“Finding a suitable family for each and every orphan is the main purpose of the recent amendments issued by the High Committee for Alternative Families,” head of the national programme for protecting homeless children and adults at the Ministry of Social Solidarity Hosni Youssef told Al-Ahram Weekly.
According to Egypt’s 2014 constitution, legislation in this area should follow Sharia Law (Islamic Law) under which adoption is strictly forbidden. However, an alternative care system for abandoned children referred to in Arabic as kafala exists, and this allows orphans to be raised as part of a foster family.
According to Youssef, a member of the High Committee at the ministry, the system of “alternative families” started in 1980s when the idea was to find children for families who could not have them.
“The ministry has issued amendments to the system of alternative families as part of its strategy over the longer term to reduce the number of orphanages. The ministry encourages alternative families to apply to foster children instead so that they can have the benefit of family life, according to the conditions set out in the law, which is better for the children than living in charitable associations,” Youssef said.
Heba Abul-Amayem, a member of the High Committee at the ministry, explained its development. “The vision of the ministry to develop the system was crystalised in 2014 with a view to developing the project for alternative families. In 2016, the High Committee for Alternative Families was formed consisting of a number of experts in various fields and representatives of different ministries, along with Al-Azhar and the Dar Al-Fatwa,” responsible for issuing Islamic legal rulings, she said.
The number of children fostered by alternative families has increased by 40 per cent during the last two years compared to when the system was established in the 1980s, Youssef said. “There are now some 11,500 children in some 11,000 alternative families,” he said.
There has also been an increase in the number of orphans. Children may be orphaned as a result of the death of the father, born of unknown descent, lost, or abandoned by divorced parents. “These children pay the price of problems among their biological parents, and we need to exert all efforts and increase religious awareness to put an end to such problems,” he added.
According to statistics from the UN children’s agency UNICEF, there are around 1.7 million orphans in Egypt. Abul-Amayem told the Weekly that “unfortunately, the number of found children is increasing, and babies are found daily in the streets of some big cities”.
Such developments led to the amendments in June 2020 after seven months of study to develop the system of alternative families. They aim for the best for the children concerned, and older terms have been abandoned in favour of newer ones that focus on the children’s welfare, including “found children” instead of abandoned ones, “kafala alternative families,” and “children of unknown descent” being changed to “children of generous descent” (kareem al-nasab).
Some conditions have also become more flexible for the alternative, or foster, families. Only one member of the couple should have Egyptian nationality instead of both, and they should be aged at least 21 instead of 25.
The kafala fosters should pay LE3,000 into a saving account for the child instead of LE5,000. One of them should have received the Thanaweya Amma certificate (high-school diploma), instead of both, though the other must also be literate.
The alternative family can have full educational authority over the child after passing a ministry evaluation. It can be the legal guardian of the child after passing a similar evaluation, and the child can have the first name of the mother and the first name of the father or his family name on the birth certificate, taking into consideration that the record of finding the child remains on his or her file.
Youssef added that widows, divorced women, and those who have never married and have reached at least 30 years old are also entitled to kafala fostering after approval.
FOSTERING UNDER KAFALA
“The kafala family is obligated to facilitate and accept the supervision of the Family and Childhood Administration at the ministry, including visiting the family home, interviewing the child, and following up on the child’s welfare without violating confidentiality,” Mahmoud Shaaban, head of the Family and Childhood Department at the ministry, told the Weekly.
According to Abul-Amayem, “an agreement has been made with a private company to send out 10 million text messages to promote the alternative families system.” A campaign has also been launched called “A Family for Every Child” to raise awareness of the importance of kafala. A hot line working 24 hours a day seven days a week replies to inquiries for alternative families, and registering online to foster a child can be done online through the ministry’s website.
“The committee organises qualifying courses, publishes a guide for employees in the system, and trains the alternative families before they take the children,” she said.
Many of the efforts have been the result of cooperation between FACE, a leading child-protection actor in Egypt and the only NGO allowed to care for young abandoned children, and the Ministry of Health.
Buildings have been made available to FACE projects, and there is active collaboration with the local and national authorities. FACE teams in Egypt are entirely composed of Egyptian personnel, but they are supervised and monitored by a team of specialists in Belgium on finance, HR, and child protection, Nabila Al-Gabalawi, director of training and case-management at FACE, said.
“FACE strongly believes that the best place for a child to grow up and develop happily is in a family. Since 2012, FACE has made a strategic turn to focus its work on the promotion of family-based care in Egypt. And through its two programmes working with children, it has supported close to 900 children to integrate them into their foster families,” she said.
One mother who had fostered two baby girls told the Weekly how life had totally changed as a result of the newcomers. “Happiness entered our home through their presence,” she said. The sound of the girls of eleven months and two years old could be heard in the background as she talked. She had been married for 21 years and had tried all possibilities to have a baby, but all of them had failed.
She persuaded her husband to foster an orphan. “He was totally against the idea at first,” but then they spent a month finishing the procedures for kafala. “I started looking in orphanages for a girl that resembled me. They then phoned me as they had found a girl I could foster. I named her and got the approval of the High Committee for Alternative Families,” the mother, who preferred to remain anonymous, told the Weekly.
“Two years later I adopted her sister,” she said, her husband adding that he had asked the authorities to give the girls their full names and not only their first names. “The full names will help them later on, especially when they get married,” he said. Many such stories of fostering are among families who have no children or single mothers who want to experience further motherhood.
However, Um Mariam has a different story of adoption. “I gave birth to four children, two girls and two boys, but I found myself attached to Mariam as well, whom my husband found wrapped in a blanket near a mosque at dawn and brought to the house,” she told the Weekly.
Um Mariam has worked at an orphanage for 15 years and believes that “the tender love an orphan receives inside a family is better than life inside an orphanage.” She also feels that the recent amendments may save many innocent children from facing uncertain futures, as it will allow them to be integrated into families. She hopes that the officials who pay regular visits to the families will treat them kindly and bear in mind that they foster the orphans willingly.
“Although we were a big family before adopting Mariam, every day we love her more and more and are more and more attached to her,” she said. Why did she accept to adopt a girl when she already has two daughters of her own? “I felt pity for her and felt that I could raise her for God’s sake and I feel the blessings of this decision every day,” Um Mariam said.
While the amendments pave the way for a healthy and happy life for fostered children, one expert coordinator at an orphanage association, who preferred to remain anonymous, was less optimistic. “The worst stage for a fostered child and his or her alternative family is the teenage phase. Some alternative families spoil the children during their early childhood, and if the circumstances of the family change by the death of one of the parents, for example, or by jealousy that may appear from one spouse towards the fostered teenager, things can become difficult.”
“Two cases left their families after crucial incidents, and no one knows anything about them after they showed an aggressive attitude towards their foster families. These amendments are promising for the benefit of the children concerned, but the results need to be evaluated 10 or 12 years from now,” he concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly