Empowering Adolescent Girls in Socially Conservative Settings
Impacts and lessons learned from the Ishraq program in rural Upper Egypt
In rural Upper Egypt, adolescence is a critical period in girls' transition to adulthood during which they are at risk for a number of negative outcomes, including restricted mobility and early marriage and childbearing. This study evaluates and presents lessons learned from Ishraq, an educational program that established safe spaces for out-of-school adolescent girls in rural Upper Egypt. Baseline and end-line surveys were administered to all households containing an eligible girl in the program areas. We analyze the predictors of program enrollment and dropout and use difference-in-differences estimation to evaluate the impact of the program on participants as compared to non-participating eligible girls.
Although we find positive impacts on literacy, attitudes toward sports, and reproductive health knowledge, little impact was found on broader indicators of empowerment, and no impact on the attitudes of participants' mothers or brothers. The experience of the Ishraq program highlights several key challenges facing safe spaces programs for adolescent girls, including targeting of a dispersed population with restricted mobility, reaching girls at a young age, achieving community-level attitudinal change, and the need for long-term follow-up of participants to measure behavioral change. Ishraq had a positive effect on both measures of reproductive health, increasing by 19 percentage points girls' ability to name a contraceptive and by 17 percentage points the likelihood that they expressed the desire to have three children or fewer. There was no difference in girls' likelihood of seeking care from a medical professional when sick.
On attitudes toward harmful practices, Ishraq increased by 15 percentage points girls' intention not to perform FGM on their daughters and by 11 percentage points their agreement that the appropriate age for marriage is 18 or older. No impact was seen on attitudes toward formal education as measured by agreement that girls should finish at least secondary school.The fact that we find no effect on parents' and brothers' attitudes highlights what is perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of programs such as Ishraq for at-risk adolescent girls: what it means to change a girl's long-term outcomes in a context where other actors exert a high degree of influence over those outcomes.
Although Ishraq included community engagement activities, this does not appear to have had any quantifiable impact on mothers' or brothers' attitudes. The persistence of conservative attitudes toward girls' social roles and the difficulty of reducing systemic gender inequalities are likely explanations for this lack of effect. However, these findings also suggest that community engagement activities were not sufficiently targeted to the families of Ishraq participants. The very limited evidence on community involvement as part of safe spaces programs suggests that such programs may have a greater impact on adults who have direct involvement in them (Kanesathaan et al. 2008).