The educational system in Egypt, which fails to promote the notions of democracy and gender equality, plays a pivotal role in disempowering Egyptian women on legal, political and economic levels. Several government initiatives have been addressed to fill in this gap; however none of the suggested strategies were applied or implemented. Drawing on this problem, Magdy Aziz based his idea to promote and institutionalize the concepts of democracy and gender-equality within the formal educational system by creating “rights of the child groups” and “Children’s Law” within the classrooms, and by involving parents, teachers and decision-makers on a wider scale.
The idea is mainly structured to endorse and mainstream gender equality, political and community participation skills among young children within the existing educational system; through introducing and adopting gender-specific messages and gender-related articles of the “CRC” (Convention for the Rights of the Child) at public elementary schools. The fact that most work related to the rights of the child is disconnected from children’s day-to-day experiences at school and it is not participatory, makes Magdy’s approach a pioneering one; as it allows the interplay between students and teachers at the school level as well as parents and decision-makers at the governmental-level.
In implementing his idea Magdy undertakes different strategies and approaches, among which the most important is creating “rights of the child groups” during the school day, for children to have the space and time to practice their rights. His aim is instilling in girls (and boys) the skills and understanding to be able to participate in all school activities and to be leaders in school. He is creating an appropriate environment for children to practice their rights and for girls and boys to be treated as equals within and outside the school—in the larger community. He wants children to eventually be the messengers of his idea—relaying the idea to other children, as a much more effective way to spread it.
To ensure institutionalizing these ideas and to ensure systematic change, Magdy created school committees made up of members of the school board, parents, teachers, and supervisors to oversee the activities of the rights groups and to give it a permanent place in the school. Thus he is creating a direct link between school teachers and parents so that parents are part of the process, and so that both parents and teachers can spread the idea outside the classroom. In order to help his idea spread to other schools and education-levels as well as government institutions, he has created a consultative committee made up of decision-makers at the local and national level that are concerned with education.
Most other approaches to resolving gender inequalities in education are top-down. In Egypt, for example, they have taken the form of teacher trainings, revision of school curricula, and the community schools project. These approaches have led to measures of success in terms of providing opportunities for girls’ education and changing classroom dynamics. Magdy’s idea, however, works directly with the girls (and boys) themselves, empowering them so that they can demand the benefits of the top-down approach, demand the right to an empowering education.
On a different level, he is also working to operationalize and promote “Children’s Law,” by working to advocate and promote at the parental level and decision-making level the importance of implementing laws that protect children’s rights and prohibit discrimination between the sexes.
The educational system in Egypt is considered as a main factor structuring gender disparity and maintaining the stereotypical image of women in the social, economic and political arena. The Egyptian formal educational system does hardly foster democratic or critical thinking among students; as it mainly depends on traditional educational techniques such as memorizing where students are being effectively denied their right to participate, and to freely express their opinions and choices. On the same level, it plays a pivotal role in maintaining the status-quo of women’s inferiority compared to men. This is clearly illustrated through teachers’ biases against girls and preferences for boys’ active participation in sports and other school-activities. Men’s superiority is also emphasized because men are always associated with figures of power and authority; for example there are usually many more male teachers than female teachers especially among principals of schools. Additionally, educational curricula are not gender-sensitive, hindering girls’ creative capabilities and maintaining their feeling of Subalternity. One of the reasons for the biased school-books is the imbalance of number and power between male and female contributors to the government’s elementary school books.
No participation/ collaboration/input from parents and teachers
As a matter of fact, most work related to the rights of the child is currently isolated and disintegrated in the children’s daily experiences at the school-life, excluding any collaboration between the students, teachers, parents and decision-makers. As a result, policies although well-intentioned, very often lack the support or understanding of those whose lives they actually affect most. The fact that most educational reforms are always top-down and do not involve the participation of teachers or parents, emphasizes the specificity of Magdy’s initiative where he maintains a consistent and regular interplay between all parties on the school, parents and government levels. Therefore he bridges the gap between the policies as well as the grassroots’ level, paving the way for more understanding, realization and implementation of all notions of democracy, community participation and gender equality in the school-life.
According to the recent UN Arab Human Development Report, the Arab world suffers from three major deficits that are impeding its development: lack of freedom, a knowledge deficit and last but not least, a severe gender gap. This latter, manifests itself in the disempowerment of women in the legal, political and economic arenas—and these are exactly the areas that Magdy hopes to address with his Child Rights Groups programs in schools. For example, in the political arena, women hold about 6.1% of the total seats in Arab parliaments compared to 13.4% in Sub Saharan Africa. Women are also subject to discriminatory personal status laws within marriage, custody, and divorce, to name just a few. Arab women’s labor force participation trails behind all other regions of the world at 27%. This is exacerbated by one of the highest female illiteracy rates in the world, estimated at 48% for women over the age of 15, and by the world’s largest literacy gender gap in the world. In Egypt, although the constitution provides for equality of the sexes, aspects of the law and many traditional practices discriminate against women. Women are neither encouraged nor are they instilled with the skills and confidence to participate actively in the different policy-making processes. Women therefore don’t enjoy equal access to leadership positions as men. Women are underrepresented in the political sphere, and although the constitution reserves 10 Assembly seats for presidential appointees, which the President has traditionally used to assure representation for women, the representation of women in parliament is still minimal. In Egypt, women constitute only 2.4% of MPs in the 454-seat People’s Assembly.
Social Pressure & Rural Attitudes
Women have employment opportunities in government, medicine, academia, the arts, and to a lesser degree, in business. Labor laws provide for equal rates of pay for equal work for men and women in the public sector. According to government figures, women constitute 17 percent of private business owners and occupy 25 percent of the managerial positions in the four major national banks. However, social pressure against women pursuing a career is strong, and some women’s rights advocates say that a resurgent Islamic fundamentalist trend limits further gains. Women’s rights advocates also point to other discriminatory traditional or cultural attitudes and practices such as female genital mutilation and the traditional male relative’s role in enforcing chastity and chaste sexual conduct. In rural villages in Egypt, educating girls is often not regarded as a priority for parents. This isolates girls from participating in society from a young age. Young girls often join the growing pool of child workers, and get married very early, closing them off from public life and the labor force. To resolve this problem, Magdy is working on an aggressive advocacy campaign in Minya to change prevailing attitudes towards women’s roles in society, and believes that only by addressing this problem at an early age in elementary school—can we hope to change attitudes and skills of both girls and boys.
Drawing on his well-rounded experience and significant network within the educational system,
Magdy established his own NGO “Al Tanweer (The Enlightenment) Foundation for Education and Development” in Minya. The organization created 20 “Child Rights Groups”, in 20 primary schools, working directly with 544 students including 303 girls, where the students’ educational levels range between the 3rd and fifth primary classes. . It is also anticipated that the program will indirectly impact a total number of 12029 students, including 5502 female students.
Most activities are directed to the promotion and endorsement of critical thinking, negotiation skills and gender equality among the participating students. The program instills all students, especially girls to express themselves freely and participate actively in decision making which will allow them active participation in public life in the future. It also focuses on raising gender awareness and shaping boys’ attitudes towards accepting girls’ active participation in school and society. The program is also addressing major concerns to change the school curriculum as to encourage students to express themselves freely and creatively, without any discrimination between girls and boys.
In each school, the child-rights group consists of 30 to 35 , maintaining religious and gender diversity, where they meet once a week for 2-3 hours, and are supervised by 2 supervisors who are in turn under the supervision of the school committee made up of 6 people. Through story telling, film showing, role-playing and groups’ discussions, the program directs a main focus to educate the students about their rights enshrined in different international and national conventions and laws. Although Egypt is a signatory of the Convention on the Rights of the Child emphasizing gender equality and children’s rights of self-expression; as well as it issued a law for the protection of the child Law 12 for the year 1996, none of the rights and responsibilities in the law neither the convention have been implemented, and the rights of children are clearly violated especially those of girls in rural parts of Egypt, where the prevalent culture prefers boys in matters of education and the expression of opinions. In response to this problem, Magdy is working to operationalize and promote Children’s Law through regular campaigns and activities.
For example, in addressing the CRC, each child or group of children can choose an activity related to the rights topic under discussion, such as drawing, writing a story, cartoons, to be displayed at a conference about Child Rights at the end of the year. (This is in addition to other activities such as camps at school to solve particular problems such as cleanliness, exchanging visits with other schools, and educational trips). In addition to the CRC, the curriculum developed by “El-Tanweer”, includes more issues such as delineation of rights and responsibilities, violations against children, fair rights and equality before the law, respect of other people’s rights, the right of girls to an education, elections and democracy, cooperation, equality, tolerance, and peace.
Magdy’s strategy has always focused on trying to promote change and attitudes by working through the formal educational system. Magdy conducted a campaign to spread awareness in 4 villages for two months in the summer of 2002 about the declining level of primary education, using puppet-shows, before the start of the new school-year. As a result of the increased interest by parents, the number of dropout-students who returned to the 2002/2003 school year increased by 23.4% from the 2001/2002 school year (during the 2001/2002 school year the number of dropout-students who returned to school increased by 14.2% from the year before). Magdy also initiated a campaign on how to use clean and renewable energy (solar energy) in 5 areas of Minya. In the summer of 2003 students in 15 elementary, middle, and high schools, were trained on how to use solar panels as part of his campaign.
Another main achievement of the program is its success to allow children presenting their problems and actively participate in the problem solving process; one of the problems suggested by children in Saft El Laban is the problem of illiteracy, so Magdy decided to find the funding to start a project to eradicate illiteracy. In another village, children said that the problem was the high percentage of child blindness so he contacted Maghraby Company, a sunglasses company to get funding for a project to eradicate trachoma in two villages in Upper Egypt).
In the long term, Magdy plans to expand his method and approach of teaching on a wider scale among government schools, providing children the skills to think critically, express themselves freely, participate positively, and to instill leadership skills, with a special focus on gender-equality. He will spread and institutionalize his idea through partnering with the Ministry of Education and linking up with members of parliament through Ashoka’s connections.
In 2003 Magdy established 20 “Child Rights Groups” within 20 public elementary schools in Minya, with an aim to instill in young children the principles of participation, democracy, and gender equality. His focus is on gender equality and eradicating gender discrimination. He began by training teachers and then working with the children. He trains children to question, to think critically, and on their right to express themselves freely and on ways to do that. He instills in them leadership skills with a focus on gender equality. The training is not theoretical but involves a participatory methodology and on the-job training. As a result of his work, these 20 schools got the children involved in class-room elections, and after a year, girls represented 26% of those elected as class president, and 72% of those elected as class vice president. He is working on engaging decision-makers in a conference to discuss the role of girls in primary school text-books, in order to make text-books reflect the gender-equality he envisions and aspires to.
No participation/collaboration/input from parents and teachers
Usually educational reform is implemented in a very top-down fashion, with little or no participation from parents and teachers, and as a result limiting the gains of the reforms. To address this gap, Magdy created 20 School Committees each made up of a principle, the two supervisors of the Rights Groups, an active school teacher, and 2 parents from the PTO (numbering 120 members per school). He created workshops and trainings to spread awareness about child-rights among parents. He also created a Consultative Committee made up of decision-makers from the Ministry of Education as well from the governorate of Minya, and includes the Secretary General of the Governorate of Minya, a representative of the Ministry of Education in Minya, a representative of the Ministry of Education, 3 concerned individuals in the field of education in Minya (and many more). Their role is to try to spread the idea and to help overcome all prevailling obstacles. Magdy’s goal is to provide his target group of students, parents, the school committee, and the consultative committee all information and skills enabling them to help institutionalize gender equality and to end discrimination against girls in their schools and communities. Magdy included these diverse groups in order to foster a participatory environment to address local problems and to propose solutions in a mature way. He is currently working with 40 teachers (2 supervising each rights group in each school), 20 principals, 544 parents, and 15 decision-makers from the Ministry of Education and from the governorate. Indirectly, he is working with 611 teachers, 4000 parents, and 50 decision-makers from the Ministry of Education and from the governorate. In addition to training local teachers and students, Magdy has trained 5 people from different areas of Egypt, aiming for them to apply the idea and create local advocates in their areas.
Social Pressure & Rural Attitudes
In order to address ingrained attitudes, Magdy’s strategy is advocacy work, through which he wants to change attitudes and understandings of children’s rights, especially those of girls. His advocacy work is working on changing attitudes of both men and women and the larger community with regards to women’s leadership role in society. Magdy will continue to campaign with the first 20 primary government-schools, and in the next year, he plans to increase the number of schools to 40. He will set up meetings to spread awareness among students, parents, the school committees, and educational and local decision-makers. He plans to have an exhibition, publications, posters out of children’s own creative work to spread awareness and promote children’s rights. He wants to have conferences for decision-makers and concerned parties at the local and national level, and to ultimately have a website about his initiative to spread his idea internationally. As a result of his advocacy work during the first year, Magdy expects to work with 12,000 students. During the second year, he expects the number to double to 24,000 students, 2000 parents and decision-makers. To reach social impact, to spread to a national level, he worked with 10 other NGOs in Minya that work on early-childhood, in order to spread his idea. He started an exhibition for drawing for children on civic education and gender equality, and the minister attended the exhibition and was impressed by the impact.
Non-implementation of signed agreements and laws
As part of his effort to operationalize and promote children’s law, he also conducted a campaign to encourage the local community in Minya to participate in the decision-making process of the education-system. He spread awareness among parents and teachers in the PTOs of 35 primary government-schools as well as to local NGOs and CDAs about the necessity of taking a more active role to raise the standards of the education system. Following the campaign, in cooperation with a research-center, Magdy conducted a field research on “Community Participation in Education and on Activating the Role of PTOs in schools,” which is currently being published. The book will be on display at the National Egyptian Book House, and will help spread awareness at the national level of the importance of community involvement in improving the education system, including the importance of implementing ministerial law 5 (1993) 613 (1998) to activate the role of the PTOs.
He managed to get funding from Denmark, UNDP, and the Social Fund For Development, but he needs Ashoka for recognition. He also needs to be given the freedom offered by our Ashoka stipend in order not need to worry about raising funds, and to be able to dedicate himself fully to spreading his idea and working with the government. He also needs Ashoka to connect him to high-ranking policy makers and members of parliament in order to institutionalize his concepts in the educational system.
Magdy was born in 1960 in Minya, in Southern Egypt. Since he was nine he was a school leader and was very active as a scout. He was influenced by an Egyptian Catholic Priest, Father Moneer Khozam—who taught him how to participate in building his society and how to “choose” to think independently and out of the box. He also taught him how to serve in a secular manner and still stay close to God. During school and throughout university, he used to go to villages and do volunteer work with communities. He was unable to work for the government as he believed that the bureaucracy was too inefficient and stifling to create positive change. He is definitely a creative problem solver.
When Magdy graduated from university in 1982, receiving a B.A in Education from the University of Minya, he first worked as a teacher and then joined the Upper Egyptian Association for Social Development, where he worked for 17 years. At the Upper Egyptian Association for Social Development, he began the parallel school project because he found that women came with their children to literacy programs and he thought the best way to engage them is through establishing non-traditional schools for their children who are school drop-outs.
Magdy is a Catholic—a minority within the Christian minority in Egypt. His father was a French teacher and his mother was a housewife. He has 5 brothers—all of whom are educated.
He has two boys and his wife is a secondary school professor. He supported her decision to get an M.A. and took care of the children while she was studying—which is quite unheard of in Minya, a conservative upper-Egyptian rural governorate.
From working in the field of education and development for 20 years, especially in the South of Egypt, it became apparent to him that the number of male students was far greater than the number of female students at schools because of the prevailing culture of preferring to educate boys over girls. He also noticed that it was rare to see girls participating in sports, cultural, or theatrical events. For this reason, he says, it is not rare to see boys playing the roles of girls in school plays. Moreover, girls are completely absent from school radios. Girls are also absent from sports especially Karate and basketball, and boys are always assuming the position of class-leaders. Magdy believes that education and especially educating children is the best way to change attitudes and behavior. In response to the dire gender-gap he saw in the South of Egypt, he established his NGO and began a number of projects including the civic education program-“Rights groups” to eradicate gender discrimination as well as a project to operationalized and promote “Children’s Law.”
It took 9 months for the Ministry of Education and state security to agree for him to introduce his curriculum into 20 schools, specially that civic education and the Convention for the Right of the Child are considered political—but he never gave up. Teachers and principals doubted his intentions—He is Christian and wants to introduce new concepts like gender equality in public schools in remote villages in Minya. He worked on them until they were convinced.
Magdy also worked on a project entitled “Youth Forum for Volunteering” with NGOs in Minya and an NGO in Cairo and Assyut, and with two youth clubs to spread the culture of volunteering among students in schools and universities, with a focus on the inclusion of girls and giving girls equal opportunities. Magdy is a member of the board of this forum. Magdy also worked on a project to search for and take care of genius children and he founded the Egyptian Union for Brilliant (genius) children. There too he promotes and focuses on equal opportunities for girls.
Magdy believes that when education is based on more choice, participation, and critical thinking, this allows both male and female children to grow into more critical-minded, participatory citizens. Magdy has a profound belief that education is the key to changing and shaping children’s view-points, values, understandings and skills, enabling them to change their societies for the better. It is necessary for boys and girls to gain an understanding of their right to expression of opinion and positive participation, and for both boys and girls to have equal rights and opportunities from a young age. Children are the future and will lead society in the future, and by getting children to practice their rights and to bear their responsibilities, we will be able to create a generation that will be truly inclusive of females, and committed to fostering and creating change.