Mothers and campaigners in Egypt are counting on President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s signal that he backs an overhaul of 71-year-old guardianship laws which deprive millions of women of control over financial and educational decisions for their children.
Under the laws, fathers are default legal guardians of minors, with sole control over financial and academic affairs. In the case of a father’s death, guardianship transfers to the paternal grandfather, supervised by civil courts.
If there is no living paternal grandfather, the mother would have guardianship, subject to court supervision.
Some widows can spend months seeking approval from a judge to pay for tuition or extra-curricular activities for their children.
But prospects of change emerged in May, when politicians and activists discussed possible amendments to guardianship laws during the opening session of the National Dialogue, a political forum that authorities say is meant to generate debate around Egypt’s future and pass recommendations to the president.
The head of the dialogue’s technical committee indicated a consensus was close, without giving details, and Sisi said he’d do “whatever is within his abilities” to accommodate proposed changes.
Some politicians, lawyers and activists call the current law unfair and discriminatory. Criticism grew in April when a TV series, “Under Guardianship”, showcased the struggles of an Egyptian widow whose father-in-law controlled her children’s finances.
Elham Aidarous, an activist and politician, argued during the dialogue for “joint guardianship during marital life with full equality in legal positions”.
She also proposed that the mother becomes the default guardian when a father dies.
‘Denied the most basic rights’
Fathers are commonly the default guardian around the Middle East and North Africa, said Rothna Begum, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Egypt should “ensure that parents have the same rights and responsibilities, with the best interests of the child as a primary consideration”, she said.
Doaa, a divorced mother of two, told Reuters she had been barred from withdrawing money from her childrens’ bank accounts despite using her personal savings to open the accounts. The bank told her only the father could do so.
“I felt so bad, I’m carrying the financial, mental and physical responsibilities from A to Z, only to be denied my most basic rights,” she said.