What happens when you awaken someone’s understanding of their own rights and self-worth?
Valuable Girl Project coordinators know that awakening, because they’ve seen it on the faces — and heard it in the words — of young women in some of Egypt’s poorest, most tradition-bound villages.
In fact, these awakenings have been happening since 2002, when the project was founded. Then, as now, it was funded by a special pool of donors, separate from other Coptic Orphans programs. It operates from the principle that, in order to truly be the salt of the earth, Christians must be proactive about loving their neighbors, as Christ taught us.
Lara, a Valuable Girl in Luxor, describes her own awakening this way: “I’ve learned that girls and boys are equals, and that there’s no difference between us. I’ve also learned about my rights and duties.”
Awakenings like Lara’s come despite huge obstacles. As she says: “In my village, we have solid customs and traditions that girls shouldn’t finish their education, and we’re not even allowed to go out of the house. Most of the girls in my village can only make it till middle school, and then they’re forced to get married.”
“And then the only thing anyone cares about is that they give birth to boys!” adds Lara, who has now spent over a year as a Big Sister in the project’s mentoring program.
Even more exciting is when these awakenings lead to action, as they have in Lara’s case. Now 22 years old, she has made her point to the doubters.
“I’m older than all my brothers, and I’ve always felt that my father wished I’d been a boy in order to help him farm and be his backbone,” she says. “I was like any other girl — I just used to listen to how he felt about it without doing anything about it!”
After learning of her own equality and rights, Lara says she became more confident.
“I decided to go talk to my father and asked to help him on the farm. His jaw dropped — he didn’t know what to say, and I insisted that he give me a chance to prove myself.”
“I went with him and I drove the tractor, harvested the crops, mowed the field, and even fed the cattle. My father was amazed at what I could do; I’ve practically proved to him that girls are the equal of boys and even better!”
Not content with the horizons of the family farm, Lara has set her sights on higher education. Since finding her own confidence — and her father’s — she has moved on to study graphic design at a local college.
This is how the Valuable Girl Project sets about and succeeds in transforming girls and young women. Involving them in the Big-Little Sister mentoring is only the first step; beyond that are leadership training and coaching that instill even greater confidence and self-worth.
The results become evident in how the girls think of themselves and others.
For example, monitoring the attitudes of the Valuable Girls over time reveals that nearly every one experiences an increased sense of self-efficacy — the belief in their capacity to act and thereby achieve what they want to achieve. Overwhelmingly, they also report increased agreement with the concept that males and females should have equal access to social, economic, and political opportunities.
These changes in attitudes are crucial to transforming not just individual lives, but also communities and societies. As Lara says:
“I’ve proved to my neighbors and other community members that girls are not weak and useless; they’re human beings of equal value and have the same rights and duties.”
Lara and our Valuable Girls are claiming the same rights and opportunities as their fellow citizens. In doing so, they’ll make a better world for their daughters!
I was deeply honored to accept the Women’s Leadership Award from the ADC‘s Women’s Empowerment Forum. I was able to deliver the keynote speech (below) on March 16 at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, D.C. and receive the award along with a wonderful group of committed leaders. I’m grateful to God that Coptic Orphans has reached this point, and to every one of you, who have supported and made possible this exciting journey for the children!
One Body in Christ, Nermien
It is a great honor to accept this award from the ADC Women’s Empowerment Forum.
In truth, I stand here today on behalf of thousands of heroic women — and men — in Egypt and beyond, who have dedicated their lives to our shared vision of a tolerant, and just world.
I am grateful to our hosts, His Excellency, Ambassador Yasser Reda, and Mr. Ayman Youssef, for putting forth the incredible effort to make this annual event what it is: a powerful forum from which we can celebrate our community’s achievements, heritage, and progress. A special thanks to Ambassador Reda for facilitating Coptic Orphans’ International Registration Renewal. We were just notified of it yesterday, so thank you.
I want to thank the WEF for honoring and highlighting the work of these amazing women here: Dr. Soad Bin Amer, The Hon. Dr. Mariann Azer, The Hon. Dalia Yousef, Ms. Laura Rozen — you make us all very proud.
For my part, let me accept this award with deep thanks to the ADC and Dr. Doaa Taha, chairwoman of the Forum, and pause to lift up the thousands of women, young and old, who, by God’s grace, are truly the reason I can take this stage tonight.
I am speaking of the women of Egypt, without whom Coptic Orphans, the organization I founded 27 years ago, would have quickly vanished into obscurity.
Those of you in the audience tonight, honored guests of the ADC, will recognize these women, because your own countries, your own communities, your own civil societies, also owe so much to these heroes:
First, the mothers. Coptic Orphans, as a unique Christian development organization, works to keep families together after the loss of a father. When tragedy strikes, it’s the mother who has to carry the tremendous burden on her shoulders. We support them in many ways, but they are the real heroes.
Second, community volunteers, who for us number over 450 and cover more than 700 towns and villages. A good half of them are women, and together with their male colleagues, they have moved Heaven and Earth by loving and mentoring the over 40,000 children we’ve reached in these 27 years. We owe the world to them, and in them, we see the spirit of volunteerism that transforms lives.
Third, girls and young women. The unsung heroes. Let’s stop for a moment and reflect on the obstacles that stand between these girls and young women, and the future they deserve. For one thing, they contend from birth with a patriarchal culture that is so deeply embedded that their very being female is considered flawed and inferior. The birth of a girl is at times occasion for mourning. Then there’s early marriage. One of our field staff went into a home in Maghagha to enroll a new family, and he found a 16-year-old girl, a toddler, and an infant. He asked the teenager: “Where’s Mama?” She replied, “I am Mama.”
He told me: “I was so taken aback — I didn’t know whether to deal with her as a child or as a widow.”
We can’t forget the brutal practice of FGM. Yes prevalence rates are decreasing, they are down to 91%, and all indications say that it will continue to decrease; but there are still places like Armant, a village not far from Luxor, where I was just last month, where the rate still stands at 100%.
All this translates into countless barriers, both visible and invisible, to a women’s attempt to better her life.
Nowhere is this more visible than in education. Entering into the school system, for girls in the Arab world, could fairly be compared to entering the arena for single combat. Or, more accurately, a combat of one against a legion of foes. We all know who gets called on in class, who is channeled into what area of studies, who is favored with scholarships and other opportunities. We all know who is blamed and held back, and who is shamed for “unwomanly” assertiveness simply for claiming her own rights. We all know, in short, that it is only through heroic determination, and extraordinary good fortune, that a girl can grow to be a well-educated woman and leader in the Arab world.
This, then, is the reason Coptic Orphans focuses on quality education: no single factor is more powerful in liberating women, and especially poor women, from the bonds into which they are born — than a solid education.
Can these obstacles be overcome? Can a difference be made? Yes, absolutely.
I’ll give you a sneak preview of how it’s already changing for the better, through the Valuable Girl Project.
So far, over 6,800 girls and young women have learned leadership and teamwork skills through the Valuable Girl Project, and we’re ramping up for 2016 to add 1,500 more girls. Not only has this resulted in remarkable improvement in academics, but it has changed the way the girl sees her self — as one who can improve the world around her.
Last year, the community development association that hosts the Valuable Girl Project in Sohag discovered that many students in the area couldn’t read or write, despite being enrolled in school. In response, they organized a special training program in literacy tutoring skills. The girls came together and volunteered to teach reading and writing to the village kids. Today, in the village of Hawawish, over 200 kids now know how to read and write because of these girls. You can just imagine how these girls felt about themselves.
So what’s the secret of the success? It’s quite simple.
It’s a new and unique approach to international development. Mothers, children, volunteers, staff, donors… what we are witnessing, in our age, is how an organization like Coptic Orphans — with feet planted firmly in both Egypt and abroad — in the diaspora — is making genuine, positive, lasting change in the motherland. This is known as a diaspora organization — one whose sole reason for existence is the homeland, and the homeland alone.
Diaspora organizations involve patriotic diasporians and bring together international and local expertise with funds that are raised abroad, all for the sake of tackling urgent issues in the homeland.
Such organizations offer the best of both words: local in-country knowledge, and international access.
So, a Diaspora organization is one part of the answer. The other is the passion and initiatives of every person in this room. You care, and you care deeply. The good book says “Seek justice. Defend the oppressed, plead the widow’s cause”. And this is what you do. Each and every one of you: Soad, Laura, Marianne, Dalia, Doaa… the ADC — you — plead the case of the oppressed — and this is powerful!
So I’m very grateful to stand here tonight, accepting this award for Coptic Orphans, and I’m humbled to be standing among giants. I am confident that we will make this a world of heroic and empowered women who will, in turn, lift up every man, women and child. Thank you.
I’m writing today with sadness, because Leila, one of the participants in the Valuable Girl Project, recently passed away. Like all of the Little Sisters in the project, Leila is someone we cherished. Her loss is felt deeply by staff, family, and her friends.
Yet, I also want to share the remarkable way the girls united after Leila’s passing, and how that also brought together their Christian and Muslim parents.
Leila (not her real name) was struck by heart problems while traveling out of Upper Egypt. By the time she could be treated, it was too late to save her life. In the wake of this tragedy, her fellow Little and Big Sisters were sad, but consoled each other. And, amazingly, they decided that they should be part of the public mourning.
“All of the girls wanted to be present at their sister’s funeral,” said Susan, coordinator of the project site.
I can’t tell you how unusual that is, not just in a town in Upper Egypt, but in all of the country. Cemeteries are, as a rule, just about as segregated as it gets. For the girls to unite around the memory of their friend, and persuade their parents to permit their show of collective grief and solidarity, was an extremely rare event.
Leila’s family was really overwhelmed by the girls’ decision to come together, and as a group including both Christians and Muslims. And, somehow, this brought the community together in a way that hadn’t happened before. It seemed to make them value the project even more, and increase their determination to sustain it.
“We really want to see this project continue,” Rana, the mother one of the Valuable Girl Project participants, told Susan. “Even if it means we have to keep it going without funding, somehow.”
Thanks to generous donors whose specially dedicated contributions provide all the support for the Valuable Girl Project, there’s no danger of the project shutting down. In fact, we’re just as committed to it as the parents, and we’re identifying participants and sites for 2016. We’re spreading the messages that girls and young women are a benefit to themselves and society when they have access to education, that Christians and Muslims can overcome the obstacles facing them. And we count on everyone who shares these values to stand with us.
This work makes a difference. We can see it in the way the girls came together when Leila passed away, surprising their community with their love and unity. We can see it in their parents’ desire to continue the project, no matter what stands in the way. Together, we’ll keep spreading tolerance and access to quality education for these valuable girls!