Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1208, (7 - 13 August 2014)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1208, (7 - 13 August 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Reintegrating girls

Mai Samih looks at how one organisation has been bringing girls back to school

Al-Ahram Weekly

The NGO Plan Egypt launched a new campaign called Ten Days Investment in Educating Girls in June with the aim of enhancing the rights of girls to high-quality education. “Educate a girl, change Egypt” is the campaign’s slogan. The ten days mentioned in the title of the campaign are intended to put pressure on the government to increase the education budget to 20 per cent of GDP. According to Plan Egypt statistics, some 65 million girls are deprived of education across the world. Of the 23 million people in Egypt who are illiterate, 70 per cent of them are girls.  

Amani Shenouda, Plan Egypt’s Communications Manager, said that the NGO had started working in Egypt more than 30 years ago, with the parent body starting work 75 years ago. “We work in 50 countries,” she said. “Our core belief is in child rights, and we work through four main programmes to support young people in claiming their rights — child protection and child rights; empowerment of girls and women; empowerment of youth and capacity building; and working with the community and local NGOs.”

In Plan Egypt’s work, it is important that children are given an appropriate support system, with the whole community involved. “It would not make sense for a child to know her rights if she is not supported by her family and the community. So we work with the whole community around the child,” Shenouda commented. Plan Egypt now works with 1.5 million children and their families in seven governorates under the supervision of the ministry of social solidarity and 45 social development associations.

According to Shenouda, the Ten Days Initiative includes a campaign called “Because I am a Girl,” which involves girls expressing themselves in simple words. She gives the examples of “because I am a girl I work more; because I am a girl I help in the house; and because I am a girl I might be deprived of education.” The idea is to make young women more aware of their rights and situation. “The theme of the campaign this year is girls’ education, a huge issue in many developing countries. The ten days will be used to advocate for girls’ education and to ask governments to invest more in the education of girls,” she said.

Plan Egypt has recently participated in a forum in Addis Ababa in which it called for a larger educational budget for girls, with community members talking about their problems. “Throughout the ten days, we included issues such as violence in schools. Participants included not only girls but also their families and communities as well as representatives from the ministry of education. The idea was to kick off the project and to draw attention to the issues it highlights.”

According to the UNDP’s 2010 Human Development Report, 16 per cent of girls do not go to school in Egypt.  And, according to UNESCO statistics, 65 million girls across the world are currently out of school, with some one in five girls of lower secondary school age being out of school worldwide. In poorer countries, the primary school completion rates of girls are below 50 per cent. In developing countries, one in three girls is married by the age of 18. According to WHO statistics in 2004, every year 10 million girls are forced to marry.

Yet, according to 2002 World Bank statistics an extra year of secondary school can increase a girl’s potential income by 15 to 25 per cent. Plan International statistics from 2008 also indicate that an increase of only one per cent in girls’ secondary education attendance adds 0.3 per cent to a country’s GDP. The Global Gender Gap Report of 2011 ranked Egypt at 123 out of 135 countries, indicating a large gap in gender equality. According to 2010 UNDP statistics, Egypt has one of the lowest female labour participation rates in the world, at just 20 per cent.

Ministry of Education says that the total number of students who dropped out in primary stage in 2010-2011was 28,841, with more girls dropping out than boys. The illiteracy rate is 28 per cent for the 15 to 35 age group, with about 80 per cent of these people being women. According to the ministry, the main reasons for dropping out of school include poverty, violence, the early marriage of girls, especially in Upper Egypt, and gender discrimination. The number of community schools that serve disadvantaged areas and offer a second chance of education to these drop-outs is 4,614, serving approximately 100,000 pupils, 82 per cent of them girls.

Expenditure on pre-university education in Egypt from 2007 to 2014 did not exceed three per cent of GDP, whereas the new constitution says that this figure should be at least four per cent and increase until it reaches the global average.

Hadil, a girl who has been attending a Plan Egypt community school, said that “I am 11 years old and have been working since I was nine. Now I go to school and learn to read and write. I am the top of my class, and I feel so proud, as if I were the best in the world.”

Mona, who also attends the community school, has an interesting story to tell. “I used to work producing carpets before my dad died, as he was sick and could not work. I would leave home at 8am and come back at 11pm at night, having walked long distances to and from work. But my dad’s dying wish was that I would become a doctor, and I decided to make his wish come true. I joined the community school and left the factory. Now I have learned to read and write. In the past I used to feel ashamed when someone asked me to read something for them; people used to make fun of me for not being able to read. Now I am learning, and when I become a doctor I will treat people for free.”

Shenouda added further details of Plan Egypt’s campaign to help girls. “We make sure that girls are represented in society and that there is gender equality in all our programmes. We support them through campaigns like village savings and loans associations, in which people collectively save money, using it to invest in starting projects. Women are empowered to think about getting more support for their children and families knowing that they will be able to do something.” Co-operation between the women gives self-confidence, with women being able to come together to help themselves.

“Another programme is about parenting, in which we raise awareness of what a child might need at different stages. We help women give their children options for life and find ways for them to express themselves. There is another programme called ‘Reflect’ in which women and girls learn more about life skills through interactive and participatory techniques,” Shenouda adds.

Plan Egypt has also signed an agreement with the Adult Education Association (AEA) to help in the programme. “We also organise community schools in which we teach girls who did not have the luxury of going to school, or who left for any reason, or who have dropped out of school,” she said. The schools include all primary stages, and non-traditional teaching is used in which the teacher sits with children of both genders, mostly girls, around a table and teaches them not only reading and writing but also skills like cooking. “Girls see these schools as safe places, as some schools are far away and some towns do not have any at all,” Shenouda said.  

However, a main challenge is to change mindsets, the way some people still think about girls. “You need to change perceptions, to change mindsets,” Shenouda said. “Unfortunately, this is still a huge challenge, and it takes time to do. It is not about numbers, or sending girls to school alone: it is about changing perceptions that girls can profit from education. Limiting girls’ capabilities harms the core of our work so we need the community to be involved. One of the challenges is to involve the families, the parents, and the communities. My dream is to see people think differently, and I was very inspired when one person who works for Plan Egypt told me that he came from a very conservative background but that he had changed his mind about many things after participating in the activities of the programme. There is a need for collaboration from the whole community, but starting with oneself is key,” Shenouda comments.

“I would like to see all the girls my age who are currently working leave their jobs and go to school,” Hadil said. “I believe in girls’ education because they have the strength and the talent to do something. Give them the space, and the sky’s the limit,” Shenouda said. 

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