19 January 2001


Press Release

Committee on the Elimination of

Discrimination against Women

493rd Meeting (PM)



Egypt’s National Council for Women should have enough power and authority not only to propose legal action, but also to implement existing laws, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women was told this afternoon by one of its 23 experts.

As the Committee continued its consideration of the reports of Egypt submitted under article 18 of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, several speakers questioned the effectiveness of laws protecting women in the context of traditional attitudes.

It was not enough to promulgate laws against domestic violence, rape or genital mutilation and then wait for women to report the crime, an expert said. It was necessary to help them overcome their fear and go to the police.  Unless victims of crime received the necessary assistance, nobody would report crimes, even though relevant laws were in place.

The discussion began at the morning meeting, when the delegation of Egypt introduced the reports and responded to the issues raised by the pre-session working group of the Committee.  The Committee meets twice a year to monitor compliance with the Convention and make recommendations about its implementation.  During its current session, the Committee has before it reports from eight States parties.

Egypt ratified the Convention in 1981, with several reservations.  According to an addendum to the reports before the Committee, since then progress has been made with respect to Egypt’s withdrawal of several reservations, including one on article 2, which provides for Egypt’s implementation of the article “without prejudice to the principles of sharia”.

Responding to questions from the floor, Secretary-General of the National Council for Women, Mervat Tallawy, said that her delegation favoured removal of several reservations to the Convention, and expressed hope that she would be able to report positive results in the future.  As for the political participation of women, the National Council for Women had started to promote women candidates in last year’s election, but the percentage remained small.  Lobbying was also needed to achieve changes in the election law.

Other members of the Egyptian delegation -- Professor of Law at Cairo University, Fawzia Abdel Satar; Councellor of the Ministry of Justice, Sanaa

Khalil; and human rights advocate, Mona Sala Zulficar -- addressed a variety of issues, including rape, abortion, HIV/AIDS, illiteracy and drop-out rates for girls, the role of non-governmental organizations and budgetary allocations for women’s programmes.

The Committee will continue its work at 10.30 a.m. Monday, 22 January, when it is scheduled to begin its consideration of Finland’s reports.   

Committee Work Programme

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this afternoon to continue its consideration of the third and the combined fourth and fifth periodic reports of Egypt (documents CEDAW/C/EGY/3; CEDAW/C/EGY/4-5; and CEDAW/PSWG/2001/I/CRP.1/Add.4).  (For details see WOM/1250 issued today.)

Statement by State Party

In response to questions raised by Committee experts at the morning session, MERVAT TALLAWY, Secretary-General of the National Council for Women, said that her delegation wanted to take some time to clarify a few issues.  The reservation that Egypt had made to article 2 of the Convention did not make her happy, and the National Council for Women was doing its best to remove them. Legislation would be put before Parliament in the near future and she hoped there would be a good result.  She asked for the cooperation of the Committee in that regard.

As for the political participation of women, she agreed that it was disheartening that women’s representation was as low as it was.  The Council had started to promote women candidates in last year’s election, but the percentage remained small.  It was preparing to work on raising female representation in the localities, which would be holding elections in 2001.  She realized that article 4 of the Convention did allow Egypt to have a quota system.  It had been used before, but it was really the election law that needed to be changed.

She said the Government of Egypt was trying its best to change the nationality law, as it was clearly a flagrant violation.  There was no law that prevented women in Egypt from being judges; it was just the practice of the existing groups in the judiciary.  She planned to continue the battle and hoped that the practice would change.

Responding to questions raised by the Chairperson, FAWZIA ABDEL SATAR, Professor of Law at Cairo Univerisity, said that rape was not punished by death, but life in prison with hard labour.  That amounted to a minimum of three years and a maximum of 15 years in prison.

Ms. SATAR said that the Chairperson had also raised the issue of abortion, which was criminal in Egypt.  Once there was an embryo, there was a right to life.  If abortion was induced, then the act was considered a felony and detention ranged from 24 hours to three months.  If the abortion was done by a doctor, the sentence was longer.  That was different if the pregnancy threatened a women’s life.  The last point concerned HIV/AIDS.  It was the responsibility of the Government to provide means to prevent the spread of the disease.  The Government worked in favour of AIDS patients and society at large. 

Comments by Experts

Regarding the political participation of women, an expert said that the ability of the National Council for Women to bring about women candidates in the 2000 election, especially in the southern region, was remarkable.  She felt that the practice should be shared with other countries.  She also had questions on the make-up of the National Council of Women and its political organization.

Other experts commended the delegation on the progress that had been made in the drafting of new laws.  One expert had a question about the former marriage law and whether women lost any stature as a result of divorce.  Were there any improvements in doing away with honour killings or in laws relating to harassment in the workplace? she asked. 

Regarding the laws on non-governmental organizations, an expert had read that the law was quite restrictive, because it gave the bureaucracy the power to monitor the work of those organizations very closely.  She also wanted to know about the relationship between the Egyptian Constitution and the Convention with regard to the political participation of women.

An expert felt that something could be done about the adultery law, which did not conform with sharia law.  Also, it seemed that there should be some statistics provided on the number of rapes and violence against women in detention.  Did force and intimidation have to be proved in the case of rape? an expert asked.

An expert noted that the delegation had conceded that the nationality law was not in compliance with the Convention.  In other countries, a child that had two nationalities could chose which nationality they wanted, if the law did not permit the child to have two.  Perhaps looking at the laws of other countries could be a solution to the issue.  She did not understand why a mother could not transmit her nationality to her child.

An issue that struck one expert strongly was the difference in the illiteracy rates of men and women.  According to the reports, there were almost twice as many illiterate women than men.  She understood that was a problem in most developing countries, but wondered what remedies were envisioned by the Government.

Regarding violence against women, an expert asked if there was any special provision in the criminal code in relation to violence within a family.  Often times older women and children could not defend themselves against inter-family violence, and it often encouraged the creation of a violent society.  The expert wondered what the punishment was for those acts.   

Another expert wanted a clearer picture of the general employment of women in Egypt.  Did the tendency to privatize in Egypt affect women? she asked.  Often times women tended to suffer when it came to privatization.  Also, what was the percentage of women working in the free trade zones that were mentioned in the report?  The situation of rural women was also not clear from the report and, as they represented more than 50 per cent of the population, it was very important to know the status of discrimination in that area. 

Statement by State Party

Ms. TALLAWY said that the National Council for Women was a governmental organization with a presidential decree and financed by the Government.  The by-laws were mixed between governmental and non-governmental.  The mandate of the Council gave the it the sole responsibility of representing the women of Egypt anywhere outside Egypt, bilaterally and multilaterally.

The study on Islam that had been referred to would be translated, she said, and it would be sent to the Secretary of the Committee for review.  To say that Egypt did not have honour killings meant that there was no law against it, and it was not recognized as a crime.  If it happened, the person was treated as a normal criminal.  There were no special laws. 

She said that more than 3000 schools had been established across Egypt, so that parents did not have an excuse not to send their children to school.  A lot of measures had been taken by the Government and the localities to fight illiteracy in the country.  She hoped that by the next report the situation would be improved.

The inheritance law was based on sharia law, which included an entire economic system, she said.  Therefore, it allowed for women to combine their money with their brother's in case of the husband’s death.  That was so that the women were not left without resources.

It was true, she said, that non-governmental organizations had not participated in the drafting of Egypt’s reports to the Committee.  Her delegation had intended to have a dialogue with non-governmental organizations, but it had not yet been possible.

Also responding to questions, FAWZIA ABDEL SATAR, Professor of Law at Cairo University, said that a woman had a right to repudiate a marriage, regardless of her husband’s moral character.  Since the spouse had no fault in that case, the woman would lose her financial rights, including the right to alimony.  In such a case, she would also repay the dowry he had paid for her.  That was done in accordance with the laws of sharia.  If a woman had suffered some physical or moral injury, she would be granted divorce, receiving financial compensation.

Turning to prostitution, she said that the national laws repudiated prostitution by women, but not by men.  That law did not punish the woman because she committed an act of prostitution, but because she habituated such behaviour.  The law would be reviewed, if it was found out that it contradicted the Convention.

SANAA KHALIL, Counsellor of the Ministry of Justice, said that family violence was covered by the provisions of general law, which covered all cases of abuse, whether committed by a man or a woman.  Violence could be one of the causes of the termination of marriage.  As for interrogation of women accused of criminal acts, detention and initial interrogation were conducted by the police in accordance with the Penal Code.  No female could be bodily searched, unless a woman officer was present.  After the first 24 hours, the second interrogation was to be conducted by the prosecutor’s office. 

The Constitution of the country governed all the laws in the country, he continued.  For that reason the provisions of all international human rights instruments that Egypt acceded to were incorporated into the national Constitution.  The Constitutional Court monitored the application of law, annulling the legal actions in contradiction with the Constitution. 

Responding to other questions, he said that teachers were not allowed to beat students.  Regarding employment law, he said that judges were trained to apply the new laws correctly.  The Ministry of Justice was trying to ensure effective implementation of the law.

MONA ZULFICAR, lawyer, then added that the new family law had taken up

126 cases of marriage repudiation so far.  It was possible for a husband and wife to agree to share the communal property equally.  On women’s employment, she said that the National Council for Women was placing priority on working with rural women.  It was true that privatization had had a certain negative effect on women.

The child law, which was enacted in 1996, provided for uniform rules in respect of leave without pay to take care of children.  A working mother could request such a leave three times during her career.  The Council was requesting that such a leave should be provided not only to mothers of newborn babies, but to all mothers asking for such a leave. 

As for appointing women as judges, since 1951 not a single year had passed without a woman asking to be appointed to a judiciary position.  The fight was continuing now.

Comments by Experts

An expert remarked that the National Council for Women had the power to represent the women of the country, and she hoped that it had enough authority and power to not only propose legal action, but also to implement existing laws.   Regarding partnership with non-governmental organizations on women’s issues, she said that sometimes it was not easy to incorporate non-governmental organizations that were critical of measures being taken, but efforts should be made to take all views into account. 

The issue of violence against women should go beyond legal action.  Although relevant laws had been improved, there were still many weaknesses in the way the issues of domestic violence, rape and genital mutilation were dealt with.  The policies in that regard were somewhat gender blind, for it was necessary to understand the real dynamics of such phenomena. 

It was not just the issue of promulgating the law and then waiting for women to report the crime, she said.  It was necessary to create an atmosphere that would help women overcome their fear and allow them to go to the police. She hoped that the national plan would include a survey of the occurrence of violence against women, rape and genital mutilation.  Victims of crime should receive the necessary assistance.  Otherwise, nobody would report crimes, even though the relevant laws were in place.  A strategy was also needed to eliminate illiteracy. 

Regarding rural women, an expert said that her impression was that the Government had done a lot to help this population, but the two reports contained almost identical statistics and there were years between them.  She wondered if there were any changes in the situation of rural women or if there had been any increases in rural projects.  She hoped that the Government had not stopped domestic programmes to train rural women, because they were very important. Also, were there any statistics on the rate of childbirth for rural women? she asked. 

One expert noticed that the figure for the drop-out rate for girls in primary education was different on page 6 of the combined fourth and fifth report than it was on page 59.  She wondered which statistic was correct.  She asked what percentage, and how much of the budget, was allocated to the educational sector.  Considering that education was given primary priority in the social safety-net programmes, she wondered how much political will was behind it, as this information might be useful for other countries.

The implementation of the Convention was the responsibility of all sectors of the Government, another expert said.  She wondered what the level of interaction was between non-governmental organizations and Government bodies.  It was also not clear how much non-governmental organizations participated in the promotion and implementation of the Convention.

Concerning prostitution, an expert said that, according to the report, women were the only party to be convicted.  The man became a State witness and testified against the women.  This meant that the victim turned into the guilty party, and the client into the accuser.  This was no solution to the problem. The victim was then punished and the client was free to go and buy these services from the next woman.  Other experts expressed concern at the law on prostitution and hoped that it would be reformed.

The report indicated that marital rape was not a crime, yet it was one of the most damaging forms of rape, an expert said.  This was an issue that required some rethinking.  Many countries had to reform their laws in this area.

Statement by State Party

Ms. TALLAWY said that detailed answers were not possible with so many questions, but she would do her best.  As for Government partnership with non-governmental organizations, this did exist in Egypt.  Each branch of the Government held consultations with non-governmental organizations.  Her delegation had not done enough to integrate them into the drafting of the reports for this Committee, but this was just a matter of time.

As for Egypt being gender blind in the area of violence against women, it was simply not true, she said.  In the past, women did not go to the police to report rapes, but, with education and awareness, things were changing.  It was a long process and the Government was very sensitive to it.

The Government had not stopped training rural women, she said.  The statistics in the report had not improved because many other agencies had started running similar programmes, and their statistics had not been included.

This year’s budget of 18 billion pounds for education was the largest in the history of Egypt, she said.  As for domestic violence, the figures that an expert had raised seemed to be exaggerated.  No one could claim to have exact figures on such a sensitive issue.

Comments by Experts

An expert said that the support the National Council for Woman had given to women so that they were more active in politics was commendable, as was the Government’s working relationship with non-governmental organizations.  She wondered if men that supported gender equality were isolated, or seen as unusual, in the country.  She asked if the Government had any strategies to extent the participation of men in the area of gender equality.  She also wondered if there were any women’s studies classes offered at universities in Egypt.

Regarding domestic violence, an expert asked whether the police force had been sufficiently trained so that it didn’t add to the trauma of violence against women.  Was there a group of advisors to help women deal with domestic violence or were there any refuge homes provided for women by the National Council for Women?

An expert wondered if the labour situation for women had worsened in any way as a result of privatization.  She asked if the age of retirement for women be increased.  

Country Response

Ms. TALLAWY said that since last century, men had been involved in the efforts to advance women in Egypt, taking the initiative in educating women and fighting for their rights.  Now a new generation of men should take over that cause.  Studies on women had been underaken, and a specialized centre for women’s studies existed in the country.

Giving examples regarding shelters for women, she said that one non-governmental organization took care of out-of-wedlock pregnant girls.  Such work was conducted quietly, without advertising what was being done, to avoid a negative reaction.

Ms. ZULFICAR said that not only the prostitutes, but also their exploiters, were punished by imprisonment.  The only problem with the legislation was that the client was allowed to go free, and amendments were being sought in that respect.  The Code did not make a distinction for so-called “honour crimes”, but any abuse was punished by law.  The question was whether

domestic violence was adequately addressed.  The answer was no, for the crimes often went unreported.  “The walls of silence” presented a serious problem.  Non-governmental organizations and the National Council for Women were trying to resolve that issue. 

The Supreme Constitutional Court was a very important institution, monitoring compliance with the supreme law of the country, she continued.  Its decisions were binding to all.  While there was no danger that its decisions concerning women would be withdrawn, there was a possibility that minor amendments in local laws would seek to reverse progress for women.  The women’s movement was addressing that issue. 

As for the proposed programme for seniors, she said that it was a very good idea. 

Ms. TALLAWY said that there were many shelters for senior citizens, and now such services were being provided to middle and upper-class people.  It was also necessary to offer low-cost services to poor people.

Thanking the Committee for its input, she said that the delegation would take into consideration all the points made by the experts and bring them back to the country.  General knowledge about CEDAW would be distributed among the population.

CHARLOTTE ABAKA of Ghana, Chairperson of the Committee, said that the concerns of the experts had been made clear to the delegation.  She hoped that efforts to revoke reservations to the Convention would continue.  She said that the progress was impressive in many areas, but more remained to be done.  She thanked Egypt’s delegation for the information provided and expressed hope that the information on the proceedings in the Committee would be distributed with the same zeal that had been displayed in today’s discussion. 

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For information media. Not an official record.