In low-income communities across Cairo, it’s normal for some girls not to attend school for fear of being harassed by boys taunting and teasing them on their way to class.
From catcalling to lewd comments, many girls endure a journey to school where they are made to feel as though the pursuit of education is dangerous and forbidden. Parents further cement the stigmatization of girls’ education by insisting that girls stay at home to prevent the potential shame that being seen with a boy on the street could bring to a family name.
“If my father sees me passing by boys, he will misunderstand me and pull me out of school and deprive me of education,” says Yara, 16. “He will be worried about my reputation and fear that people will speak badly of me.”
Yara is a member of a girls’ club run by Plan International’s Safer Cities program which works with local youth to help break down the barriers that prevent girls from attending school. During workshops and discussions, local girls learn that they have the right to live lives free from violence and the right to attend school.
“Since joining the club 2 years ago, I’ve become aware of my rights. I have the right to an education. I shouldn’t give up on my right because of the dangers I face,” says Soaad, 14, another member of the girl’s club.
“Before the club, if my father had told me not to go to school, I would have given in and said ‘okay’. Not now.”
And Asmaa, 16, a fellow club member, couldn’t agree more. In fact, she’s been rehearsing what to say if her parents ever encourage her to drop out.
“I want to go to school and continue my education like all my friends,” she says as she role plays with the club leader. “You’ll never have to nag me to study and I’ll study hard and always do my best.”
Learning how to reason with parents is just one of the various ways the club helps girls build authority and self-esteem. Another way is through karate.
With self defense techniques, girls feel strong and empowered, they can also reassure their parents that they’re able to protect themselves when out in public.
Plan International’s Safer Cities program is an inclusive program that works with community leaders, teachers, parents, as well as boys and men to help change social attitudes that normalize harassment and girls dropping out of school.
Ahmed, 16, takes part in a club for boys where they can engage and have meaningful conversations with girls – sometimes for the first times in their lives – and see that girls deserve respect like anyone else.
“Before participating in the club, I thought that my sister should leave school and stay at home,” says Ahmed. “I thought girls didn’t have the right to education because when they go out, they get harassed.”
“Now I realize that girls can do everything boys can do and that boys and girls complement one another – and that girls have the same rights as boys.”
Today, over 1000 girls and 400 boys have participated in the Plan International’s Safer Cities program in Egypt, and this has helped scores of girls stay in school.
Donia, 15, speaks for many when she says: “I like education. I don’t want to drop out of school because of dangers on the street. By raising awareness among youths, we’re creating a future where no one will have to drop out of school or be harassed.”