Children have been finding their way onto the front pages and the main news bulletins in Egypt over the past few days.
The months of September and October every year usually carry loads of news about the beginning of the new school year, information about immunisations, debates about mainstream education and private lessons and school supplies and so on. But this year horrible news about Jana, a four-year-old child living in a village near Mansoura in the Delta, has triggered widespread shock and anger. The child was subjected to multiple burns and torture by her own grandmother. This led to blood poisoning and the collapse of the child’s respiratory system. The severity of her injuries led to a leg amputation three days before her death in hospital.
During the police investigations, the grandmother, only 41 years old, denied the accusations of torturing her granddaughter, but no traces of tears or sorrow for the death of the poor girl were seen. An aunt claimed that the grandmother used to burn and beat the girl for wetting herself. The stories and the investigations continue.
What could have led this grandmother to inflict so much pain and so many brutal injuries on the small girl is not the issue. The issue is how a human being, let alone a grandmother, could have committed such brutality and violence. Unfortunately, violence against children is far from fading away, and though the long decades of hard work in raising awareness and educating youngsters, parents and teachers alike about physical, psychological, sexual and verbal violence have not totally been wasted as a result of the events of recent years, such work may have fallen on the list of national priorities.
It was only natural for this list to be reshuffled, since there was a need to rescue the country from the rule of the Muslim Brothers, counter terrorism, restore law and order and reform the economy. Family planning policies had varying degrees of success under former presidents Nasser, Al-Sadat and Mubarak. In 1965, the Supreme Council for Family Planning was launched at a time when Egypt’s population stood at 30 million. Two thousand hospitals and clinics began delivering services to ensure that family planning was integrated into regular healthcare activities. The fertility rate in the 1960s was seven children per woman, but successful policies managed to reduce the rate to five births per woman by the 1980s.
In 1975, the first National Population Policy was issued, emphasising the importance of socio-economic development as a key factor in reducing fertility and providing family planning services. Such successes continued until 2011, and fertility rates were reduced further. However, the events of January 2011 led to many changes. It is worth mentioning that the rise of Political Islam in Egypt over recent decades also helped to loosen extremist religious attitudes towards a number of societal issues, among which discrediting family planning was a priority.
The rise of the Islamist parties and the weakness of the civil state after the events of January 2011 and in the years that followed drove the fertility rate upwards. Under the one-year rule of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, the discrediting of family planning continued, this being viewed by the Political Islamist organisation as “disrupting Muslim traditional life.”
While the Muslim Brothers were overthrown by the majority of Egyptians, the effects of decades of their and their Salafi counterparts’ teachings still linger on.
Linking poverty, illiteracy and limited economic resources to a lack of family planning is viewed by many Salafis as a lie. Their teachings encourage unlimited births and demonise family planning and control. Salafi sheikhs advise those who believe that poverty is linked to the population boom to “fear Allah and give up this false belief.” Such people should understand that “no matter how much the population of the world increases, if Allah so wills it, He can grant it abundant provision,” they say.
RESPONSIBILITY: The above paths to discrediting family planning and encouraging further births have not been accompanied by awareness regarding what it means to have a child.
The sheikhs rarely touch upon the vital importance of giving a child a proper education, a decent upbringing, basic sports and a healthy lifestyle. They lack the sense of responsibility towards a child.
Yet, such teachings, supported by a traditional culture that considers children to be an economic support to the family, a backbone to the father and a helping hand performing chores for the mother, rather than a healthy, well-educated and open-minded human being, have been flourishing in Egypt.
What does all this have to do with Jana and the other young souls that are being produced without a clue among their parents as to why they are producing them? The answer is that such teachings, together with a mountain of archaic beliefs and a lack of alternative routes towards self-fulfilment, have led to dwindling perceptions of the worth of children. Children have been turned into numbers rather than lives.
A few days ago, the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM) in partnership with the Ministry of Education in cooperation with the UN children’s agency UNICEF and with funding from the European Union launched the third phase of a national campaign called “Awladna” (Our Children).
This multimedia campaign aims to raise awareness amongst parents and caregivers about positive discipline, with a focus on the adolescent stage of a child’s life and address misconceptions about using violence and corporal and verbal punishment as disciplinary tools on children. The campaign aims at protecting children from violence, enforcing positive discipline and ending violence and harmful practices against children.
Director of the NCCM Azza Al-Ashmawi says that “the role of parents and caregivers in providing protection, stability and encouragement for children is extremely important in the childhood and adolescent phases, considering the changes going on in the child as well as the realities and challenges that come with an ever-changing digital environment. Laxity, negligence and violence in all its forms are unacceptable,” she says.
UNICEF points to the fact that adolescent social and emotional development is impacted by physiological changes as well as gender and social norms shaped by parents, peers and the surrounding community. Adolescence brings major challenges for parents’ and caregivers’ relationships with children, and these may be manifested in both conflict and distance as adolescents seek more autonomy from authority. Caregiver capacities are important for managing these changes without creating risks for adolescent well-being and mental and psychological health.
In a study conducted by the NCCM and UNICEF in 2015, it was found that parents were the main authors of violence against children followed by peers and teachers. Half of the children surveyed (ages 13-17) had been beaten in the year preceding the research, while around 70 per cent had suffered from some form of emotional abuse. Similarly, a 2014 Egypt Demographic and Health Survey showed that 93 per cent of children aged 1-14 had been exposed to violent disciplinary practices.
This November, the world will be celebrating the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that pledges to protect the right of all children everywhere to live free from discrimination, as well as to promote the treatment of children with dignity and respect, regardless of their differences and leaving no one behind. What we need to do in Egypt is to renew our commitment to the rights of children, while taking the necessary steps to ensure that this is happening on the ground and not only on paper.
UNICEF representative in Egypt Bruno Maes points out that the “Awladna” campaign focuses on forms of violence against children that have a familiar face and that may pass unnoticed within the home and school contexts. Even so, they may affect generations of children. “With adolescence being often perceived negatively, disciplinary violence is usually making things worse, missing the chance to make this critical phase one opportunity to improve life opportunities for the adolescent,” he says.
The first phase of the campaign focused on positive parenting under the slogan #CalmNotHarm, and the second phase addressed violence among peers under the slogan #ImAgainstBullying. The third phase, launched this week, tackles positive parenting with a focus on adolescent rebuilding again using the hashtag #CalmNotHarm.
One cannot but remember words written by US family issues author Craig Hill when he said that “parents with their words, attitudes and actions possess the ability to bless or curse the identities of their children.” What we need is to bless the identities of our children, remembering that they are far more precious than just numbers, extra financial help for the family, or products that we produce without taking proper responsibility.
*The writer is a journalist with Al-Hayat newspaper
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.