Category Archives: Issues: The Girl Child

Who’s Starting to Feel Empowered? These Young Egyptian Women

Young women involved with TAMKEEN perform a play tackling social issues, at the a meeting in Assiut on July 22, 2014.
Young women perform a play tackling social issues as part of their Tamkeen meeting in Assiut on July 22, 2014.

Dear Friends,
Today, I’m glad to share the thoughts of Magda Abdelmalak, who directs the Coptic Orphans office in Egypt. And I’m excited that we’ll be doing more work with these young women!
— Nermien Riad

Can you imagine an Egypt where young women feel safe enough to openly discuss social problems like sexual harassment?

I admit that this kind of thought experiment stretches many people’s brains rather painfully. But if you had been in Assiut on July 22, you’d have been relieved to find out that imagination isn’t always necessary, at least within the two-year-old Tamkeen project.

As part of the meeting held that day in Upper Egypt to mark the closing of the project’s first phase, a group of young women not only discussed sexual harassment — they performed a short interactive play about countering it.

Their play was woven into 90 minutes of songs, videos, and testimony presented by a much larger group of girls, all of whom had taken part in the project’s workshops and other activities. The combination of music, theater, and story-telling showed how they had become active in their communities and were seeking solutions to social problems.

The meeting played an important role in informing local media about the first phase of the USAID-funded Tamkeen project, which aims to build the capacity of community development associations that support over 3,000 girls and young women in Upper Egypt.

Tamkeen works to achieve its goal through cooperation with these associations, micro-grants, and capacity-building in these partners on the organizational level. The project also helps these partners share best practices and become more visible on the regional map of Egypt’s civil society.

The meeting celebrated Tamkeen’s work with 40 such associations in Assiut, Minya, and Sohag, whose representatives were honored guests. Coptic Orphans, the international development organization that runs Tamkeen, organized the event.

Tamkeen, whose name means “empowerment” in Arabic, involves 15- to 23-year-old women in activities carried out by the associations. These activities range from discussion seminars to youth parliaments. Many of the activities expose participants to the value of volunteerism.  One key objective is to nurture new and often unheard voices, especially in remote villages.

Since I direct the Coptic Orphans office in Egypt, I spoke at the event. I explained the role of our staff in capacity-building at the community development associations.

I told our honored guests that Coptic Orphans was honored to work with them through training programs that include project planning and formulation of proposals and ideas. I explained how the trainings also cover how to turn these ideas into the real-life experiences “on the ground” in places where Tamkeen works, to achieve the greatest benefit for the girls and their communities.

In the areas in which Tamkeen is operating, poverty is rampant, and young women are at a particular disadvantage. Given our commitment to overcoming these challenges, Coptic Orphans will continue to work through Tamkeen and our valued local partners, the associations, to ensure that these young women and their communities are equipped with the skills to tackle their challenges through the democratic process.

After the meeting, it was bittersweet to hear some of the girls comment that they wished the project’s first phase wasn’t over.

However, I’m pleased that the achievements of the first two years of work have led USAID to approve a grant to extend the project for another two years. I look forward to working with our partner associations, to whom Tamkeen owes its success in the communities of Upper Egypt.

Many thanks to Ahmed Hegab for contributing his excellent reporting skills to this post. In my next blog post on Tamkeen, I look forward to covering more of the information we talked about in the closing ceremony, including a preview of the project’s second phase. Stay tuned!

PS By the grace of God, we’re celebrating our 25th anniversary with the honored presence of His Holiness Pope Tawadros II! We’re also growing and hiring — please share our job postings with all the skilled, passionate professionals you know! 

Girls, Tolerance, Pyramids (And Other Wonders of the World)

Side-by-side, Big and Little Sister, building Pyramids in Matay.
Side-by-side, Big and Little Sister, building Pyramids in Matay.

I’m in a huge, sunlit room, and all around me, pairs of girls are busy with markers, scissors, and construction paper. There’s a buzz in the air as they assemble models of Egypt’s greatest engineering feat, the Pyramids.

Don’t worry – it’s not a sweatshop churning out junky souvenirs for the tourists who are slowly returning to Egypt. It’s Coptic Orphans’ Valuable Girl Project, and here at this site in Matay, a town near the city of Minya in Upper Egypt, these are Big Sisters and Little Sisters, some of them pairings of Christian and Muslim girls.  And the project they’re working on, besides teaching teamwork and artistic skills, is also reminding them of the huge dimensions of all Egyptians’ shared cultural heritage.

I’m astonished, this July morning, as we tour this building that houses the Office of Human Services of the Coptic Catholic Diocese, our partner in this Valuable Girl Project site. Besides the roomful of girls in their pairs, there’s another room zipping with the sound of looms, where young women are producing clothing as part of a community-based development project. In fact, our partner is so well-established that they even make classy shoes — a table of them are on display, for sale, as you walk upstairs.

I’m grateful to have such on-the-ball partners, who are so rooted in their communities. Coptic Orphans is working with seven such community development associations through Valuable Girl, with the goal of academic retention, education, and literacy tutorship of girls and young women in high-poverty areas of Egypt. The program uses one-on-one mentorship, through which young women in secondary school, “Big Sisters,” become role models for girls in primary school, “Little Sisters.”

Coming back to the sunny workspace where the girls are nearly finished with their trios of Pyramids, I’m struck by the tolerance that’s evident in the room. Young women in headscarves tackle their project next to young women who are clearly Christian in dress, and there’s no discord, only occasional giggling at the sight of the visitors from “outside.”

This is what the Valuable Girl Project offers, beyond building the leadership skills of young women in a society that’s often hostile to the idea. Creating a safe space for tolerance is a difficult thing in Egypt, given the distrust that flared into violence in recent years. But these girls and young women are defying that distrust and building towards a tolerant society — one friendship at a time. Multiply those friendships across seven sites and 420 participants, and you’ve got the seeds of change.

Now the girls are beginning to stand up and describe their Pyramids, one pair at a time. I’m excited that they’re focused on this enormous feat, this engineering marvel that their ancestors pulled off together. But I’m even more excited about the new foundation they’re laying — for an Egypt of tolerance, co-existence, and peace — where young women, Christian and Muslim, can work together.

We’re going to move into a new stage of the Valuable Girl Project, and I’m excited to share the details with you soon. Stay tuned!

PS By the grace of God, we’re celebrating our 25th anniversary with the honored presence of His Holiness Pope Tawadros II! We’re also growing and hiring — please share our job postings with all the skilled, passionate professionals you know!