No room for pessimism
Newly appointed Minister of State for Family and Population Mushira Khattab speaks with Reem Leila
about the challenges of her portfolio
As former head of the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM) Mushira Khattab has long experience of dealing, on a daily basis, with a whole range of welfare issues. Before her involvement with the NCCM Khattab was a career diplomat, serving as assistant minister for foreign affairs in charge of international cultural relations. She has also served as Egypt's ambassador to the Republic of South Africa, non-resident ambassador to the Republic of Botswana and the Kingdom of Lesotho and as Egypt's ambassador to both the Czech and Slovak republics.
What is the mandate of the new Ministry of State for Family and Population?
The mandate of the Ministry of State for Family and Population is to establish policies, strategies and operational work plans related to family empowerment and well-being, working across different sectors -- education, health, labour, economic development, investment and information -- in coordination with the relevant ministries.
We will seek to establish new approaches to the issue of population, moving away from an exclusively family planning perspective to a broader vision that addresses the quality of life as experienced by Egyptian families. Our aim is to create a new socio-cultural environment, one that fosters belief among the public that a better life, with more opportunities for everyone, is available.
What will be your priorities as Minister of State for Family and Population?
I hope to engender a clear focus on the part of public opinion on population issues while also maintaining momentum on the rights of children, which after all are intimately linked to family and population matters. My dream is to establish a core infrastructure on issues to do with population and family well-being that will prove capable of ensuring that Egypt moves forward in a way that allows the family to become integrated within a broader developmental spectrum focussing on quality of life.
Unemployment rates in Egypt range between 8.5 to nine per cent, according to official figures. The proportion of the population living in poverty is estimated at 19.6 per cent. What measures can be taken to reduce these figures?
The Ministry of State for Family and Population will be coordinating with the ministries whose work overlaps with our own mandate. Unemployment is a feature of our current economic environment. It is also a result of the quality of education. I am sure many people will agree that not all university graduates face the same challenges when looking for a job. Those with a high quality of education have no problem. Indeed, you could argue that there is a shortage of qualified candidates for jobs.
The first thing we will seek to do is improve the quality of education while simultaneously promoting development that creates job opportunities. The ministry will work on changing the public's preference for government jobs. We want to foster an environment supportive of entrepreneurs and will provide small loans to help people set up businesses. We want to encourage a spirit of risk-taking among the young. The private sector must also play a much larger role in training students how to run their own projects.
You served as secretary-general of the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood for several years before becoming minister. Have your priorities changed?
My priorities have not changed. If anything they have broadened. The fact is that children comprise a large proportion of Egypt's population and the wellbeing of children is directly tied to family wellbeing. My experience at the NCCM convinced me that children provide a route to tackling the thorniest issues. Investment in children provides the highest economic return. If you invest one dollar you get seven in return.
The problem of illiteracy would be easily solved if you ensure that children don't drop out of school. When I became minister my responsibilities increased. My area of focus, though, is not radically different. Remember, Egypt's baby boomer population is almost 40 per cent. They all fell within the NCCM's mandate. I would argue that cultural sensitivity to children's rights spills directly into the status of their families.
Recent estimates suggest the average number of children per family is 3-4. Do you plan to seek to reduce this number?
We are not going down the path that sees Egypt's population as a burden hindering growth. Human resources are an asset if they are properly integrated within a system that enhances productivity levels. We need to ensure that population growth stimulates economic growth rather than hinders it.
One problem is that a huge swathe of the population is integrated within informal socio-economic structures. This needs to be changed. Upgrading the infrastructure of the economy -- formalising the informal -- will remove the incentive for abusive forms of labour, and that includes child labour. As a society we are still unaware of the destructive effect child labour has on the economy and on the quality of the population. Some even view child labour as a way to alleviate poverty. What we will try to work towards is a population plateau fixed at a level that allows projected growth to absorb new entrants to the job market.
Human trafficking, especially of women and children, has recently been highlighted by Mrs Suzanne Mubarak. How could the new ministry help limit the phenomenon?
Mrs Mubarak took the initiative to alert the global community to the crime of human trafficking. The Suzanne Mubarak International Women for Peace Movement played an instrumental role in this respect. Among other initiatives it held a roundtable in Greece under the motto "End human trafficking now". It galvanised the private sector into joining the campaign to end the practice. It raised awareness of the crucial need for international cooperation and provided a help line for victims. In cooperation with the International Centre for Missing and Abused Children, the movement held a conference in Cairo in February 2009. It organised another conference in Bahrain in March 2009.
A national coordinating committee to combat human trafficking has been set up within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Obviously, human trafficking will be a priority for the Ministry of State for Family and Population. Our primary concern will continue to be the traffic in children, in the form of child labour, and to protect the most vulnerable, street children, for instance, or young girls forced into marriage. These are very serious concerns and will require consolidated governmental and non-governmental programmes if they are to be successfully tackled.
The NCCM has ongoing programmes to deal with such issues. It has already established a unit to combat trafficking in children. The child law, passed in June 2008, included a clear article criminalising any traffic in children. We are now working with the Ministry of Justice and the prosecutor-general to ensure the law is implemented.
Given your work with the NCCM how optimistic are you that it is possible to improve the education and health of children?
Pessimism gets you nowhere. Egypt has already made a breakthrough in access to services such as health and education. The real problems we face are disparities in the enjoyment of these services based on gender, region and socio-economic class.
We have great pilot projects but pilot projects are not enough. We must ensure equal access to services without discrimination. This is the real challenge. With the Girls' Education Initiative we reached the poorest of the poor. Today we have girls and boys who never aspired to get into the education system dreaming of becoming teachers, doctors and lawyers. This initiative must be mainstreamed.
In terms of health provision many services are more accessible than before through innovative delivery systems like the mobile health units that provide services in remote villages and informal settlements. There is increased accessibility but we still need to work hard on the quality of the services. We are working with the available resources to ensure sustainable models that won't collapse in the absence of enormous budgets. Ensuring every child enjoys his or her right to education and eliminating any barrier that hinders such enjoyment is capable, by itself, of controlling the increase in population. Girls will marry later and produce less children. Parents will not be tempted to send their children out to work. Children will cease to be viewed as a source of income for the family.
There have been a number of very public cases of sexual harassment and violence in schools. How do you plan to tackle such problems?
We need to revive an environment in which boys and girls went to school together and grew up together as partners, equal human beings. Nowadays people are very judgmental, and their views of girls and women are growing more chauvinistic. There is a tendency to blame women for all human weakness and sin. The socialisation of boys and girls in such an environment inevitably creates tensions between the sexes. Things can be changed if we approach the problem from a human rights perspective that respects everyone, girls, boys, men, women, regardless of their colour, religion or gender.
Despite several initiatives there are still at least 150,000 children living on the streets. How can the ministry reduce this number and help street children towards a normal life?
The plight of street children is a serious problem though I'd disagree with your figures. The actual number is closer to 10,000 in the governorates of Cairo, Alexandria, Giza and Daqahliya. Other governorates have far fewer.
The NCCM has a concrete strategy in place. We have broadened and deepened our partnership with civil society organisations that have greater accessibility to these marginalised children. The recently adopted amendments to the child law were primarily motivated by the plight of street children. We now have a legal framework that ensures their full enjoyment of rights. We are disseminating such rights and working on building the capacities of professionals working with and for street children. A concerted and coordinated effort by governmental and non-governmental entities to empower fragile families is crucial.
Children with special needs also have rights. How can they be helped to integrate in society?
The amended child law also guarantees equal rights for children with disabilities. Unfortunately, there is a wide gap between the needs of children with disabilities and the services provided. This applies to health, education and social protection. The NCCM -- a non-implementing body -- has a programme for children with disabilities developed in partnership with civil society. Let me emphasise here that we have very efficient NGOs working in this area. The NCCM has a help line for children with disabilities. It provides free consultation and medical services. We have established a fund from voluntary contribution and donations. A group of eminent physicians provide free medical advice and the fund covers treatment for children of poor families. NCCM also has an ongoing capacity building programme for NGOs and professionals working for and with children with disabilities. NCCM's efforts focus on raising awareness of the right of children with disabilities to be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society. They still suffer from stigma and lack of access to adequate services. As a society we need to work much harder towards enhancing their capacity to become more integrated and to improve available services and training programmes.
What have been the benefits of the Children's hotline?
The hotline has received calls from all over the country. Those using it are from different age groups: parents and children requesting the NCCM intervene in family counselling matters related to domestic violence or violence within schools or other institutions that care for children. The help line also receives many inquiries on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
It is a toll free complaint mechanism available to all children. The service is tied to our communication campaign and enables families to express their fears regarding their children through a mechanism that is secure and private. The help line is supported by a huge network of governmental and non- governmental services. Over nearly four years the help line has been able to provide assistance to many distraught children, those living on the streets, working children, the victims of violence, abuse or neglect. It mainly targets vulnerable children and has been able to provide assistance to girls subjected to early marriage or at risk of FGM.
Although the law now criminalises FGM the practice continues. What more can be done?
Today we see a socio-cultural environment that denounces the practice within religious institutions, education structures, the media sector and the health system. When you talk to young girls in schools you will be surprised how well they speak on the detriments of FGM, from a child rights perspective, without fear or doubt. Such is the transition we have undergone. The voices of those against the practice are strong and clear, the voices of those supporting FGM timid and shaky. It is far from insignificant that FGM has moved from social norm to crime.
Its prevalence has dropped among young girls in schools. According to Ministry of Health and Population and WHO statistics in 2008 the figures have fallen from over 90 per cent among married women aged between 15 to 49 years to 50 per cent among school girls.
How many villages and governorates have announced their rejection of FGM?
More than 40 villages across Egypt have renounced the practice. It has also been condemned by the Lawyers Syndicate and by doctors and religious leaders in Aswan governorate. In Sohag the families of girls in the Girls' Education Initiative stood up to denounce the practice last week. They represent different villages and districts within the governorate. But the primary concerns of the anti-FGM programme are not to do with a headcount of villages. Change is a chain process. I have every faith that soon Egypt will irrevocably abandon FGM.
Child labour is an ongoing problem. How can you improve the status of such children?
Child labour is a chronic concern. It is a gross violation of the rights of the child to education, to the enjoyment of the highest attainable level of health and the right to protection from violence, abuse, maltreatment and neglect. To protect children from such violations we must ensure that education is seen as something of value to both the child and his/her family.
Raising the quality of education and removing its hidden costs and eliminating the value of children within the labour market are essential tools in ending child labour. The amended child law has prohibited and criminalised child labour according to internationally agreed standards. We need to ensure the law is implemented. The NCCM is working on this as a key part of its mandate, focussing on strengthening the implementation of legal mechanisms to prevent families from sending their children to work in hazardous occupations and providing parallel social programmes that could re-integrate them into the education system and facilitate access to health services.
It is also essential to try and reduce school dropout rates. We are working to improve the situation faced by children in hazardous occupations and also, on the preventive side, trying to halt the flow of children moving into the labour market.
Drug use in Egypt appears endemic, with an estimated 26 per cent of under 25s regularly using illegal substances. What can be done about this?
The age at which people are being introduced to drugs is getting lower and lower. One problem this poses is how to approach young people from a perspective they will understand. I mean by this that we must speak their language to be effective.
NCCM has conducted a peer-to-peer education campaign. It has trained 12,000 young men and women inside schools and camps on the dangers of drug addiction and the problems they might face in the future. We have trained them on how to ask for help and how to express themselves. The experience has been successful. Hopefully the new ministry will be able to repeat it on a national level.
It is not enough to focus exclusively on supply. A refusal to use drugs should come from the individual. There will be close cooperation between the ministry and the National Council for Combating and Treating Drug Addiction (NCCTDA). We have already prepared a national strategy to protect young people from the dangers of addiction which involves cooperating with NGOs, youth clubs and media personnel.
As former NCCM secretary-general I signed a protocol and memorandum of understanding with the Ministry of Education and it is already supposed to be included in the daily activities of children at schools.
How do you plan to enforce the recently approved child law?
The child law is already being enforced. Doctors who practise FGM, for instance, are being regularly reported. We are currently working on finalising a series of by-laws that will reinforce the implementation of the child law.
The new draft of the personal status law and regulations governing visitation rights proved controversial. Do you foresee any amendments?
All states are obliged to continuously review legislation to ensure it is in harmony with international conventions. Laws should respond to the needs of society just as much as they seek to improve the lives of citizens. It is a continuous process. In Egypt there is clearly a need to revise civil laws to eliminate discrimination against women. We need a rights based family law that ensures the rights of each member of the family, not only children and women. Its overall concern should be to strengthen the coherence of the family even when divorce or separation has occurred.
The issue of child maintenance and visiting rights should be reconsidered but for this to happen you need to encourage a national debate in an atmosphere that is not polarised between males and females. You also need to educate society and young people on the rights and responsibilities of each member of the family.
It might be premature to introduce new amendments now, but maybe later, when the child law is fully embedded within Egyptian culture and the legal system. Any future step should be in response to the effectiveness of its implementation. There must be a consensus that the existing child law can be further developed. We don't just make laws for the sake of making them. It is a lengthy and sophisticated process that entails lobbying, public consensus and advocacy at central and grassroots levels.
Will part of the ministry's role be managing foreign donations?
Foreign donations is a very misleading term. All funding falls under development monies regardless of its source. We have a vision which we share with our local and international partners and international funding is inseparable from national support.