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Girls (and Blogs) Can Change the World

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It's hard to be a blogger when you have to borrow your dad's computer every time you post. It's even harder when your house doesn't have electricity to run the computer eight to 10 hours every day.

Despite the challenges, Doa'a Mheissin has been blogging since she was 11 years old, posting whenever the computer is available and working. Doa'a is 16 now, a teenager growing up in the Gaza Strip where infrastructure like electricity, heavily damaged during the conflict in 2008-09, still has not been fully repaired. A new blog she started just a year ago already has over 150 entries. It's the first step to achieving her dream of becoming a famous author and journalist.

This young woman may not look like a revolutionary, but in the years to come, she and girls like her could form the vanguard in the next chapter of the Arab Spring -- a much-needed gender revolution.

The Arab Spring, which saw massive popular uprisings bring democratic change to countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, has been particularly remarkable in its demonstration of how powerful a tool social media can be -- as a force for change, and for the way gender barriers crashed down as people took to the streets.

As the protests raged, women were participating fully and equally alongside men. "The Arab Spring was almost magical. Women and men were working together," remembers Dalal Al-Waheidi, Program Director of Girls for Change.

Following the Arab Spring, however, more traditional groups that oppose changing roles for women have increased their power. Elections in Egypt and Tunisia reduced the number of female representatives in those governments.

Pushing back against the trend is Girls for Change, a new program empowering 12 to 18-year-old girls in Gaza, Tunisia and Egypt, by teaching leadership skills, women's rights and empowerment, and how to effectively address social issues.

Doa'a is one of the Girls for Change. Five years ago, one of her teachers noticed she had a flair for writing, with a strong, engaging style. She encouraged Doa'a to take up blogging.

Doa'a dove into the blogsphere head-first. Already a voracious reader with a taste for Mark Twain and the tales of James Bond, she sought out and devoured Internet articles in Arabic and English on how to write good essays and blog entries.

Her posts are poetic and moving and she has won several writing competitions for young bloggers.
Now Girls for Change is helping Doa'a take her blogging to the next level, learning to write effectively about the social issues facing her community and her fellow girls.

Participating girls attend a series of workshops to discuss gender roles and what women's empowerment means to them. They learn to analyze gender roles in their own context through exercises like discussing how boys and girls are portrayed in posters in their school.

The girls are taught how to make an action plan to tackle issues in their own communities they are passionate about.

"The girls are so excited to have their voices heard," says Al-Waheidi, who is herself a voice for change. Born in the Middle East, she has lived in Canada for the past eight years, returning to Gaza now out of a desire to empower other young women.

The key piece is learning how to employ technological tools like blogs or Twitter to express themselves and rally support for their issues.

Alongside her poems and short stories, Doa'a's blogs are now taking on themes like women's empowerment and the effects of the Israel-Palestine conflict on her community.

In one blog entry, Doa'a delivers an emotional critique of the way Palestinian society renders women faceless and nameless.

"In spite of what women have to endure and confront every day, we don't know their name. We just know them as the mother of this martyr and that prisoner. How can women be recognized, have their rights, have their freedoms and have their values, without being recognized first with their own individual name!"

In Gaza, more than 120 girls like Doa'a are involved with Girls for Change, and more than 240 in Tunisia. The program hopes soon to engage another 240 in Egypt, and plans are forming to expand into Libya.

Al-Waheidi admits the program has "ruffled some feathers," but tells us it's getting rave reviews from school officials, parents and community associations.

Khaled Abu El Ouf, father of one of the participants, praises Girls for Change. "I am actually surprised at the change that happened to my daughter. She has turned the way she thinks and her interest in issues of her generation. I am so glad my daughter is a part of this program."

Not so many years ago, a teenage girl in the Middle East blogging freely about women's rights would have been almost unimaginable. The foundations for the next revolution -- the gender revolution -- are being laid now as girls like Doa'a learn to share their voices and wield the tools for change.