The trouble with writing an annual report is that by the time one is published, you are busy working on the next. So here I am, September 2010, working on ideas for the 2011 report in order to produce a respectable outline for the report’s Advisory Panel that is meeting in Washington next week. But I am also trying to think about what to say to the press about the 2010 report on Cities and technology – called Digital and Urban Frontiers: Girls in a Changing Landscape. The problem is that I finished writing it in April and have done a million things since then.
It doesn’t take long though: the main issues are clear enough – listen to girls, invest in girls, ensure that in these new and challenging spaces they are able to take up the opportunities offered in the same way that their brothers can. And I can tell some of the girls’ own stories. As the writer of the report – I don’t work for Plan but have been involved as a freelancer since the first report in 2007 – I have the privilege of being able to listen to some girls myself. Remembering them reminds me of what I want to tell the journalists – of Habiba, a 12 year old girl in Egypt who was severely disabled at birth, but with the most charming smile I have ever seen. I nearly missed talking to Habiba, because my interviews with mothers and their daughters in this poor suburb of Cairo had run over time and we needed to be somewhere else. But as we were saying our goodbyes I realised that her mother had probably been asked to bring her in specially to see me. So I knelt down next to her and held her hand while her mother told me her story – which you can read on page 53 of the report. Habiba smiled throughout.
Or the girls in a community centre in a suburb of Alexandria. I was expecting to meet a few girls and talk to them about their experience of living in the city and what they thought of the internet and mobile phones. When I got there, the room was packed with mothers and daughters who had all clearly been waiting for some time. They were all keen to know why I was there, who I was. Was I married? Did I have any children? How old was I? Then it was my turn. I started by asking whether they had moved to the city from the village, and if so why. There was a flurry of hands and everyone started talking at once. It was clear that the girls were not afraid to speak out. They told me of projects linking up via the internet and email with girls in other cities. They told me how they had taught their mothers how to use a computer – in some cases this also involved teaching them to read first. They were proud of what they had achieved, and outspoken and opinionated and feisty. They would have held their own in any forum.
But perhaps the most moving experience, as you will see from my piece on page 70 of the report, was the visit to the street girls centre in Alexandria. I arrived with Plan staff and talked to the director of the centre and the chief social worker. I could see the girls in the back room but they were not ready to talk to me yet. Even when we finally went in and I was introduced they were silent. But they did start chatting in the end, and they had many ideas for those in power about how things should be changed to improve their situation. They were quick and insightful and at times even funny. But the glimpse I got into their young lives was one of neglect and abuse and little love. And of the prejudice they face from almost everyone – just because they are girls. It is experiences like this that make me proud to be part of the Because I am a Girl team and clear that the challenge we face in the struggle for gender equality is far from over.
Nikki Van Der Gaag