Her male classmates weren’t thrilled about women engineers.

This blog post was originally posted on Upworthy.com as part of a project with Girls’ Globe, Upworthy and Johnson & Johnson.

When Aya Mouallem took her first software engineering class, she had a rude awakening: she wasn’t exactly welcome.

As one of two girls in the class of over 20 students, she felt out of place right away. And this was only made worse by the comments she’d hear from her male classmates.

“[They] said, ‘it’s no wonder there aren’t a lot of girls in [electrical and computer engineering] . . . because girls are bad at math.’ They casually mention[ed] phrases like, ‘we were happy without girls in this major,’” Aya recalls.

Unfortunately, comments like these weren’t exactly new for Aya.

She had been interested in STEM from a very young age. “I never really felt interested in playing with dolls as much as I loved to know how stuff worked,” she says. And while her immediate family had been supportive of her interests in STEM — calling her the ‘thinker’ in the family — she had faced a lot of sexism from other family members, acquaintances, classmates, and even staff at her university.

That didn’t hold her back, though. Since Aya’s parents encouraged her to ask questions and be curious, she kept pursuing her passion. When smartphones became available, for example, she eagerly explored how they worked and became her family’s go-to ‘tech support’.

But Aya knows that many girls don’t get that kind of encouragement.

“A lot of other girls were forbidden by their parents from pursuing ECE because it wasn’t ‘feminine’ by societal standards,” she explains.

Aya knew that, as a result, girls weren’t getting the same opportunities to explore technology as boys their age. For example, boys were more likely to be called to help change a lightbulb or to see how a car works, “but girls were supposed to stay busy with their dolls,” says Aya.

So girls who might have a knack for STEM were being discouraged from exploring a field they might otherwise be passionate about later in life.

“Their implications are very dangerous,” she explains. “There’s a lot to be done when it comes to raising awareness to gender inequality in STEM.”

That’s why in March 2017, Aya teamed up with Maya Moussa, another classmate studying computer engineering, to empower girls to explore STEM.

They created All Girls Code, a project that provides girls between the ages of 12 and 19 in Lebanon with access to STEM fields through mentorship programs and other opportunities.

 

“We wanted to give girls the opportunity to try hands-on STEM workshops before they have to choose a university major,” Aya says.

It wouldn’t be easy, though. At first, they struggled to get funding for the project. Since All Girls Code doesn’t generate revenue, it was hard to get the financial support that the project needed. So to get it off the ground, “we [first] reached out to the local community through our university, our phone contacts and people we’ve networked with at tech events,” she explains.

Luckily, their hard work paid off. They were able to get support from their university, the American University of Beirut, which provided a space for the workshops. Aya and Maya also recruited over 100 volunteers to support All Girls Code as instructors, graphic designers, photographers, moviemakers, and administrators.

Now in its second year, All Girls Code is continuing its mission with its flagship summer program, Tech Immersion.

The program focuses on three goals in particular: skills, exposure, and sisterhood.

For the development of technical skills, All Girls Code has created a curriculum that allows girls to use code to help improve health, the environment, and other fields.

In sponsoring hackathons, for example — events where the girls collaborate to create software or hardware for a specific purpose — they learn to apply their technical skills to solve real-world problems. These hackathons also provide girls with opportunities to learn how to pitch their ideas and network.

 

The girls are also given mentorship opportunities, working directly with women in the industry. Through the program, they’ve learned about Lebanese women entrepreneurs, the latest trends in tech and Silicon Valley, and which ‘tech titans’ in the industry they should be familiar with.

To ensure they’re reaching a diverse group of girls, all events by All Girls Code are free of charge.

“We’ve been proud to welcome girls from more than ten countries, including public school students, refugees, and private school students,” says Aya.

In a field dominated by men, Aya believes that sisterhood plays a critical role in the mission of All Girls Code.

“It was important for us to nurture this bonding between them over STEM, just like they would bond over dolls,” she explains. Working together to develop their ideas and participating in icebreakers are just some of the ways in which these girls are able to connect with each other.

 

That’s why Aya wants to expand All Girls Code to be worldwide, impacting an even greater number of girls. While over 200 girls have participated so far, she hopes that in the future, there will be thousands.

After all, it was the support of other women in the field that helped her find her way, too.

“When girls try tech together, they feel that they are not outsiders,”she says.And through her work at All Girls Code, she’s hopeful for a future in which girls in STEM never again feel out of place again.

Gabrielle Rocha Rios co-authored this post with Sam Dylan Finch.

“There Are Millions of Girls Like Me, and We’re Not In School”

An African proverb says if you educate a man you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman, you educate a nation. In fact, studies have shown that when an investment is made in the education of girls, not only does it benefit the economy of the country but that education results in women having healthier families and with a much higher likelihood of them prioritizing the education of their children. Women who are given educations have been shown to also improve their communities and to educate the women around them increasing the benefits of that initial investment substantially.

Last month UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, released a report showing that after 4 years of the conflict 3.7 of the 6 million school-aged children under their mandate have no school to go to. This means in addition to all the barriers that exist for young girls such as trauma, family obligations, language, and child marriage that exist in the refugee camp,s many will not even have the option to go to school. The report also found that refugee children are five times more likely to be out of school than the global average. Worse, for those still caught in the conflict in Aleppo, enrollment is as low as 6%.

Prior to the Syrian war, Syria had one of the most revered educational systems with “almost all Syrian children enrolled in primary school and literacy rates at 95% for 15-24 year olds.” Their baccalaureate was known as the hardest giving Syrian students a golden ticket to most of the Arab universities. In Lebanon today, almost one in four people are a refugee, whether Syrian or Palestinian, and they make up a large portion of nation’s population. While Lebanon’s Ministry of Education and Higher Education has implemented programs to try and integrate refugees into their schools, the system is struggling to keep up with the increasing numbers of students and now nearly half of the 500,000 Syrian school-aged children are out of school, some never having stepped foot into a classroom.

“And my grandmother said to me ‘but Aya you are getting water and food,what would you rather have water and food or school?’ and I wanted to scream at her ‘school! I want to be a pediatrician and not a mother at only 15!’ instead I said ‘but [grandma] why is the world making me choose when I need all of them to survive.'”

These chilling words representing the sentiments of so many young Syrian girls were spoken as part of a performance art piece at the Global Citizen World On Stage event in New York City on September 22nd, 2016 the event focusing on music, advocacy, and impact. View the entire powerful performance in the video below:

While this war may be the childhood for many of these young girls, it is essential for us to not allow this generation of young women to miss out on education, we must use our voices to advocate for them, to have schools available in refugee camps or bridge programs for the refugees living outside of camps supporting the countries hosting refugees Ministries of Education, giving these young women the education and power needed to educate their families, friends, communities, and generation so that when it comes time to rebuild their Syria they are ready.

900
Young school girls under a sign in Aleppo, saying “Still Standing.” Source: Twitter via The Guardian.

The full UNHCR report can be found at: http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/news/press/2016/9/57d7d6f34/unhcr-reports-crisis-refugee-education.html

To learn more about what is happening in Lebanon: https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/07/19/growing-without-education/barriers-education-syrian-refugee-children-lebanon

Featured Image: Sarah North / Girls’ Globe.
Video: Recorded by Raya Cupler at Global Citizen: World On Stage.

The Harsh Reality for Women and Girls in Syria

If there is one thing we know about Syria it is women, girls, youth and their families have suffered far too much for too long,” -UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin.

As the civil war in Syria continues, the world holds its breath waiting to hear the final decision from the Obama Administration and U.S. Congress on whether or not to launch a missile strike in Syria. Many questions remain unanswered; the use of chemical weapons in Syria has been internationally deliberated with tragic testimonies, graphic images and video footage screened across the internet and mainstream media. In the debate over the use of chemical weapons, one of my favourite political pundits Tony Benn stated,

I am totally opposed to intervening in Syria, it would lead to a Middle East war. Chemicals are just another weapon that kill people. Don’t bombs kill people? Don’t ‘Cruise Missiles’ kill people? If America and Britain defy the UN then it will lead to a greater conflict.”

The U.S. Senate drafted a resolution that permits U.S. President Obama to order a “limited and tailored” military mission against Syria, as long as it does not exceed 90 days and involves no U.S. troops on the ground for combat operations. The President will now have to pass the resolution by way of chamber votes in Congress.

??????)?While politicians give their solutions and verdicts over an intervention in Syria, millions of Syrian refugees live in refugee camps across the Middle East and remain vulnerable and uncertain of their future. It is now estimated that, since the civil war began back in March 2011, 2 million Syrian people are currently displaced and have fled the country – the majority of whom are women and children. Furthermore, within Syria itself, over 4 million people remain displaced, forced from their homes due to violent conflict. In a joint statement earlier this week, the foreign ministers from Iraq, Jordan and Turkey in addition to Lebanon’s Social Affairs Minister and UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres urgently appealed for greater international support for the refugee crisis.

To paraphrase former British Parliamentarian Tony Benn, bombs and missiles kill people therefore increasing the killing will only lead to greater conflict across the whole region. What is really needed now is humanitarian support as the neighbouring countries struggle to manage the increasing number of refugees entering their borders.

An average of almost 5,000 Syrians flee into neighbouring countries every day, in total some 716,000 refugees alone have entered Lebanon. Of the 2 million Syrian refugees currently seeking safety, shelter, food and medical care, over half are children, three-quarters of whom are under the age of 11. Hence, instead of launching a missile strike on Syria, shouldn’t the international community be providing humanitarian aid and assistance to aid agencies in Syria and its neighbouring countries experiencing the influx of refugees? The UN says the conflict in Syria has resulted in the worst refugee crisis for 20 years, with numbers not seen since the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

?????????????????????????????????????????????????Women and girls continue to suffer indiscriminately through war and conflict as brutal killings, rape and sexual assault and harassment destroy the fabric of families and whole communities. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has reported that rape and sexual assault are now being used as a weapon of war in Syria. Furthermore, young Syrian refugee women and girls also face a tragic future, as multiple reports have concluded that child marriage, a human rights violation, is particularly prevalent among refugee camp families. The negative impact of child marriage in any situation means that girls become more vulnerable to violence, sexual assault, slavery, HIV and AIDs, maternal mortality and poverty. Erica Hall, World Vision Senior Child Rights Adviser stated:

Parents will feel incredibly vulnerable and may believe that a husband will be able to protect their daughter from these threats, and allow them to better provide for their remaining children, too.”

Shockingly, aid workers in refugee camps are not exempt from this behavior as they have been identified as perpetrators seeking sexual favours in return for help. There is little or no protection at all from such sexual assaults. With nowhere to turn, no support or money to feed their children, many women are forced into prostitution as a mode of survival, putting themselves into great danger of violence and HIV.

The reports and testimonies of sexual violence from pregnant women, women with disabilities, women living with fatal diseases, women seeking emergency medical care and so on are seemingly endless. As politicians discuss their ‘interventions,’ women, girls, men and boys are dying and struggling to keep hope alive.

All images courtesy of Flickr’s Syria Freedom Creative Commons.