A great deal of international attention has been fixed on Egypt recently as the country continues to struggle with political instability and democratic transition. Often lost in broader geostrategic discussions is the situation of education and of young people more broadly, particularly young women. Yet youth issues are critical given that over 50 percent of the country’s population is under the age of 24, and one-quarter of the population is between 18 and 29 years old. The prospects for young people in Egypt, especially for young women, are dire. Relative to boys, three times as many girls are out of school in Egypt, and poor young women are 18 times more likely to suffer extreme education poverty (less than two years of education) relative to wealthy young men. Less than one-quarter of 15- to 29-year-old women are economically active, compared to two-thirds of males of the same age.
To better understand and address these issues, and as part of its Education Leadership Series, the Center for Universal Education at Brookings hosted two young women from Egypt, Asmaa and Omneia, both of whom serve as girl ambassadors for Plan’s “Because I am a Girl” Campaign. Asmaa is a co-founder of Pioneers of Development, a youth organization focused on youth engagement and expanding employment opportunities for young people. Omneia is also a youth activist who has supported Plan’s youth empowerment and engagement activities. Asmaa and Omneia traveled to the United States to present the United Nations secretary-general with the Girl Declaration, which calls for girls’ issues to be central in the post-2015 agenda and is based on input from girls living in poverty and from partner organizations.
Drawing on their experiences as youth advocates, Asmaa and Omneia highlighted a number of issues for a private roundtable discussion on the challenges and opportunities for youth engagement and education in Egypt. During the discussion, speakers and participants highlighted a number of themes:
- There is a mutually beneficial relationship between youth engagement and education. As youth become more involved and empowered, they are better able to demand a quality education with relevance to their lives. This engagement is critical as illiteracy continues to prevent a full understanding of political rights. Because women and female youth suffer disproportionately from illiteracy, their political participation is also at risk.
- The speakers found that youth are willing to engage across political lines even where other actors are too entrenched to find ways to work together. This is a key advantage to working with youth groups in a highly politicized environment where it is hard to bring groups together. Youth find uniting factors and build upon these in order to work together to advance their development priorities.
- Both the speakers and the participants emphasized the positive impact that the Arab Spring movement in Egypt had on the perception—by youth and adults alike—of the efficacy of young people and the importance of their voice. Prior to the revolution, youth in Egypt were more often expected to defer to their elders, particularly in the realm of politics and civic works. The involvement of youth in the Arab Spring has inspired a generation of young people in Egypt to become politically involved and to share their voices. Asmaa and Omneia reported that their communities now routinely look to them and to their youth groups to lead when issues of community concern arise.
- A note of caution was sounded regarding the negative backlash that has arisen amid the faltering transition to democracy. Many participants noted that in some cases youth are being viewed as malcontents who are contributing to the political instability when they express their political views. As in many crises, women and girls are at higher risk of gender based violence, a theme which was discussed in response to a screened documentary segment on Egypt from the film Girl Rising by 10×10.