It’s time for Egypt to play leadership role in shaping MENA region: WEF’s Harbin Aurora

Nehal Samir
13 Min Read
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Cairo will host the Women Economic Forum (WEF) for the first time on 4-5 March under the auspices of President Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi.

This event is expected to bring together over 1,000 women leaders from Egypt and around the world to tackle issues of employment, international trade, women in technology, finance, and much more.
Over the past 25 years, the annual event gathered 100,000 inspiring women from across 150 countries.

On this occasion, Daily News Egypt interviewed WEF President Harbin Aurora to learn more about the upcoming event and its role in tackling different women issues such as economic empowerment.

From where did the idea of the forum originate?

In general, I realised that females in India after finishing the university and getting economically engaged and employed, they didn’t have support structures, which could support them in their career. Therefore, a support system was required.

There are a lot of women entering education now, while when it comes ultimately to the career growth, you see a lot of women drop out from the workforce for various reasons. So, we needed to create a support system to provide energy, inspiration, enthusiasm, practical tips, techniques, and tools in order to know how to manage between work and home. In addition, such system will work on making the society more aware of the importance of supporting the woman in her economic journey and how this will impact positively the entire family.

This is the reason why I started the All Ladies League through networking with different women from different countries. So, we had to create an international platform, which is the Women Economic Forum where women come to exchange ideas and build their businesses.

What is new in this edition, and why did you choose Egypt?

I think what is so special this year is the fact that we are holding the forum which we normally hold in India for six days in Egypt. The event will move for the very first time outside India. During these six days, about 500 sessions and different workshops will be held, in addition to sharing stories of successful women identifying how they started, what challenges they faced, how they overcame them, etc.

The event will have some changes this year as we’re doing it in Egypt for the first time. It has been restructured and the format has changed. We will hold sessions inside hotel for two days, while the other four days will see tours in several touristic destinations in Egypt with the aim of bonding the participants.

For the second question, I think Egypt has chosen me. I had invited President Al-Sisi to be the chief guest of the WEF in India. He sent me a wonderful letter congratulating us on the event, saying he could not come but will send the National Council for Women’s President Maya Morsi. Then, Morsi invited me to the World Youth Forum in Egypt, where I met Al-Sisi and this is when we announced we will bring the next WEF to Egypt. I think it was like a cycle. I feel like Egypt chose me to bring in the forum. So even I am amazed by how I’m here, but every time I look back, I see a divine hand guiding me to Egypt.

How could this forum empower women economically?

First of all, it is creating a safe, supportive space for women to speak freely. Second, it is an endeavour to make entrepreneurship of women visible to the world, but most of all, to women themselves.

It’s also getting validation from the world that it’s making something worthy enough because we also honour women; we have a set of awards in different categories from leaders to women who have achieved a lot in business.

At every stage of a woman’s life, we give her the push of encouragement and a support system that says you’re not alone and you’re never going to be alone.

We also bring a direct financial impact. This is a place women come to for finding opportunities for growth whatever vision they have, whatever business they do.

In your opinion, what are the promising sectors for women?

I think health is considered one of the sectors that women love to enter, in addition to the sustainable energy because women feel very strongly about environment and climate.

Also, a lot of women enter the education sector, as they are very passionate about teaching and learning. Then, of course, fashion, beauty, lifestyle, and glamour. In all those areas, you see a lot of women coming into businesses. There are actually lots of examples everywhere.

Women are getting into coding. The digital ecosystem today is offering a great opportunity to people to just get out there. You need to be wherever you are, you can be on a platform and connected to the whole world, whether you’re using it for business or for education, it’s up to you. But women are missing from this ecosystem, so this is a new space.

I think just offering skills like encoding and getting women in STEM on board. That is one of the areas I think we should definitely focus on even if women are not interested right now because of traditional gender perspectives that machines are for men and dolls are for girls.

We need more awareness and campaigning in the area of technology. We do see more women in health, sustainable energy, sustainable development, education, training, coaching, but we need more leadership and will, as we said, to attract women into the science and technology fields.

How can you evaluate the women economic empowerment in Egypt?

Egypt has so much potential, but I think it needs more showcasing of its potential to the international community, which is what we are hoping we are starting with.

I think Egypt has a lot of talented, strong women that the government is recognising. Egypt has political leadership that is willing to recognise and bring it out. I think the world needs to see that. Egypt needs to get integrated with the rest of the world. That is what we are here for.

India and Egypt are old friends and we are very happy to walk this journey that will empower both Egyptian and Indian women. I think it’s a very important friendship between India and Egypt. As I get integrated into the world, I would love my sisters in Egypt to also get integrated into the economic international marketplace and we are getting as I said, women from so many countries. This is an opportunity for Egypt to show up what it does for women and the best way to show it is to have all the women of Egypt out there participating in the event.

What challenges do women face in Egypt?

The challenges women face in Egypt are not very different than other countries. On the country, I think a lot of young entrepreneurs are girls, and the marketplace is getting better chance.

It’s more or less women all over the world are singing the same song that the variances are cultural, religious, and economic barriers only. But the challenges more or less aligned certain criteria and the biggest criteria of all is again, oh, she’s a woman. This is a negative perception that is portrayed by media and sometimes by the women themselves.

I think what this event is bringing to Egypt is a bigger network, bigger exposure, and bigger opportunity to be inspired. And to feel that this is happening here too.

What are the opportunities for women empowerment in Egypt and MENA?

Egypt’s location in the MENA region is an opportunity itself. I think now is the time for Egypt and its people, including the women hand in hand shoulder to shoulder with the men, with the government and professional people together to really play a leadership role in shaping the MENA region, benefiting from strong leadership and stability that it now has.

If you go around, it’s not a homogeneous sort of an area, the MENA, there’s a lot happening politically, and culturally. So, I think Egypt has the opportunity to shape the region because it got everything falling into place now, to really take this next leap into becoming a leader in the region and being known for very positive attributes of development. For example, women empowerment, Egypt has been already doing so much on women’s health, and in the financing for rural women.

I think Egypt is doing a lot in the region frankly, for women; it has the political will, a lot of women leaders. The state can be mentors and motivators to women and young people in the whole region, bringing entrepreneurship, empowerment, economy, society, all together into one matrix of development and progress. Also, Egypt can influence positively legislation and policies in another country, by its example.

I need to congratulate your government for having the vision. Not many governments in the world, including in the developed world, are walking the talk. They are talking but they are not walking the talk. It’s very good that you’re walking the talk. So, congratulations.

Do you think that in order to fully empower women in Egypt we need to have a social desire to change the mindset of the people or we need to have political directions from the leadership?

I think we need both. It has to be a combination of both. It is a coming together of aspiration, of education and of enlightenment, and the role of a leader is as important as the role of society and the role of society, in wanting to change is absolutely critical for the vision of the leader, also the vision of a society in order to come together and do hand in hand is very crucial.

You can start wherever, but ultimately you need the other side, you can have a very strong leader but if the people are not energised, they are not enthused, they’re not awakened, the leader is stuck. The ball is not going to move. Moreover, if the people want to do a lot, but they don’t have the right leader like what is happening in a lot of countries, people will not be able to achieve a lot as the government has no vision.

Finally, what is your ambition?

My ultimate ambition is to see every woman become a connected businessperson.

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