One of UNICEF’s top priorities worldwide is to help empower every adolescent girl and boy with the skills they need to actively participate in building a brighter future for their societies. Adolescents in Egypt form around 25 percent of the country’s population, and represent even greater proportion of the country’s human potential.
But adolescents in Egypt often face neglect and even marginalisation. UNICEF Egypt aims to enhance adolescents’ welfare, and in this way to inspire greater confidence in them as they enter adulthood.
In a period of transition, adolescents have very different needs from younger children. They seek means to express themselves and take responsibility. Unfortunately the national education system seldom provides opportunities for participation. Adolescents are often treated as beneficiaries, not active participants in decisions and activities, in settings as crucial to their development as the home, school and public institutions.
Adolescents also face a lack of information. Meeting silence in place of answers, adolescents become exposed to risks. Among the potential risks are nutrition-related illness, smoking and drug use, and exposure to STDs including HIV/A.
According the 2005 Demographic Health Survey, one quarter of adolescent males and one third of females in Egypt are anaemic. Meanwhile, WHO studies have found that, of a total smoking population of six million, about half a million are children below age 15. This is inherently dangerous, as WHO estimates that 50 per cent of smokers in Egypt will die of tobacco-related causes. In addition, a growing number of Egyptian boys and girls smoke shisha (traditional water pipe), under the mistaken impression that it is less harmful than cigarettes.
Although traditional early marriage appears to be a diminishing feature of life in Egypt, schools across the country continue to neglect teaching on sexual health. While it is known that urfi (secret) marriages are a common enough practice among adolescents and youth, there is cause for concern when those involved lack the information they would require to protect their health.
UNICEF Egypt targets the knowledge and participation gaps by working with governmental partners, primarily the National Council for Youth (NCY) and NGOs to implement programmes that encourage adolescent development and participation.
Among UNICEF’s successes has been the establishment of peer-to-peer guidance sessions at youth centres across the country. Adolescent attendees to youth centres are trained on an array of relevant subjects, such as health, employment-related and social issues.
They in turn become youth leaders, empowering their peers by providing them with information they may not find at school, at home or in the media. Meanwhile, in a bid to help them deal with this critical phase in their lives and to reduce feelings of alienation and pressure, UNICEF supports counselling centres in selected youth centres. These centres have shown good rates of attendance and response.
Moreover UNICEF focuses on encouraging adolescent participation by supporting the NCY in the national civic education programme that equips adolescents and youth with the knowledge and skills to become responsible and active citizens.
Still, as the adolescents of today inch closer towards youth and adulthood, more needs to be done to help empower them as they come into their own..