Amendments to Egypt’s Child Law 12/ 1996 seeking to extend the legal protection offered to children were signed by President Hosni Mubarak on 4 March, and will soon be presented to the People’s Assembly for approval.
The proposals are part of a package drawn up by the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM), chaired by Suzanne Mubarak.
“The real significance of the amendments is that they adopt a rights-based approach,” says NCCM Secretary-General Mushira Khattab. “Some Egyptian children are victims, deprived of their rights to education, health and social care, and especially the right to family care. The modifications are based on changing the way in which society views such children.”
Changing prevailing stereotypes, says Khattab, is crucial. Article 7 of the law has been amended to increase the minimum age of marriage for girls to 18 instead of 16, making it illegal to register marriage contracts for anyone below the minimum age.
Lawyer Nazek El-Sherbini, a member of the legislative committee of the National Council for Women (NCW), while welcoming the change, points out that the penalties for infringement – a prison sentence of no more than three months and/or a fine of between LE500 and LE1,000, are too weak to stamp out the practice of parents and legal registrars (maazoun) from fabricating the age of would-be brides.
The amendments also include the addition of a new clause to Article 7 which seeks to end the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). Anyone found guilty of conducting such operations will be subject to a prison sentence of between three months and two years and a fine of between LE1,000 and LE5,000. Muslim Brotherhood (MB) MP Farid Ismail, a member of the Health Committee of the People’s Assembly, has confirmed that the MB will oppose this change, claiming that it jeopardises “what is left of Egyptian family values”.
Article 20 is to be amended to allow illegitimate children to have birth certificates issued in their mother’s name. Estimates of the number of illegitimate children in Egypt vary widely, though there are currently 14,000 paternity cases currently being heard in Egyptian courts. Five thousand of these cases, says lawyer Maged El-Sherbini, involve children born out of wedlock, with the remaining cases involving the offspring of urfi marriages.
Samia El-Saaty, a professor of sociology at Ain Shams University, believes changes to Article 20 will help reduce the social stigma faced by both mothers and children. At present the law requires that the father, or another paternal relative, holds the birth certificates of any children. “Children born as a result of illegitimate relations grow up without a name and without any care from society unless the father recognises the child and registers him or her. Woman must be allowed to give children their own names in order to protect them.”
Additional changes include a modification of Article 95 to allow for committees to be established at the governorate level to assess the social and psychological risks facing children and fix mechanisms by which they can be monitored and helped, and the addition of a new article exempting minors – i.e. anyone below the age of 18 – from capital sentences.
Other changes seek to prohibit the placing of minors in detention centres alongside adults, and restrict the time the general prosecution can refer anyone under the age of 15 to a juvenile detention centre to a maximum period of one week. Article 155 has also been amended, delaying the implementation of death sentences passed against the mothers of infants until the child is two years old.
In an attempt to combat the growing phenomenon of street children – some estimates place the number of children living on Egypt’s streets as high as two million, of which surveys show a quarter to be less than 12 years old – the proposed amendments criminalise the abandoning of minors as well as their sexual exploitation, including over the Internet, and the sale of their organs. Penalties have been strengthened in the case of either parents having previous convictions for such offences, with a minimum prison term of five years and a fine ranging between LE5,000 and LE20,000.
While the current law bans the employment of children under 14, and regulates the hours and conditions of those between 15 and 17, it is often un- enforced.
Source: Al-Ahram Weekly – 17 March 2008