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Egypt Today - August 2009

Moushira Khattab, head of the newly created Ministry of Family and Population, has been lauded as a crusader for human rights and lambasted as a threat to traditional values

by Dina Basiony

In the decade that Moushira Khattab has been championing women’s rights, she has taken her share of vitriol from critics. The newly-appointed Minister of Family and Population was criticized by sheiks when she lobbied to raise the minimum age of marriage for women to 18. There were more protests when she successfully petitioned Parliament to criminalize female circumsition. Religious officials objected to her promotion of birth control. And columnists spoke out against President Hosni Mubarak’s decision to name her head of the newly-created family ministry, saying the position had been “tailored” to her. But the criticism has not dissuaded Khattab, who colleagues call driven and meticulous. “I do not blame our opponents because we are the agents of change and there is always resistance to change,’’ she says When Khattab was named head of the fledgling family ministry in March, it marked the culmination of a career in public service. After getting a Master’s degree in international relations from the University of North Carolina in 1971, she joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, eventually rising to ambassador to Czechoslovakia (1992-94) and South Africa (1994-1999). In 1999, she joined the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM) and as secretary general spearheaded the fight against female circumcision. In a major victory, the council managed to convince 53 villages in the most marginalized areas of the country to end the practice. It also lobbied Parliament for an outright ban, and in 2008, MPs approved a measure that imposed jail terms of up to two years or fines of up to LE 5,000 for the practice. The same amendments raised the minimum marriage age for girls to 18 and allowed women to obtain a birth certificate for their child without listing the father’s name. In 2004, Khattab was nominated by the President to be the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. That appointment, however, was never implemented, for undisclosed reasons, and Khattab remained with NCCM. Five months into her term with the family ministry, the government’s newest minister is undaunted by criticism that her stance on some social issues upends traditional beliefs or contradicts Sharia. Khattab, who has been busy taking the pulse of Egyptian communities, says on-the-ground support for human rights issues has been strong. et managed to catch up with her during a rare stay in the capital. Edited excerpts.

The Family and Population Ministry was officially launched in March amid much fanfare. Why was it created and what are its goals?

This is the first governmental entity that has dealt with the family as an institution. It is very important to understand that the family has a role and a responsibility to enable each and every member to enjoy their rights without discrimination. If you look at many families, you’ll find that certain members are discriminated against based on age or gender. You find that children do not enjoy rights on an equal footing with adults, female children are sometimes abused and females in general are not treated equally. Egypt is a country of disparities: We have rich and poor, north and south. I want to focus on the marginalized families because this is usually where rights are violated. As the socioeconomic level drops, you find that families have more children. So my primary task is to enable the family to form the healthy nucleus of society. If the family is able to play its role adequately, we will end up with a healthy [and well-educated] population.

What are the biggest challenges facing the Ministry of Family and Population?

We must help the family withstand the socio-economic and cultural pressures that it faces right now. We have to assist the family in performing its duty by focusing on children. You have to target people who are about to get married and understand their concept of the family. I have to instill in them a sense of pride, ambition and a feeling that they and their children are entitled to better lives. If we succeed in influencing the mindset of future parents, then we can control things like family size. This is the first challenge: control the size of the population so it supports economic growth instead of impeding it. Another big challenge is the equal distribution of the population. You look at Cairo and you see it overcrowded, and overcrowded conditions impair the rights of people. If you go to slums, you can see children being abused. The health of the population is another challenge. It is good to have people who are well fed and well educated, and to have resources to cater to the increasing population. People should not be proud of giving birth to too many children if they are sick and uneducated. At the core of all these challenges are poverty and illiteracy. There is a positive correlation between them. By illiteracy, I don’t mean reading and writing and doing arithmetic, but having the life skills that enable you to be competitive in today’s world. My aims are alleviating poverty; preventing children from dropping out of school and eliminating all forms of violence and discrimination against the marginalized. Our mission is human resource development. We sometimes achieve high rates of economic growth, but it is not sustained because we have not cultivated skills.

Will reaching out to marginalized families, many of whom are off the grid, be difficult?

This is one of my strong points: I’m able to reach out. We have support across the country. We went to very remote areas and we mobilized the community and built girls-only schools. In traditional villages, we encouraged people to declare themselves against female genital mutilation. These people took very courageous stands at a time when female genital mutilation was not yet a crime. These are the people who trusted us. These people will be our ambassadors for change. Now we are training these people to advocate for smaller, happier families, to advocate for the right to education for every child, to combat school dropouts. Our biggest enemy is the school dropout. Let me emphasize here the tools that we are working with. First of all, we use a human rights approach. If I go to speak about family control, I speak about the right to education and healthcare, and the right to not be discriminated against. Our vehicle for change is the people; the participation of targeted groups gives us strength. When we went to build the girls-only schools, it was the people who initially opposed the idea who later donated the land and created the boards of trustees for these schools. We also work through NGOs, coordinating efforts between government entities, NGOs and the private sector. These are our tools that created many successful stories in the NCCM work.

Since becoming a minister, you have clashed with religious figures and members of Parliament about birth control and other issues. To what extent do societal norms make your mission harder?

Well, this is a real challenge for us, but we have found that people are willing to change. They are willing to cooperate only if you show respect, put yourself in their position - to understand why they act in a certain way - and then show them that you respect their culture and tradition. We also give people facts. For example, regarding female circumcision, we explain that it is not a religious or health matter, it is an African tradition passed down through the years. So, I do not blame our opponents because we are the agents of change and there is always resistance to change. We have MPs who helped us when we pressed amendments [to the Child Law, which banned female circumcision]. Thanks to them, we improved the text and made penalties harsher. We also have religious members who helped us a lot. I respect our opponents, but I tell you that we are all Egyptians and we all believe that this country deserves the best.

What roles should other ministries, non-governmental organizations [NGOs] and the public play in solving problems related to family and population?

This is a very important issue, and this is why I said from the start that we are a ministry of strategy, vision and policy. There isn’t one single ministry that can achieve our goals. It takes a host of ministries, NGOs, the private sector and individuals in society. Our role is to be the catalyst and the coordinator of all efforts. We coordinate by developing policy that sets the roles of the different partners. From there, we monitor the implementation and assist in gathering human and financial resources for the implementation of this national plan of action. Nowadays, Egypt is going through a phase of freedom of expression. We have so many newspapers, TV channels, etc, and this is good because the national debate is healthy. It is equally healthy that while we criticize the problems, we also point out to the average Egyptians what we would like them to do to move ahead with this agenda. Take the street children issue, for example. Five or six years back, you would have asked, “What should I do if I find a street child?” Now, we have a complete system that starts with a toll-free call [to the MFP’s 16000 help line] that sets in motion a series of interactions. One of the partner NGOs is called to come and pick up this child, take them to a rehabilitation center and look for the biological family or a foster family. We need to assist the victim, but to do that, you have to believe that they are victims, not criminals. [Street children] used to be treated like criminals. Now, they’re children at risk who need protection. Donate your time for these children. We need people who have compassion for the children, because in certain cases, the children are not treated adequately enough in the centers where they’re rehabilitated. They need people to come and visit them, show them care and attention. Also, go and inspect the NGOs. If you donated money to an NGO, drop by and see how they’re functioning and [using the money]. You can also help by enrolling a child in a school. Don’t just give money, but pay a child’s school tuition, buy their uniforms or buy their school books. This is for people who really want to help. We don’t want people to sit, criticize and point at the problems without taking action. [The people who need help] have integrity. I shouldn’t go and film them while they’re drugged in the street, and make documentaries that show them in the [most miserable manner] to society. These people have privacy that needs to be respected, and when these people are re-integrated into society [after overcoming their problems] their identity should be protected so they are not stigmatized. This is a big concern I have with the media. [Under the new Child Law,] intruding on the privacy of the child is now a crime, punishable by a LE 50,000 fine and/or imprisonment. Khattab was referring in part to the popular TV talk show Al Bait Baitak, which aired a documentary late July about the lives of street children. The hosts heavily criticized the efforts of Khattab and her fledgling ministry. Speaking with et, the minister fired back at the show, saying that they air critical documentaries about societal problems but don’t publicize — “not for one minute” — the ministry’s 16000 help line, set up to receive citizen reports on issues related to family and population. The help line is manned by 400 employees who take the information and contact the appropriate agencies to address the issue. The MFP pays NGOs to intervene on behalf of street children identified, directly or indirectly, through the help line; it also covers all the expenses of transportation for these children.

Is the 16000 number effective in reaching out to people in need of help?

We do receive a lot of calls, but I tell you we face a challenge in dealing with street children. Some of them phone us then disappear, and when we go to collect them we never find them. Anyway, we have success stories. For example, the girls education initiative [a project run by the NCCM and the MFP]. We’ve built 1,015 schools for girls in the seven most deprived governorates: Fayoum, Giza, Beni Sueif, Sohag, Assuit, Minya and Buhaira. This is where we found the gender gap higher and fewer girls are educated. Now we have 30,000 girls who had no hope of going to school now receiving a top-notch education. These are very small schools and girls are treated like queens. Their teachers are very well trained in respecting the girls. The girls are free to talk about their problems in the classrooms; their colleagues listen and try to help one another. Their teachers are paid by the Ministry of Education, they get curriculum approved by the ministry and they get exams and engage in many activities. UNICEF has documented this as a success story. [Former US First Lady] Laura Bush went and visited these schools, as did [UN Secretary General] Ban Ki Moon. These are the kind of stories that help us move on.

Have you thoughtabout enlisting the help of university students?

[Volunteerism] is a very important component of our work, and we have many volunteers in the universities, in schools and scattered all over Egypt. They help us very much in the areas of combating drugs and smoking, with the female genital mutilation campaign, and with a program about social and financial education of children.

From your observation as an ambassador abroad and in the NCCM, what makes the problems of the Egyptian family different from families in other countries?

The Egyptian family is a very precious institution, but the Egyptian mother does things to her children that others wouldn’t do. There are certain beliefs and customs in the Egyptian family that are practiced with love but they emerge as violence [such as favoring the boy over the girl, not educating girls, practicing female circumcision]. We need to instill a culture of human rights in the mentality of the Egyptian family. This could be possible through the media; it plays a part in setting the culture for the family. If we start with this then everything will fall into place.

To what extent do you hold the family accountable for problems like sexual harassment, inefficiency at work or lack of respect for laws?

I will be very harsh and say that I hold the family accountable for everything that happens to their children. When parents start a family, they have to be ready and they should have a family as big as they can handle and honor. You need to plan well, and when you encounter trouble we help.

When Egypt was criticizedin the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report of June 2009, you said the report was unbalanced and other officials took a defensive stance. Do you think officials get defensive whenever a flaw is detected in the system, instead of trying to solve the problem?

I’m never defensive, and I cannot speak for anyone else. Like I said earlier, [the NCCM] are the ones who opened the room for discussing all these problems that we talk about now. The US State Department issues the report annually, and the report last year was more balanced even though I have reservations about it. The report this year is unbalanced. We have problems and we do not deny the problems and it is good to talk about these problems. What I don’t like is focusing on problems and ignoring achievements. You have to be balanced. I am so proud of the amendments to the Child Law passed in June 2008. The report just went over it in one sentence. Providing an adequate, legal framework for the protection of the marginalized is a very important step and you must give it its due. They should have gone into details into these legal amendments, spoken about the good points and the points that need to be strengthened. But this wasn’t the case.

Do you think the various government entities and ministries collaborate efficiently to on national issues?

First of all, we lack adequate and proper coordination. The media is trying to play a role, but it is part of the society that is guided and judged by the same culture. We have to admit that we haven’t had proper education [in the area of human trafficking, for example] in our culture. I take great pride to be the governing body that drew the attention to the presence of such problems. We are working systemically on them. I know, however, that such collaborations take time. You have to have budget allocated for the implementation, the government ready to work in the issues, NGOs, civil society and trained people. Gradually, we are putting a system in place. But we are not yet on track as a society when it comes to working together to achieve a certain goal. The amendments to the Child Law 126 of 2008 have received a large amount of media attention. Exactly how do the amendments help improve our society? We’re very proud of what we have accomplished in this law. It brings about a paradigm shift. It is a very solid human rights document that is one of its kind, apart from the Constitution that sets general rules and doesn’t go into details. [The new Child Law] is an important document that focuses on the rights of the marginalized and has the legal framework that will enable everybody to work properly.

What is being done for families of children with physical disabilities?

Children with disabilities are a major concern for us, and there is a national strategy for disabilities that is not fully implemented because of lack of resources. Still, there is a lot that has been happening for children with disabilities. We’re conducting, on a regular basis, training programs for all teachers working with children with disabilities and we have a private help line. The MFP offers free legal counseling and free physiotherapy. We also have a donation fund and we provide hearing aids and wheelchairs for the families. We have a draft document for the rights of children with disabilities under consideration now in Parliament. In the new Child Law, we have a section on the rights of children with disabilities, giving special emphasis to their right to education, integration in the society and the media.

Recently, 64 seats were allocated for women in the People’s Assembly. Do you intend to play on the motherhood angle to convince female MPs to advocate for the Ministry of Family and Population?

Yes, of course, and I expect them to be supportive of these issues by virtue of being women. But contrary to what people think — that we are being met by opposition in Parliament — we actually have been really surprised by the support we’re receiving from many MPs. It was our intention to raise a national debate [on controversial issues in the Child Law amendments], because they had not been debated before. But this is necessary for change to happen. In 2004, we read in national papers that you had been appointed by the president as the minister of State for Foreign Affairs. Obviously it didn’t happen. So, what really went on? (Smiles) That’s true, the decision of the appointment came from the president. I was very happy and thrilled, but then on the day of saying the oath, the decision didn’t really materialize. What I can say is that it would have been a crowning of my long diplomatic career, but I think I’m helping a lot of citizens [through the NCCM and the current ministry’s work]. I’m grateful to the president and the first lady for establishing this new ministry and giving me the lead will be a turning point. Helping Hands The Ministry of Family and Population several avenues for people who want to help marginalized children and families. MFP Toll-free Help Line: 16000 Toll-free help line for Children with Physical Disabilities: (0800) 888-6666 or 1602





Altri articoli su:
[ Africa ] [ Diritti Umani, Civili  & Politici ] [ Egitto ] [ Islam e democrazia ] [ Medio Oriente ] [ Moushira Khattab ] [ ONU ]

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[ Africa ] [ Diritti Umani, Civili  & Politici ] [ Egitto ] [ Islam e democrazia ] [ Medio Oriente ] [ Moushira Khattab ] [ ONU ]

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[ Africa ] [ Diritti Umani, Civili  & Politici ] [ Egitto ] [ Islam e democrazia ] [ Medio Oriente ] [ Moushira Khattab ] [ ONU ]


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