Malak Abdel Hakim, 15, was doing well at school before her parents forced her to drop out several months ago. The family lives in Mallawi, a city in the southern Egyptian governorate of Minya. Her father works in the Greater Cairo area as a doorman at a residential building in the Giza neighborhood of Mohandessin and barely earns enough money to support his family of nine. He turned a deaf ear to pleas from Malak's teachers to let her finish her education, and decided it was time for her to stay home and help her mother with chores. Her older sisters had all dropped out of school at even younger ages to get married, and Malak, too, would have to "conform to social norms," he insisted.
While the legal minimum age to get married is 18 in Egypt, child marriages are not uncommon in the poor marginalized southern communities, where girls are often married at early ages to alleviate their families' financial burdens. Some families circumvent the law by postponing the registration of the marriages until the girls turn 18. A 2017 census by CAPMAS, Egypt's national statistics agency, showed that 15% of Egyptian girls are married before they turn 16. But child marriage has been on the decline in recent years, largely due to awareness campaigns about the health implications of early marriage, including pregnancy and childbirth complications and higher risks of domestic violence.
Girls who marry early are also more likely to drop out of school. Yet in Egypt's rural south, many girls drop out of school to earn daily wages for their families, many times working in agriculture, or staying home to look after siblings. Poor families often choose to invest in their sons' educations with the hope they will grow up to become breadwinners.
Girls are also deprived of education due to gender-based violence. Parents worry their teenage daughters will be subjected to sexual harassment on their way to or from school, and some girls choose to drop out after experiencing abuse at the hands of their teachers.
An education program launched by CARE, an international humanitarian organization that has worked in Egypt since 1957, aims to change this grim picture and ensure safe education for all children, particularly girls.
"Thanks to a strong political will and donors' contributions, there has been tremendous progress in recent years in closing the gender gap in education," Hazem Fahmy, CARE's country director, told Al-Monitor
In 2012, more than 95% of Egyptian children aged between 6 and 18 were enrolled in school, according to UNICEF. The quality of education, however, remained "a major challenge." Last year, Egypt ranked 129th globally in terms of quality of education, according to the Spectator Index. Five years earlier, a report by the US Agency for International Development found that one in five third-graders in Egypt could not read a single word and 50% of students with five years of schooling were functionally illiterate.
Due to such statistics, the Egyptian government faces pressure to reform the education system. Overcrowding, poor teaching skills and violence in schools are among the problems the government is addressing as part of its plan to overhaul the system.
"The focus has now shifted from numbers to quality education," Fahmy said. "We want to ensure that all students are benefiting from attending school and to prepare them for jobs and career opportunities."
CARE has adopted a multifaceted approach to improve the learning environment and promote behavioral change in the Upper Egyptian governorates of Bani Sweif, Minya and Assiut. The program, launched in 2016, seeks to develop the infrastructure of schools, build the capacity of teachers and advance literacy in 32 targeted elementary schools. Engaging the local community in education is also part of the ambitious initiative.
Al Zeitoun Primary School in Bani Sweif, 145 kilometers (90 miles) south of Cairo, is one of 10 schools in the governorate that have undergone renovation financed by the Dubai-based philanthropic organization Dubai Cares, which works to improve children's access to quality primary education in developing countries. The renovation has included upgrading the school's electrical system, replacing windows and light fixtures, repairing water pipes and painting the walls and ceilings in bright colors. A fence has also been built around the school to curb truancy and protect students from trespassers.
"Something as basic as having bathroom doors fitted can make a huge difference, rendering the school student-friendly and a safe learning environment for the children, especially girls," said Fahmy.
"We have also built small kitchens in some of the schools to ensure that the students get healthy meals," he added.
Of the 1,100 students (half of them girls) at Al Zeitoun, 109 have been identified by teachers as having learning difficulties. They are attending an afterschool class to improve their reading and writing skills. The headquarters of the Community Development Association, a local nongovernmental organization, was chosen by the parents as the preferred venue to host the class due to its central location and proximity to the homes of many of the students. The class is part of a 36-session course that uses engaging reading material and fun activities to build the reading abilities of the students who are third- and fourth-graders. Each class is devoted to learning a single letter of the alphabet and to spelling words that begin or end with that letter.
Eleven-year-old Ne'ma Ali Omar shouts out the Arabic letter "Jeem" as she dribbles a basketball with one hand, getting ready to throw it into the hoop. When she misses, 10-year-old Rahma Farrag steps in and starts bouncing the ball while shouting out words that begin with the letter. She succeeds in throwing the ball through the hoop, much to the delight of the other children who cheer and clap.
"Activities of this kind help boost the children's self-confidence and teach them team spirit while improving their reading skills. Some of the children were awfully shy and could hardly read or spell any words before attending these readability sessions. Now they come to the school library looking for new books to read," Mohamed Abul Fadl, an Arabic-language teacher at the school, told Al-Monitor.
"Besides acquainting the teachers with the various methods and tools to improve children's reading skills, we also gave them tips on how to develop their teaching skills," Mona Kotb, field supervisor at CARE's Education Program in Bani Sweif, told Al-Monitor.
"We advise them against using violence of any form to punish the students," she said.
In remote southern communities where poverty is rampant, some teachers have been known to use violence and other excessive disciplinary measures, including beating children with canes, as a means of punishment. In one case, a teacher in Luxor cut the hair of two 12-year-old schoolgirls to punish them for not wearing a veil to school.
"The creation of school-based child protection committees has gone a long way in curbing bullying and other forms of violence in the targeted schools," said Ali Khalaf, general manager of the Nasser Education Directorate in Bani Sweif. The directorate, a local branch of the Ministry of Education, has been partnering with CARE to implement the program.
The activation of student unions in some of the targeted schools is also helping change behavior by boosting students' self-esteem.
"We have witnessed firsthand the impact the student unions have had on some of the students, giving them a voice and allowing them to communicate their needs to teachers and headmasters while helping develop their leadership skills," said Khalaf.
Michelle Nunn, the president and CEO of CARE, is confident that Egypt's education reforms will have far-reaching effects on the entire society.
"Girls' education is part of the empowerment of women," she told Al-Monitor after a recent inspection tour of some of CARE's projects in Cairo, Minya and Assiut. "By accessing education, girls can potentially increase their family's earnings by up to 20% annually. When women access education, they achieve greater productivity and well-being from a health perspective."
"I hope that girls and women can realize their full potential and have the capacity to feel their own power in education, health and economic opportunities. There is so much potential still; if realized, it can be transformational for the entire society."