The vulnerability of adolescent girls in developing countries is recognized and well-documented. In few places, however, do they face as many deep-seated and complicated challenges as Egypt.
The country has made significant strides, in school enrollment, health, and economic development. Yet women and girls continue to face many challenges. Some 90 percent of Egyptian women have undergone female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), often as teenagers. Girls are far more likely than boys to have never enrolled or to have dropped out of school after only a few years. And girls, particularly out-of-school girls, are more likely than boys to have limited mobility, which leads to social isolation, fewer friends, and fewer opportunities to fully participate in public spaces and play a meaningful role in society. Indicators like these underscore the need for new and innovative approaches to empowering girls.
The Ishraq program was launched in 2001 by the Population Council in collaboration with the Centre for Development and Population Activities (CEDPA), Save the Children, Caritas, and local non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Ishraq is the Arabic word for sunrise. The name signals the intentions of the partner institutions to build a brighter future by helping out-of-school girls, most of them poor, and to unlock their full potential in society. Ishraq was launched in Upper Egypt, the mostly rural provinces home to the vast majority of girls who had never attended school.
A recent Population Council report provides an extensive overview of the initiative. The report, titled “The Ishraq program for out-of-school girls: From pilot to scale-up,” shows the dramatically positive impact of participating in the program, for girls, their families, and their communities.
How the Program Operates: Goals and Priorities
The goal of Ishraq is to empower out-of-school girls—and, by doing so, help transform their lives and break down barriers to their advancement. In practical terms, this has consisted of creating a multi-dimensional program that gives out-of-school girls from ages 12 to 15 the opportunity to learn and grow across a range of areas by receiving mentoring and support from specially trained personnel. (The term “out-of-school” refers to those not currently attending school. Some had never been to school, while others had dropped out before completing primary education.)
From the launch in 2001, program developers have identified potential participants by working with local NGOs and other community-based groups that interact with families on a regular basis. Substantial effort has been made to respect traditional norms and thus to explain the objectives of the project carefully, with the focus on why making girls more self-reliant and confident would benefit families and communities.
In each community where Ishraq operates, participating girls meet in youth centers in morning hours, when boys are at school. The use of such locations is symbolic because most youth centers had been considered boys’ domains, with girls essentially forbidden from visiting. Their exclusion meant there were few if any communal spaces where girls could meet people from outside their immediate families, including other girls who might become friends and confidantes.
Growth and Expansion
The program evolved from a pilot phase, was expanded in 2004, and then scaled up in 2008. In the pilot and expansion phases in Upper Egypt, the program focused on three major components: building literacy, life skills, and sports. The literacy component is especially vital for girls who have never gone to school or who withdrew before achieving even basic ability to read and write in Arabic. The life skills component focuses on communication, team building, and critical thinking in addition to reproductive health, while the sports component includes not only physical fitness, but efforts to instill the values of team work, cooperation, and self-confidence.
In 2008, the Council began to institutionalize the program at the national level. Two additional program components were added during this scale-up phase: financial education and nutrition. To achieve scale-up, the project formed committees at village, governorate, and national levels to provide ongoing support to the program. (Governorates are the main administrative unit below the federal level, similar to provinces or states in other countries.) Staff from NGOs and youth centers helped replicate Ishraq in other communities using local resources, advocacy, and networking.
In 2011, Ishraq established girls’ clubs for Ishraq graduates in two villages in Menya and four villages in Beni Suef. Girls’ clubs provide graduates with financial support for private tutoring to help them make the transition into formal school and also enable them to maintain their social support system.
The program has reached 3,321 girls in 54 villages across five of the most disadvantaged governorates of Upper Egypt. Although Ishraq focuses primarily on girls, it also offers some boys—brothers and other relatives of participating girls—the opportunity to participate in selected life skills classes for a brief period, usually six months. Those classes discuss gender issues along with other topics. The report notes that 1,775 boys have been reached directly through such classes. In addition, more than 5,000 girls’ parents, male relatives, and community leaders have also been indirectly engaged.
Rigorous evaluation of the program has included interviewing Ishraq participants and non-participants of similar backgrounds and characteristics; parents and brothers of participants before and after the program; and community leaders on village committees after the program began. Assessments looked at outcomes in five broad areas: 1) functional literacy; 2) mobility and access to safe spaces; 3) acquisition of life skills; 4) girl-empowering knowledge and attitudes; and 5) parents’ and brothers’ girl-related attitudes.
Findings from the impact assessments of the scale-up phase indicate that the program has had a remarkably positive effect on participants and communities. For example, 88 percent of Ishraq participants could write their sibling’s name compared with just 36 percent of non-participants. Nearly two-thirds (66 percent) of participants successfully identified at least one contraceptive method; the comparable figure for non-participants was 38 percent. Participants were twice as likely as girls in the comparison group to know that FGM/C is not mandated by religion (42 percent versus 21 percent).
In addition to expanding the physical spaces that girls could access, the program also gave them an opportunity to expand their social networks. Over 70 percent of Ishraq participants reported having more than one non-relative friend versus 44 percent of their counterparts in the comparison group. Such exposure and interaction with the larger world increased their self-confidence and sense of empowerment.
Despite these achievements, the report’s authors acknowledge ongoing challenges. Hard-won gains such as maintaining a permanent girls’ space in youth centers are often precarious. Changing deep-rooted attitudes and behaviors is difficult and will prove to be a lengthy process, as are efforts to replicate and institutionalize Ishraq at a national level.
The report concludes with a discussion of lessons learned from the Ishraq experience. One overarching observation is the value of extensive, wide-ranging outreach and engagement. Implementing the program effectively and achieving sustainability requires a multipronged strategy that involves working with communities, government, and NGOs. The involvement of local communities, including parents and community leaders in village committees, is just as important as obtaining support from senior officials in governorate committees. Such officials have influence with counterparts from other governorates and district-level agencies where the program has expanded as part of the national scale-up effort.
A second key lesson is that program flexibility in terms of scheduling is essential to avoid high absenteeism and drop-outs. A third is that rigorous evaluation has helped shape changes in the program, including the addition of new program elements to address identified needs.
The report does not discuss the impact of the political instability and civil strife in Egypt since early 2011. The authors do suggest, however, that Ishraq remains a viable and stable program with the potential for continued scale-up and expansion. Much of the turmoil is confined to Cairo; the core Ishraq heartland remains in Upper Egypt and other rural areas where most out-of-school girls live.
Selim, Mona; Nahla Abdel-Tawab; Khaled El-Sayed; Asmaa Elbadawy; Heba El Kalaawy. 2013. “The Ishraq program for out-of-school girls: From pilot to scaleup.” Final Report.
Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Nike Foundation, The Dickler Family Foundation, The Ford Foundation/Egypt, UK Department for International Development, United Nations Children’s Fund/Egypt.