State authorities on Sunday mobilised to declare measures that aim to help empower women and protect them from the dangers of among other things, child marriage, and genital mutilation.
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi revealed on a Mother’s Day ceremony that he had given directives to the government to introduce a number of initiatives in favour of supporting women in Egypt. “First, I asked that parliament take all the measures necessary to pass a separate law that would ban child marriage by setting a minimum legal age of marriage for both males and females,” Al-Sisi said.
The president complained that the instances of child marriage and early marriage were widespread in the countryside. “Egyptian families should stop this habit which harms their daughters and causes serious social and economic implications on the nation’s life,” said Al-Sisi.
Al-Sisi said “early marriage is a major reason for rapid population growth and for the spread of poverty in villages”.
The president also asked families in the countryside to refrain from spending too much on marriage preparations.
“Many families resort to borrowing too much [money] to prepare their daughters for marriage, but this is another bad habit as most mothers end up failing to pay back money and finally find themselves forced into jail, becoming gharemat” (mothers in debt).
“It is sorrowful to say that many of the women who serve prison sentences defaulted on paying debts they had borrowed for preparing their daughters for marriage,” said Al-Sisi.
Al-Sisi said he instructed the concerned ministries to take all initiatives necessary to stem the tide of women who are jailed over unpaid debts. He said that the government had also allocated LE150 billion to implement the “Decent Life” initiative which is aimed at improving lives in 1,500 villages.
But Al-Sisi said the money needs to be increased “as part of the money will be used to help Egyptian women in the countryside live in a healthy home, have access to high-quality services, obtain soft-term loans from banks, and find jobs in small-scale productive projects”.
The president also called for changes to the personal status law in order to be balanced and to maintain the interests of both fathers and mothers on an equal footing. The president’s initiative came amid much controversy over many of the draft law’s articles which regulate marriage, divorce, alimony, and guardianship and custody issues.
“While I was touring Nasr City [east Cairo] last week, a woman told me that she is a grandmother and was worried that the new personal status law might not be issued in a balanced way,” said Al-Sisi, stressing that the government is keen to hold social dialogue “in order to hear from everyone” on the draft law and make sure that it meets all the public’s demands and serve national interests.
In late February, Parliament Speaker Hanafi Gibali referred the government-drafted personal status law to a joint parliamentary committee for review. Speaker of the Parliamentary Majority Ashraf Rashad, however, warned that an initial reading of the law showed that it would stir up controversy among the public, not to mention that many of the articles of the law were clearly in violation of the constitution.
Al-Sisi said the law should help create a favourable climate for children who suffer because their parents are separated.
Minister of Social Solidarity Nevine Al-Kabbaj said in a TV interview on Sunday that the draft law will be put up for public dialogue before it comes up for debate in parliamentary circles. “The law might cause a lot of controversy at the beginning, but let me remind you that the NGOs law was also controversial in its initial form but went through several rounds of consultations before being enacted into law at the end in 2019,” Al-Kabbaj said.
She also revealed that the government, in cooperation with civil society organisations, is working on settling the debts of 50 per cent of women in debt.
Al-Kabbaj also said the number of families benefiting from the state’s society safety net programme Takaful and Karama (Solidarity and Dignity) rose to 14.3 million in 2020 from 12 million, with women comprising over 75 per cent of beneficiaries.
Meanwhile, the Senate, Egypt’s consultative upper house, passed a law on Sunday toughening penalties for female genital mutilation (FGM).
A report prepared by the Senate’s Health and Population Committee said “the practice of female genital mutilation is still one of the worst crimes in Egypt and so laws should be amended to impose harsher penalties to this crime.
”As a result, the report added, Article 242 of the penal code will be amended to increase the minimum and maximum prison sentences imposed on FGM crimes. “Non-medical individuals involved in performing genital mutilation would face up to seven years in prison if the practice led to a permanent disability, and up to 10 years in prison if the practice led to death,” said the amendment. The amendment also states that medical professionals (mostly doctors and nurses) who perform genital mutilation can face between 10 and 15 years in prison. “If the procedure leads to a permanent disability, medical professionals involved can face a minimum of 10 years in prison, and if the procedure results in death, the penalty will be toughened from between 15 to 20 years in prison,” the amendment added. Moreover, the amendment said that medical professionals convicted of performing genital mutilation will be banned from practising their job for up to five years, and have their clinics closed for the same period of time.
According to the same amendment, any other individual found promoting, encouraging, or supporting FGM in any of the ways prescribed by Article 171 of the penal code will be jailed, even if the procedure takes place without harm coming to the patient.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly