Al-Ahram Weekly looks into the latest efforts to help the less fortunate youngsters
Flesh and blood
full house at the third Regional Conference of the Middle East and North Africa on violence against children last week, and Mrs Suzanne Mubarak -- chairperson of the National Council of Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM) -- is giving the opening speech; next is NCCM Secretary-General Mushira Khattab, followed by Moroccan Princess Lala Mariam and the deputy executive director of UNICEF, Omar Abdi. The occasion? An Arabic version of the United Nations secretary-general's Study on Violence Against Children is being launched over three days; and the topics range from children in armed conflict to a child-safe Internet. Principal among the 12 recommendations of the study was the establishment of a reliable national data collection system to be completed by 2009. The study cited that, of 24,000 sexually abused women from 10 countries, most suffered abuse as children at the hands of family members, highlighting a successful government intervention in Jordan, "Safe Home", through which both children can seek guidance and rehabilitation together with their parents -- the first of its kind in the Arab world. The child-help hotline established in Egypt in 2005 - a 24 hour service free of charge available to everyone under 18 - was also hailed as a positive measure.
In the course of the session on children on the wrong side of the law, Khattab took issue with the lack of both sufficient information on juvenile delinquents and a comprehensive system for sustaining fair treatment of them, emphasising that they "have rights" and referring to treaties and efforts remaining, as they were, "in drawers". She explained that existing laws are based on penalising juveniles while making no provision for preventing them from breaking the law. A new, comprehensive policy, she announced, is in the process of being adopted; it will provide for both prevention and rehabilitation, rectifying current faults in the system: "we assume that a child is incapable of breaking the law due to his young age and limited capabilities." Yet not only is this line of thinking untrue -- in some cases, indeed, as in that of street children, frequently on the street as a result of being subject to abuse, a child may be classed as delinquent having committed no grievous act as such -- the consequences of its application include many an injustice against children, such as depriving them of the right to an education. "The ideal, rather, is to seek out the best interest of the child as specified in the relevant treaties: opening the doors to reintegration by offering a comprehensive rehabilitation service, and focussing on prevention efforts." She went on to highlight the rights to be listened to, to an opinion, to dignity, which, she said, are directly related to the notion of violence against children. She also listed the rights to education, healthcare including psychological well being and family support, insisting that a successful intervention is one that manages to reintegrate children into the fabric of society, not one that excludes and penalises them. Foremost among the plans posited in this context is raising the age of criminal liability (currently at seven years old, with no one under 15 liable to serve a sentence), remembering that serving time is, throughout the Arab world, in effect an education in crime, and so adopting a much needed realism.
One successful intervention presented by Myrna Bouhabib, Juvenile Justice Project Coordinator at the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC), concerned a rehabilitation process implemented in Lebanon in 1999 and in Egypt in 2003. Involving the collaboration of the ministries of justice, interior and social solidarity as well as the NCCM, the UNODC and various NGOs in Egypt, the initiative sought to supplement the penal approach at the juvenile correctional facility in the district of Al-Marg, accommodating children 15-18 years old. Initial results have pointed to success, with some 100 children attending literacy classes and developing various skills. Yet, to cite the statistics of the Ministry of Justice's own judicial protection administration, only 1.3 per cent of juvenile delinquents are included in social research. Some 70 per cent of juvenile crimes are of an administrative, of "medium" criminal danger, yet over 43 per cent of the verdicts involve penalisation, leaving little room for alternative punishments. All in all, it is on the legal amendments -- expected to be passed by the end of the year -- that hopes now hang.