Big dreams, inspired by a gutsy girl Muppet.
Every child has a right to quality education. Yet for girls, this promise is too seldom kept. Globally, an estimated 510 million women grow up unable to read and write, nearly twice the rate of adult illiteracy as men.
What causes the disparity? In part, cultural biases about girls’ roles and abilities. Low expectations for women are perpetuated across society, including, crucially, by children themselves. But just as culture can close minds and doors, it also has the power to open them. Our educational programs around the world are aimed squarely at boosting ambitions and encouraging girls to dream big.
It’s all about positive role models. On-screen images of girls pursuing academics and other fun, interesting activities help children — girls as well as boys — broaden their sense of women’s potential. Through the joyous example of some remarkable female Muppets, we’re giving girls permission to dream, discover, and imagine a future full of possibility.
Take Tuktuki on Sisimpur, the Bangladeshi version of Sesame Street. Tuktuki is a vivacious Muppet who gives girls hope in the face of difficult odds: Of the 67 million adults in Bangladesh who are illiterate, 42 million are women. Despite her low-income background, 5-year-old Tuktuki dreams of going to school and learning to read and write, just like her male friends on the show. Tuktuki’s education ambitions mirror that of the new generation of Bangladeshi women. Through her example, Tuktuki tells all children that they deserve to gain — and can attain — literacy.
In Nigeria there’s Kami, a feisty 4-year-old who loves school and football. Her confidence and curiosity are the heart of Sesame Square, the Nigerian version of Sesame Street. Kami’s friend, Zobi, is always reinforcing that girls are equally capable of greatness, a fact underscored by visits to the show from successful Nigerian women and girls. Real-life heroines such as a female pilot, a girl class leader, and the singer, actress, and politician Onyeka Owenu embody the promise of girls’ education for children across the nation. Watch a clip of the show.
Then there’s Khokha, a Muppet who has become something of a celebrity in Egypt, where her show, Alam Simsim, is among the most-watched children’s shows on television.3 Four-year-old Khokha offers kids lessons about letters and numbers, as well as the exciting breadth of opportunity open to girls: She wants to be an engineer, a doctor, and a lawyer all at the same time.
When Khokha speaks, real girls such as 7-year-old Fatma hang on her every word. The daughter of a doorman, Fatma lives in one room with her parents and older brothers in Cairo. Fatma already knows she wants to be a lawyer — an idea she got from Khokha — although her 12-year-old brother thinks she should be a doctor. What makes Khokha such a powerful influence on Fatma? Because, as she explains, “She’s a girl like me.”
While fueling their fans’ aspirations, characters such as Khokha, Tuktuki, and Kami help children gain the education and skills they’ll need to realize them. In a 2006 study conducted by Johns Hopkins University, exposure to Alam Simsim in Egypt produced significant gains in mathematics and reading skills.
And, as Fatma’s story makes clear, Sesame’s education efforts move the needle on gender-equity attitudes, which are notoriously difficult to change. Between school, her parents, and Alam Simsim, Fatma is getting the encouragement she needs to pursue any path she chooses, even ones that seemed impossible for girls a generation ago.
Khokha would be proud.
USAID (Bangladesh); Mobinil (Egypt); USAID (Nigeria)
- Alam Simsim is among the top 5 most-watched children’s television shows in Egypt.1
- 4-year-olds who watch Alam Simsim frequently perform at the same level on math and literacy tests as 5-year-olds who watch little or not at all.3
- Bangladeshi children (including girls) who watch Sisimpur show faster attainment of academic skills such as literacy and math –– critical aspects of girls’ education, with literacy scores of 4-year-olds 67% higher than those who don’t watch.3
- Nearly 11.5 million children watch Sisimpur.4
2 Average gender equity score of 6-year-olds with high exposure to the show: 3.2 out of 4 vs. 1.6 out of 4 for those with low exposure. Rajiv, R.N.; Fieguero, M.E. and Federowicz, M. (2006). Impact of Alam Simsim among 4- to 6-year-olds in Egypt: Effects on math ability, literacy skills, and gender attitudes. Baltimore, MD. Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs.
3 Overall literacy score of 4-year-olds with high exposure to the show: 54.8 vs. 32.9 for those with no exposure. Associates for Community and Population Research (ACPR) (2008). Sisimpur’s reach and educational impact: Evidence from a national longitudinal study. Dhaka, Bangladesh.
4 2008 ACPR study on Sisimpur and 2011 International Census data: K4-7 audience estimation.