Educating Women: How Copts Led the Way, and Why It Matters

A Big Sister-Little Sister pair tackles a learning experience in the Valuable Girl Project.
A Big Sister-Little Sister pair tackles a learning experience in the Valuable Girl Project.

Did you know that a Coptic pope was responsible for the first modern-day steps to educate women in Egypt?

The first instance of modern female education in Egypt came about “not by the efforts of a secular ruler,” but through the vision of His Holiness Pope Kyrillos IV, as I was just reading in an interview with Sam Tadros.

That insight from Tadros, the author of Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity, gave me pause. Right there, it struck me, is the spiritual root of Coptic Orphans’ Valuable Girl Project.

What’s amazing is that Pope Kyrillos IV, as far back as the period 1854-1861, anticipated not only the need to teach women, but also the importance of making more educational resources available to Muslims. As Tadros notes, “He established five modern schools that offered free education, even to Muslims — indeed, to all Egyptians.”

It’s no coincidence that the Valuable Girl Project, in practice, follows the trails blazed by Pope Kyrillos IV. The project focuses on bettering young women’s education, while being inclusive of both Christians and Muslims.

If you’re not familiar with it, in a nutshell, the Valuable Girl Project aims to promote the academic retention, education, and literacy tutorship of girls and young women in high-poverty areas of Egypt. Local coordinators based in our partner organizations oversee one-to-one mentorship programs through which young women in secondary school, the “Big Sisters,” become role models for girls in primary school, the “Little Sisters.”

The net effect is to support young women in their efforts to stay in school and gain dignity at home, in the classroom, and in the community. We’ve been running this project for 12 years now, and it reached a peak of 15 sites around Egypt. At total of 3,976 girls and young women have participated in the Valuable Girl Project — and we’re only getting started.

Why does all this matter?

Well, if you love the idea of a more prosperous Egypt, and you love unlocking the God-given potential of young women, then pairing education with girls is a match made in heaven.

Here’s where my love for data comes in. The World Bank report Measuring the Economic Gain of Investing in Girls: The Girl Effect Dividend cites research showing that educating girls “boosts long-run growth by 0.58 percentage points per year.” Moreover, a World Bank study in 1999 demonstrated that “increasing the secondary education of girls by 1% results in annual income increase of 0.3% per capita.”

When you look at percentages this small, they seem insignificant. But because they apply to the economic activity of the gargantuan that is Egypt, they end up meaning enormous progress.

These are the huge gains that Egypt can reap if we educate women, and I’m excited that we can achieve a more prosperous, developed motherland by following the vision of a Coptic pope.

About Nermien Riad

Nermien Riad founded Coptic Orphans in 1988 after volunteering for an orphanage in Cairo. When she saw that most of the children had living widowed mothers who simply couldn’t afford to feed them, she gathered family and friends to sponsor children in Egypt. Today Coptic Orphans works through a network of 400+ church-based volunteers in Egypt, who visit fatherless families in their homes and make sure they get everything they need to unlock their full potential. That way, they don’t have to get married off as child brides, work as 10-year old family breadwinners, or go to live at an institutional orphanage.