Egypt's child protection law sparks controversy

Islamist opponents from the Muslim Brotherhood argue that the law imposes foreign values on Egyptians.

By , Correspondent

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    Seeking protection: Hundreds of girls protested female genital mutilation in Assiut, Egypt, last year.
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Since June, Egypt's government and Islamist opposition parties have been trading barbs over a new law designed to protect the rights of children. Reforms instituted by the law touch on issues ranging from children's legal status to personal health issues.

The law was passed by parliament, which is dominated by President Hosni Mubarak's ruling party. But the measure has spurred a debate over the competing roles of religion, tradition, and the state in the upbringing of children. The controversy is making waves in a country where 32 percent of the population is under the age of 15, according to a 2006 government census.

The Muslim Brotherhood, a banned yet tolerated opposition group that holds 20 percent of the seats in the lower house, argues that the law violates Islamic law and imposes foreign values on Egyptians.

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Saad El Katatny, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood bloc in parliament, says his movement is not opposed to the child law as a whole, rather "just those provisions that run counter to the norms, customs, and nature of the Egyptian people."

Aspects of the law that he takes issue with include articles that make it illegal to try children as adults, permit birth certificates for the children of unwed mothers, restrict corporal punishment, raise the marriage age to 18 years, and reinforce a standing ban on female circumcision.

"When you do things like this, for example limiting the age of marriage to 18, it does not reflect the norms of our society, it reflects international norms," Mr. Katatny adds.

Supporters of the law accuse the Muslim Brotherhood of playing politics with children's rights and argue that changing cultural attitudes that endanger young people is the exact intention of the law.

"We wanted the law to be stringent or extreme because we want it to challenge some of the prevalent norms and values in our society, particularly female genital mutilation (FGM) and the practice of child marriage," says Hany Helal, who directs the Egyptian Center for the Rights of the Child and helped the government write the law.

"In our country, a number of forms of violence against children have become the norm," he adds.

One of the most controversial subjects in the law is female circumcision, which remains widespread despite a year-old ban that was enacted after a girl died during the procedure in June 2007.

In Arabic, FGM is referred to as "purification." It is widely seen as a rite of passage that helps protect girls from sexual desire and sin.

"Purification is a good thing, it's a beautiful thing," says Moubaraka Aly Mohamed, an elderly woman. "I have three daughters and we circumcised them all when they were 4 or 5 years old, so that they wouldn't get into trouble at school," she says, adding that they will soon circumcise her 3-year-old granddaughter. "It's the only way. If they weren't circumcised they would be committing sinful acts that I would not approve of," she says.

Egypt has one of the highest FGM rates in the world. According to a 2005 study conducted by UNICEF, 96 percent of women between the ages of 15 to 49 who had ever been married are circumcised. A recent study by the country's Ministry of Health and Population also found that 50.3 percent of girls between the ages of 10 and 18 had been circumcised.

Katatny says that the Brotherhood is not in favor of female circumcision, but opposes banning it because it is a tradition that should remain an option for medical reasons and "beautification" purposes.

For her part, Dr. Amna Nosseir, a former dean of Al Azhar University and a member of Egypt's Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, says the law's Islamist opponents are being "obnoxious." "Female circumcision is in no way, shape, or form part of the Islamic religion. It is an example of how religious texts can be manipulated to support local customs or people's own points of view," she says.

Human rights activists suggest that the child law's religious opponents are more concerned about embarrassing the government than protecting children. "This is a law the government wanted. It was a big investment for them," says Clarisa Bencomo, a Cairo-based researcher in the children's rights division of Human Rights Watch. "There is a lot in this law that makes Egypt look good internationally, but it is also something that makes it easy for the Muslim Brotherhood to put its finger in the government's eye."

The opposition backlash combined with a legal system rife with overworked and poorly trained lawyers have many worried, however, that efforts to implement the measure will remain complicated.

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