Interview: Egypt still suffers cases of malnutrition, UNICEF’s representative in Egypt says

Nesmahar Sayed , Wednesday 27 Nov 2019

On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child Nesmahar Sayed speaks with Bruno Maes, UNICEF’s representative in Egypt

‘The right to play safely’
‘The right to play safely’ photo: Dalia Ihab Younis

“Egypt ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child [CRC] soon after its adoption. The convention is only a first step and, since then, Egypt has shown the world how to make these rights concrete and real,” said Bruno Maes, UNICEF representative in Egypt, at the start of his speech marking 30 years of child rights.

“Our children need guidance, quality education, sports and care. No to physical abuse and violence that destroy and damage all their motivation towards the future,” Tarek Kandil, board member of Al-Ahly Sporting Club where the anniversary event was held, told guests. 

According to the website of the National Council of Childhood and Motherhood, Egypt was among the first 20 countries to ratify the CRC which subsequently became the most ratified convention in the history of international legislation. Egypt was also one of the six countries that called for a World Summit for Children to be convened in 1990.

“It is the right of every child to play safely and not to suffer from bullying”, Ayatallah Samir, 10 years old, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Samir says that at school other pupils used to make fun of her dark colour skin.

“At first I used to feel sad and upset then I joined the campaign organised by UNICEF and learned that, with self-confidence and courage, it is possible to stop bullying.” 

Asmaa, the 29-year-old mother of one of the children at the ceremony, said that her daughter had been bullied when she first attended a new school but her teacher had intervened and changed the situation. 

For Syrian refugees in Egypt children’s rights can have a different meaning. Samir Said, 14 years old, says that having fled violence at home “the right to feel safe and secure is most important.” 

For 11-year-old Abdel-Rahman Abdel-Meguid, education is among the most basic rights. “When I left Syria I was unable to enrol in school though in Egypt I feel safe,” he told the Weekly

Nesmahar Sayed speaks with Bruno Maes, UNICEF’s representative in Egypt
Nesmahar Sayed speaks with Bruno Maes, UNICEF’s representative in Egypt

Walaa Al-Daqaq, manager of Dar Al-Tafawoq Al-Taalimy, a Syrian centre that offers classes for Syrian children at reasonable rates, says that having fled violence at home children faced a complex of problems. Often their families’ finances were precarious, meaning children could be deprived of entertainment, education and even food. 

“When children face the kind of hardships that come with being a refugee their behaviour can be affected negatively. One has to understand that many of these children have lost a great deal including, in some cases, their parents or other family members.”

Al-Daqaq says that while “nothing can compensate for the insecurity that comes with losing your homeland” she believes that UNICEF should be doing more to help Syrian children. 

Maes, who has been in Cairo since September 2015, says that “over the next 30 years we must take tangible steps towards realising the rights of every child in Egypt.

“In the earliest years of life we must scale up childhood development programmes, including nutrition and protection.” 

The Egyptian government has undertaken ambitious and courageous socio-economic reforms in the last few years in which context its efforts to develop social protection programmes have been very important, says Maes. Takafol and Karama, the means-tested cash transfer programmes, help children by ensuring mothers visit health centres and children attend school. 

In an interview with the Weekly, Maes highlighted the importance of efforts to reform the education system to ensure children have the skills necessary to join the job market, and said that substantial investment in childhood development programmes was necessary given Egypt’s 2.5 million annual birth rate. 

Egypt still suffers cases of chronic malnutrition while at the other end of the scale 15 per cent of children below five suffer from obesity. While improved health and nutrition services clearly have a role to play in addressing these problems, parents too need to be informed about best practices when it comes to nutrition for their own children. 

Maes pointed out that breastfeeding remains very low in Egypt. “We are working with the government to ensure positive parenting programmes are accessible to all future parents and social media is an important tool in getting information to young parents,” he said.

Another issue that needs to be addressed, he said, is violence against children, a behavioural pattern that will take years to eradicate from homes and schools.       

*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: ‘The right to play safely’

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