Knowing no home and no family, she found herself one of many nameless children at an orphanage at two years old. They would call her Hoda, Maha, Hala… until she finally became the inspiring Nahla El Nemr who stood next to the Minister of Social Solidarity on the 2020 International Day of the Girl, to epitomize the power and resilience of Egyptian girls.
Having grown up in an alternative care institution for 21 years, El Nemr has devoted her life to developing the orphan care system in Egypt. “People think that all orphans are kids. But we are not. We grow up. People think that all our problems concern food and blankets.… But the problem is that as an orphan girl, once I am out [of the orphanage], the society is strange to me. I don’t know how it will receive me; I am not trained to deal with it; the society sees me as a ticking bomb; it rejects me because it has never heard me,” El Nemr tells Egypt Today, describing a frightening destiny that she shares with thousands of other orphan girls in an unforgiving society. “With time, I have realized that the situation is frightening because none of the orphans speaks up. When I started talking, the unknown image gradually became clearer. . . I found an echo and purpose for my life experience in a place where I was the missing puzzle piece,” she says with strength and determination.
For eight years, El Nemr has worked as an institutional development officer at Wataneya Society for the Development of Orphanages. And today, at 36 years old, she is embarking upon a new challenge as the first ambassador of the Ministry of Social Solidarity, in charge of activating community monitoring of alternative care institutions.
According to the UN’s State of the World Population Report 2020 (SWOP), “every day, hundreds of thousands of girls around the world are subjected to practices that harm them physically or psychologically, or both,” limiting “their capacity to participate fully in society and to reach their full potential” and reinforcing “gender stereotypes and inequalities that gave rise to the harm in the first place.” Among these widespread harmful practices as stated in the report are female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage, both of which—unfortunately—have long been entrenched in the Egyptian society. Moreover, the global Covid-19 pandemic has heightened the risks for girls even more, by intensifying the threats of online abuse.
Inspired by Nahla and so many other powerful girls, this month we seek to shed light on the idea and purpose of the International Day of the Girl; and to track the national progress made in confronting today’s challenges.
Celebrating the International Day of the Girl
Adopted by the United Nations in December 2011, following a global effort led by the humanitarian nonprofit organization Plan International, the International Day of the Girl recognizes girls’ rights and the unique challenges they face around the world, bringing well-needed focus to the barriers and threats associated with being young and female.
“[We believe] that empowering girls is very important to fight poverty and to support the development of any country and any society,” Mudasser Siddiqui, Country Director of Plan International Egypt, tells Egypt Today. “We have tried to put the girl and the child at the center of our strategy, our work, and all our partnerships here in Egypt and globally,” he adds, commenting on Plan’s efforts in building support behind the International Day of the Girl.
For the past three years, this special day has been celebrated in Egypt in collaboration between Plan International, the Ministry of Social Solidarity and the Canadian Embassy. Speaking at the 2020 Girls Summit, held on October 11 at the Ministry of Social Solidarity, Minister Nevine El Kabbaj expressed the ministry’s pleasure to partner with Plan International to promote the rights of girls in Egypt and optimize the chances for them to develop. “There is a long way to go,” El Kabbaj said, adding that The International Day of the Girl represents “a symbol to support girls’ rights. It is not just one day; but it is every day,” she stated.
Seeking to take real and genuine steps toward empowering girls around the world, the annual celebration is not limited to speeches and summits. In 2017, the #GirlsTakeover initiative was launched as a global campaign with the core idea of providing a chance for girls across the world to assume leading roles in technology, politics, business and the media, tearing down the barriers of discrimination. “We allow each girl to sit in the place of a decision-maker for one day, whether a minister, ambassador, public figure . . . they live the role and know what it takes to achieve it,” explains Engee Soliman, strategic partnerships and advocacy manager at Plan International Egypt.
A total of 27 girls from different social backgrounds and different Egyptian governorates took part in the campaign this year, each spending a fruitful day in leadership roles at the ministries of Social Solidarity, Information, Environment and Commerce; as well as other national institutions, embassies, and international organizations.
Reflecting on her experience assuming the role of the Dutch ambassador in Egypt, Rodaina, 17, says, “I was very happy because I got to understand the protocols and work process at the embassy; and I was happy to be introduced to the gender officer there, who is responsible for AIDS and FGM prevention projects.” She further adds that “girls should have a lot of self-confidence and should have the courage to speak their mind and express what they think without any fear of judgment.” A volunteer at the Addiction Treatment & Abuse Fund, Rodaina is nominated to represent Egypt at the UN ODC in Vienna this March.
Girls around the world from El Salvador to Nigeria, Vietnam, Indonesia, Uganda, Peru and London have also taken part in the #GirlsTakeover campaign this year, assuming the roles of governors, mayors, ambassadors, ministers and prime ministers; and sending a clear message of power and hope across the globe.
Egypt Today is proud to have hosted two brilliant girls during #GirlsTakeover campaign of 2018. El-Shaimaa Salah, 22, and Menatallah Sherif, 19, assumed the roles of journalists for a day, and they were introduced to the day-to-day activities in our newsroom.
Online Abuse: Compounded by Covid
Shedding light on a critical global issue that has intensified amid the Covid-19 lockdown, the 2020 International Day of the Girl adopted the theme of promoting girls’ safety online. “Our celebration today comes amid exceptional circumstances as the whole world is grappling with the unprecedented global pandemic of Covid-19, which has moved all our lives online. The increased digitalization of our lives has created a lot of opportunities for all of us but it has also created a lot of challenges . . . particularly for girls and young women,” Siddiqui said as he launched the 2020 Girls Summit, explaining that the move to online space has created more opportunities for abuse and gender-based violence. “The online abuse is disempowering girls; it is limiting their potential to triumph, to be safe and to achieve gender equality.”
Based on a recent global survey on online violence conducted by Plan International among 14,000 girls aged 15 to 25 in 22 countries, more than half the girls surveyed have been harassed and/or abused online. The attacks are most common on Facebook, where 39 percent of respondents said they have been subject to harassment. Yet, they equally occur on every platform included in the study, including Instagram (23 percent), WhatsApp (14 percent), Snapchat (10 percent), Twitter (9 percent) and TikTok (6 percent). In that light, as part of Plan’s “Safe Online” campaign, girls around the world have signed an open letter to social media outlets, calling on them to adopt stronger and more effective tools against online abuse.
Nehad AbulKomsan, head of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, believes that the laws against online abuse, harassment and hacking have been quite comprehensive; yet, what remains to be seen is an adequate and timely implementation, especially after Covid-19. According to AbulKomsan, online crimes under Egyptian law are punishable by one-month to five-year terms, and fines ranging from LE 5,000 to LE 100,000 depending on the seriousness of the crime. “We have developed a wonderful legal system,” AbulKomsan said. However, she pointed out that while the process from filing the complaint to seeing the result took two to three months before Covid-19, it now extends from six months to a year. “After Covid, the number of [online] users has at least doubled; and some estimate that it has increased five times. More than 50 million Egyptians have accounts,” AbulKomsan stated, noting that the long legal process today “torpedoes the idea of deterrence and the safety feeling that a law exists; and it gives a great freedom to the abuser.”
Calling for better handling of the hail of police reports—before the law turns into “ink on paper”—AbulKomsan concluded that digital harassment is more dangerous than real-life harassment, explaining that the lawsuit in case of the latter does not take even two months; and that the sheer spread of information online causes much more damage to the reputation of the person.
On a global scale, in response to the open letter, social media giants Facebook and Instagram have already vowed to listen to girls’ experiences and to work on improving the safety of their platforms. “Abuse of women on the internet is a serious problem, one we tackle in a variety of ways, through technology that identifies and removes potentially abusive content, by enforcing strict policies and by talking with experts and people experiencing harassment or abuse,” Cindy Southworth, head of women’s safety at Facebook, said in a statement, adding that the company valued the opportunity to hear from young female users.
FGM: An ancient Pharaonic curse
Apart from intensifying virtual threats, the Coronavirus situation has also heightened other entrenched risks facing girls in ‘real’ life, affecting “education, family income, as well as issues of FGM and child marriage,” Siddiqui tells Egypt Today. “Corona has posed a huge challenge and I think like any other society, girls here in Egypt are suffering disproportionally because of Corona,” he adds.
Female genital mutilation is one of those problems compounded by the pandemic. The 2020 SWOP report states that 200 million women and girls who are alive today have been affected by FGM. In Egypt, female circumcision has been a tradition since the Pharaonic period; and despite being legally banned, and condemned by religious leaders and medical professionals, the practice is — unfortunately—still widespread. According to Egypt’s latest Demographic and Health Survey (EDHS) conducted in 2014, 92 percent of ever-married women aged 15 to 49 have been circumcised. Moreover, more than half of these women were children between seven and ten years old at the time when they were subjected to FGM.
“The first act of violence an Egyptian girl faces since she is born is FGM. … One of the reasons behind this practice is that the father or mother is afraid that the girl would lose her moral compass,” explains Dr. Amr Hassan, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Cairo University and founder of Enty El Aham (You are the More Important) initiative. Noting that Egypt has been fighting FGM for 100 years, Dr. Hassan adds that among all other challenges facing girls, such as child marriage, sexual harassment, or violence, FGM causes the most controversy and backlash in Egypt because it is falsely promoted as a religious practice.
Unfortunately, the issue is more complicated today, with healthcare providers increasingly becoming involved in performing “medicalized” FGM. “This phenomenon is a disaster; 82 percent of FGM operations in Egypt nowadays are performed by a medical team,” making Egypt the first globally in that phenomenon. “This is even worse, you gave a medical status to something that has nothing to do with medicine,” Dr. Hassan says, explaining that the operation may be performed under another name by a radicalized physician who is convinced by the practice or by a physician seeking financial gains; or it can be done at home by a nurse. When asked about the role of the Ministry of Health in that regard, Dr. Hassan said that a ‘Free Treatment Unit’ is responsible for monitoring hospitals and clinics, noting that this unit must be given more power and that it should take more proactive action.
According to the 2020 SWOP report, an estimated 52 million women and girls worldwide have undergone FGM performed by doctors, nurses or midwives. In Egypt, while 52 percent of the women surveyed in the 2014 EDHS said that a daya (uncertified traditional birth attendant) had been responsible for the procedure, most of the remaining women said that they were circumcised by medical personnel.
Egypt has witnessed many efforts lead by the Ministry of Health and Population, the National Council for Population (NPC), the National council of Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM), as well as civil society organizations to address the FGM practice. In 2007, following the deaths of two girls, the Ministry of Health issued ministerial decree (271) that bans everyone, including health professionals, from performing FGM. Moreover, the practice has been criminalized under Egyptian law since 2008, setting a prison sentence of three months to two years, or a minimum penalty of LE 1,000 to LE 5,000. And in 2016, the Parliament voted for increasing the sentence to five to seven years.
Apart from legal action, the NCCM launched the FGM Free Village Model in 2003 with the aim “to reverse attitudes of families toward FGM by enhancing their knowledge on the detriments of the practice thus enabling them to abandon the practice.” According to the NCCM’s official website, the project was implemented in 60 villages in six governorates in the first phase (2003-2005), and it included 120 villages in 10 governorates in its second phase. Today, the state’s official strategy for eradicating FGM is the National FGM Abandonment Strategy (2016–2020), which addresses inconsistencies within the legal culture and seeks to enforce existing laws and to build a culture that supports human rights.
Additionally, as one of the active organizations working on the cause, “Enty El Aham” has launched a number of initiatives to raise awareness of FGM. These include the ‘White Coat against FGM’ campaign where medical students stood in metro and train stations on the occasion of FGM International Day to spread awareness among a large variety of people; as well as social media awareness campaigns such as ‘Say No’, which also addressed violence, child marriage, and other issues.
According to a study conducted by UNICEF in 2016, based on data from the Egyptian DHS of 2005, 2008 and 2014, national efforts have already yielded some positive results, reducing the proportion of girls aged 0-17 who have undergone FGM, from 28 percent in 2005 to 18 percent in 2014. Moreover, the percentage of those who are at risk of experiencing FGM fell from 69 percent to 55 percent during the same period. There has also been a positive progress in public perceptions, the study revealed.
According to Dr. Hassan, FGM is the first in a thread of challenges facing girls in Egypt, especially in rural and poor areas. “The same mentality [of the parents] who decided [to perform] FGM on their girl whom they consider a heavy responsibility, will want to have her married two or three years later; henceforth, child marriage. This girl who gets married early is the one who will not pursue her education, hence education deprivation. This same girl is the one who gives birth to two and three and four children, which leads to overpopulation, and it will affect her as well . . . because successive recurrent childbirth drains the female body . . . Eventually, her husband would divorce her and throw her away and she would not have any resources to protect herself . . . And she would probably start the same cycle all over again with her child,” he explains.
Child brides: Victims of ignorance and exploitation
Despite being almost universally banned, child marriages “happen 33,000 times a day, every day, all around the world—cutting across countries, cultures, religions and ethnicities,” according to the 2020 SWOP report, which notes that 650 million girls and women alive today were married as children.
In Egypt, the legal age for marriage for women is 18 years. However, according to the 2017 national census released by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), nearly 1 in every 20 girls aged between 15 and 17, and 1 in every 10 adolescent girls aged 15 to 19 were either married or had been married at the time of the census. “It is known in all villages, that the maazoun has two files; he marries the girl in one and when she reaches 18 years old, he moves her to the other file and submits it to the government,” Dr. Hassan says, calling for better monitoring and stricter implementation of the law.
Not only does child marriage slam shut all doors to the girl’s future and often turns her into a commodity for whoever pays more, it also threatens her life. The World Health Organization’s 2016 Maternal Mortality report indicated that a main cause of teenage girls’ deaths is pregnancy and childbirth, noting that 71 percent of those who get married before the age of 18 face serious health complications.
Just like FGM, there have been a lot of national efforts to combat the phenomenon of child marriage in Egypt. Egypt ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990, setting the minimum age of marriage at 18; and it ratified the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child in 2001, which includes the probation of child marriage. And in 2015, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi issued a presidential decree to comply with the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child regarding the issue of child marriage.
Moreover, a five-year national strategy to prevent child marriage was launched in 2014, led by the National Population Council, and aiming to reduce the prevalence of early marriage by 50 percent within five years.
The NCW also launched the ‘No to Underage Marriage’ campaign in 2017, in collaboration with the Ministry of Religious Endowments and Church clerics, with the goal to spread awareness about the necessity to educate girls, preserve their health, and fight child marriages. The same year, President of the NCW Maya Morsy asked the Egyptian parliament to draft a new law raising the legal age of marriage from 18 to 21.
Standing strong against all challenges
Online harassment, FGM and child marriage are only three of many challenges facing girls in Egypt and around the world; and listing the rest of the challenges and respective state efforts would take a whole other issue or even more. Yet, no matter how big and plentiful the challenges are, there is enough strength in every ‘girl’ to rise above them and create her own path to success, as the inspirational Nahla El Nemr has taught us on the International Day of the Girl this year.
“I believe that there is incredible strength in every girl. I have always felt like I am vulnerable and weak; that I would never be able to achieve anything. Yet, given what I have achieved within eight years, and after what I had been through, … I believe that you can achieve what I have and better, and in an even shorter period,” Nahla addresses Egyptian girls.
Let’s not forget
It would be so wrong to conclude this article, or to speak of an “International Day of the Girl,” without mourning 24-year-old Maryam who was brutally killed just a few weeks ago following an attempted robbery in Maadi. Although the latest statement by the Public Prosecution Office does not mention that the incident had involved sexual harassment or any other form of sexual assault, the murder of the young woman has sparked a lot anger and a contentious public debate over sexual harassment and violence against young women on Egyptian streets. If anything, this sad incident is a reminder of the social and cultural impairments posing significant threats to all Egyptian girls who dare to walk in the streets; and it sends a clear message to policymakers that there is a long path ahead to achieve justice for girls.
At press time the two men accused of killing Maryam were charged with murder with intent.