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(New York) – Egypt recently took two steps to promote the rights of children, but serious violations by authorities against children still demand urgent attention, Human Rights Watch said today.

On February 11, 2015, Egypt withdrew its reservation to an article in the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child that sets the minimum legal age for marriage at 18, aligning its international obligations with changes Egypt had already made to its domestic law. In January, Egypt amended its Child Law to lower the age when children can be raised by foster parents from 2 years to 3 months, allowing non-institutional support of orphans and other children in need nearly from birth.

“Egypt’s enforcement of recent legal changes can make a difference in the lives of the country’s children,” said Zama Coursen-Neff, children’s rights director. “But the Egyptian government still needs to do much more to protect children from serious abuse.”

One major concern is violations against children in Egypt’s criminal justice system, including arbitrary detention, unfair trials, and physical abuse. Despite legal requirements to send any child accused of a crime before a juvenile court, authorities still process many children in the adult system.

Because of overcrowding at regular detention facilities, children are frequently held with adults in police stations, makeshift detention centers, and prisons. In those facilities, the children may face assault by guards or other inmates, Egyptian lawyers told Human Rights Watch.

The Egyptian Code of Military Justice allows military tribunals to try children if they are charged with an adult. On February 25, the Daily News Egypt reported that a 9-year-old boy in the Fayoum governorate would be tried in military court alongside his father, a former local official whom authorities detained after the military removed President Mohamed Morsy in 2013. The father and son have been charged with attacking security forces and burning electricity transformers.

International and African regional law generally prohibit the prosecution of civilians in military courts.

Egypt banned female genital mutilation (FGM) in 2008 as an amendment under the Child Law, but the government does not adequately investigate and prosecute those who perform this dangerous and harmful procedure on girls, Human Rights Watch said. In January, an Egyptian court for the first time convicted two people for carrying out female genital mutilation, following the death of a girl in 2013. However, the government needs to put in place a comprehensive national strategy to end this practice that involves religious and community leaders, healthcare professionals, teachers, and nongovernmental groups.

The change to the Child Law, article 46, took place on January 24, 2015, when President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi issued a decree to lower from 2 years to 3 months the minimum age that children can receive alternative family-based care outside their families. Alternative care is a system used to raise children outside their family when necessary because adoption in Egypt is illegal. The change will allow children to obtain crucial non-institutional support from infancy.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Egypt ratified in 1990, obliges governments to ensure that children deprived of a family environment are entitled to alternative care, including adoption, in which “the best interests of the child shall be the paramount consideration.”

The reservation to the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child that Egypt lifted in February stated that Egypt would not be bound by article 21(2), which says that states should take effective action, including by passing legislation, to make 18 the minimum age of marriage for both sexes. When Egypt made the reservation in 1999, its law set the minimum marriage age for boys at 18 and for girls at 16. Egypt raised the minimum age for girls to 18 in 2008.

Child marriage violates many human rights, including the rights to education, freedom from violence, reproductive and sexual health care, employment, freedom of movement, and consensual marriage.

Since changing the law in 2008, the government has implemented the 18-year minimum age requirement by barring registration of a marriage to someone under that age. Nevertheless, child marriage remains endemic in rural areas, where families frequently accept a sort of unregistered marriage contract until the girl reaches 18. A 2010 study by the Social Solidarity Ministry and UNICEF found that 11 percent of marriages that year involved girls under 18.

The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, adopted by the Organisation of African Unity (now the African Union) in 1990, entered into force in November 1999. It presents the rights that African countries have agreed to ensure for their children, including protection from exploitation, the right to education, and the right to health care.

“The government’s two recent steps to improve protection for children should now be followed by a sustained and serious campaign to improve the rights of all children in Egypt,” Coursen-Neff said.

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