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.
People get a lot of ideas about Coptic Orphans, some of them reasonable, some of them nutty. Here are the four most common things I hear about Coptic Orphans that make me want to explain, or point to things in our annual report, or tear out my hair.
1. Coptic Orphans runs orphanages.
There’s a microscopic grain of truth to this myth, but you’d have to go back decades to find it. The grain is that I founded Coptic Orphans to support 45 girls in a Cairo orphanage. But that was back in the 1980s, and it didn’t take me long to discover that orphanages aren’t the best solution.
Today, what Coptic Orphans actually does is make sure that a child who’s lost a parent can stay with a family member. In Coptic Orphans, that usually means staying with their mother. That’s the situation we’ve managed to sustain for most of the nearly 10,000 kids we currently serve.
Lately, I’ve been relieved to read the latest research on what’s really beneficial to children. The studies confirm what I could feel in my gut. Everyone from Save the Children to Lumos now agrees that putting kids in institutions, except in extreme cases, is actually harmful. In fact, we’ve seen horrible examples that confirm the damage that institutionalization can do to a child, including a high-profile case in Egypt.
So there are no Coptic Orphans orphanages, for one simple reason: Keeping a child with his or her family is, as a rule, far more healthy than placing them in an institution.
2. Coptic Orphans only benefits Copts.
It’s true that all the children in our flagship program, Not Alone, are Copts. We’re constrained by a lot of factors in who we can enroll in Not Alone, not least by the need to be sure we’re never perceived as proselytizing. Egyptian law strictly forbids that, and believe me, we don’t want to tangle with that law.
Since each child in Not Alone is visited at home by a Church-based volunteer “Rep,” we clearly have a limited pool of children we can serve without risking misplaced accusations that get us in trouble. On that basis alone, we’ve never considered expanding Not Alone to non-Copts.
But there are important ways in which Not Alone benefits not only Copts, but also the wider Egyptian society. It’s hard to contain the positive effects of a program like Not Alone, because the kids we serve grow up to be more productive citizens. No society can function without well-educated, civic-minded adults, and it’s exactly those people that Not Alone aims to nurture and support.
Just as importantly, we also directly serve both Christian and Muslim girls and young women ages 7-22 through our Valuable Girl Project. While the project serves many Not Alone kids, it functions independently and is funded by a different pool of donors. It’s been running for over 12 years, focusing on academic retention, education, and literacy, and it peaked at 15 sites around Egypt. Through it, young women in secondary school, the “Big Sisters,” mentor girls in primary school, the “Little Sisters.” Local coordinators based in partner organizations oversee these mentorship programs.
The project offers a bridge to understanding between Christian and Muslim community members whose paths might otherwise never cross. In this way, we do more than simply stand with disadvantaged girls as they work to break the cycle of poverty. We also increase the overall level of Christian-Muslim understanding and mutual respect in Egyptian society.
So it’s a myth that our work benefits only Copts. In both direct and indirect ways, we serve the wider Egyptian community — and we’re proud of it.
3. Coptic Orphans is a charity.
It’s easy to mistake Coptic Orphans for a charity. After all, like a charity, people give money for a good cause and expect results. What makes Coptic Orphans different, however, is the results we expect and deliver. These results come from taking a “transformational,” rather than a “charity,” approach.
The “charity” approach relates to people as victims who depend on handouts. The “transformational” approach is proactive and defines people as equal partners in transforming their lives and developing their communities. We who are blessed to walk with them on this journey are also transformed, as part of One Body in Christ. When we talk about Coptic Orphans as a “development” organization, it’s largely in terms of this transformation.
What makes our approach “transformational” is acknowledging that God is at the center. All true change comes from the Holy Spirit, and flows from and points to the Kingdom of God.
I’ve seen the transformational approach make huge changes in people’s lives. One example is our B’edaya initiative, which provides the widowed mothers of our Not Alone children with loans and skills to start businesses.
In B’edaya, income generation for the widow’s family is important, but it’s just the beginning. The big picture — and what’s transformational — is each widow’s change from passivity and hopelessness to feeling fulfilled, valuable to herself and others, and in control of her own destiny. This contrasts with the charity approach, which would involve simply giving the widows money or material goods.
So with Coptic Orphans, there are no hand-outs. We work so that people’s lives are transformed, by God’s grace, and they can stand on their own two feet.
4. Coptic Orphans has insane overhead costs.
This is both a good laugh and my least favorite myth.
Here’s a related story: Once, I heard that a particular individual was telling people that Coptic Orphans spends some ridiculous sum on things that don’t directly benefit the kids, like administrative costs, fundraising, and so on. I got so ticked off, I went to his house and knocked on his door to tell him what I’m about to tell you (but here, I’m going to sound a great deal calmer).
The truth is, in 2014, the last year for which we were audited (and we’re independently audited every year) 90% of what we spent went directly to program expenses for the children. Only 7% went for fundraising, and only 3% for management and general expenses.
For the nonprofit field, this is excellent. Research on nonprofit overhead finds that 20% is considered the norm. And as for ordinary people’s perceptions of what’s normal — “the average American believes that a charity should spend no more than 23 percent on overhead.”
In other words, Coptic Orphans spends far, far less on overhead than what is considered normal by the experts, or by the average person. That’s a key reason why Charity Navigator, North America’s largest independent evaluator of nonprofit financial effectiveness and accountability, has given us their highest 4-star rating for two years in a row.
I’m proud of that. We accomplish this low overhead by all kinds of cost-saving measures. The main one is that there are no luxuries associated with working at Coptic Orphans. People who work here believe passionately in spending everything on the kids, so they go through all kinds of contortions to save money. So, for example, when we travel to make a presentation at a church or partner organization, if there’s any way possible, we stay at the home of a supporter rather than at a hotel. Over time, these savings add up to a large sum of money that goes for the kids.
So that’s the myth about our overhead. The bottom line is, don’t apply for a job here expecting to ride around in a limo, fly around in the company blimp, or stay at the Cairo Sheraton. The biggest perk anyone gets from working at Coptic Orphans is an occasional bowl of my shorbet el ads.
Those are the four biggest myths about what Coptic Orphans does. Thanks for reading.
“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!