Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Egyptian dwarfs succeed in establishing trade union & constitutional amendment safeguarding their rights

Mada Masr
Dwarfs of Egypt Unite

Dwarfism-rights activists succeed in establishing associations, a trade union, and constitutional amendment safeguarding their rights

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Jano Charbel

During the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt people with dwarfism were believed to be celestially-gifted little people - some of whom became renowned royal court officials, while many others were employed in esteemed occupations. In modern day Egypt, however, the story is very different.

Currently estimated to number around 75,000 nationwide - Egyptians with dwarfism suffer discrimination, marginalization, unemployment, and poverty. They are subjected to ridicule in schools, workplaces, and in public on a daily basis. *Dwarfs also cite a lack of affordable healthcare and easily accessible transportation, amongst other grievances.

It is on the basis of confronting such discrimination, and a host of socio-economic obstacles, that groups of Egyptian dwarfs have begun to unite their ranks in recent years.

The 'Association for the Welfare of Dwarfs in Alexandria' (AWDA) was officially established in this Mediterranean city in December 2012, while the 'Independent Trade Union of Dwarfs' was established in March 2014 and officially registered with the Ministry of Manpower. This labor union for dwarfs is the only such organization in the Arab World, and perhaps worldwide.

AWDA currently boasts a general assembly membership of around 120 - with smaller branches in Cairo, along with the Suez Canal cities of Port Said and Ismailiya.

This while the newly established 'Independent Trade Union of Dwarfs' currently has a membership of some 50 members, with only one union committee - which is also headquartered in Alexandria.

The Association for the Welfare of Dwarfs describes itself as being a venue for social, cultural and sports events. While the Trade Union of Dwarfs is concerned with its members' employment, vocational training programs, professional skills, workplace discrimination, and other labor-related issues.

Both the association and the union are open to the membership of any Egyptian with dwarfism.

While there is no official national census data or other records indicating the exact number of the dwarfism community countrywide. By AWDA's rough estimates there are some 400,000 Egyptians (the vast majority of whom are of full-stature) whose families include at least one person with dwarfism. Families headed by dwarf parents are particularly prone to economic hardships in contemporary Egypt.


The association won an unprecedented victory last year when Egyptians with dwarfism were recognized in a constitutional amendment including them in employment quotas. The amendment also granted special consideration to the community in terms of their socio-economic rights.

Thanks to AWDA’s advocacy, the 2014 Constitution now stipulates in Article 81:

“The state is committed to ensuring the rights of persons with disabilities and dwarfs in terms of healthcare, economic and social rights, in the fields of culture, entertainment, sports and education. Along with the provision of job opportunities for them, the allocation of employment quotas, the creation of public facilities and an environment whereby they may exercise all their political rights so as to facilitate their integration amongst other citizens — in keeping with the principles of equity, justice and equal opportunities.”

A 5 percent employment quota is specifically stipulated for both public and private sector enterprises, in accordance with the labor law.

Previous constitutions provided these rights to citizens with disabilities, but never contained provisions specifically for dwarfs. Employers would thus often exclude people with dwarfism from such quotas, on the basis that they were not mentally or physically disabled.

Essam Shehata and his wife Nisreen Hamed were the driving force behind the amendment. Tireless activists for the dwarfism community since the 1980s and co-founders of AWDA, the couple successfully lobbied lawyers and other Constituent Assembly members to include these provisions during the constitution drafting process.

Shehata, AWDA's Director and the President of the Union for Dwarfs, told Mada Masr that the new provision of constitutional article 81 is not being enforced, however.

"Neither the state nor private businessmen are standing with us in terms of the providing employment opportunities for dwarfs."
Shehata added that political parties have also neglected the rights of Egyptians with dwarfism.

Some AWDA members have successfully maintained steady jobs in the public sector, working as customs officials, employees at the Alexandria Port Authority and in the healthcare sector. Yet these cases are the exception, not the rule.

Ahmed Fouad - who has dwarfism - is employed at the Health Ministry explained that public sector employers would typically not classify dwarfs amongst the ranks of the physically or mentally disabled, especially prior to the issuing of the (January) 2014 Constitution with its Article 81.

Fouad explained that - in his experience - "We would often find that employers do recognize the five percent quota for disabled persons. But instead of providing such people with jobs at their workplaces, they are paid to stay at home." He went on to criticize such practices as being dismissive and non-constructive acts of charity.

Fouad emphatically added: "We're not asking for charity, we are asking for our rights and for equal opportunities in our country."


Unemployment or precarious employment is often cited as the most pernicious problem facing the dwarfism community.

AWDA co-founder and secretary for women’s and children’s affairs, Nisreen Hamed points out that the association’s professional skills workshops — such as courses in cellphone repairs and maintenance — have “proven that dwarfs are mentally and physically capable of performing technical work exactly like fully grown people."

Sami Ramsis has been out of work for three years. “I've been repeatedly seeking employment at the Ministry of Manpower's bureaus,” he says. “But the employees there ridicule me, saying normal people can't even find employment, let alone dwarfs.”

Ramsis feels like he's stuck in a cycle of social exclusion. "Since I can’t find a job, I can't buy or rent an apartment for myself,” he continues. “Since I don't have any steady income or an apartment, I can't get married or have a family of my own.”

And even if a person with dwarfism does get a job, he or she is then confronted with the problem of how to get there — many report that most forms of public transportation are inaccessible.

"I have no problem riding the tramway, but some buses and microbuses are very difficult to climb aboard. They are not easily accessible to people our height," AWDA member Qadria Mahrous says.

Other association members say they hope government officials or private donors will help to subsidize the purchase of cars or motorcycles that are modified for their height, so as to increase their mobility - and, by extension, their prospects for employment.


AWDA may still have a long way to go when it comes to tackling issues of national infrastructure and transportation — but it has been successful in creating a community center, and offering the services and activities that Egyptian dwarfs can’t find elsewhere.

AWDA offers some medical services to its members, who often struggle with access to healthcare. Hamed explained that there are a multitude of different forms of dwarfism. Her association provides human growth hormone injections for those children whose specific form of dwarfism is caused by hormonal imbalances or nutritional deficiencies.

Hamed added: “from childhood dwarfs are ridiculed at school, then in adulthood suffer discrimination in employment,” she asserts.

“We've been calling on the Ministry of Education to raise awareness, to increase tolerance and acceptance of dwarf children in schools,” Hamed explains. “We want to end the physical and verbal bullying of dwarf students by their classmates.”

She hopes that increased efforts on the part of education officials will help to foster a sense of social integration and belonging that would ultimately lead to greater success later in life.

And aside from these crucial services, the social experience the association provides makes a major impact on its members’ lives.

"I enjoy the sense of community, and the company of friends I've made here. We can relate to each other's daily grievances,” says Mahrous.

The association convenes for its general assembly meetings on the first Friday of every month. Mahrous expressed her appreciation for the trips, excursions, (limited) health care assistance, pilgrimages to Mecca/Medina, Ramadan food packages, along with vocational training and job skills that AWDA offers its members.

These activities have helped to build a close, tight-knit community — Hamed proudly notes that at least six couples with dwarfism met and got married through the association. Several of AWDA's married members have subsequently produced offspring who are of full-stature.

Shehata is currently working to establish a National Day for Egyptian Dwarfs on March 27 to raise awareness regarding the community, and its needs and aspirations. AWDA is preparing events including football matches between teams of dwarfs, together with songs, dances, competitions, and cultural shows - by performers with dwarfism.

At the association's headquarters, five costumed AWDA members are rehearsing an Upper Egyptian stick dance and a Nubian jig in traditional costumes. They smile joyfully for their photo shoot, and say they’re excited to perform in front of an audience. They even hope to perform professionally in the future.

But the rehearsals might be in vain if Shehata doesn’t secure the funds required for such a national event.

"If we don't have sponsors to promote or financially assist us with these events, then we won't be able to be able to go ahead with them,” he explains. “Our plans for this National Day of Egyptian Dwarfs may have to be put on hold."

While the Association for the Welfare of Dwarfs in Alexandria does not have an official webpage, pertinent information on the Egyptian little people community can be found on the Dwarves Dot Com Facebook page.

*In interviews with Mada Masr, members of the community referred to themselves as "qezm/aqzam," literally "dwarf/dwarfs." This term has been contested globally, with some preferring to use "people of short-stature" or "little people," as there is no agreement on whether or not dwarfism is a disability. 
**Photos by Jano Charbel 

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