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Ruqaia (40, Egypt): ‘Adult learning was my ticket to life’


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Ruqaia, 40, is from a rural, tribal community in Egypt, where girls are expected to get married in early adolescence and devote their lives to raising children. Education is not considered ‘fit’ for women and girls, who have little agency over their lives with regards to when they marry or have children.
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Ruqaia did not want to end up like her mum and aunts:

‘All I could think of was an illiterate mom raising an illiterate girl who would eventually become an illiterate mom. The vicious circle would continue’.  

Ruqaia saw many challenges in her society – early marriage, maternal mortality, poverty and lack of freedom of speech for women. She viewed the education of women and girls as key to solving these problems.  
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Before she began adult education, Ruqaia suffered severe depression. She was at loss as to what to do with her life, until one day she was presented with an adult learning opportunity when she met a class facilitator. She jumped at the opportunity to join.
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However, the decision was not taken lightly, and Ruqaia dealt with many challenges along the way. Her family did not support her decision to leave home and pursue her education.

‘It was a very difficult time for me. My family told me that if I choose education then I am not abiding by the traditions and customs of my society. I tried talking sense into them by saying that I will take everything that is right from my traditions and customs and do it, but I will not partake in the things that are wrong about it’.

At one point, Ruqaia went on a hunger strike to convince her family of how serious she was about pursuing education.
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Eventually, her family accepted her decision. Ruqaia tried her best to acclimatize them to her new reality. She always abided by her family’s customs and traditions. She involved her family in the process and never tried to hide anything from them. If they understood Ruqaia’s journey, there was more chance they would understand the advantages of what she was doing.

The programme Ruqaia joined, run by the Association of Women and Society, was a four-year literacy and education programme. It comprised different subjects, including reading, writing, English, history and more.

The programme also had a life skills and livelihoods programme. Women were taught skills that they could turn into economic or livelihood opportunities, such as soapmaking, sewing, accessories-making and artisan work. Such skills help them gain financial independence, progress and develop at the personal, societal, economic and country levels.

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Ruqaia’s hard work paid off. She was the only student from her class to finish the education programme and go on to enrol in university. She now studies media and communications at Cairo University. She also earns a living.

Her aim is to become a spokesperson on the importance of educating women and girls.

Adult learning opened up new opportunities for Ruqaia. It allowed her to meet people from different backgrounds and give back to her community. Ultimately, it gave her the choice to take her life into her own hands.

Despite her strained relationship with her family, Ruqaia does not regret her decision to pursue education. She wanted change, she wanted a path, she wanted a purpose. Education was the key to getting there.  
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In 2020, the Association of Women and Society awarded Ruqaia a prize, which she used to do something positive for her community. She opened a nursery with a focus on young girls. This enabled her to give back to her community, which slowly began to recognize the importance of educating girls.

This past year, the Association of Women and Society also made her a jury member for the next round of awards.
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Sahar, 49, Ruqaia’s teacher, had a similar experience in adult education. She too was a graduate of the Association of Women and Society where she was an adult learner. She then enrolled in Cairo University to study law and became a lawyer.

However, she soon found she preferred teaching to law and decided to join the Association of Women and Society as an adult educator. She is now the Association’s key spokesperson, travelling to rural areas in Egypt to raise awareness of the importance of education.
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‘Being an adult educator is not just about teaching adult learners. It is also about learning from the adult learners. We share moments together; we share stories together. Sometimes, we even talk about our lives and struggles. In a lot of cases, the learners have been through so much that their life experiences can teach you a lot. This kind of interaction creates a bond that impacts you and the learner’.
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Sahar’s ambition is to rid her society of illiteracy. One of her proudest moments as an adult educator is when a learner learns how to spell their name. It’s a huge moment for them, often an emotional one. She also seconds Ruqaia’s views – when women learn to read and write, they are more likely to want the same for their children, too.
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As well as more confidence in themselves and their abilities, Sahar notices that women are happier too. The programme becomes a safe space for women to address their personal issues, to talk to each other, share thoughts and concerns and get advice from their peers.

There is also a difference at the community level. Women become better citizens. They learn the importance of recycling, water sanitation, water preservation, electricity preservation, public health, and their legal rights.

Everything these women learn is given back to the community.

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The developments in adult learning and education in Egypt are featured in the Fifth Global Report on Adult Learning and Education (GRALE 5), which will be launched on 15 June 2022 at the Seventh International Conference on Adult Education (CONFINTEA VII), in Marrakech. GRALE 5 combines survey data, policy analysis and case studies to provide policy-makers, researchers and practitioners with an up-to-date picture of the status of adult learning and education in UNESCO Member States.
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