Category Archives: Valuable Girl Project

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.

‘Stop Killing Egyptian Girls!’ Said the Court. After This Victory, What’s Next?

Bedor Ahmed: One of too many victims of FGM.
Bedor Ahmed: One of too many victims of FGM.

I awoke yesterday to good news: In Egypt, a doctor was sentenced to prison for carrying out female genital mutilation (FGM) that resulted in a girl’s death. It was a historic moment when the court said, essentially: “Stop killing Egyptian girls! Enough is enough — you’re going to pay the price for causing her death by this barbaric ritual.”

We should all rejoice in this victory for justice. But the joy is weighed down with sadness, and is tied to a determination to fight on, because this victory came too late for so many girls. Let me tell you about one victim of FGM whose life touched Coptic Orphans.

Bedor Ahmed was just a girl when she died — probably too young to even know what was going on. FGM killed her. How she must have felt as she died, I can’t even imagine. Betrayed? Terrified?  Heartbroken?

After Bedor died in 2007, 20 girls from Coptic Orphans’ Valuable Girl Project marched in her memory in Assiut.  With others from the community, including local officials and members of other nonprofits, they marched past the governorate office carrying banners denouncing FGM. At the head of the march was a car with a coffin decorated with flowers and Bedor’s photo.

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Valuable Girl Project participants march in Bedor’s memory, and for their future.

It’s important to march, it’s important to remember the dead. But it’s also important to educate the living. That’s why the march for Bedor was part of a wider campaign by Coptic Orphans to teach mothers, daughters, and community leaders — indeed, all people — about the dangers of FGM.

This kind of campaigning is critically important, because although Egypt banned FGM in 2008, it’s still everywhere.  Government data show that over 90% of Egyptian women under 50 years old have suffered it.

Here’s what we’ve done, by God’s grace and with your support, to combat this evil. To date, over 1,500 mothers and daughters have taken part in workshops and conferences that lay out the dangers of FGM. Both the Valuable Girl Project and the Not Alone program have been key to holding those events. More than that, over 400 church-based volunteers — the “Reps” who are our backbone in Egypt — keep up a constant fight against FGM.

That fight takes many forms. Sometimes it involves spreading the word among community leaders that FGM is disastrous for children’s health. Sometimes it’s as simple — and difficult — as persuading a single mother to refrain from having FGM carried out on her daughter.

We do know that we see results from this work. For the workshops, we’ve brought in clergy and experts whose precise knowledge demolishes the myths of FGM.  In those events, at times, we’ve had dozens of mothers announce that they’ve decided against having FGM performed on their daughters.

At other times, achieving results takes a combination of workshops and hard work by the Reps. One story in Sohag comes to mind: Two little girls in grades 6 and 5 took part in a Coptic Orphans workshop, and afterwards resisted undergoing FGM. They asked their Rep to talk to their mother. He did so, inviting her to attend a seminar on the topic. Following the seminar, the mother declared that she now understood that FGM was wrong, and expressed regret that she had insisted on having it done to three of her other daughters.

Of course, a critical element in all this is the participation of the mothers and girls themselves. It’s powerful when nonprofits and government officials speak up. But that power is multiplied by thousands when Egyptian women and their brothers in Christ take to the streets to proclaim that FGM must be stopped. The deciding factor in eliminating FGM will be when ordinary people echo the court’s decision, saying “Enough is enough!”

And indeed, the “Enough is enough!” sentiment is beginning  to take root. In some areas, the knowledge of FGM’s dangers is seeping into the consciousness of entire communities. As a former Rep, Abouna Botrous, told us last summer: “With the help of Coptic Orphans, I was able to completely overcome some of the harmful village habits, such as female genital mutilation.”

Of course, we are not alone in this. There is a powerful movement among people from all walks of life to eliminate this deadly practice, and members of the Church are playing a key role. As one abouna from Sohag told us, “We’ve managed to eliminate FGM, to a large degree, through the Church’s efforts.”

So we’re making progress. This week’s landmark court decision is a good sign. If Bedor were able to know of the movement that’s building to stop FGM, perhaps she would take comfort. In the meantime, we will keep fighting, because we owe it to her memory. Most of all, we owe it to the girls who we can still save from dying by FGM.

If you would like to learn more about what you can do to stop FGM, please write to us at info@copticorphans.org

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.