Published on Arab Voices

A New Dawn: The life chances of an Egyptian newborn girl

Three young Egyptian girls smile for the camera. The destiny of a girl born in Egypt today is like a tapestry woven with threads of tradition, ambition, and resilience. (Photo credit: Nataliya Derkach/Shutterstock)

World Population Day seeks to draw attention on the urgency and importance of population issues, including the right to family planning and gender dynamics. As we mark the day, I can’t help but reflect on a recent visit to Egypt and the way that population issues can affect people – particularly children – in the country. The destiny of a girl born in Egypt today is like a tapestry woven with threads of tradition, ambition, and resilience. It is a journey marked by both challenges and triumphs, where each step forward is a testament to the indomitable spirit of young women. As her journey begins, so do the countless possibilities and challenges that will shape her life.

Some positive news is that a newborn girl’s chances of survival are good. Between 1973 and 2021, the neonatal mortality rate for Egypt declined from 60.5 to 18 deaths per 1,000 live births. But more work remains to be done to improve the odds for young girls in the country.

As she grows up, education is a transformative force in Egypt today, and its importance cannot be overstated. For this newborn girl, the path to education will be paved by her family's commitment to her future. In recent years, there has been improved access to schooling, including for females, yet years of schooling for poor females in rural areas is still lagging. Her best scenario is to have the opportunity to access education, and continue until she, at the least, completes secondary school.

Education is the best deterrent of child marriage, and a girl’s best-case scenario is to have the education that would make her competitive in the labor market and help her resist marriage at an early age. Each year of schooling that she receives will reduce her risk of early marriage by 5 percent. Girls with at least some secondary education are six times less likely to be married as a child than those with only primary education or less. The benefits of this delay are twofold. First, older females are more likely to give birth to healthier babies, and they, as mothers, are more likely to survive childbirth themselves and are less likely to suffer maternal morbidities.

While education is not an end in itself, despite its central importance, it is a way for financial independence and economic empowerment. Women who have the dignity of roofs over their heads and food on their tables, are more likely to make better choices not just for themselves but for their families, communities, and countries.

Women’s economic empowerment is increasingly recognized as a vital component in achieving sustainable development and economic growth. This empowerment is not only about ensuring women have jobs but also about fostering an environment where they can contribute to and benefit from economic activities equally. One of the significant impacts of women's economic empowerment is the potential to harness the demographic dividend, which refers to the economic growth potential that can result from shifts in a country’s age structure.

As she grows, this Egyptian girl will find herself at the crossroads of tradition and modernity. Egyptian society is steeped in rich cultural heritage, which will play a significant role in shaping her identity. Whether or not she will be spared female genital mutilation (FGM), it is up to her to make the choice whether to protect her own daughters from such a practice. Despite having legislation that criminalizes FGM, families still practice it and hence the need to couple legislative reform with work around social norms, including engaging men and boys as well as community leaders.

As a young girl steps into motherhood herself, she will need access to a functional health system whether for her reproductive health and family planning needs when she is married, antenatal care when she is pregnant, post-natal care after she has her child, nutrition support and advice when she is breast-feeding, and infant care including but not limited to growth follow up and vaccines.

Egypt has great potential for economic and social development through investing in its people, and their human capital. Investing in health and education of girls is an important part of this. These investments - in primary healthcare (including family planning, reproductive and maternal health, and prevention from non-communicable diseases and micronutrient deficiencies); in secondary education, especially for girls; in behavioral change and communications; and in employment opportunities will allow the country to maximize the potential of its future youth and give girls the opportunity for better health and well-being – and a higher quality of life.

Fortunately, most of such investments were committed to by the Egyptian government, through the National Population and Development Strategy, which focuses on reproductive rights, human capital investment, women's empowerment, education, and communication for development. Collaboration with international organizations, such as the World Bank, can provide technical assistance, funding, and expertise to implement these strategies effectively. The World Bank is also supporting the Takaful and Karama cash transfer program, which is accelerating women’s financial inclusion and the accumulation of human capital through a number of integrated cash-plus interventions, including programs promoting nutrition, family planning, and literacy. Finally, the Bank is supporting the government’s efforts to roll out its universal health insurance program.

As they continue to navigate their paths, Egyptian women and girls are reshaping their destinies, building their agency, and redefining what it means to be a woman in contemporary Egypt. They are proving that destiny is not a predetermined path but a canvas waiting to be painted with their dreams, aspirations, and achievements.

In the heart of Egypt, where the pyramids stand as symbols of human ingenuity and perseverance, the journey of an Egyptian daughter is a beacon of hope and inspiration. It is a story of courage, resilience, and the unwavering belief that the future holds limitless possibilities.

Fadia Saadah

Regional Director for Human Development in Middle East and North Africa Region

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