Thursday,23 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1217, (16 - 22 October 2014)
Thursday,23 November, 2017
Issue 1217, (16 - 22 October 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Girls in their own words

An NGO project has been exploring how Egyptian girls see themselves, writes Mai Samih

Girls in their own words
Girls in their own words
Al-Ahram Weekly

The NGO Plan International Egypt organised a round table to discuss issues faced by girls and women in Egypt under the heading “Her voice + Her picture = Her story” on 30 September. The event was attended by representatives from the Ministry of Social Solidarity, the Ministry of Development and the National Council for Women.
During the meeting, TV script writer Mariam Naoum, author of the Egyptian serial Segn Al-Nessa (Women’s Prison) and the stars who acted in it were awarded a prize for their role in enlightening society about violence against women and girls.

The event discussed the results of a field study entitled “Girls’ Voices,” which looked at the rights of teenage girls and a sample of boys in 11 countries, among them Bangladesh, Benin, Cameroon, Ecuador, Egypt, Liberia, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Paraguay, Uganda and Zimbabwe. The study looked at issues like equality and the degree of empowerment the young people had, encouraging them to reassess their thoughts and engage in activities to address the issues they were affected by.

It aimed at answering questions like how girls in Egypt felt about being girls, including different aspects of their lives like education, safety, early marriage, pregnancy, housework, empowerment and encouragement. The idea was to help girls and communities to understand the key issues that adolescent girls face today by asking them to express these in their own words.

The results of the study found that 48 per cent of the adolescent girls spoken to said that girls “always” or “often” completed at least nine years of school in their communities, while more educated fathers supported the idea of girls’ education. Fifty-two per cent of the girls claimed that adolescent girls “never” or “seldom” decided to become pregnant and 58 per cent of them “never” or “seldom” returned to school after having a child.

About 49 per cent of all girls said that girls and boys “never” or “seldom” shared household chores and that these took more study time from girls. Fifty-two per cent of girls said that adolescent girls “never” or “seldom” said what they thought when a man or boy was around, and 40 per cent of girls claimed that girls “never” or “seldom” had the ability to decide over their own marriage.  

Twenty-eight per cent of girls claimed that girls “never” or “seldom” felt safe on their way to and from school, while adolescent boys claimed they “often” felt safer than girls when travelling to and from school. Thirty-eight per cent of girls claimed that adolescent girls “never” or “seldom” felt comfortable using latrines at schools, as these were seen as crime zones.

The adolescent boys interviewed said they were aware of the unfair treatment of girls at home, in the community and at school, and some of them wanted to support girls’ empowerment through addressing issues like early pregnancy and its effects on girls’ and often boys’ school dropout rates. They were also aware that girls faced safety issues such as harassment that also must be addressed.

Plan Egypt intends to use these results to ensure that its projects are addressing the real needs of the communities it is working in. Nashwa Habib, social gender councillor for Plan Egypt, commented that “a year-and-a-half ago we started a study that aimed at recording the opinion of girls concerning their problems, and the sample in Egypt was 167 teenage girls in the governorates of Qalyubiyya and Assiut. We decided to help the girls in the study and discovered that they are able to make a change in society. We talked about their homes, education and safety and with their parents and brothers. We found that some 87 per cent of these girls, especially in Qalyubiyya, said that they were allowed to decide when to marry but not who to marry. On the other hand, some mothers have decided not to have their daughters marry at an early age so that they were not subjected to what they were subjected to when they were at their age.”

The girls said there were many restrictions on expressing their opinions at home, especially in rural areas. “Half the girls we talked to said they did not feel safe outside their homes, especially in dark areas,” Habib added.

A peer educator for Plan Egypt added that “we have many issues in our society like the early marriage of girls after the third preparatory stage, if they are lucky enough to be educated at all. There is also the issue of deprivation and female genital mutilation.”

Samia Abdallah, programme co-coordinator at Plan Egypt’s Giza office, shed more light on the problems faced by girls in the area she works in. “We work in the Giza governorate and especially in the Abou Nomros district, where girls are married at the ages of 12 to 15. The main causes of early marriage is to preserve the land they inherit, in rich families, and in some cases, especially in poor families, to support the other members of the family. The community needs more solidarity to overcome this problem. In addition to this, there have been some cases of orfy [informal] marriage with the knowledge of the parents for the aforementioned reasons.”

Mohamed Abul-Fotuh, also of the organisation’s Giza office, said that the sotra of girls (an Arabic word meaning “covering” girls by marrying them off) could “occur in families who subject their daughters to early marriage as they believe that it is better to do this than to face future problems. These beliefs are inherited and are not easy to change. For this reason, we have done our best to explain to the families that early marriage can be harmful to girls in an effort to help change these traditions.”

For Habib, “what is more important than the statistics is that we discover the root of such problems. In the case of the TV serial recognised at the meeting, this shed light on the social inequalities that were the causes of the problems. It showed us the process of social stereotyping by society. So if we want change, we need to see the problems at the roots. It is a question of raising the awareness of society.”

“Women judge each other in an unfair way, and there have been instances in which women try to stereotype their daughters using a male perspective, something that is prevalent in Egyptian society,” Naoum added.

The author of a TV drama about women’s issues, Naoum also said that she had been happy to work with Plan Egypt to raise awareness of the issues facing Egyptian women.

“The script was based on a play by Fatheyya Al-Assal, though with many of the characters changed. I was interested in the subject of a women’s prison as this allows an exploration of the suffering the inmates face inside the prison as well as outside it when they are released. In many cases, they neither have a job nor a house to go to. I visited a real women’s prison and found that there were cases in which female inmates were rejected by society, especially by members of their own families. They were divorced by their husbands and disowned by their children. NGOs can be a safe haven for such women in terms of providing them with jobs and shelter,” she said.

“Different segments of society need to work together to confront such issues, and this can only be done if the media and television assist NGOs in a way that helps to solve the problems of society, rather than always looking for the next scoop,” added Habib.

According to UNESCO statistics for 2014, one in every five adolescent girls worldwide are out of school and between 500 and 1.5 billion children experience violence each year. Also according to UN statistics, the leading cause of mortality for girls aged 15 to 19 in developing countries is complications in pregnancy and childbirth. Some 16 million adolescent girls aged 15 to 19 years give birth in low-income countries; globally, one in three girls in developing countries will be married by their 18th birthday.

According to the 2012 UNDP World Development Report, women devote one to three hours a day to housework and spend between two and ten times more time than men caring for children, the elderly and the sick. According to WHO statistics in 2013, over a third of girls around the world are subjected to gender-based violence by an intimate partner.

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