Did you know that one out of five Egyptians is a girl below the age of 17? Today, the country comprises around 19 million girls and this number is expected to grow to 21 million Egyptian girls by 2030.
Why does this matter? Because in Egypt, girls are more vulnerable to illiteracy, more likely than their brothers to never attend school, to leave school early, or to skip school. And that matters for the future of Egypt.
Egypt has successfully prioritized gender equality within its Sustainable Development Strategy 2030 and the National Women Empowerment Strategy is paving the way for a more equitable society. There are some clear positive trends in terms of reducing inequalities between boys and girls, such as the educational attainment levels for males and females in the 15-19-year-old age group, which are much closer than they used to be for older generations. In fact, for the 15 to 19 age group, the proportion of girls who had completed secondary education in 2015 was higher than that of boys (10.7% and 9.2%, respectively).
There is ample evidence that points to one thing: sustained, targeted investments in adolescent girls not only improve the lives of the young girls, it also yields returns across generations, boosting economic growth and improving the wellbeing of children, families and communities.
Investing in girls today can accelerate economic growth and increase the skilled labor force of tomorrow: if young women were given the chance to be as economically active as young men, annual GDPs could grow up to 4.4 per cent faster. In Egypt, it is estimated that raising female employment rates to match those of males will result in a direct positive impact on GDP of 34%. And that is not all. Investing in girls also results in a more equitable society where the acceptance of violence will be reduced and the opportunities for stability and development will be increased.
Still, it is not an easy problem to fix and there are many challenges ahead of us.
Young girls are 5 times more likely than boys to be found simultaneously outside education and not in employment or training. They are less likely to use information communication technology. Almost 61% of girls aged 15-17 years have undergone circumcision and 11% of girls 15-19 years are either currently married or were married before, which is hampering their access to education, then their access to a job and ultimately, their contribution to the national wealth.
These injustices are not only a detriment to the lives of millions of girls and to the economy. It also harms the families and children of today and tomorrow and undermine development progress across the board, perpetuating cycles of poverty and disadvantage from one generation to the other.
UNICEF, along with other actors, believes that gender equality is key to human development. In practice, this means that boys and girls need support to overcome the barriers they face because of their age and gender.
The goal for UNICEF is to support governments and other partners to address the vulnerabilities of every boy and girl so that they play on an equal field and get the targeted support they need to be empowered to fulfill their own potential. However, empowerment is not a service that can be provided to a person. Empowerment is a personal journey of transformation. Yet, this journey takes place in the context of families, communities and social institutions which facilitate or hinder the journey.
Thanks to the generous support of multiple donors including USAID and the European Union, UNICEF supports the journey of millions of Egyptian girls and boys through cross sectorial interventions targeting individuals, communities and social institutions.
Technical support is provided to the National Girls’ Empowerment Initiative, Dawwie, led by the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM), to facilitate access to services, skills and opportunities to be heard.
UNICEF is supporting the Government of Egypt to strengthen child protection systems and national capacities to protect and respond to girls at risk and/or survivors of gender-based violence, including supporting the Child Help Line 16000, and the National Committee for the Eradication of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), co-chaired by the National Council for Women and the NCCM.
Because education is so important, UNICEF has also worked with the Ministry of Education and Technical Education on the Education 2.0 reform porgramme which builds on life skills and focuses on personal empowerment and respect for diversity for girls and boys.
UNICEF also support the inclusive education model which improves the access of disadvantaged children to quality education services. As well as implementing the community-based education model that is particularly useful for girls, who are more likely to never attend school because of the school’s remoteness.
However, having a diploma is not always sufficient for satisfactory employment outcomes. Hence, UNICEF supports the Meshwary project, providing disadvantaged youth, especially girls with the employment and life skills and opportunities through training and internships. An initiative taking place with the Ministry of Youth and Sports (MoYS) and several private sector companies who are willing to support young girls in Egypt in securing a better future.
For girls living in ultra-poor families, empowerment includes an additional element of social protection. In that context, the Ministry of Social Solidarity’s (MoSS) National Social Protection Programme, Takaful and Karama (TKP), has a positive impact on women and girls. MoSS receives UNICEF technical support on designing and implementing an integrated social protection program, which includes health and education conditionalities and a positive parenting programme to promote behaviors favoring equality and positive gender approach among TKP beneficiaries.
I strongly believe that with a population that includes over 19 million girls, Egypt has a unique opportunity to take to achieve its 2030 vision. UNICEF stands behind the government of Egypt, civil society, boys and girls with the ambition to positively contribute in making the opportunity a reality.
*The writer is UNICEF Representative in Egypt