Empowering Girls on their Special Day

Wednesday 11 October 2017

Today on October 11, Save the Children is celebrating the International Day of the Girl with millions of girls around the globe by sharing a story of a family who believed in supporting and empowering girls. Basmala*, twelve, and Habiba*, fifteen, are two sisters who joined Save the Children’s Speak Up campaign in Egypt, which aims to combat sexual harassment of adolescent girls in urban settings. They participated in skills building sessions on this issue which affects many girls in Egypt, and are involved in one of the campaign’s youth-led initiatives, where adolescents and youth design and lead actions to promote access to protections on sexual harassment and to raise awareness of reporting mechanisms for adolescent girls.

“I may have been participating in Save the Children’s activities for only a year, but I feel that I have developed a lot of skills. Before joining the activities I was very shy and felt embarrassed to speak to a large group of people. This fear has held me back from being able to deliver my ideas to people. But now, I have great confidence and can talk to strangers with ease. I’ve also learned more about issues relating to harassment, gender and the different kinds of violence and abuse,” said Basmala.

Seeing a remarkable change in her younger sister’s personality, Habiba enthusiastically joined her in the activities. “I thought that it would be a regular seminar like the ones that take place at school, but I was surprised to find out that it was so engaging,” she said. “I was impressed. I made new friendships, and this program has changed me. Before I was quite nervous and always tense, but I now I’m more confident and have more information about a variety of topics to share with my colleagues and friends.”

Both sisters have been actively engaged in the Speak Up Campaign, and Habiba is now the team leader of a youth-led initiative which is raising awareness on sexual harassment of girls and about reporting mechanisms in their school. The Speak Up campaign has built skills of Habiba, Basmala and many other young adolescent boys and girls on child rights, child protection, and harassment-related topics. It also developed their skills in conducting outreach activities to help them lead activities to promote change. 

The girls have been able to achieve change in their community and school through organising an initiative called “Thinking Out of the Box” which aims to raise awareness for adolescents their age about sexual harassment. As the team leader of this initiative, Habiba gained skills on developing messages for others and persuading them to accept new ideas. “I had to meet others half way when we couldn’t reach agreement and to solve problems within the team. Developing these skills has certainly benefited me in that regard. It’s a challenging yet enjoyable task being a team leader, requiring a lot of evaluation and coordination. It’s a responsibility that I am proud of, especially after leading an initiative like ours.”

The girls and their peers have worked hard promote activities for their school to become an ‘anti-harassment school’, by engaging students, social workers and the School Principal in their initiative.   They organised Peer- to-Peer activities and sessions on self-defense tips.  The group were successful in gaining the support of the Principal to approve these activities, to make announcements against sexual harassment through the school radio, and to establish a complaint mechanism in the school, for girls and boys to report harassment, bullying and other forms of abuse.

On the International Day of the Girl, adolescents who are leading the Thinking Out of the Box initiative are conducting awareness raising sessions on personal space, abuse, and the reporting mechanisms in their school.

“Unfortunately we face some challenges in raising awareness amongst some teachers and boys about harassment,” said Habiba. “Many people are resistant to talking about it. It’s a taboo topic. I face harassment every day, and we need to talk about it and raise the awareness of the others. The real taboo is that harassment happens; not the act of talking about it. I’d like to tell all the girls to speak up, to not be afraid. You shouldn’t blame yourselves, you should report harassment because it is against the law.”

Basmala and Habiba’s parents also joined the Save the Children’s sessions for adults on gender, abuse, FGM, sexual harassment, early marriage, and positive discipline. Both parents have since become active in promoting awareness and skills to combat sexual harassment in their communities.  Their father says: “We are preparing for awareness raising sessions with other parents to spread what we learned. “Save the Children has developed my own skills too. I liked the idea of combating harassment in my community. The Speak Up campaign has helped me talk about harassment with my girls. I always left this burden to their mother because I was too embarrassed to talk about this openly with them. The other day while I was in a public bus with Basmala, we practiced what she would do in case someone tries to harass her among the crowd.

“I always believe that volunteer work and sports are as important as education for my children. I support and empower my girls. I always tell them that I want 75% of their time for education and the other 25% for activities that they like. With the activities provided by Save the Children, my daughters have developed new and essential skills. I believe that girls need to play a role in their community. I am trying to support my girls and empower them to be what they want to be.”

Adolescent girls in informal urban settings are amongst the most deprived groups in Egypt, experiencing high levels of discrimination and significant inequalities of opportunity in education, visibility and mobility, economic opportunities and the ability to influence decision making. Their experience of harassment in every sphere – domestic, public and school based – is extremely high. The campaign operates to foster change amongst female and male adolescents, developing skills and capacities of young people to combat harassment and mobilizing the support of local leaders and institutions to take action. 

Speak Up is part of Save the Children’s Global Every Last Child campaign which aims to tackle key causes of exclusion for children, and to contribute towards the progress on achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.