Fellow Since 2006
This profile was prepared when Reda Shoukry was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2006.
Starting in the squatter areas of greater Cairo, Reda is combating the spread of sexually transmitted disease, including HIV, by focusing on the rights and health of the most vulnerable groups.
The New Idea
Reda argues that maintaining the health and safety of those at highest risk for HIV infection is critical to ensuring the health of the broader society. She is introducing a range of supports that give high-risk individuals, including sex workers, access to information, services, and awareness of practices that will protect them from infection. By improving body image, by gaining their deep trust, and by changing the way other organizations and agencies work with high-risk populations, Reda helps encourage safe sex and, by doing so, reduce the rate of infection to themselves and to the greater public. In order to rehabilitate sex workers in the long run, she wants to offer tools and skills that will allow them to lead a different life and, in some situations, pursue a different career path.
According to the UNAIDS, Egypt is a low-prevalence country with around 8,000 people living with Aids. But the risk that infection rates will skyrocket is high, particularly because there is a strong cultural avoidance of the topic of illness linked to sexual activity. Aids is said to be a “foreigners’ disease” and little attention is given to establishing safeguards against the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases from within Egyptian society.Egypt has a large sex industry that serves international visitors as well as Egyptian men. Some estimates suggest that there are about 150,000 sex workers in the country. Reda estimates that there are about 14,000 sex workers who work in the Ezbet El Haganah squatter area, which is home to about 1.2 million of the roughly 18 million people living in the squatter areas in greater Cairo. The size of the population is not fully known because prostitution is illegal, making data gathering difficult. Denial and avoidance are the usual reactions from the government, citizen organizations, and other groups. For a case of prostitution to be filed, the law dictates that a sex worker must be arrested in a sexual act. Yet in reality arrests may occur in a public location if a woman or girl is found carrying a condom. It is also common for police to harass sex workers while holding them in custody. With little knowledge of their rights, and in the absence of support structures, sex workers accept inhumane treatment without complaining or pressing for changes.
Reda is reframing the nascent conversation about the spread of HIV in Egypt to be a public health debate—not a criminal investigation. By focusing on the health, protection, and education of high-risk populations, Reda believes that Egyptian society will have the greatest chance of slowing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, to the population at large. The citizen organization she has established arranges counselling, medical care, and legal assistance, and introduces greater awareness of the problem by the government, the Egyptian public and existing networks of citizen organizations. Early in her work, Reda saw that data and mapping could be very helpful in getting around the pervasive denial she faced. She began by mapping the location of sex workers, an exercise that allowed her to build strong ties with a number of active sex workers, gatekeepers, and pimps in the area where she works. Her non-judgemental approach allowed her to penetrate this very closed community. Reaching the professionals who interact with sex workers is essential to changing the society’s view of this group. In partnership with UNAIDS and Tanta University in Egypt, Reda has trained a group of thirteen field workers. Her staff in the field is instrumental in reaching the sex worker community in its operational areas—on the streets, in cafes, and through closed networks. Reda also works directly with sex workers, who have been alienated and denied services and knowledge, Reda follows a pragmatic approach. Once she has a comfortable working relationship with the women, Reda and her team conduct legal and health awareness sessions and listening sessions, distribute condoms and encourage sex workers to seek regular medical checkups. She has reached 62 sex workers to raise their awareness regarding health and legal rights, and distributed 2,000 condoms among sex workers with help from her staff and field workers. In addition to the 62 regular participants in the sessions, more than 100 sex workers and their families have visited her organization and learned about its services in the last six months. Through the medical clinic hosted at her center, Reda offers medical check-ups and free medical care to a small but growing group. Reda is forming a lawyers' network, staffed by volunteer lawyers who have a strong sense of social responsibility. Presently, the lawyers she has recruited defend sex workers in court, and offer a range of other services such as issuing legal documentation papers, and securing health services. Two lawyers work full-time at her organization. They have acquitted eleven sex-workers who were unlawfully arrested. Reda hopes that this lawyer cohort may join her in the effort to legalize prostitution, a change that Reda says will mean the extension of care and services to sex workers.In addition to directly reaching sex workers, Reda is changing the way other organizations and service agencies relate to this group of girls and women. She shares data and the life testimonies that she has gathered and documented, allowing other groups to see and empathize with the difficult lives and circumstances of these women. She encourages health-focused citizen organizations to look at the problem directly and evaluate the danger to society of ignoring it. To date, Reda has managed to coordinate with two citizen organizations in Ezbet El Haganah to include sex-workers in their outreach. To reach and involve the conservative society of Egypt, Reda emphasizes that her aim is to protect wives and children from the spread of HIV and other STDs. Using public health as an objective ensures greater participation, even from the religious groups. Accordingly, she can begin to guide the extension of locally supported services to sex workers in the interest of safeguarding the broader public. Looking ahead, Reda plans to focus on reaching the public through savvy media campaigns that will be supported by an emerging network of lawyers and activists who are allies.
Reda and her four sisters were born into a poor family. Their father married a younger woman, causing their mother to leave with the girls and open a grocery shop. Reda grew up helping to manage her mother’s shop. She was a good student and was involved in many activities at school and in the community. Early on, she developed a strong sense of responsibility to her community and was involved in political activism. Through her work in the community, she came across Ezbet Hagannah, a squatter area close to Nasser City. Shocked by the dearth of services and the complete deterioration of infrastructure, Reda set up an organization to improve the area through social, economic, and legal interventions. Through this work, she began to see the prevalence of sex work and to recognize the importance of reaching girls and young women with information and protection.