"Can we do anything to make sure this 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 seem 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 Valuable Girl 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 project keep building and succeeding!
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:
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 unfolds 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.)
Once 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.
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.
I'm in a huge, sunlit room, and all around me, pairs of girls are busy with markers, scissors, and construction paper. There's a buzz in the air as they assemble models of Egypt's greatest engineering feat, the Pyramids.
Don't worry - it's not a sweatshop churning out junky souvenirs for the tourists who are slowly returning to Egypt. It's Coptic Orphans' Valuable Girl Project, and here at this site in Matay, a town near the city of Minya in Upper Egypt, these are Big Sisters and Little Sisters, some of them pairings of Christian and Muslim girls. And the project they're working on, besides teaching teamwork and artistic skills, is also reminding them of the huge dimensions of all Egyptians' shared cultural heritage.
I'm astonished, this July morning, as we tour this building that houses Office of Human Services of the Coptic Catholic Diocese, our partner in this Valuable Girl Project site. Besides the roomful of girls in their pairs, there's another room zipping with the sound of looms, where young women are producing clothing as part of a community-based development project. In fact, our partner is so well-established that they even make classy shoes - a table of them are on display, for sale, as you walk upstairs.
I'm grateful to have such on-the-ball partners, who are so rooted in their communities. Coptic Orphans is working with seven such community development associations through Valuable Girl, with the goal of academic retention, education, and literacy tutorship of girls and young women in high-poverty areas of Egypt. The program uses one-on-one mentorship, through which young women in secondary school, “Big Sisters,” become role models for girls in primary school, “Little Sisters.”
Coming back to the sunny workspace where the girls are nearly finished with their trios of Pyramids, I'm struck by the tolerance that's evident in the room. Young women in headscarves tackle their project next to young women who are clearly Christian in dress, and there's no discord, only occasional giggling at the sight of the visitors from "outside."
This is what the Valuable Girl Project offers, beyond building the leadership skills of young women in a society that's often hostile to the idea. Creating a safe space for tolerance is a difficult thing in Egypt, given the distrust that flared into violence in recent years. But these girls and young women are defying that distrust and building towards a tolerant society - one friendship at a time. Multiply those friendships across seven sites and 420 participants, and you've got the seeds of change.
Now the girls are beginning to stand up and describe their Pyramids, one pair at a time. I'm excited that they're focused on this enormous feat, this engineering marvel that their ancestors pulled off together. But I'm even more excited about the new foundation they're laying - for an Egypt of tolerance, co-existence, and peace - where young women, Christian and Muslim, can work together.
We're going to move into a new stage of the Valuable Girl Project, and I'm excited to share the details with you soon. Stay tuned!
It's no secret that these are not the easiest of times in Egypt. In places, economic pressures are causing the fabric of society to fray. In these times, the work of the Valuable Girl Project is most important, for it is precisely the values of tolerance that ease social discord that are most needed. The project puts that tolerance front and center by involving both Muslim and Christian girls in Big Sister-Little Sister pairings.
At the same time, the stresses of day to day life can take their toll on both the project coordinators and the girls themselves. For that reason, the project team recently held a session for coordinators on how to relax, achieve a peaceful state, and ease the pressure they're under. The older sisters who took part enjoyed the session so much that they asked that a similar one be held for the younger sisters, but with a focus on nurturing charity.
At the same time, to avoid being blind to the actual security issues and other challenges facing Egyptians today, the team trained coordinators in how to deal with insecurity, how to manage problems as they arise, how to plan meetings more effectively, and how to improve their monitoring and evaluation.
With this focus on balancing inner peace and outward wariness, the actual work of facilitating Big Sister-Little Sister relationships continues. Thank you for keeping the faith, and for supporting the important work of tolerance-building and empowering young women.
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