Sources of information

On a countrywide level, a mere 12% of boys and 3% of girls in Egypt said they learned the facts of life from school, according to a 2009 national youth survey. Studies from other countries in the region reveal similar gaps in communication. National surveys results from Algeria and Palestine show that less than a fifth of boys and girls get their information on reproduction and puberty from school. (Ministere de la Population et de la Reforme Hospitaliere, 2004; Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, League of Arab States, 2007).

In Lebanon, a 2005 survey of more than 5,000 students aged 13-15 found that 80% of teenagers never spoke to their teachers about reproductive and sexual health (and around 70% were silent on the subject with their parents as well). In Morocco, a survey of 2,000 youth from around the country found that only a quarter of youth aged 15-24 got their information about sex from a teacher, almost half of girls and three-quarter of boys relied on friends, with parents a minor source for either sex. (Axétudes and Kingdom of Morocco Ministry of Health, 2007)

In Egypt’s national survey of youth age 10-29, less than 20% of young men and a tiny proportion of young women said they looked to movies for details on puberty and reproduction—shorthand for “sex,”; the internet barely registered as a source of information. However, it’s likely they were reluctant to divulge their viewing habits, given the popular assocation of movies and the internet with porn. Other research shows that young people are, indeed, turning to TV and internet for information, much to the concern of parents who fear for their kids’ morals.

In two small-scale studies of sexual communication within Egyptian families, one of the many reasons given by parents for not tackling sexual and reproductive matters with their kids is that they assumed their youngsters had already picked up the details from other sources – namely TV and the internet. Fathers are particularly reluctant to tackle these questions with their sons. In a study of more than 350 educated middle-aged men in an area northeast of Cairo, more than 60% had never communicated with their sons on sexual or reproductive matters, although the vast majority recognized the importance of tackling the subject; around 40% said they themselves were in need of more information. (Mahmoud, Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health: Father-Son Communication, 2011)

In a revealing study of more than 130 low-income mothers and daughters in Alexandria, while most women and their girls enjoyed close communication, love, sex, pre-marital relationships and marriage, were essentially off-limits. (Yosri, Mother-Daughter Communication about Sexual and Reproductive Health Matters in Slum Areas in Alexandria, Egypt 2011) Even pregnancy was considered a taboo topic. “When I ask my mum how pregnancy occur or how you delivered us, she tells me from my mouth, I vomited you ,” one 14 year-old girl remarked

With this sort of wisdom on offer, it’s unsurprising that, at most, a fifth of Egyptian women under-30 talk to their mothers or sisters about romantic relationships; both men and women confide mainly in their friends, with fathers, brothers, religious figures and doctors essentially out of the loop. In this information vacuum, girls are particularly at risk: two-thirds of them reacted with shock or fear to menarche, and almost a third had never heard of HIV/AIDS.