Zeinab is a dark-eyed, dark-haired, bubbling 13-year-old from a village in the Delta. Next week is Zeinab’s wedding. Zeinab is not sure whether the day should call for joy or
Will Egypt’s new constitution honour the rights of its children?
Zeinab is a dark-eyed, dark-haired, bubbling 13-year-old from a village in the Delta. Next week is Zeinab’s wedding. Zeinab is not sure whether the day should call for joy or apprehension. The groom is a wealthy, grand man from a Gulf country where, for her, life is difficult to imagine. He came to her village with a stranger, and negotiated with her father; it was obvious he paid a lot to marry her, since the family has been enjoying so many gifts and privileges ever since. Everyone around thinks Zeinab is very lucky to have landed such agroom; she can forever forget the miserable poverty she was used to. No more missed meals, no more going barefoot or in clothes that were more like rags, and no more sleeping cramped in one room with her parents and five siblings. Instead there will be meat and cakes every day, a spacious multi-room home to live in, cars and chauffeurs, and servants answering to her every need.
Little does Zeinab realise how far from the truth that is. Other girls at her age married that way, only to find out when it was too late that they had been practically sold into slavery. In a new country far from home, where no-one can come to the rescue, and where there isn’t even one friend around, these girls discover their new ‘dream life’ is one of domestic and sex slavery. And they can’t even think of returning home, since they are now ‘wives’ whose husbands have all the freedom to do as they wish with them. And why shouldn’t they? They paid the price in full, didn’t they?
The story of Zeinab is no mere aberration; it happens to many poor girls. Even though, until today that is, the law stipulates 18 years as the marriage age, there are ways to get around the law.
If anyone thinks that female children alone suffer on account of the rampant poverty, they may consider the case of Omar. Omar is 12, and comes from a village in Minya, Upper Egypt. Omar comes from a large but poor family and has six brothers and sisters. His father is frequently out of work, so Omar was sent off to work the quarries in the district. He works
long hours, going without food or drink, under harsh conditions and an even harsher supervisor who is swift to mete out physical and financial penalties should Omar not tow the line. And there is no regulation to protect Omar; his work at this age is in itself illegal, so there can be no rules for it.
As Egypt works for a new constitution—the last one in force was the 1971 Constitution which the 2011 January Revolution dropped—it is to be hoped the new constitution would make sure there would be no more ‘Zeinabs’ and no more ‘Omars’. The new constitution should stipulate very clearly the rights of children, and the State and community at large should work to secure them. But discussions in the Constituent Assembly that is currently drafting the constitution do not appear at all reassuring on that head. The ultra-conservative Islamists who hold a majority in the assembly seem to be in an all-out battle to defeat efforts to enshrine the rights of children in the constitution, under various pretexts. The marriage age of 18 was pronounced “un-Islamic” since it is believed that the Prophet Mohamed married Aisha when she was nine. A ban on female circumcision was condemned as non-virtuous and a promotion of promiscuity. An article banning the trafficking in women and children was rejected on the grounds that “such practices are non-existent in Egypt”, even though social workers had hoped such an article would help put an end to cases such as that of Zeinab’s. Only “sex trade” has been banned in the draft constitution.
An outright ban of child labour was rejected, with the draft constitution merely banning the employment of children under the basic education age [under 15] in “non-suitable work”.
30 million children
The draft constitution articles on freedom and rights have so far disgruntled liberals and humans rights activists, who feel that the articles curtail rights in favour of Islamist notions. Mohamed Anwar al-Sadat, head of the Islah and Tanmiya (Reform and Development) Party and member of the Constituent Assembly, stressed that Egypt’s future constitution should be tailored to suit all, not just the Islamist political stream.
Of all the sectors of the population, the one that most needs to have its protection enshrined in the constitution is its young. Out of Egypt’s 83 million-strong population, 30 million are children, representing some 36 per cent. In 1979 and 1990 Egypt signed international treaties advocating children’s rights, which reflects a firm support of the children’s rights issue. Not only that, but in 1988 Egypt established the National Council for Motherhood and Childhood, even before the United Nations passed the Child’s rights treaty in 1990. Notwithstanding, rights activists have strongly criticised the draft articles concerning the rights of the Egyptian children, which they allege disregard the basic rights of children.
No new invention
Did the 1971 Constitution—which was in action until the Mubarak regime was toppled in 2011—include clauses relating to children’s rights, or are these clauses new to the Egyptian constitution? Watani took the question to Azza Soliman, rights activist and head of the women’s issues centre.
Ms Soliman explained that the 1971 Constitution stipulated the rights of children within its clauses. It said education was compulsory, and that parents were responsible for protecting their children. Article 11 of the 1971 Constitution noted a woman’s duties as wife, mother and citizen and stipulated that places of work should provide crèches for small children. This clause, Ms Soliman said, was enshrined in law.
The issue of children’s rights was not a new invention, Ms Soliman pointed out. However, when it came to discussing the rights of girls and asserting their right to be protected against traditional but harmful practices, such as circumcision and early marriage, Soliman said it appeared that many members of the Constituent Assembly were not well informed about the matter or were greatly influenced by their own culture. She said advocates of the radical stream did not realise that the cause of underage marriage was poverty and the subsequent sense of insecurity. “So instead of tackling the main problem, which is poverty, and trying to find ways to eradicate it, they resort to marrying off the girls,” she said.
Basic rights violated
The Egyptian Coalition for Children’s Rights (ECCR), made up of 100 NGOs working with children, staunchly opposes the curtailment of children’s rights. When school children, a statement by the ECCR said, are allowed into the labour force, the right of children to be protected against economic exploitation is violated by the constitution itself.
The statement said that the draft did not respect the child’s best interests when it came to issuing new legislation, decisions or procedures. This would help, or at least would not prevent, the passage of legislation that would violate basic children’s rights.
The constitution, according to the ECCR, should have stipulated protection for children against all forms of physical, psychological and sexual violence, including physical punishment in schools and institutions. Reports confirmed that in 1998 some 91 per cent of school children
were subjected to physical violence in spite of the ban on physical punishment imposed in Egyptian schools.
The draft constitution includes no reference to the right of children to be protected against all forms of discrimination, particularly in the case of girls who are subjected to practices such as circumcision and early marriage. In 2011, 16 per cent of Egyptian girls under the age of 18 were already married, while 73 per cent of girls aged between 15 and 17 were circumcised.
What age a ‘child’?
Hany Hilal, secretary-general of the ECCR, had presented the Constituent Assembly’s listening committee with a list of recommendations concerning children’s rights. First and foremost was the definition of a child’s age as less than 18, but the draft constitution has refrained from defining any age.
The draft, however, does stipulate that as soon as the child is born, it has a right to a suitable name, family care or substituent institutional care, safe and healthy nutrition, shelter and health care, as well as emotional, cognitive and religious development.
The rights of children with disabilities have been secured in the draft constitution; specifically their right to rehabilitation and integration in the community.
As far as legal procedures are concerned, children should only be arrested after all other procedures have been tried, and if they are to be detained they should be kept in places separate from adults, and age and gender are respected. Legal assistance should be provided as well.
Women’s rights according to sharia
The demand by the Islamist Mohamed Saad al-Azhari, member of the Constituent Assembly, to allow the marriage of girls once they reach puberty even if as young as nine years old,
aroused wide criticism by women’s and child’s rights activists.
Azhari said that the Egyptian constitution should make allowance for the diversity of Egypt’s inhabitants and their various traditions; the Sinai Bedouin, he said, were used to marry off their girls at a very young age. Any talk to the contrary, he said was “unreasonable”. He insisted that Western and UN rights declarations were not necessarily aligned with the traditions of Islamic communities.
Among the most vociferous of Azhari’s critics was the Society for the Advancement and Development of Women which declared that nothing in the Qur’an or Sunna (the Prophet Mohamed’s life) supported Azhari’s claims. The requirement for a woman to marry, a declaration by the Society said, was not whether or not she had reached puberty, but if she was physically, mentally, and emotionally mature. Countless studies have shown that marriage of girls at a young age results in health complications for them and the children they give birth to, as well as to significant social problems since the girl wife is not capable of running her own or her children’s lives.
“We all know,” the declaration said, “that cases of marriage of young girls in Egypt is but ‘prostitution legalised through a marriage contract’, when very poor parents marry off their girls to much older men willing to pay a price. More often than not, these husbands come from the Gulf countries.”
The Society reminded that Egypt was signatory to several UN treaties which place a child’s age at up to 18 years old. The objective, it said, was to secure the child’s rights.
Last week, however, the draft constitution announced included a clause that was placed right after the text that stipulated women’s rights; the clause reads: “In what does not violate the sharia of Allah”. Members of the Constituent Assembly explained that this was added in order to exempt Egypt from internationally-stipulated women’s rights that went against Islamic teachings.
14 October 2012