x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Egypt struggles with population surge

The country's families minister admits measures have failed to cut the number of children living on the streets.

Moushira Khattab said challenges are a trademark of her job.
Moushira Khattab said challenges are a trademark of her job.

CAIRO // Egypt has made no adequate gains in curbing the country's massive population growth since a ministry for family and population was set up a year ago, the minister in charge of the department said yesterday. Moushira Khattab described the problem as one of Egypt's most pressing issues with the number of people in the country growing by more than 1.5 million annually. Mrs Khattab said overpopulation is the main contributor to the other problems the ministry faces - especially homeless children living on the street.

But after almost a year in office, Egypt's first family and population minister defended her record, saying her department had made many gains for women's rights while acknowledging that big challenges remained. "Challenges are the trademark of my job," Mrs Khattab said yesterday at a press conference. "We are on the demand side of the job," she added. Mrs Khattab was appointed to the position in March last year. She is a former ambassador and has been dealing with family and children's issues for the past 10 years as a member of the national council of motherhood and childhood. She is also a senior member in the national council for women, which is headed by Egypt's first lady, Suzanne Mubarak.

Mrs Khattab combats thorny and controversial issues like the marriage of young girls, child trafficking, female circumcision and street children. "We've done something very good for the first time in Egyptian history, we've sent people to jail because they've conduced marriage contracts for under age girls: 9,300 cases were taken to court and some are spending times in jail since last year," she said.

Mrs Khattab has also fought legal battles to amend a child law which led to illegitimate children being issued birth certificates, giving them access to such benefits as health care and education. She also advocated another law passed by parliament to raise the minimum marriage age from 16 to 18, referring to that battle as a "mission impossible". She said that a hotline the ministry set up six months ago for people to report child marriage has been a success. It has also set up hotlines for domestic violence and one for female circumcision, which has received 1.5 million calls since it was established three years ago.

She also emphasised the importance of the girls education initiative the ministry launched last year, which aims to convince families not to force girls to drop out of school. She said that "Egypt is a flagship in this initiative" and has built more than 1,100 schools for girls in three years in rural areas and upper Egypt where many daughters stay at home while sons are sent to get schooling. Mrs Khattab considers the campaign against female circumcision to be one of the ministry's most successful.

"Female genital mutilation is an African practice, and this is our success, we were able to isolate religion from the practice," she said. "Copts and Muslims are equally abandoning this practice," after getting the support of official figures from both religions. She said that statistics loosely show that in the past 15 years, the 97 per cent of Egyptian girls and women between 15 and 49 who are circumcised has now dropped to around 80 per cent.

"You have to know to change cultural attitudes it takes time, and we can't do it just by passing a law or issuing a decree. We have to talk to people and convince them of the cost of wrong values, attitudes and practices," she said. Mrs Khattab said the ministry had failed to make any headway with the problem of street children. While no official statistics are available, there are an estimated two million street children in Egypt.

"We have a very serious problem of street children, which, if not dealt with from the roots, can only increase." "Unfortunately, I can't claim any victory in the area of street children even though we put a national strategy and made a very wide range of comprehensive legal incentives for the benefit of street children," said Mrs Khattab. These included enabling mothers alone to sign a birth certificate for their child. Before the children's law was amended thanks to Mrs Khattab's campaigning, only the father could do so, which led to orphanages and streets swelling with "illegitimate children" born out of wedlock.

"There is no such thing as illegitimate children, since they came to life, they have to have rights and not be punished for their parents having them outside marriage," she added. @Email:nmagd@thenational.ae