Parentless children in Egypt are stuck in the conflicting position of being objects of charity while being rejected due to their lack of heritage and family.
"Our society snubs and looks down on orphans," explains Hala Anwar live-in mother at one of Bent Masr orphanages' four branches in Cairo's Mohandiseen district.
The orphanages were founded by Dr Esmat El-Merghani, a lawyer who works at the Arab League.
Orphans in Egypt are often referred to as Laqeet or foundling – a term which in the past was written on their birth certificates. Sometimes they were even known by the damning label "Children of Sin" (Awlad Haram).
This ingrained prejudice, Anwar continues, is what rights groups struggle against, hence creating awareness days like Egyptian National Orphan Day.
An annual event marking the national day is being held on Friday at Dream Park, Cairo's largest theme park. The celebration was initially created in 2004 by Al-Orman Orphanage and is sponsored by the government and over 10 major organisations.
Games, live music, celebrity appearances as well as 100 weddings of orphaned adults (1,000 nationwide) are just some of the scheduled activities for the day.
Holding these weddings is a particularly important part of the awareness day because of the social stigma orphans face when attempting to marry. The fact that society regards the parentless as a people with no background, inheritance or family to provide the dowries or the finances to secure flats, means marriage proposals are often rejected, rights groups say.
There are fierce debates surrounding the very term "orphan," which some argue is psychologically damaging for the child, particularly in Egypt where it is such a loaded word.
“I don’t accept the name orphan or the day singling them out. These children are not animals and should not be differentiated from other children," explains Nefisa Mostafa, a donor and volunteer to Ahbab El-Rahman ‘The Children who God Loves’ orphanage in Cairo's Haram district, which houses 20 orphans aged under 12 years old.
UNICEF and its global partners, who define an orphan as a child who has lost one or both parents, prefer to use the term ‘children without parental care’.
This wider description, representatives say, ensures that other children who share similar vulnerabilities and are exposed to the same risks are included.
Not all agree. Al-Orman orphanage staff use the term orphan, explaining that it is the clearest word to secure public attention.
Parentless in Egypt
Orphans constitute approximately 1.7 million of the Egyptian population, according to figures released in 2009 by UNICEF and a well-known NGO working on the issue, Save Our Souls (SOS). These numbers, SOS says, are on the rise.
However, media representative of Al-Orman orphanage Mohamed Farid believes this is a conservative estimate. “The number of orphans in Egypt is much higher. I would actually suggest it is between three and five million.”
In Egypt, civil society employees say, infants are most frequently found abandoned in front of hospitals or near police stations.
The Ministry of Social Affairs is left to process and place them in foster families or orphanages.
Typically, orphans remain unaware of their origins due to the lack of police services available to track parents down.
Instead, orphanage staff say it is easier to tell the children their parents died in an accident and that the adoptive parents or orphanage staff are their distant relatives.
"Mama Esmat is my mother," says 13-year-old Nourhan proudly, about the lawyer who founded the Bent Masr orphanage. She gives a recital of the Bent Masr song in the meeting room where smiling portraits of the 16 orphaned residents hang on the wall.
Once the girls had retreated to their dormitories before mealtime, Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, the girl's middle-aged father figure, further clarified that the orphans believe Dr Esmat El-Merghani is their mother.
Controversy of adoption in Egypt
Article 20 of the UN’s International Convention on the Rights of the Child, which concerns the ethnic group, religion, culture and language of a child, recognises four possible options for children without parental care.
First option, foster placement, second Islamic Adoption ‘Kafalah’ (outlined in Article 46 of Child Law 2008) which enables Egyptians to either financially support or foster an orphan following certain legal stipulations, the third option is Western adoption whereby the child takes the adopted family’s name and finally institutionalisation as a final resort (Article 48 of Child Law 2008).
However, Egyptian law, in adherence with the tradition of the Prophet Mohamed, follows the practice of kafalah whereby an orphan is not allowed to take the name of the adopted parents as it will deny them inheritance rights from their biological parents.
The family name distinction is also considered essential in order to help prevent incest. As the adopted child’s family is not considered muhrim (blood relations), marriage is permissible between the orphan and the members of the adopted family in Egypt.
"Legally, Egyptians can either financially support an orphan or foster a child on the condition they adhere to Kafalah and ensure the child retains its biological name," explains Iman Ahmed Ibrahim, senior manager of Al-Noor Al-Amal orphanage in central Cairo.
This means that an orphaned child is not allowed to inherit from its adopted parents unless the parents sign their assets over while they are still alive.
There is only one way of getting around it, Farid explains, which is to resort to the controversial Islamic practice of Reda’a, whereby the child drinks the breast milk of the adopted mother. After this, according to the practice, the child can add the adopted parent’s name as his or her own.
Reda’a, following Sunni Islamic jurisprudence, states that if an infant who is not biologically related to a woman drinks her breast milk, the child will automatically become hers. This also means the orphan is prohibited from marrying her adopted brother or father.
This practice, however, remains a highly controversial.
Islamic adoption of Kafalah in Egypt is a gruelling process overseen by the Ministry of Social Affairs.
An in-depth background check is conducted by a social worker from the government committee within the ministry's Department of Motherhood to guarantee that the prospective adoptive parents are eligible according to certain legal and socio-economic stipulations.
The law declares that prospective adoptive parents must be at least 25 years old and not more than 55 years old.
Only married couples are allowed to foster and while there are no specific income requirements, the prospective adoptive family's income must be sufficient to provide for the family unit and child's basic needs.
Furthermore, special permission must be obtained from the Ministry of Social Affairs to look after more than one child and they may not adopt more than two children unless the children are old enough to be independent.
In addition, at least one of the prospective parents should be of Egyptian nationality. Foreigners are prohibited from fostering Egyptian children.
Despite these restrictions, representatives from the Egyptian government maintain that the adoption system in Egypt is effective.
“We help ensure orphans are safe and secure by providing them shelter with loving parents or in institutions. We also collect and donate money to orphanages,” claims Aisha Abdel-Rahman, director of the Central Department for Social Welfare, part of the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs.
Abdel-Rahman also denied accusations about instances of child abuse and fraud in state orphanages.
As a consequence of the complex bureaucracy surrounding the fostering process, complicated by social stigma, the social workers Ahram Online spoke to insist few Egyptian children are raised by foster parents, although theoretically Islamic law encourages the practice.
To add to the problem, there are no government statistics proving or contradicting this claim.
Co-ed orphanages are commonplace in Egypt until the age of twelve where girls and boys are separated into single-sex buildings. Some institutions only admit children of certain faiths or with special needs and disabilities. Others, like Dar Al-Orman do not specify.
“We currently house around 300 orphans aged between one week and 17 years old. For those that are handicapped we have a separate programme and division," says Farid, insisting that the children that are not fostered are raised in the orphanage like family.
All Egyptian orphanages are registered with the Ministry of Social Affairs and in some cases funded by the ministry, emphasises Marcelle Ibrahim, senior administrator at Bent Masr.
Although the state funds many orphanages, many are supported through private and commercial funds.
Donations ensure the provision of food, shelter, education, healthcare and even marriage dowries and property lump sums for orphans of marital age.
Such charity is crucial since orphans do not have families to support them financially.
“Our orphanage functions on civil society donations, even the villa housing our kids was a donation from a local land owner who built it especially for this purpose,” explains Mostafa from Ahbab El-Rahman orphanage, clarifying that some benefactors give land whilst others may rent out their premises.
In their case, the villa is legally owned by the orphans for 100 years after which it will return to the land owner’s family who will decide whether to retain or return it to the orphans.
Typically in most orphanages in Egypt, trained foster mothers look after the children and are allocated a salary in accordance with donations.
Since donations are not a steady source of income standards, particularly in state orphanages, standards vary dramatically.
According to UNICEF Egypt has yet to adopt national minimum standards for children for all types of social care institutions as per the UN Resolution 2009.
Consequently there are cases such as the 2010 debacle when Cairo-based orphanage El-Tofoula El-Saida was shut down after a government committee reported staff were sexually abusing the children, instances of fraud, lack of building permits, staff shortages, insufficient specialised supervisors and the absence of security guards.
There are also horror stories of parentless children being forced into prostitution or kidnapped for their organs.
Nevertheless many orphanage administrators like Ahbab El-Rahman's Mostafa, insist that their staff are constantly monitored due to the vulnerable position the orphans are in.
Farid claims that the government keeps an eye on foster families. If children are ill-treated in their new homes, they are sent back to Al-Orman immediately, he adds.
Bent Masr staff disagree, believing that the only way they can ensure the safety of the children is to look after the orphans themselves.
"We treat the children like our own children; they are treated better than they would be if they were raised by foster parents. That is why Dr Esmat El-Merghani does not permit the fostering of orphans from Bint Misr," insists Anwar.
“Given the inherent hardship orphans face the most important thing for society is to give orphans is support and love,” says Abdel-Rahman, from her ministry office, emphasising it is a responsibility of the Egyptian people to look after persecuted vulnerable groups.
This is why national awareness days and events like Friday's Dream Park celebration, social workers assert, are so key.
Al-Orman orphanages ambitiously aspires for the day to be adopted into the UN agenda; while its media representative Farid invites all Egyptians to participate in the event’s nationwide celebrations.
Smaller organisations like Bent Masr are planning humbler festivities to entertain the 16 girls in their local Mohandiseen Cairo branch. The teenage girls who live there are preparing for a disco and dinner to mark the day.
These are the lucky ones, Bent Masr, is one of the more well-run institutions. For those stuck in abusive orphanages with no family to support them and a society who has shunned them, the future is bleak.