A philosopher was once asked: “is there evidence that God still loves people despite their sins?”
He answered with certainty: “Yes. He still gives them millions of children every day.” But what if people’s gratitude towards God’s gift is being ruined in his name?
“It’s my life’s dream to become a doctor, but my father wants me to leave school and start working with him,” these were the words of an 8-year-old, voicing a problem faced by many children who are forced into child labour.
His struggles, like many others, were captured in a short film that portrays different forms of violence children are subjected to on a daily basis. Just before the little boy finishes telling his story, another young girl appears in front of the camera to explain a predicament many innocent children face: sexual harassment.
Children who are victims of sexual harassment rarely find the courage to speak up due to social stigmas and sex being a taboo subject. “I love chocolate, but the man who I buy it from, insists that I get very close to him in a strange way,” says the young girl. “This scares me.”
The video featuring these children is part of a new initiative launched on Monday by the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), which aims to confront all forms of violence against children through religion. Targeting Egypt, as a society which is heavily steeped in religious beliefs, UNICEF released a new publication that presents Islam and Christianity’s beliefs on how violence against children can be eradicated. UNICEF focused on both religions as they are the two most common forms of faith in Egypt.
The publication consists of three books addressing the Islamic perspective on protecting children from violence and harmful practises, the Christian perspective on protecting children from violence, and a third joint study called “Peace, love and tolerance: key messages from Islam and Christianity on protecting children from violence and harmful practises”.
For the first time, both Al-Azhar and the Coptic Church, the two main institutions representing both faiths, united together for the cause.
“The initiative seeks to give practical guidance, mainly to religious leaders, clerks, parents, and care givers all around the region about what they can do, based on religious scriptures from the Quran and the Bible, to protect and nurture children and make sure they don’t suffer from any discrimination or violence,” said Peter Salama, UNICEF regional director.
The publications are available in both Arabic and English and they contain verses from both holy books that stress the importance of protecting children from all forms of violence. They were designed to be used by religious scholars, imams, and priests, as they hold the most effective positions and are the most capable of delivering the message to a wider audience of people and groups.
The initiative aims to teach religious leaders the appropriate way of dealing with situations in which children are experiencing violence, even if the perpetrators do not consider their actions to be abusive.
Duo to poverty and the lack of proper education in Upper Egypt and the countryside, many parents force their young boys to drop out of school and start working at a young age, with the belief that working at an early age makes “a real man”.
There is a clear discrimination between young boys and girls in these societies, as sons are generally more favoured in rural areas.
Many parents and family members force young girls to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM), a widespread phenomenon in Egypt. According to a recent UNICEF statistic, it is estimated that over 90% of Egypt’s female population has undergone some form of FGM.
The phenomenon of FGM, which is banned in Egypt though this law is difficult to enforce, is believed by some to be a practice approves by God. Addressing the practice of FGM falls directly within the goal of the UNICEF project, which wants to do away with these practices that cause children harm but are viewed as positive.
“In the past few years, many violations have been practised against children in the name of religion even though they have nothing to do with religion. So, we needed to create these books to declare that religion has nothing to do with these practises,” said Gamal Abo El-Soror, director of the International Islamic Centre for Population Studies and Research.
For three years, hundreds of Imams from Al-Azhar and priests from the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt, in corporation with UNICEF, have been working to produce content featuring verses from the Quran, the Hadith and the Bible which address violence.
Violent practices mentioned by the publication include the following: sexual harassment, child labour, underage marriage, domestic violence, child trafficking, FGM, and violence in educational institutions.
It is estimated that over 91% of children in Egypt are subjected to emotional and sociological violence, according to a recent UNICEF study.
The publications also spotlight behaviours considered cultural norms that are now considered forms of abuse against children, such as the absence of family care, discrimination among children based on age or gender, the exploitation of children in the Armed Forces, and violence against children carried out by the television or the internet.
“Children are a gift to humanity, and this cooperation between UNICEF, Al-Azhar, and the Coptic Orthodox Church aims to raise people’s awareness of the abuse practised against them,” said Pope Tawadros II, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the Holy See of Saint Mark, in regards to the new project. “It also spotlights that even though the world is developing and heading forward, violence is walking the same path with the same speed leaving behind children as victims”
I expect this project will have an effective part in solving violence against children in Egypt, he assured.
Launching the project also marks the beginning of a “Religious Leaders” initiative, in which around 850 imams and priests will be trained on how to address the issue of violence against children during religious sermons and ceremonies.
“Egypt is not the only country subject to violence. It is an international epidemic that is affecting children all over the world. Over 1 billion children are affected by violence in the world, and a child dies every five minutes as a direct result of violence,” said Salama.