friend on air.

At that time, I saw the diamond shine… yes… because changing negative practices is like a diamond. Diamonds are hard to reach, hard to polish but their shine is everlasting…

Another experience has curtailed my tongue and made me standstill, not wanting to believe what I heard… I was in a school, as part of a series of workshops for awareness raising on peer to peer bullying, when a child in middle school stood up and said that he thought of committing suicide, because of the severe bullying directed to him by his classmate. Yes, what he said was really shocking, but at least he is now speaking out about it. Prior to the campaign, he couldn’t… his family and teachers were not considering the matter deserving intervention! Thanks to the campaign, he knew that there is someone to help him… parents, teachers, and peers, all now have knowledge about bullying.

Change may run slow, but it is in the hands of each one of you to contribute to speeding it up. Changing negative behavior requires champions like yourselves, champions who believe in the cause and address it

You don’t have all to have the same role nor to act form the same place. However, each role is crucial and instrumental and the most important roles are the ones executed on a volunteering basis to change negative practices for a better life for our children and our country.

Let’s keep looking together for the diamonds, which will shine with every change of negative practices… because the life of every child is valuable and deserves to struggle for… I, you, and you… We can dig out diamond and polish them, wherever we are.  And we will see them shining in the eyes of every boy and girl around us.