Delaying marriage gets passing grade
In rural Egypt, special program empowers girls to be students before brides
Tribune Special Report - From Child to Bride
Second of two parts
Dec. 13, 2004
BY CHRISTINE SPOLAR/Tribune foreign correspondent
DAQUF, Egypt - The girls in this village near the languid waters of the Nile were always told they could do no better than to marry young, as early as 11, no later than 16.
Shy, dark-eyed Um Kalthoum Hassan was rarely allowed to step beyond the threshold of her home. Nora Abdullah, a teenager with rough hands and broad shoulders, was sent to the cotton fields as her brothers went to school. Nasra Jamal begged off her first marriage proposal at age 13, but she feared it was only a matter of time before she became a bride.
Eventually they and four dozen other girls considered to be near marrying age -- illiterate and seemingly unremarkable 13- and 14- year-olds -- embarked on a small, brave experiment that questioned how and why girls are made into brides. In this farming community 120 miles south of Cairo, the youngsters were immersed, over 2 1/2 years, in six years' worth of study and buffeted by far more than ABCs.
Ping-pong was on the agenda. So was electrical wiring and cooking, with each girl learning to pull apart a light socket and, as importantly, finesse a smooth tomato puree.
Soon the girls were challenged by other mysteries of life. Did they know the names of their own body parts? What were they used for? Was pregnancy something that their bony hips, flat chests and teenage brains could handle?
School suddenly crystallized, in their words, as salvation. "No one ever explained reproduction before," said Nora Abdullah, now 18. "Women are just expected to have babies. . . . Then they have all these children and they have to marry them off to get rid of the burden.
"I would've been married without this class," she said, in Arabic. "We all would have. . . . There are still parents who want to get us married."
Child marriage exists almost everywhere in the world, but slums and rural areas of developing countries produce some of the most luckless young brides. Daquf's girls were part of a fresh and holistic approach to changing possibilities and expectations of adolescent girls and their families in rural Egypt.
The web of programs launched in 2001--based in literacy, sports, life skills education and family seminars--is being examined as a possible model for the rest of Egypt and other troubled spots to ensure that childhood doesn't end in forced marriage.
In many countries, social workers have combated child marriage through education programs. India, for instance, has focused on keeping girls in school with the idea that a one- or two-year delay in marriage has a positive effect on their health.
Still, even with a broad government effort, girls often do not find support within their families to remain in school. Unless families and communities are pulled in to help preserve a girl's childhood, there are powerful religious, cultural and economic forces that can overwhelm any girl.
"We're talking about married girls, not married women," said Judith Bruce, a program director at the Population Council, an international policy research group. "When you consider the health consequences and the human cost, this is probably the largest human- rights abuse you could name."
Girls wed as young as 7 have little say in when or whom they marry. Deemed women once they are made wives, the girls no longer, if they ever did, attend school. They rarely have access to contraception. More to the point, they usually have no inkling of why they might want contraceptives anyway. A good wife should give birth in the first year of marriage, and, often married to older men, the girls must succumb to all sexual demands.
The problems attributed to child marriage are well-documented. Teen brides die during pregnancy and in childbirth at double the rate of women in their 20s. Girls pregnant by age 10 to 14 are five times more likely to die than women twice their age. Babies borne by girls are sicker, weaker and less likely to survive childhood. Girls with older, experienced husbands suffer sexually transmitted diseases at a galloping rate, so high that they now make up a population highly vulnerable to the AIDS virus.
This month, top AIDS experts warned that India, where child brides still abound within the billion-plus population, is on the brink of having an epidemic parallel to those in Africa.
None of this is exactly news in Cairo, New Delhi or Addis Ababa, where laws limit the age of marriage to 16 in the case of Egypt, and 18 in India and Ethiopia. But such laws are routinely ignored among the poor and the least educated.
Poverty, outright gender prejudice--girls are less valued than boys--and fears about a girl's virginity often are the stated reasons for early marriage. Cultural bonds are so strong that even countries with strict child protections have seen forced marriage emerge among immigrants from Pakistan, India and the Middle East.
British officials have been forced to deal with the problem on two fronts. Girls are being spirited out of Britain as underage brides, but, increasingly, illegal weddings are also taking place secretly in Britain. The Pakistani or Bangladeshi girls involved are daughters of immigrants, but they themselves are British nationals needing protection.
"It's not as if this is a shocking Third World thing," London caseworker Heather Harvey said. "It's not foreign. It's here."
This month, ministers from across Europe and experts from UN agencies met in Sweden to define strategies to combat increasing incidents of forced marriage. In the United States, Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, is sponsoring legislation to create an office in the State Department to address child marriage.
Snapshot of early marriage
The backwaters of Egypt provide a snapshot of why and how the practice endures. In contrast to more urban areas of the country, where the average age for marriage is rising, these villages still are home to child brides and forced unions.
Daquf is just a 45-minute drive from Minya, a university city of 4 million people, yet its dirt-poor villagers rely on donkey carts and scythes to eke out a living from its green fields and dark soil. Children and marriage are among the few tangible signs of success. In the village of 20,000, one priest estimates that about 70 percent of the girls marry before 18.
But there were glimmers of possibilities in Daquf and three other nearby villages that research groups, and increasingly the government, found intriguing.
All the villages had literacy classes, if somewhat haphazard, that indicated an interest in educating girls. All had sports centers that adhered to new standards from Cairo to create girls- only hours. And prominent community and religious leaders, in conversations with private agencies, seemed willing to address the problem of early marriage.
"I walk around the village and I see a girl only so tall with a baby," said Hilal Mohammed Hassan, a father of four and bakery inspector for the government who devotes long hours to community projects. "I don't claim to know a lot, but you have to wonder how a girl can handle a husband, a baby and all the problems of married life."
"We're talking about a forgotten class in Daquf that is ignored in education, health and everything else."
Hassan, 47, was among the first to hear a proposal from aid groups, including Save the Children, Caritas and the Population Council. They would fashion a comprehensive effort to educate as many as 200 girls in the countryside if the community would agree to a few conditions.
The new program--called Safe Spaces for Girls to Learn, Play and Grow--would demand time, 2 1/2 years of intense study. Sports had to be allowed as a way to build confidence and friendship. The girls would work toward specific goals: literacy, delayed marriage and a clear opportunity to advance to public school.
"It was an effort that pushed all of us," said Sheik Ali Wafdy Mohammed, an imam who, along with the village Coptic priest, was deemed crucial to the project's success.
"This was new for us," Mohammed said. "We are an Eastern community and we have our traditions. Early marriage is a tradition. For me to advise parents and families, I had to be convinced. Once we were convinced, we could convince."
The imam and the priest pressed for straight talk from several doctors about how to address common taboos, Hassan said. Initial parent conferences proved that the learning curve would be precipitous. At one point, a group of mothers bolted from a meeting, too embarrassed to sit with men while they spoke about "ugly things," as one woman said.
They were talking about menstruation.
Hassan recalled that Mohammed had to counsel families that it was OK to talk about reproductive health. Mohammed found a way--calling separate meetings with fathers and then mothers--to answer questions from parents. Then another crisis arose. The girls were handed track suits for exercise classes.
No teenage girl in Daquf, where two-thirds of the families are Muslim, had ever worn pants in public. None had ever played on a field or courts where neighborhood boys could see. Another compromise was divined. Unlike boys, girls would not walk from their homes to the sports halls wearing track suits. They would change once they were inside. Time at the sports center was scheduled so boys and girls never crossed paths.
"We don't take risks on sin," Hassan said. "I can improvise on everything but religion here."
Given their illiteracy and age, hundreds of girls could qualify for the program. Two hundred were admitted for the first class, in fall 2001. Almost every one had to argue her way past her parents to enter. In the first month alone, 10 percent dropped out, and attendance was a constant struggle.
Time and again, teachers went door to door to soothe parents' fears.
Rumors spread across the village, and parents worried: Girls would talk about female circumcision--and eventually they did. Girls would play with boys--a fear that never materialized. Girls would not get married if they went to school. That, parents were firmly told, was exactly the point.
"This is not like trying to add nutrition to a child-care program," said Moushira Khattab, secretary general of Egypt's National Council for Childhood and Motherhood, which provided some funds but kept a distance from dictating specifics. "This is going into a community and getting the community to talk about their most neglected population. Nothing was easy."
No one understood that more than the girls.
A chance at education
By 13, Nora Abdullah had lived through back-breaking years of field harvest and housework. There was never a question that her six brothers would attend school. If Nora begged for a chance, her parents argued that schooling a girl was useless. Nora said she began dreaming about what it would be like to read.
When a woman knocked on her door one day and offered the new course, Nora couldn't spell her own name, but she demanded that the woman write something down that would guarantee her a spot.
"I wanted to learn--if only to be able to read my own name," the girl said. "I fought and fought with my parents over this. Even if I had to pay myself, and I don't know how, I wanted to learn how to read."
Her parents were worn down by her arguments. Warily, they sent Nora ahead.
For Nasra Jamal, the rap on the door tapped the same passion. Her parents didn't argue with their oldest daughter so much about the book learning. It was the idea that Nasra would learn how to throw and kick a ball. Volleyball and soccer were in the curriculum. That, they said, could hurt her marriageability.
They, like most parents, held some very firm, and very wrong, beliefs. They thought a girl could lose her virginity--break her hymen--by stretching her legs. They worried she would lose weight, and that would be a problem in the countryside, where men looking for wives like fat women. They also feared that bright-eyed Nasra, gregarious in daily life, would do something shameful in the heat of the game: shout.
Teachers scrambled to save the sports regimen. Soccer was out, ping-pong in. Doctors held parent conferences for four months. Fathers were given permission to watch their daughters at play. Nasra was allowed to attend class.
The coursework was rigorous. The girls had to quickly learn the Arabic alphabet and numbers. They were grilled on the functions of Egyptian government. They had to figure out how to string letters into words and words into sentences, all on paper for their parents to see, to prove that they were worth something.
Even as the girls pursued their class work, they worried that they were not safe from an early marriage. One 14-year-old was married and sent to another village. Other friends and cousins, whose parents forbade them to join the program, were married soon after their first menstrual period.
One day, Nasra, then 15, heard that her parents had an offer of marriage, and she panicked. She raced to the imam's front door and pleaded. Tall and soft-spoken, he persuaded Nasra's parents to give her more time.
Um Kalthoum Hassan was as nervous as anyone about her chances to stay in school. Her father, deeply conservative, had refused to allow any of his children to attend school, and girls were not allowed to stray far from home. To get into the new program, Um Kalthoum, the oldest child, also implored the imam--who happened to be her uncle--for help.
Mohammed spent days and hours discussing the Prophet Muhammad's teachings with his brother. Nothing in the Koran prohibits women from school, and Islam celebrates educated women, he counseled. Um Kalthoum's father agreed, with one caveat: Every night, the girl would teach her eight siblings.
"I took every class seriously," Um Kalthoum said. "Every class was not just learning letters, it was about the issues we live every day. We learned to cook, we learned to make yogurt, we learned how to make sweets. Every day, I came home and taught everyone."
Over time, the girls began calling their school Ishraq, translated roughly from Arabic to mean Illumination or Enlightenment, and with good reason.
In Um Kalthoum's family, the girls proved so able that the father agreed that a younger daughter should join the class. As younger sisters grew to school age, he bent further. They could attend public school.
There were other surprises. Sports gave the girls a confidence they hadn't anticipated. They became more at ease with their bodies. When teachers began seminars on childbearing, a year into the program, there were simmering anxieties. Tough questions arose-- and, again, parent conferences were arranged--but the human body was deemed a legitimate course of study.
The girls learned the names of every body part, and, suddenly, periods and pregnancy made sense. Early marriage, they discovered, went against all health advice. The girls, now 15 and 16, dutifully reported everything back to their mothers. None of their moms, they said in interviews, had ever had menstruation or conception explained to them.
"All the information we had before was wrong. Our parents passed it on to us. And it turns out they didn't know anything," Nora said.
The girls' curiosity veered beyond the lesson plan. By the third year of the program, they finally asked aloud the question they had been talking about among themselves. Why had they all been circumcised between age 9 and 14?
Female genital cutting remains a tradition in some rural cultures, and Egypt has a particularly persistent problem with the practice, a known health risk. Girls endure the removal of the clitoris and other genital tissue, often without anesthetic, and can suffer lifelong complications including extreme pain during intercourse, hemorrhage and urinary infections.
The girls in Daquf were unaware of the debate over circumcision. What they knew was that they had suffered an intimate wrong. Nasra had nearly bled to death after her circumcision at 12. Nora had been told that the slicing up of her labia was a celebration, a special day worth a succulent chicken and sweets. "Now I know that I was lied to," Nora said.
The girls appealed to their teachers to call parent meetings. They couldn't save themselves, but they wanted to save their sisters. They began campaigns in their own homes. The men on Ishraq's advisory board were startled by the effort. After all, they had once wondered whether these girls would ever master a declarative sentence.
Now they heard the girls lecturing their mothers and explaining what would happen to their sisters. Nasra and Um Kalthoum even began holding nighttime seminars in their neighborhoods. It wasn't the kind of talk that the imam wanted to bring up at Friday prayer but, in private conversations, he told the parents that the girls had their facts right.
The girls said they were not sure whether they convinced their parents, but they were certain, no matter what happens now, that their own daughters would not be circumcised.
Power over their lives
In the end, the successes of Ishraq might be best understood in the next generation. A little over half of the original 200 girls graduated from Ishraq. Along the way, five girls married and left the program. But dozens of girls, even among those who didn't graduate, said Ishraq helped them gain power to determine when they would marry. In many cases, they told researchers, they effectively persuaded their parents to let them wait.
Last summer, children were tested for admission to public school. Of the 50 girls who started Ishraq in Daquf, 43 took the exam. Thirty-eight passed.
One of the girls left behind was Nasra Jamal, but not because she failed the exam.
It turns out that Nasra, desperate to go to school, lied in the first hectic days of Ishraq. She told teachers that she was 14 and that a goat had eaten her birth certificate. Public school officials were skeptical. They found Nasra's birth certificate on file in the district government office and realized that she was 19 this fall. She was, they said, too old for 7th grade.
Nasra, who now works in the field and home, was heartbroken. Surprisingly, so was her mother, Nadia, who initially dismissed the idea of education for girls.
"We suffer here," said Nadia, 37, who has six children. "We do very hard work and we never had enough money . . . but, really, I wish Nasra could have stayed on there forever. She'd come home and tell us about every single day. . . . She taught us a lot.
"In my day, you were forced into marriage," she said. "When they brought in the groom, and you didn't like him, you were beaten until you accepted. That was the way it was."
Now, when Nasra gets married depends on the offers and, her mother said, even on Nasra's opinion.
Written scores were only one measure of the program. Word of the Ishraq girls has spread. This year the program was expanded to 300 girls. There is already a waiting list of 280. There are hopes that the program can be replicated in whole swaths of the Upper Nile to as many as 120 villages, but money is the barrier. Government funds are spare.
The British government, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the non-governmental groups that funded the first round of classes are still committed. The U.S. State Department is weighing whether educating girls into womanhood translates into its vision of reform in the Middle East. Ishraq is being considered for hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Middle East Partnership Initiative, a broad aid program aimed at spreading and supporting democracy.
"I'd be lying if I said we had a 100 percent success here, but you can say we laid a base," community leader Hassan said. "My motive was simple: for these girls to have a change in their lives. And it's really what happened."
Among the girls who went on to public school, few fear that they will be married before they earn a diploma for finishing 12th grade. Once the least valued of girls, they now are a little special in Daquf.
Nora Abdullah laughs out loud at how they tower over all the other 7th graders. She doesn't really care, she said. She figures that for the rest of her life, she'll always be a bit different.
"I want to get a diploma and use it. I want to be a nurse. Yes. And I will fight for that too, God willing," she said.
Um Kalthoum studies every day and, as a girl who excelled in Ishraq's cooking class, she is among the first to have a job. She bakes and sells honey cookies at a pastry shop opened by her school instructor.
The job offer sparked predictable ire from her father. Um Kalthoum relied on well-honed negotiating skills. She promised to still teach at home and even help her sister who failed the public school test. She would get her sister a job too. All the family, she promised, would benefit from an extra 80 pounds, or $13 a month.
"I think Ishraq taught us how to convince people in what we believed," Um Kalthoum said one afternoon as she cut up sweet rolls and rang up sales from a steady stream of customers. "I was afraid at the beginning. Afraid of school and afraid of this work. I didn't know if I could do any of it. ...
"But there were things in Ishraq that made us strong. And I think," she said, "we're a little stronger than most."
The Reporting Team:
Christine Spolar was the Tribune's Middle East correspondent for three years, covering the Palestinian intifada and the war in Iraq. Her work has won an Investigative Reporters and Editors national reporting award and two Emmys.