Challenging the Hierarchy: Egypt's Areeg Hegazi Helps Girls Become ‘Agents of Change’
Leading up to the International Day of the Girl on October 11, Intel and 10x10act.org will be celebrating the heroes making a real difference in girls’ education around the world.
There is nothing that makes Areeg Hegazi happier than when she overhears a girl speaking up for herself and questioning the hierarchy. “It gives me great pride when I go to schools and see girls raising questions like, ‘Why do only girls have to wear uniforms?’ ” says Hegazi, the education program director for CARE International in Egypt. “It makes me hopeful for the future that girls are agents of change. Things will change in Egypt if girls change the circumstances around them.”
Since 2007, Hegazi has been working with CARE to create educational opportunities for thousands of girls, mostly in rural Upper Egypt. Hegazi grew up in Cairo, where she attended an all-girls school before heading to college. She spent her summers as a child on her grandfather’s rural farm, where she was first exposed to girls not as fortunate as she was—girls who motivated her future work.
“My family allowed me to see the benefits of what an educated woman could bring to this world,” she says. “Whenever I see young girls in the street or in the village, I want to give them the best opportunities. I want them to see what they can change in their lives and to feel like they have the power to change the world around them.”
In Upper Egypt, where the poverty rate is as high as 41 percent, girls often carry the brunt of the family’s housework and are not usually offered the same educational opportunities as their brothers. A staggering number of girls have never been to school: Here, the national illiteracy rate for women (42 percent compared to 25 percent for men) is even higher. These girls are also vulnerable to child marriage. Through CARE, Hegazi has created an elaborate structure of support—both in and out of school—to help girls not only receive an education, but to also become strong, vocal members of their communities. One of the key elements to Hegazi’s plan is CARE’s extracurricular activities, which establish a training ground for girls to become self-empowered leaders.
“Character building needs to take place for the children, particularly for the girls,” she says. “Circumstances [often] demand them to be more conservative and less outspoken in public.” Hegazi wants to alter that mindset by offering girls various opportunities to grow and prove their mettle.
“We try to diversify the activities in order to build girls’ confidence to have power to be involved in decision-making at school and in the home,” she says. “A lot of the extracurricular activities look like fun, but they are organized to build leadership: drama, music, technology groups. We work around the student unions both activating and ensuring that girls have a big or an equal say.”
Since Hegazi says sexually biased discrimination is one of the hardest issues to overcome, it’s important to include boys in CARE’s efforts. “Changes in girls’ lives cannot take place without changes from boys,” she says. “Parents need to see girls and boys in socially acceptable activities that will change the mindset and attitudes around boy-girl relationships.”
Young people are longing for change and see they have the power to change.
Since the revolution in 2011, Hegazi says her work has become more demanding—in a good way. “The whole perspective on how people are experiencing or wanting change led to challenges,” she says. “The biggest challenge is that expectations are much higher. Young people are longing for change and see they have the power to change. This is definitely an opportunity, but it means we need to [ramp up our work] to a level to ensure we are up to the operations and expectations.”
Hegazi says she worries about the current political scene, which is dominated by conservative parties that have suggested a number of disturbing educational changes (bans on books, segregation of the sexes in schools). However, she says she is buoyed by the extraordinary power she is seeing as more and more Egyptian girls gain an education. She points to a recent event that evolved from a CARE-sponsored civic project. A group of girls in a rural village decided to name their streets, and they named one main street after their female principal. “There are very few streets in Egypt named after a woman,” she says. “To find one in a village that girls chose is, for me, a very powerful message. Girls are the change agents. The girls chose the name of that woman to appreciate her efforts to educate them.
“I love it.”
Kristin Kloberdanz is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. She has written for Time, the Chicago Tribune and Forbes.com about everything from economic crises and political snafus to best summer beach reads.