“I want to go to school and continue my education like all my friends.”
Sixteen-year-old Asmaa knows by heart why she deserves an education – and what to say if her family disagrees. “If you send me to school, I promise I will be a good student,” she says. “You’ll never have to nag me to study and I’ll study hard and do my best.”
Asmaa is part of a girls’ club run by Plan International in the slum community of Khairallah in Cairo, Egypt.
"I'll study hard and do my best."
- Asmaa, 16.
Asmaa, 16, meets weekly with other girls to discuss the importance of education and learn about gender equality.
Today the girls, who meet weekly at their local community development association, are role-playing with their club leader what to say if their parents encourage them to drop out of school.
While school is compulsory up to the age of 14, almost a fifth of children drop out before completing basic education. Street harassment is a major factor.
So anxious are parents to avoid the shame of having a daughter who was harassed, that sometimes just being seen with a boy is enough to prompt them to keep her at home.
Yara sits surrounded by rubble caused by fallen-down buildings in Khairallah.
“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, another participant in the girls’ club.
“He will be worried about my reputation and fear that people will speak badly of me.”
Many parents in Cairo keep their girls at home to ensure their safety.
The girls who take part in the club are learning that things don’t have to be this way.
The club is part of Safer Cities, a project which works with girls in Khairallah to help them understand that they have the right to live lives free from violence and have a right to go to school.
“Since joining Safer Cities two 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 14-year-old Soaad.
“Before joining Safer Cities, if my father had told me not to go to school, I would have given in and said ‘okay’. Not now.”
The club aims to give girls the confidence and tools to persuade parents who believe the best way of keeping them safe is to stop them from going out. Regular self-defence classes reassure parents that their daughters have a way of protecting themselves when they’re out in public.
Boys drawing a map identifying the biggest safety risks in Khairallah.
Safer Cities also works with boys and men to change the social norms that perpetuate the harassment of girls and to encourage them to become champions of girls’ rights.
Ahmed, 16, takes part in the club for boys which runs in the room next door.
It aims to be a safe space where boys can build self-esteem by doing arts and sports activities with one another and with girls – often for the first time in their lives. Boys are learning that the girls they see in the street deserve the same respect as their friends at the club.
"Now I realise that girls can do everything boys can do...and that girls have just the same rights as boys.”
- Ahmed, 16.
Ahmed, 16, helping in the local shop run by his father.
“Before participating in the club, I thought that my sister should leave school and stay at home after finishing primary school,” says Ahmed. “I thought that girls didn’t have the right to education because when they go out, they get harassed.
“Now I realise that girls can do everything boys can do and that boys and girls complement one another – and that girls have just the same rights as boys.”
Hany Sayed, a Khairallah tuk tuk driver who has received training as part of Safer Cities.
The project also works with tuk tuk drivers, identifying trusted individuals who can be relied upon to take girls to school at pre-arranged times so they don’t need to run the risk of being harassed on the way.
It works with parents, government officials and the wider community to increase their awareness of girls’ rights to participation, protection, and safe mobility.
"By raising awareness among youths, we’re creating a future where no-one will have to drop out of school or be harassed.”
- Donia, 15.
Donia, 15, is determined to stay in school.
In this way, the project – which has worked with 1,000 girls and 400 boys since 2015 – 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.”
Demanding safer cities for girls
Plan International's Safer Cities for Girls programme works to tackle unequal power relations and challenge the harmful social norms that perpetuate the exclusion of girls in cities.
It is essential that urban girls are heard so their specific needs around sanitation, education, public spaces, transport and access to city services are addressed.