‘Tortured with iron and fire’: 93% of children in Egypt suffer from violence

Archaic norms, poverty and political strife, all contribute to this brutality.

Sometime around 2015, a family in northern Egypt went through a chaotic divorce. The mother had lost her sight, so the court granted custody of the two young daughters to their maternal grandmother in line with the country’s customs that insist that a woman be the primary caretaker.  

The children had been beaten repeatedly by the mother. Now, the grandmother began a pattern of horrific physical and emotional abuse that resulted in the ultimate death of one daughter. She would  restrain four-year-old Jana Muhammed Samir by tying a rope around her wrists and ankles and punish her for bedwetting by burning her private parts with a hot iron. She used pliers to peel off her skin and whipped her with a garden hose. 

Forensic examination of Jana’s body revealed that her eyes were swollen, her skin and nails had a bluish discoloration due to poor circulation of blood and she had bruises all over her body, some as long as seven inches. Doctors had to amputate her leg because of a gangrene infection (a condition in which the body tissue dies due to a lack of blood flow). The leg was fractured, an injury common in child abuse cases, and had remained untreated for too long.

In September 2019, Jana passed away at a hospital in the Nile Delta province of Mansura days after she had been brought there. 

Her death shocked the nation with thousands attending her funeral in her small village of Busat Karim. Some chanted that they demand the “execution of the grandma.”

Nighttime television shows probed the government with questions and some Egyptian celebrities took to social media. 

“Jana died after she had been tortured by a close relative,” tweeted famous actress Sherine Reda. “But how many more Jana are there and we know nothing about them?”

Jana’s father claimed that her daughter was raped by her uncle and the grandmother burned her genitals to cover up her son’s crime. Investigators, however, did not find any evidence of sexual assault. 

The state National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM), an arm of the Ministry of State for Family and Population, called for the the death penalty. 

“Janna was the victim of torture and of premeditated murder torture, which are capital crimes under articles 230 and 231 of the Egyptian penal code,” ​​said NCCM Secretary-General Azza Al-Ashmawi.

The head of the Human Rights Committee in the Egyptian House of Representatives, Alaa Abed, condemned the incident, calling for the repeal of the country’s Child Law that grants caretakers “the right to legitimate discipline,” which had become a backdoor to child abuse.  

In her confession to the police, the 41-year-old grandmother, Safaa Abdel-Latif, said that she didn't think that her actions would kill the child and pleaded not guilty in court claiming the abuse was intended to properly raise her. 

Violence is readily accepted as a means of raising children up into supposedly strong adults

In Egypt, there is a common belief among parents that physical violence is an effective and valid form of discipline. In one incident, a mother slapped her daughter and dragged her by the hair in front of her friends when she discovered that her daughter had skipped private tutoring lessons. When the daughter arrived home, her mother kept beating her and cut her arm with a knife. 

That is the unfortunate reality of not just Egypt but of many Muslim countries. Violence begets violence but the lack of awareness in Muslim countries provides a cover to parents to abuse and neglect their own children with impunity. According to Gulf News, one of the largest English newspapers in the Arab world, Jana’s death coincided with the conviction of several parents in Egypt, for murdering their children due to family disputes or because they were under the influence of drugs. 

A month after Jana’s death, the national council published a study that revealed that 93% of Egyptian children ages 1 to 14 suffer from violence in a country with 17 million children. 

The report added that 65% of children are beaten by objects such as sticks and belts and 75% of children are emotionally abused during adolescence. Archaic norms, poverty and political strife, all contribute to this brutality. 

“Many children in Egypt are being subjected to violence at the hands of those who are supposed to protect and nurture them. This violence, some of it extreme, is too often condoned and normalized by the adult perpetrators and even by the children themselves,” noted UNICEF.

Egyptian religious leaders interviewed by UNICEF said that the lack of education due to poverty plays a huge role in pushing parents over the edge. Parents have stated “that their own state of mind could be another reason for violence, with stress, frustration or nervousness (sometimes caused by external factors such as financial problems) acting as triggers for violence, leading them to beat their children.” 

The view of the religious leaders was supported by a 2017 study that found that child abuse is very common in “large-sized families, of illiterate unemployed parents.” It linked abuse with low self-esteem, major depression episodes, conduct disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and socialized aggression.

News media reported that as many as 1000 cases of child abuse a month are recorded in Egypt including rape, murder and kidnappings and the COVID-19 has only exacerbated the problem. 

In May, a seven-year-old boy, Muhammad D, in the Egyptian governorate of Qalyubia was tied to a pole and covered in honey by his father to attract bees as a form of punishment for stealing. 

“The man then reportedly placed Muhammad on the roof of their house, where he attracted swarms of mosquitoes and bees due to the sticky honey all over his body,” reported the Daily Mail. 

Another form of child abuse rampant in Egypt is female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/C). A 2014 survey by UNICEF found that in some areas of the country, 90% of girls aged 0 to 17 years have been victims of FGM/C. (Both statistics are not needed.)

Egyptian American activist Mona Eltahawy dubbed FGM/C as the “brutalizing of girls in the name of controlling their sex drive.” Mona continued that the “procedure has no health benefits. We hack away at perfectly healthy parts of our girls’ genitals because we’re obsessed with female virginity and because women’s sexuality is a taboo. This cutting is believed to reduce a girl’s sex drive. And families believe their daughters are unmarriageable unless they are cut.”

Some Muslims in Egypt and around the world believe that the practice is prescribed by Islam but the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa, called it heresy in 2007 (Some Christians and animists follow the custom across Africa). 

"The harmful tradition of circumcision that is practiced in Egypt in our era is forbidden.” 

Years of political strife have scarred Egypt’s social fabric. 

After the 2011 revolution that brought the end to the three decades long presidency of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian people were promised a democratic government that would uphold their basic human rights. Mubarak’s successor, however, the Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, was thrown out in a military coup in 2013. The crackdown led to 1400 people killed, thousands jailed and dozens sentenced to death after speedy mass trials. 

"Children's rights are being eroded because the government is so focused on political issues,” said Hany Helal, secretary general of the Egyptian Coalition for Children's Rights.

It is unclear if any of the proposed changes in the wake of Jana’s death were enacted into law. Egypt’s 2014 constitution, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, and the Egyptian Child Law that was legislated in 1996, all stipulate that children have the right to a life without violence. The country criminalized FGM/C in 2016 but experts argue that laws are not supported by essential measures and resources. 

The unabated violence against children is because of “the lack of deterrent measures and the low priority given to children's issues,” according to Ahmed Hanafy, a psychotherapist with the national council.

70% of the abused children in Egypt are exposed to violence at home. Last week, for the first time, one member of parliament, Enas Abdel-Halim, proposed a  law that criminalizes violence against kids including that committed by parents. 

The current Child Law in the country does not punish parents for neglect except in cases of severe violations. Abdel-Halim’s bill mandates a 10-year prison term for child murderers and a minimum three years of imprisonment for perpetrators who cause injury to a child. 

Jana is not suffering anymore. 

Jana’s elder sister, the six-year-old Amany, survived the abuse but not without living with its consequences. The Shirbin Misdemeanors Court in Daqahlia sentenced the grandmother to three years in prison for physically abusing her granddaughter. The chief of Al Azhar mosque who is considered the highest theological voice among Egyptian Muslims provided financial resources for her rehabilitation and schooling. 

In February 2020, a few months after the court in Shirbin handed down its verdict, the Mansoura Criminal Court in Dakahlia Governorate jailed the grandmother for 6 years for Jana’s death. 

Edited by Andrew Kozinn.