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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Because I am a Girl

October 11, 2011
The Egyptian Gazette
Nayrouz Talaat

   “I am the secretary of the school parliament. I want to be a paediatrician. I want to other girls around the world to benefit from my experience and knowledge,” says Asalaa, 12, from Alexandria.
   Asala is a model girl in a report released by the Plan International, a children’s rights organisation, on the status of girls in Egypt, among other African and poor countries worldwide, where girls share the same problems and circumstances.
   She has benefited from training programmes that girls in rural areas rarely benefit from.
   Adolescent girls the world over live in many different circumstances and face many different challenges. No two girls are the same, but, wherever they are and however they live, they have the same rights.
   The attitude of boys towards girls in Egypt still leaves a lot to be desired.
   “To be honest, before I started attending these meetings I thought girls were useless and couldn’t do anything. Now I realise this is not true and they can do as much as boys. In fact, I talked to them about this. At first they were surprised, but then they agreed with me,” says Farouq, a boy aged 12, following the same programme.
   Some families still insist that a girl must stay at home with her husband and at the beginning there was much resistance to girls joining the programme.
   The resistance is now evaporating, because parents are seeing the difference in their daughters, according to ‘Because I am a Girl’, an annual report published by Plan International, assessing the state of the world’s girls.
   This is the fourth report in the ‘Because I am a Girl’ series, which has come across discrimination and neglect, as well as resilience and determination.
   Whether we look at girls in war zones, girls in the global economy or girls in cities and in technology, we find the same combination of girls getting a raw deal and girls coping with all that life can throw at them.
   There are some who are overcome by the hardships they endure, who do not survive or thrive; yet many succeed against all the odds.
   The report has made specific recommendations to improve the opportunities for girls in the two areas that it has focused on; but, more generally, we can all contribute.
   We need to listen to adolescent girls’ views and ensure that their voices are heard by decision-makers. We need to learn from what they have to say.
   We need to include them in research, in planning and in policies. We need to invest in girls’ skills and ensure that they have access to information, the skills to use it and the power to protect themselves.

Changes our world is experiencing 

   In one of its chapters, the report looks at the needs of adolescent girls, as cities keep growing in size.
It looks at the reasons why young women move to the city and what urban life has to offer them �" the many opportunities that are not available or possible in a village.
   Rawda, who migrated to Alexandria, says: "In Upper Egypt, there are not the same opportunities for girls and women. There are cultural activities we can join in, such as literacy classes and discussions about harmful practices such as female genital mutilation [FGM]."
   The report also reveals that violence is a growing threat for adolescent girls in cities because of their age and sex. It argues that they must be helped to develop the skills to protect themselves, and taught how to distinguish opportunity from danger.
   It showcases models of good practice; for example, urban planning that takes young women’s views into account and initiatives aimed at building safer cities for girls and women. The report also looks at the differences for girls living in rich and poor areas.
   Finally, it calls for investment, not just in young people in cities as a generic group, but in adolescent girls specifically.
   “We must listen to what they have to say. They have a crucial part to play in building the safe and sustainable cities that we will need for the 21st century.
   “While women and children are recognised as specific categories in policy and planning, girls’ particular needs and rights are often ignored.
   “These reports provide concrete evidence, including the voices of the girls themselves, as to why they need to be treated differently from boys and older women,” Rawda adds.
   UNESCO and UN-Habitat state that one’s ‘right to the city’ can serve as a vehicle for social inclusion.
   The ‘right to the city’ includes the following: liberty, freedom and the benefit of city life for all, such as transparency, equity and efficiency in city administrations, in addition to participation and respect in local democratic decision-making and recognition of diversity in economic, social and cultural life.
   These principles are particularly important for women and girls, whose ability to access the city is more limited.
   Urban environments, governance structures, services and spaces must be rethought and designed or adapted with the particular needs and experiences of girls in mind.
   Adolescent girls must be actively involved in all stages of this rethinking process to ensure that their voices are included and reflected in how cities are organised.
   “This year, as the UN General Assembly reviews progress on these goals, we will be measuring the progress of our cohort group and their families against several of the MDG targets which are under review.
   “Does the state of these young girls’ lives indicate that the international community will achieve its aims or not?
   “In 2008, we looked at the situation of girls affected by conflict; those growing up in the shadow of war. The 2009 report focused on economic empowerment: ‘Girls in the Global Economy: Adding it all Up’.
   “This year, we are looking at adolescent girls in two of the most dynamic areas in the world today �" cities and new technologies �" and examining the opportunities,” stresses Rawda.

Resisting harmful challenges

   The incidence of FGM or cutting in Egypt is lower in the city than in rural areas, and is slowly falling. But mothers find it hard to resist pressure from older relatives who bring village traditions with them when they move to the town.
   “I have come here on condition that it is a secret. I don’t want anyone to know my name. If you can promise me no-one will find out, then I will tell you my story. We live in a slum area in southern Cairo,” says Samar (not her real name), who talks nervously about this sensitive issue.
   Even though the Egyptian Government has banned FGM, 85 per cent of girls and women in cities and 96 per cent in rural areas are still being cut in this way.
   “I was nine years old and I had no idea what was going to happen until I saw the razor. My mother and two other women held me down while the barber did his work. He was very rough. The pain was terrible, and the bleeding.
   “I got an infection from the dust they put on the wound, which is supposed to stop such infections but in fact makes them worse. Afterwards I had urine problems, but I never connected them to the cutting until much later,” adds Samar.

Keeping in touch

   Many young women feel isolated because their parents do not allow them to socialise, according to the report.
   But now a number of mobile phone projects enable young women to keep in touch with the outside world after they get married, when normally they are often confined to the marital home.
   A young woman like Roza Al-Yazji, who lives in Syria and has a speech disorder and learning disabilities, has learned with the help of the Salamieh Telecentre to design brochures, make presentations and access the Internet to chat with her friends.
   “I am no longer imprisoned behind the bars of my isolation. Salamieh Telecentre is my second home, it has become a part of my life. I am disabled, but I am not disqualified,” she says.

The impact of IT on girls’ lives 

   Research by the Cherie Blair Foundation shows that there are similar disparities among women and men, when it comes to mobile phone ownership �" women are 37 per cent less likely than men to own a mobile phone if they live in South Asia, 24 per cent in the Middle East and 23 per cent in Africa.
   The Foundation, which has done research in low and middle-income countries, outlines five factors that influence women’s mobile phone ownership �" household income, age, occupation, level of education and whether they live in a rural or an urban area.
   An additional $100 in monthly income increases the likelihood of mobile phone ownership by 13 per cent, while 80 per cent of women in rich households own a phone, compared to 40 per cent in poor households.
   When age, income, occupation and education are taken into account, urban women are 23 per cent more likely to own a mobile phone than their rural counterparts.
   So what about adolescent girls? We know that they are more likely to be using these technologies than their mothers and grandmothers.
   In the Cherie Blair Foundation survey, girls and young women between 14 and 27 had the highest rates of mobile phone ownership among women and, if they didn’t own a phone, were prepared to borrow one from someone.
   Plan’s adviser in Egypt Azza Shalaby quoted Rana, a teenage schoolgirl, as saying that her brother is better at computers than she is, but that she is learning fast, even in the poor area of Alexandria where she lives.
   According to Azza, Internet penetration in Egypt rose from 7 to 14 per cent between 2006 and 2008, by which time 40 per cent of the population had a mobile phone.
   Rana, 16, says that she uses the Internet to share experiences and has even used it to create a magazine with other young people, not just in Alexandria, but also worldwide.

To read the full article on the Eygptian Gazette website, click here