Category Archives: Valuable Girl Project

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!

Puppet Smackdowns, Pairs & Plays: Young Women Learn & Teach Tolerance in Egypt

 

Valuable Girl Project participants laugh at puppet mayhem (with a positive message).
Valuable Girl Project participants laugh at puppet mayhem (with a positive message).

I’m in Mattay today, watching a puppet show with a crowd of girls. They’re Big and Little Sisters in our Valuable Girl Project, and they’re doing normal girl things: A couple are giggling, and one is filming the puppets with her smart phone.

What makes this crowd stand out, here in Upper Egypt, is the mix of headscarves and uncovered hair. In fact, when I arrived here, many of these girls were bent close to each other in Big-Little Sister pairs, hijab and hairstyles together, talking at tables draped in bright blue. I could hear soft dialogues: one asking, the other answering. Often, they smiled at each other.

That’s the essence of the Valuable Girl Project, if you’re not already familiar with it. At five sites like this one, in Minya, Sohag, Quos, and Armant, 142 Little Sisters and 142 Big Sisters meet twice a week for mentoring in schoolwork and life skills. Many pairs are Christian-Muslim. Site coordinators teach them the value of teamwork, creativity, planning, and accepting others.

Tolerance is a concept that’s conveyed in many ways — including the puppet theater I’m watching:

Recording tolerance-promotion puppets for future viewing.
Recording tolerance-promotion puppets for future viewing.

Pow! A little puppet with a scruffy crew cut is getting stomped by a bigger guy-puppet. When the little one finally escapes, he runs into a girl-puppet who he used to harass for being different. Seeing her former tormentor all banged up, she tells him: “Look, being disrespectful to others can cause as much pain as a broken arm, and all human beings deserve to be treated with respect.” For once, the beat-up puppet doesn’t interrupt or harass her; he just listens.

It’s a happy ending to this puppet smackdown. But the puppets don’t clobber the audience over the head with their message. The idea conveyed — tolerance — is crystal clear.

The puppets are great, but it was another “stage production” I saw during this trip that really blew me away. At the site in Quos, a group of Big Sisters got together and decided to write a play about their lives “before and after” they joined the Valuable Girl Project.

Their play went as follows: Before joining the project, one character sleeps all the time, another can’t stop eating, and a third fritters away her time gossiping and fooling around. The lone girl who wants to study for an exam is led astray by the others, who advise her to bribe the teacher with a sandwich (or cheat, because, hey, “everybody does it.”) Neglected at home and at school, even the “good girl” ends up a delinquent.

Then the girls hear about the Valuable Girl Project. At first, they’re hesitant to take part in anything that involves mixing Christians and Muslims. In fact, they only decide to give it a try when they hear there will be free snacks. (OK, that’s not the ideal reason, but whatever works.)

150129_Talking at the tableOnce they’re in the Valuable Girl Project, the girls find what was missing in their lives: a community to belong to, and a positive role model and mentor they can learn from. New friendships bring out the best in each of them. They became responsible, understanding, and find happiness in their ability to help “the other.”

Can you see the tolerance theme running through, from the puppets to the play? I could. I wish you’d been with me, to see how these girls are beginning to be on the same page on this issue.

It’s not an easy process, starting dialogues about tolerance in Upper Egypt. It takes careful planning, dedicated and heroic site coordinators, and patience and goodwill among the girls themselves. And puppets and snacks. Whatever it takes, we’re getting there.

I have a lot more to tell you about this trip, but it will have to wait for next time. Until then, thank you for your faith that we can make change even in the most difficult situations.

Would you like to learn more about the Valuable Girl Project? I wrote “Girls, Tolerance, Pyramids (And Other Wonders of the World)” during my last trip to Egypt.