Being young and female often means not having access to education, decision making or positions of power. In some parts of the world it may also mean being forced to get married while still a child or being subjected to severe forms of violence such as female genital mutilation. October 11, International Day of the Girl, is a chance for all of us to draw attention to the potential of girls and to acknowledge that girls globally deserve the same rights as boys.
As part of the International Day of the Girl, originally an initiative brought forward by Plan International and later adopted by the UN, girls worldwide get the opportunity to “take over” positions of leaders and influencers. In practice this means that around 1000 girls in 60 countries will act as CEOs, presidents, mayors and MPs for the day, as a global display of the rights of girls to lead and be included in all aspects of public life.
This year, the Embassy of Finland in Cairo participated in the action for the first time, as our Ambassador agreed to let Suzanne Wael Kamal, 18, from Abu Musallam, Giza take over her position for the day. As Suzanne arrives on the morning of the takeover, I meet a girl who looks slightly younger than her age and who seems a bit shy, perhaps overwhelmed by the situation and her task.
Once we sit down for our staff meeting it soon becomes evident, however, that our new Ambassador has a lot to say. Suzanne is involved in several project and initiatives led by Plan International and when talking about her own experiences, her shyness disappears. She is an elected member of a youth advisory panel in Giza, and the issues of FGM, early marriage and access to education for girls are especially important to her. It is no surprise that these themes are central, as they unfortunately represent very real obstacles to female empowerment across Egypt.
According to our Acting Ambassador, customs, traditions as well as the attitudes among some parents, all stand in the way of Egyptian girls. With regards to female genital mutilation, parents may not have access to accurate information or understand the dangers associated with it, and therefore choose to have their daughters cut. Suzanne explains that Plan International led initiatives include working with Muslim and Christian scholars, as well as healthcare professionals, in order to convey the message of FGM as forbidden according to religion and detrimental to the health of girls and women.
Suzanne mentions being part of a project called “Our Space”, which aims to provide a safe space for girls and boys to gather and engage in dialogue. As she refers to attitudes of parents, including fathers, and projects involving boys, I am curious to know more about the role of boys and men in the empowerment of girls. Are they supportive and do they take matters seriously? According to Suzanne, the boys within her community were reluctant to take part in the initiatives to begin with, but have gradually changed their minds.
Silvana Casavilca, who is a manager at Plan International Egypt and accompanies Suzanne during the takeover, tells us that her experience in Egypt is that it is easier to involve the younger generation than the older. Plan International leads projects specifically aimed at boys and men, but it continues to be a challenge to get adult males to participate. Boys, however, are more enthusiastic, which means that there is hope for change in attitudes as they grow up and start their own families.
During the discussions, Suzanne wants to know more about the situation of girls and women in Finland and the challenges we face. I tell her that while Finnish women do not suffer the same injustices as Egyptian women, such as early marriage or not having access to education, it is important to acknowledge that our society is still far from equal. We earn less than our male colleagues do, men still dominate political leadership and the percentage of female CEOs remains low. Violence against women is a big issue and Finland is even rankedthe second most dangerous country in Europe for women.
As her day as Ambassador draws to an end, Suzanne seems pleased with the experience. She has enjoyed being part of the takeover- action and we have enjoyed having her at the embassy and getting an insight into the life of a young Egyptian girl. I am convinced that Suzanne will remain a social activist and a role model for her siblings and others around her. Together with her colleagues, girls and boys, involved in various initiatives, she will have the ability to gradually change her community from within. It is clear that her future daughters will never have to undergo FGM or drop out of school, Suzanne will make sure of this.
Text written by Intern Jelena Ahlblad