Category Archives: Issues: The Girl Child

Stop Killing Little Girls! New Campaign Points to Need for Unity in Fight Against FGM

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Participants in Coptic Orphans’ Valuable Girl Project take part in 2007 march in Assiut in memory of FGM victim Bedor Ahmed.

A new campaign to stop female genital mutilation (FGM) in Egypt is adding urgency to our efforts to stop this lethal and barbaric practice.

The government is enlisting doctors and judges in a “National FGM Strategy” with the aim of reducing FGM by 10-15% over the next five years.

At a launch event in Cairo on June 14, officials also unveiled a media campaign to raise public awareness of the dangers of FGM, which still affects over 92% of Egyptian women ages 15-49 who have been married.

It’s a great beginning, and now non-governmental organizations have to step up and fill in where there are gaps.

Why is it crucial for civil society to partner with the government on FGM? I recently heard a story that shows how powerful and lasting the anti-FGM message can be when women hear it in their own community. Just this month, a staff member told me, an anti-FGM workshop that Coptic Orphans organized five years ago actually “saved” one of our children from undergoing this horrible, dangerous experience.

The mother of a little girl in our program took her to a doctor who advised carrying out FGM. The mother refused to listen to him, or her neighbors, simply because of what she heard 5 years ago in the workshop. And she’s just one of over 1,500 mothers and daughters who have been in these workshops and conferences that denounce FGM for the crime it is.

In fact, it’s not too strong to call FGM child abuse, and that’s one reason it’s not surprising that we can rely on the Church for support in this fight. Some of our best workshops have been led by abounas.

Imagine being a mother and hearing from a trusted leader of your own community that FGM is wrong. No wonder the mother I was told about chose to protect her daughter from pain and possibly even dying, as has happened to so many girls subjected to FGM.

When I look to the future, here’s what’s exciting. We have more than 400 Church-based volunteers — the “Reps” who are our backbone in Egypt — who keep up the fight against FGM by advising mothers about its dangers.

Furthermore, we know we’re not the only non-governmental organization that can reach mothers and young women with the anti-FGM message. So it’s exciting to think how civil society and the government could really partner in the next few years to stop FGM.

It’s not that an easy victory is coming. We face powerful opposition. Doctors and other medical “professionals” (to use that term loosely) carry out the vast majority of these mutilations. To make money, they keep these old traditions alive.

If only they cared as much about keeping little girls alive.

Regardless, their time is coming, and we’re proud to bring the fight to them. Let’s look at the new government campaign as one more opportunity to bury FGM.

What Do Moms Want? This Mother’s Day, It’s Valuable Daughters

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The Valuable Girl Project’s effects reach beyond the girls to their families.

“Can we do anything to make sure the Valuable Girl Project continues?” a group of mothers recently asked us.

The mothers, whose daughters take part in Big Sister-Little Sister mentoring at our site in Sohag, said they’d seen remarkable changes in their girls. They wanted to help keep those changes going.

For Egypt, which doesn’t have (to put it politely) the strongest traditions of women’s empowerment or civil society, this was something striking. The mothers’ offer to help also highlighted something that we don’t talk about much — the wider effects of the Valuable Girl Project.

Most of what we describe to supporters is the project’s core: Meeting young women’s needs for education and skills, nurturing their sense of self-worth, encouraging them to steer clear of harmful traditions such as FGM and early marriage, and offering them safe spaces to interact in an atmosphere of religious tolerance.

But the project’s effects radiate outwards beyond the girls, and no one feels the benefits more strongly than mothers.

For example, we regularly survey participants, who range in age from 7 to 22. Nearly all report that their lives have changed because of the project, citing a greater belief in their own sense of responsibility, discipline, punctuality, self-confidence, and study skills.

What mother doesn’t want her daughter to become more responsible, confident, self-disciplined, and studious? It’s traits like these that the mothers in Sohag said they were noticing in their daughters.

But as important as these personal traits and skills are, the project also has tangible benefits for each family’s bottom line.

For example, any mother who’s struggled with bureaucracy knows the value of having paperwork in order. In places like Egypt, a lack of this stamp or that document can create immovable roadblocks to basic rights and government services. And too often, poverty, discrimination, and other obstacles prevent “our” girls from obtaining a government identity card.

The Valuable Girl Project educates and advocates for young women as they navigate Egypt’s maze of red tape. By the end of their first year of participating in the project, nearly 30% more “Big Sisters” have government identity cards — the key to unlocking significant rights and services.

In other words, mothers of Valuable Girl Project participants can see their daughters grow in maturity, confidence, and skills, while making progress in securing their rights and resources.

That’s a combination of benefits that’s hard to come by in Egyptian society, and one we’re excited to provide through the Valuable Girl Project. And, with Mother’s Day fast approaching, it’s worth remembering that these valuable girls are also valuable daughters.

We salute the strong mothers of our participants, and we’re grateful for their offer to help the Valuable Girl Project keep building and succeeding!

We Talk About ‘Breaking the Cycle’ — These Girls Are Doing It

Valuable Girl Project participants share a laugh during a learning activity in Matay, Upper Egypt.
Valuable Girl Project participants share a laugh during a learning activity in Matay, Upper Egypt.

Paper crowns and graduation caps — bright orange and red, they decorate this airy, sunlit room overlooking the dusty streets of Upper Egypt. Hand-written on each, in black marker with silver flourishes, are the words “Valuable Girl!”

I’m back here in the town of Matay, at this site of the Valuable Girl Project. Here, Big Sisters and Little Sisters ages 7-22 learn together in a safe space. Both Christians and Muslims are paired in these Big-Little mentoring relationships, and at the moment, there’s mayhem as they get set to play a game.

A moment later, though, order is restored. The 20 or so young women and girls get themselves arrayed in a circle, and all eyes are fixed on one young woman, Maryam. She leads the group into a mathematics game, soaking up all their youthful energy in hopping, gesturing, and laughing.

Once the game winds down, Maryam joins me on a balcony to bring me up to speed on the site’s accomplishments and challenges. It’s private there, so she’s able to be frank about some of the more difficult things she’s encountered here in Matay.

As manager of this Valuable Girl Project site, she says, she deals with the hard cases. Not every girl who walks through the door is an angel. But Maryam still has to bring out the best in them.

One young woman comes to mind — Samia. “She used to hit,” says Maryam. Her father, a known criminal, was behind bars for what amounted to life. For her part, Samia seemed to be following in his footsteps, in a cycle of violence and poverty passed from generation to generation.

“She cursed a lot, stole, and was pretty violent,” Maryam says. “She didn’t have any friends.”

As Maryam tells it, she decided to tackle Samia’s problems — but without singling her out for shame. Instead, she did things like involve all of the girls in an activity on the importance of honesty. She gave Samia opportunities to practice not stealing. And she kept Samia close to role models, the kind of teens who would introduce her to healthy behaviors.

In short, a community of sorts was surrounding Samia, perhaps for the first time in her life. The young women of the Valuable Girl Project were opening her eyes to a way out of the cycle she was trapped in.

And these days? Samia’s not an overnight miracle, Maryam observes. There are still times when old habits creep back. But overall, she’s a happier girl, she’s stopped hitting, and she’s holding onto friends.

“The other day, she saw one of the girls return something that had been lost, and get praised for it,” says Maryam. “Not long after, she found 300 Egyptian pounds and brought it to me. I started to thank her, and do you know what she said? ‘Miss, this is my responsibility. I shouldn’t be rewarded for it.'”

It’s not a small thing to break — or even bend — the cycles of violence and poverty that afflict families, in Egypt or anywhere. But I was seeing just that in Matay. Consider Samia’s transformation through the multiplying effect of seven sites and 420 Valuable Girl Project participants, and you’re looking at many lives changed.

Lots of people talk about breaking the cycles of poverty and violence. As I stand there talking to Maryam, I think to myself, I’ve caught a group of young women who are doing it.

Here’s another post about these girls and their site: Girls, Tolerance, Pyramids, (And Other Wonders of the World).

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* Names and details in story are changed to protect the privacy of the young women in the Valuable Girl Project.