©Governorate of Ismalia, Egypt, 2010

The 2010 UNESCO Confucius Prize for Literacy was awarded to the Governorate of Ismailia in Egypt for its Females for Families programme.

Abu-Ashur, Egypt: where girls lead community development

If the family is the basic unit of society, then it makes sense for literacy programmes to target families. This is the reasoning behind the Egyptian literacy programme in the remote Egyptian town of Abu-Ashur.

The Ismailia Governorate has a population of 1 million and an overall literacy rate of 78%, which it wants to raise to 93% in five years with the help of its partners - and a group of girls from Abu-Ashur.

None of the 4,000 families in Abu-Ashur earn more than US $60 a month. Their main occupation is farming land reclaimed from the desert. The 30,000 inhabitants suffer from inadequate health and education services; high illiteracy, ill health, early marriage and child labour are widespread.

The Governorate launched its development programme in Abu-Ashur with a participatory study covering everything from basic personal information – birth dates, levels of education, occupations of family members – to attitudes towards the education of girls. A database was developed and the data analysed.

“We want to have a better life” was how people from Abu-Ashur summed up their development goals: higher income, improved life skills and more efficient services. It emerged that “family”, with its associations of trust and interaction, was the most significant word in the community. Family-based development was born.

Local families designated 120 girls for an intensive six-month training as development leaders: this included literacy, health, human rights, income-generation and administrative and communication skills. After training, the girls returned to Abu-Ashur to work with family members on a menu-based, customized basis.

The group of girls – one per ten families – was the pillar of the programme. The other was a permanent resource centre in the town, staffed with a doctor, a vet, an education specialist, a loan officer and other professionals. The Governorate held regular information meetings, built partnerships and financed micro-enterprises.

The girls established home literacy classes which addressed daily problems. They imparted information on health, hygiene and family planning, trained people in cooking, crafts or agriculture, accompanied them to the doctor or vet, encouraged drop-outs to return to school and helped secure small loans. They became focal points for the administration, helping family members obtain identity cards, election cards and driving licenses, as well as entitlements such as disability benefits.

The local people’s increased self-esteem can be deduced from their own words: “Ours is the best village in Egypt”. is a genuine social and cultural breakthrough which goes beyond reading and writing or even integrating literacy as a part of everyday life. Perhaps the most striking feature is that it has transformed local girls into leaders in their community and swept away its prejudices about women in public life. As one learner remarked, “Who would believe that those girls would manage to do this?”

Jean O’Sullivan

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