Of Egypt's soaring 80-million-strong population, more than 30 million are children, accounting for 38 per cent of society. Accordingly, children's rights are set to become an important issue for Egypt's Constituent Assembly, tasked with drafting a new constitution.
The Egyptian Coalition on Children's Rights (ECCR) has made several recommendations to the constitution-drafting committee that it believes should be enshrined in Egypt's future national charter.
The ECCR, which consists of 100 NGOs devoted to children's rights, introduced its constitutional recommendations to the assembly on Monday. It called for children's rights to feature in the new constitution, not to merely be relegated to Egypt's Family Law, as they were in Egypt's 1971 constitution.
The coalition also called for the dissolution of Egypt's National Council for Childhood and Motherhood, and for the establishment of a national council devoted exclusively to the issue of children's rights.
"The child is an independent entity, whether he or she is part of a family or not," Hani Helal, a member of the ECCR's board of directors, said at a Monday press conference at Egyptian Press Syndicate headquarters.
The ECCR recommends including a concrete definition of "child" in the new constitution, as "any human being less than 18 years old." It further calls for Egypt's new constitution to guarantee the basic rights of the child, including the right to survive, to grow, to avoid discrimination and to have a say in his/her life.
One of the pressing issues in terms of children's rights in Egypt are reported violations against underage girls, such as female circumcision, forced marriages and the phenomenon of "seasonal" or "summer" marriages.
Female circumcision is common in rural areas and is often justified on religious grounds. Many poor rural families also push their daughters to get married at a very early age (near puberty) in order to ease the financial burden of raising her.
As for "seasonal" or "summer" marriages, this is popular in the Badrashin and Hawamedia areas south of Cairo, where wealthy men from the Gulf come to Egypt for vacation and often marry young girls on a temporary basis, in return for payment to her (often cash-strapped) family.
The ECCR is also working to empower the child by listening to children and taking their opinion on proposed legislation, and giving the child final say about his or her life rather than the child's parents or family.
"In many cases, the family is the reason for many of the child's problems, either out of a lack of awareness or because they put their own interests above those of the child," Helal said. He cited examples of this in which the child is taken out of school and sent to work to help the family make ends meet, or in which young girls are subjected to female circumcision.
Egypt's police, interior ministry and street children are also crucial issues that must be addressed, according to the ECCR. The ECCR recommends the assignment of judges specialised in children's rights and calls for police to be trained in how to deal with children to avoid traumatising them.
"Some police officers abuse street children at police stations, then simply send them back to the street," noted Helal.
The media, say some, is another issue that deeply impacts the child. The ECCR, for its part, opposes the agenda of many television programmes geared towards children. It recommends that more children's shows be produced to prevent children from watching adult-themed television shows. It has also called on the media to work on raising awareness about children's rights in general.
The above recommendations, along with some others, were presented to the Constituent Assembly's 'listening committee' on Monday. "But they didn’t provide us with feedback, since they are simply a listening committee and don’t have final authority," Nadra Zaki, head of UNICEF's child protection programme, told Ahram Online.
In the meantime, the situation of many Egyptian children remains precarious. Seven million Egyptian children currently live under the poverty line, a figure that has risen from 21 per cent of the population in 2000 to 23.8 per cent as of 2008.
Before last year's January 25 Revolution, children's rights and related issues were mostly dealt with via Egypt's Ministry for Family and Population, which was dissolved in the wake of the revolution. Related issues are currently dealt with through a department within Egypt's health ministry. Many experts see the change as a setback for the cause of children's rights.
NGOs collaborating with the ECCR are based throughout the country. The ECCR previously worked on Egypt's 2008 Child Law, the application of which it closely monitored. It has also worked extensively on the issue of Egypt's street children and on children referred to military courts in the wake of last year's uprising.
The ECCR is a member of the Manara Network, a civil society organisation devoted to children's rights in the Middle East and North Africa region.