Three high school students in Fayoum are teaching their village to read
By Farah Al Akkad
Photographed by Hayssam Samir
omen are most often the ones left behind in literacy: In 2012, the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS) estimated that 10.3 million women nationwide are illiterate. The problem is especially pervasive in rural areas like Fayoum. According to the CAPMAS data, one third of the people in Fayoum cannot read, placing the mostly agricultural area south of Cairo third among Egyptian cities in terms of illiteracy rates. Three girls, not even out of secondary school, have made it their mission to change this, starting with their own village.
Fatma Sayed, Hagar Sultan and Fatma Mahmoud, all 15 years old and in grade 10, live in El-Agamyeen, a village of about 12,000 families 20 kilomters west of Fayoum City. With their school teacher Rabab Mohamed, and some help from local education initiatives from the technology giant Intel, these three girls have overcome cultural barriers and community resistance to set up a literacy program for the women in El-Agamyeen.
The idea came to them in 2012, as the three girls were participating in Intel Learn, an initiative that teaches technology literacy, problem-solving and collaboration skills to youth in developing countries. Sultan explains that during the program, “We started thinking of the different problems in our village, how we can help our community on the ground.”
Mahmoud explains that after some brainstorming, they decided to create a literacy program for adult women in their village, “particularly after reading about the shocking facts of the escalating illiteracy rates every year around Egypt.”
The girls say that they live in a culture that does not fully approve of a girl’s education, so most girls are taught the basics and then forced to leave school to find a husband and start a family. “Which made it a terribly difficult task, since it consisted mostly of convincing the people of our village,” Sayed says.
The girls started working on the ground with the help of their teacher Mohamed, herself a veteran of Intel Teach, a program that helps K-12 teachers to develop their teaching skills with next-generation technology and other professional development.
The first step in the project was to conduct a survey in the village. Sultan recalls, “We had to communicate with the people face to face to see how they will take the idea of our project.”
At first, the people of El-Agamyeen were not welcoming at all and looked upon the girls “as the aliens who are breaking our social norms,” Mahmoud recalls. However, after explaining the benefits for the community as a whole, “they were persuaded and most of them became really helpful in the whole process,” adds Sultan. “Face-to-face interaction was the best way to do it,” Mohamed says.
Being from the community itself and understanding its views was a big help. After months of talking to the villagers, the girls persuaded them that education would eventually make their daughters better mothers and better wives, and they could also earn a better living. Mahmoud says, “They gave in to us and felt we are here to help. [They felt] that we are also part of their culture but a bit more enlightened than them.”
“They would say that they want better lives for their children,” says Sayed, “[for them] to be more enlightened and aware of their surroundings, to help others and become productive members of their society.”
Mahmoud says the Intel Learn program helped them market their idea to the people of the village. “I used to be really shy and could not really express my point in any subject,” she says. “Intel not only taught me the skills of presentation and communication but also how to practically apply them.”
Besides communication skills, the Intel education initiatives focus on bringing basic technology skills, hardware and software to communities that have limited access to them. The girls learned how to use office programs to print pamphlets and ads about their project.
The second step was getting the approval of their school’s headmaster, who encouraged the girls and agreed to open after-school classes for their “Say No to Ignorance” literacy program. Sayed says they started in November 2012 with just 10 adult students; in 2013, they taught 30 students.
At the beginning, the three girls themselves were the main teachers, but when they started secondary school in 2013 they became too busy with their own studies, so their teacher Mohamed took over the classes. Mahmoud, Sultan and Sayed continue working with the class as assistants.
Besides correcting homework and taking attendance, the girls are in charge of arranging the class schedule to fit the women’s lives. Mahmoud explains, “Some women work and others need to stay with their children, so we arrange classes according to everyone’s free time to encourage them to attend and not use time as an excuse.”
The literacy program students range from young women in their early 20s, widows in their 40s to grandmothers in their 60s.
Even as the literacy program is growing, Sultan has come up with another project: a clothing workshop which she launched in 2013 with her two friends. “We have convinced the families of the girls who attend classes in our literacy program that their daughters or wives can work in our handmade clothing workshop,” Sultan explains, “which gives them a feeling of self satisfaction.”
The girls are trying to give the women of the village the same self-confidence they say they learned in the Intel program. “We never had the courage to speak up to people or [understood] the idea of group work,” Sayed says. “Intel gave us the chance to mix with different kinds of people and not just on an educational level but on a social and cultural level.”
“And how to express our opinion and respect other opinions,” adds Mahmoud. “Now the culture of many people in our village has greatly changed, thanks to Intel Learn.”
As for the future? Sultan says, “we are also looking to expand our literacy program in other schools around Fayoum and other cities such as El-Minya.” et