Aug 15, 2019

Making Cairo Safer: Small Gestures Add Up

Around 20 million people currently live in Greater Cairo. And of these, about 60 percent live in what are best described as informal and very densely populated urban areas. Life in neighborhoods like Ezbet Khairallah, which we visited on a recent trip to Egypt, can be harsh, especially for children. Policing is light, public areas are not well lit, and safe spaces for children to play outside are rarely available. These factors, coupled with a large transient population, facilitate criminal behavior in these neighborhoods and create an unsafe environment, particularly for girls. Among the main concerns of both parents and girls in these neighborhoods is sexual harassment and assault.

In 2014, the Government of Egypt took the important step of issuing a decree making sexual harassment a crime. Until that time, Egyptian law did not have a definition for sexual harassment. Under the new laws, harassers face six months to five years in prison. 

The decree was welcomed by advocates in a country where a 2013 United Nations study showed nine out of 10 women experienced some form of sexual assault, ranging from minor harassment to rape. Sexual harassment is not unique to Egypt. According to a survey of global experts in 22 cities sponsored by Plan international, sexual harassment and assault is the number one safety risk facing girls and young women across the world.

In light of both the opportunity that the 2014 law created and the reality under which many girls in these informal neighborhoods were living, Plan International USA collaborated with Plan International Egypt to fund a program called Safer Cities for Girls. The program has been underway since 2014 and includes several components that are centered around supporting girls in the community to become agents of change, as they seek to transform their neighborhoods into safer places for all children.  

The Safer Cities for Girls project is a collaboration between Plan, UN-HABITAT, and Women in Cities International, created with the overarching goal of building safe, accountable, and inclusive cities with and for adolescent girls. In addition to programming in Cairo, Plan supports Safer Cities programming in Hanoi, Kampala, Delhi, Nairobi, Lima, Solomon Islands, Australia, and the United Kingdom. 

We met with Soad at Ezbet Khairallah. An eighth grader with a 300-watt smile who spoke animatedly through an interpreter, she had enough energy to power a small city. She told us how she became interested in a program that sought to provide girls in the community with information about their rights under the law and with advocacy and facilitation skills so they would feel capable of not just identifying community needs but addressing these needs with local authorities. That program? Safer Cities.

Safer Cities has launched a number of initiatives to make the neighborhood safer, all developed and led by the community in collaboration with the Community Development Association (CDA). Girls like Soad have helped mobilize the community to pick up garbage (heavily littered neighborhoods provide places to hide for those who wish to do harm) and advocate for infrastructure needs like a safe space for girls and boys to meet and play.  

Several of the Safer Cities initiatives include having boys and girls work and play together—not a commonplace occurrence in many conservative communities where work and play is often segregated by gender. Integrating boys and girls into common programs, while challenging social and cultural norms, is known to have important and positive influence in shaping how boys view and value girls and how girls learn to interact with boys. A few months ago, with the support of Plan, girls and boys in the community worked on soccer skills together and played a co-ed game, a major accomplishment because soccer, or football as it is known here, is seen as a “man’s sport.” 

One of the more interesting efforts to transform Ezbet Khairallah has been focused on the tuk-tuk drivers. Tuk-tuks are three-wheeled vehicles popular in communities like Ezbet Khairallah. Their shape makes it possible for the driver to take his (all tuk-tuk drivers are male) passengers through the narrow alleyways that characterize this community. But these men can also be the source of violence and aggression, and girls are often the most vulnerable to this behavior. With Plan’s support, the CDA and youth engaged this group of men through games and theater. The men even collaborated on a play about their dreams and hopes that the community attended. Treating the tuk-tuk drivers as a part of the community helped to create trust and began to change what had typically been a threatening and dysfunctional relationship. One theater event does not transform an entire cultural dynamic that all too often denigrates the values of women, but it is a start.

Soad sees the change with the tuk-tuk drivers and believes more change is possible. She does not feel powerless, for her possibilities are vast. When we asked Soad what she wants to be, she said she is still weighing options: actress, advocate, or politician. She is no longer a victim, but a girl who wants to see a better world and is working to make it a reality. Plan is engaging more than 700 youth in Ezbet Khairallah and nearby communities. They, in turn, are expected to engage with parents, teachers, peers, community leaders, and local authorities. The Safer Cities program aims to directly and indirectly touch more than 20,000 lives and help transform the prospects of the inhabitants of Cairo’s informal neighborhoods. 

Given the millions that live in communities like Ezbet Khairallah, you might say it’s a drop in the bucket. 

But it’s a start. 

May 14, 2019


Like many girls in Ethiopia, 11-year-old Anisa is responsible for the household chores in her family, including fetching water. But the burden of carrying such a heavy weight for long distances prevents her from going to school.

“I was not happy when my mother asked me to collect water from the river because it is too far and when I went to fetch it, which was pretty much every day, I had to miss my classes.”

As the eldest daughter in her family, the responsibility of collecting water falls to Anisa. Like many other girls in her village, she spent an average of four hours each day journeying on foot to fetch water from the river.

Anisa lives in a remote part of Oromia Region, which is frequently blighted by lack of water due to the changing climate and low levels of rainfall throughout the year. Families are also forced to share their water source with animals, leaving them at risk of diarrhea and other water-borne diseases.

Ethiopia relies on the main rainy season for 80 percent of its agricultural produce. But in 2015, the rains failed with devastating effect. Harvests were ruined, water sources ran dry, and millions of children were left dependent on food aid for survival.

“We didn’t even think about our sanitation,” Anisa said. “The situation was so serious that it just didn’t allow us to think about anything but surviving.”

Sadly, there was a water reservoir nearby that should have prevented the community from suffering such extreme water shortages. However technical failures meant it had stopped functioning.

But since the 2015 drought, things have been getting better. Plan International, in collaboration with the regional government, has repaired the water supply and upgraded the system by providing pumps, a generator, equipment, and technical support.

Now, Anisa no longer has to travel for hours each day in search of water and doesn’t miss her school classes.

“My wish is for water to be available forever as it is now,” she said. "Nothing stops me from going to school but the search for water. Now I also have time to play after school as a child should do.”

Feb 13, 2019

From Seeds, An Education Grows

Mary, a 15 year old girl in South Sudan
Mary, a 15 year old girl in South Sudan

Fifteen-year-old Mary took part in her very first school lesson last year.

Since its independence, South Sudan has suffered from civil war and famine, and a large proportion of children do not go to school in the country. Around 1.8 million school-aged children are currently not attending classes. Most of them are girls.

But things are slowly starting to change, and Mary’s newfound pursuit of an education serves as evidence.

“I live with my mother and father and have three brothers and four sisters,” she said. “Some are older, and some are younger. My cousin was killed in the fighting—he was just a boy—he was shot while trying to flee. I had a twin brother, but he died just after we were born.

“I started school when I was 14 years old. I didn’t go to school before that because there was fighting and it wasn’t possible. There was fighting all around—I remember it very well and it used to really worry me. I used to get scared that something would happen. I was young and I don’t like guns.”

Although soldiers confiscated many of Mary’s possessions, she made sure they didn’t take her school bag.

“When soldiers came to our house, they took some of our things,” she said. “I was given a school bag by Plan International and this was taken by the soldiers, but I chased after them and got it back. I told them it wasn’t their bag—it was mine—so they gave it back. This was last year.

“My mother didn’t go to school but I wanted to go to school because I think it’s important. My father was given seeds and tools by Plan International last year, when the drought was very bad. After this, I was able to start school.

“Life was very bad before my father started farming, we didn’t have much to eat. Before we got help, we were only eating things we could find in the forest. We sometimes didn’t eat and when we did, we only ate once a day. We were eating wild fruits and vegetables. Mango from the trees—things like this, tamarind and other fruits.”

The seeds provided by Plan made an enormous impact on Mary’s life, and on the life of her family.

“But now things are better, and we eat twice a day—morning and evening. In the morning we will eat porridge and in the evening porridge again. This is my favorite food and what we eat the most. I also like rice. Sometimes we eat meat, but we cannot afford it often. If we could I would eat it more. Since my father started farming, we have been able to eat every day. When we had no food, we felt hungry and grew thin.

“At school, my favorite subject is social studies because it is easy to understand. I find science difficult. I want to get married and become a doctor because I want to help people and cure their sickness.

“My biggest challenge is hunger. Before, when we couldn’t afford food, this was hard. I don’t worry about this happening again, if my father is working in the garden, then there is no worry. My biggest worry is being hungry.

“My family has more financial security now so there is no danger of me being married early. I want to finish school first before I get married. I would like my children to have a good life, and have a job.

“One of my friends is married. She is 17 years old and has never been to school. She has three children now. She should have gone to school. School is important because if you go to school you will be able to have a successful life.”

Plan is supporting families in South Sudan by distributing seeds and tools so households can grow their own crops and are able to generate an income, allowing them to send their children to school. Plan also works with communities in the Lakes region of South Sudan to improve nutrition, promote good hygiene, and distribute dignity kits to adolescent girls so they can manage their periods effectively.

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