Valuable Girl Project: Empower 1000 Girls in Egypt

by Coptic Orphans
The Valuable Girl Project honors girls
The Valuable Girl Project honors girls' voices.
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 sisters' 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 continue 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 the generosity of donors like you, there's no danger of the project shutting down. We're just as committed to it as the parents, and we're identifying participants and sites for 2016. But we can't do it alone. To spread the kind of messages we're spreading - 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 - we count on everyone who shares these values to stand with us. 
 
We're grateful to you for continuing to support this work. It 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. Please give today, and thank you for supporting these valuable girls!
The project creates a safe space for learning.
The project creates a safe space for learning.

This time last year, I wouldn't have expected to be able to deliver an update like this one. But here it is:

Not only did Samia get excellent grades, but her Big Sisters improved the literacy rates in her hometown!

You may remember Samia from my letter last November. She's the kid who entered the Valuable Girl Project with a chip on her shoulder — cursing, stealing, and hitting the other girls.

The project's Big Sister-Little Sister model, which creates one-to-one mentoring relationships, seemed to do Samia a world of good. She stopped hitting people, learned social skills, and started making friends.

Samia's transformation, which I mentioned last fall, reached another milestone this summer. During my visit, one of the project coordinators handed me Samia's report card, which she'd proudly shared with her role models.

"EXCELLENT" grades in Arabic, math, and science!

When I saw those grades, I wondered if Samia's father knew about this huge achievement. Her dad is behind bars for life, more or less. Would he be proud that Samia is making progress toward escaping his generation's cycle of violence and poverty?

Seeing Samia's grades confirmed for me, once again, that kids from the poorest households (even those where they're more likely to be hit than hugged) can be transformed by education, love, and respect.

But girls can't flourish in a community that's crumbling. That's why the Valuable Girl Project also aims to be a resource to the cities and villages where it operates.

It's a good start to provide, as the project does, a safe space for the Big Sisters and Little Sisters to learn together, particularly when the pairs are Christians and Muslims.

But to really have an impact, other effects have to ripple outward from the project's five sites in Upper and Lower Egypt. This summer, I found out about an exciting way that this aspiration became a reality.

Here's what happened: The community development association that hosts Samia's site 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 association approached the project's Big Sisters, and 18 of them participated in the training. Next, the girls volunteered in a local literacy initiative. Together, they taught reading and writing to 200 kids! A pre- and post- evaluation of the children’s reading skills showed an average improvement of 60%.

It felt good to hear this, knowing that literacy has a huge positive impact on a child's life chances. Not only that, but the Valuable Girl Project had benefited not just one girl, Samia, but an entire community.

I love that the Valuable Girl Project's effects are beginning to radiate outward, from individual lives to communities. That's the power of education and respect. When we give them to girls, they shine!

It’s a muggy day in Matay, but no one hesitates to hug and crowd together for a photo. Here in Middle Egypt, girls and young women are used to the heat. It’s just another challenge for these participants in the Valuable Girl Project, like coping with run-down schools, making ends meet in a tough economy, and making their voices heard in a male-run society.

Only a few of these challenges are familiar to today‘s visitors to this Valuable Girl site — they’re volunteers from abroad, here in Egypt to take part in Coptic Orphans’ Serve to Learn program. They‘re spending three weeks teaching English to kids in Matay, and they may have gotten used to sweltering heat. But because they’re from places where the schools are more functional, the economy more developed, and patriarchy less pronounced, it’s harder to familiarize them with what it’s like to be a girl in Egypt.

Nevertheless, the two project coordinators, Sawsan and Doaa, do their best. There are smiles on both sides as their description unfolds of the Valuable Girl Project. In Port Said, Matay, Armant, Sohag and Luxor, the volunteers learn, 142 Little Sisters and 142 Big Sisters meet twice a week. The older sister mentors the younger one in schoolwork and life skills; the coordinators teach them the value of teamwork, creativity, planning, and accepting others. Many times, the Big-Little Sister relationships are Christian-Muslim, offering an important bridge between people whose paths might not otherwise cross.

The Valuable Girl Project participants, in turn, find out what brings this gaggle of foreigners to Egypt. They hear how the volunteers are lured from around the world by the chance to see the real Egypt, form close relationships with Egyptian children, and be transformed by their love. They learn how the volunteers are inspired by the kids, even as they teach a love of learning with fun educational activities.

The most interesting thing about today’s encounter is how it reflects the fruition of three projects. The Serve to Learn volunteers have also been meeting the mothers of the fatherless children served by Coptic Orphans. It’s precisely because of those mothers that the Valuable Girl Project exists.

The story is this: The more Coptic Orphans staff got engaged with the orphans’ families, the more they began to see a really striking trend. Mothers were dying — denying themselves medical care — because they felt valueless and were using what little money they had to meet their children’s needs. But of course, a healthy child requires a healthy mother. Stopping this destructive cycle seemed desperately important, so a decade ago the Valuable Girl Project was founded.

Since that time, the Valuable Girl Project has been working with girls to ensure they stay in school, believe in themselves, and become healthy mothers.

So now the Serve to Learn volunteers have the full story: from the fatherless children they’ve met, to their mothers, to the young women that the Valuable Girl Project aspires to put on a different path. It’s a path that’s heavy on studying, and soon the girls head back inside to continue learning together. Meanwhile, the volunteers are back on the road to the school where they teach their kids. Education, education, education — that’s the key.

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The Valuable Girl Project effects girls - and moms
The Valuable Girl Project effects girls - and moms

"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!

The Valuable Girl Project creates a shared space.
The Valuable Girl Project creates a shared space.

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.

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Organization Information

Coptic Orphans

Location: Merrifield, Virginia - USA
Website: http:/​/​www.copticorphans.org
Project Leader:
Nermien Riad
Merrifield, Virginia United States