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INTERVIEW: Child protection in Egypt improving, but still a long way to go

Bruno Maes, the new UNICEF representative to Egypt, explains where the country stands in terms of child protection

Heba Zaghloul, Thursday 28 Jan 2016
Bruno Maes
Bruno Maes, nouveau représentant de l’Unicef au Caire. Photo: Al-Ahram hebdo)
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Good news for Egypt. "The past two and half decades have seen significant improvements in almost all areas of children's lives. The number of children under the age of five who die each year has been reduced by almost 50 percent," says Bruno Maes, UNICEF representative to Egypt.

Maes explains that infant and maternal mortality rates have also been reduced. "This is the result of progress made by Egypt in the last 15 years," he says.

Prior to his post in Egypt, Maes served in several Arfican countries, including Burundi, Ethiopia, Madagscar and Chad. According to Maes, poverty is the common factor between those countries and Egypt. Yet in many sectors, Egypt is doing better. Nonetheless, there is a long road ahead.

"When it comes to education for instance, access to schools in Egypt has reached almost 90 percent," says Maes. One of the reasons behind that positive outcome is Egypt's investment in human resources, even if distribution is not yet equitable. "We still have 319,127 Egyptian children in the age bracket from six to 10 out of school. The quality of education remains a challenge due to overcrowding, quality of teaching and violence in schools," Maes explains. For him, there is no doubt that education is a top priority.

According to Maes, female genital mutilation (FGM) is another field where progress has been achieved. Since the Child Law of 2008 that criminalises FGM, "there has been a 10 percent decrease in that practice. It went from 74 percent in 2008 to 61 percent in 2014 for young women between 15-17 years." he says. This means that FGM has steadily decreased in the past decade, which is of course good news. Yet the bad news is that despite the fact that it is considered a criminal offence in the Egyptian penal code, it is still performed by health professionals. "The practice by doctors for girls aged 0-19 years increased to 74 percent in 2014," Maes says. "But this shouldn't be a medical practice at all."

What is interesting is that those figures are much lower than the 90-91 percent rate stated by most NGOs and researchers. Why such a discrepancy in the numbers? According to Maes, the high figures are a result of the wrong use of information, and as such they fail to show progress that has been accomplished in the country. Simply, those studies target the wrong age group. "The fact that the FGM rate remains stable at 90 or 91 percent for women between 15 and 49 years is not relevant because those adult women have already undergone the operation and continue to be part of the population," Maes explains. Therefore, for a more accurate evaluation of the FGM phenomenon, one has to observe the age group 15 to 24 years, right after the risk period, in which the operation could be performed. "As UNICEF, this is what we advise," adds Maes. This progress on FGM could be observed in certain regions more than in others. The rate is much lower in the Delta area than in Upper Egypt, where it remains very high.

UNICEF is also focusing on street children — one of the major problems facing the country. Progress seems less obvious in that case.

"We are working with the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood as well as with the Ministry of Social Colidarity," says Maes. The first thing to be noticed is the huge discrepancy in numbers between the figures advanced by the government, talking about thousands of children, and NGO estimations that are much higher.

"It is a phenomenon that is very difficult to evaluate. First, we have to define who is a street child," Maes says. According to Maes, this concept could cover a child who lives in the street most of the time but goes back home at some point. "So what UNICEF does is focusing on the factors behind this phenomenon, such as poverty and domestic violence," he says.

"We are working with NGOs providing services and shelters, only if the children accept of course, because in some cases, children are getting used to living in the streets and do not want to give up their 'freedom.' One of the major actions of UNICEF in helping children is through the Child Protection Committee. We created a Child Protection Committee pilot in 2007 in Alexandria and it was very successful. Such commitees could play an important role, as they provide a child protection network. The project was adopted by the government and is now part of the 2008 law," says Maes.

However, because of a lack of finance, the project did not extend to the rest of the country. Nonetheless, recently the Egyptian government signed an agreement with the EU according to which the latter will grant 30 million Euros that would be used in UNICEF projects. Part of this money could help financing such committees, Maes hopes.

In terms of child protection, Maes explains, UNICEF also focuses on juvenile justice. "This year there was a little less than 500 detained children, for an average of 15 days," he says. Currently the number of detained children as reported through NGO partners is 199, of which there are 59 cases linked to political events, 84 charged with criminal offenses and 56 irregular migrant children. This number however could represent only a small faction of the actual number of detained children.

"UNICEF has government authorisation to provide legal assistance to those children. We also have access to police stations and all places where the children are detained. Prisons are not places where children should be found," Maes adds.

Other examples of UNICEF's contribution and involvement on the ground are project such as Takaful and Karama.

"Those projects are examples of efforts done by the government to modernise social protection through cash transfer," says Maes. Karama is a programme that aims at helping old and/or handicapped people, whereas Takaful targets the poorest families with children.

"UNICEF has helped the Egyptian government to elaborate those programmes," Maes says. "UNICEF is now cooperating with the Ministry of Social Solidarity for the projects' evaluation, to see their impact and whether they actually reach the most deprived social classes and the poorest children," he adds.

"In Egypt, there are 9.2 million children who live below the poverty line with less than LE10 per day and 7.5 million who live with LE10-14 a day," he explains. The programme Takafol covers the first category only. This is why UNICEF supports the Egyptian government demand to the World Bank to include other deprived categories in that programme as well.

In terms of cooperation with the government, UNICEF hasn't found any problem, Maes explains. To the contrary, "Since I came to Egypt, the communication with the Egyptian government has been excellent." "The problem lies in the slow path of procedures and delays in the execution of agreed on plans. The challenge is therefore to speed up the implementation of the clauses linked to child protection according to the 2014 Constitution," he adds.

This is precisely the role of UNICEF, promoting and advocating children rights. "When a state like Egypt commits itself by signing the Convention on the Rights of the Child, we act in such a way as to ensure that the government and its partners implement it. UNICEF is here to support and assist governments to elaborate political and national strategies. This is achieved progressively as things can't be solved overnight."

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