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Women's Rights: Egypt's Complexities on Abortion and Prostitution Laws

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and the Alliance for Realizing Sexual and Reproductive Justice

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and the Alliance for Realizing Sexual and Reproductive Justice describe Egypt as being one of the most restrictive countries in the world when it comes to abortion.

Egyptian law does not allow abortion, nor does it allow survivors of rape or incest to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. Only danger to the life of the expectant mother or fetus is a legal justification for terminating the pregnancy and even this is only if the woman is married.

Unsafe Abortions in Egypt and the Middle East
The fact that abortions are banned in Egypt does not prevent women from having one, whether they are married or not.

According to WHO figures, about 39,000 women worldwide die each year as a result of unprofessional abortions. About 60% of these happen on the African continent, and 30% on the Asian continent. Reliable statistics on unsafe abortions in Egypt are not available.

Due to these legal restrictions, unsafe abortions in Egypt are common; carried out by indigenous methods, at clandestine clinics, or by private gynecologists. One study found that about 20% of obstetric hospital admissions were for post-abortion treatment. Another study estimated that between 1995 and 2000, there were 2,542 maternal deaths in the country due to unsafe abortions. Consequently, prevalence is hard to assess. In a 2000 study of 1,025 women from six villages in Upper Egypt, approximately 40% were found to have had at least one abortion; among this group, there were 265 abortions per 1000 live births.

Criminal Laws
  • Abortion for Rape Survivors: Abortion is prohibited by Articles 260�264 of the Penal Code. A 1998 fatwa on abortion declared that women who have been raped should have access to an abortion in the first months of pregnancy.
  • Female Genital Mutilation / Cutting (FGM/C): FGM/C has been criminalized since 2008. The Penal Code considers circumcision an aggravating factor in the crime of causing deliberate physical injury. In 2016, the Penal Code was amended to increase the penalties for FGM/C to a period of imprisonment of between five and seven years.
  • Marital Rape: Marital rape is not criminalized. Marital rape is not considered a crime under the constitutional principle that there is no crime and no punishment except as authorized by a legal text.
  • Sexual Harassment: Law No. 50 of 2014 amended the Penal Code (Articles 306 bis(a) and 306 bis(b)) to introduce penalties for sexual harassment, including imprisonment.
  • Human Trafficking: Law No. 64 of 2010 on Combating Trafficking in Humans provides comprehensive measures to address human trafficking.
  • Sex Work and Anti-Prostitution Laws: Prostitution is criminalized by the Law on Combating Prostitution, No. 10 of 1961. Exoneration by marriage Article 291 of the Penal Code was removed in 1999. Article 291 stipulated that there was no penalty for male rapists who married a female victim. Adultery is an offense under Articles 237, 273, 274�277 of the Penal Code including developing a preventive measures mechanism to protect women victims of violence, as well as developing a referral system. Within the framework of the implementation of the Strategy, the NCW developed a draft law to combat all forms of violence against women.
In June 2018, the NCW submitted a draft of a new Family Law to the Council of Ministers, which provides a contemporary vision of the provisions and the substantive aspects of Law No. 25 of 1920 and Law No. 25 of 1929 and their amendments in addition to the above-mentioned laws. The NCW will also propose amendments to the procedural aspects of the personal status laws.

Abortion for Rape Survivors:
The Penal Code prohibits abortion, except to save the life of the woman. Under the general principles of the law on criminal procedures, an abortion may be performed to save the life of the pregnant woman on the grounds of necessity.

Whoever causes the miscarriage of a pregnant woman by giving her medicines or using methods leading to abortion, or by indicating them to her, whether with or without consent, shall be punished with detention. A woman who accepts to use medicines although she knows about them, or who agrees to use the aforementioned methods, or enables another to use these methods for her, and as a result miscarriage occurs, shall be punished with the aforementioned penalty. If the person inducing the miscarriage is a doctor, surgeon, pharmacist, or midwife, he or she shall be subject to aggravated detention (imprisonment). There shall be no penalty for attempted induced miscarriage.

A Comprehensive Approach to Human Rights
The Egyptian Constitution, throughout history and most recently in 2014, surrounds human rights and fundamental freedoms with specific safeguards. Article 151 of the Constitution obligates the legislature, the judiciary, and the executive to abide by the provisions of ratified international treaties in the same way as they abide by domestic law and, thus, parties affected by the non-application of the provisions of such treaties may have recourse to the courts.

In fact, the 2014 Constitution goes further than earlier constitutions and, under Article 93, confers special status on ratified international human rights treaties, giving them the force of law. It thereby gives constitutional protection to the rights and fundamental freedoms enshrined therein. Therefore, any interested party may appeal to the Supreme Constitutional Court to invoke the non-constitutionality of a piece of legislation.

The law establishing the National Council for Human Rights has been amended to strengthen that body's mandate and independence, in accordance with the Constitution and the principles relating to the status of national institutions for the promotion and protection of human rights (the Paris Principles). Moreover, the Government took necessary measures to increase the effectiveness of institutional channels for consultation with civil society organizations as a key partner in the promotion and protection of human rights.

As a step forward, Egypt launched, in September 2021, the first-ever National Strategy for Human Rights, which aims to promote social, economic, civil, political, and cultural rights within the country. The importance of this document stems from the fact that it is the first integrated national human rights strategy in Egypt. It builds on the progress achieved, takes into consideration opportunities and challenges at the national level. It is a clear manifestation of Egypt's commitment, at the highest level, to address human rights issues as it includes a specific program and a plan of 5 years from 2021 to 2026.

Owing to the diligent work on the three tracks of the strategy, much progress has been achieved in the field of civil and political rights and in economic and social rights, as well as the rights of women, children, youth, the elderly, and persons with disabilities. A remarkable example is the cancellation of the extension of the declaration of the state of emergency in Egypt in 2021.

The Supreme Standing Committee of Human Rights (SSCHR) spearheaded the preparation of the strategy. Established pursuant to the Prime Ministerial Decree No. 2396 of 2018, it is mandated to "develop and follow up a national human rights strategy, and action plans for its implementation by relevant bodies." The establishment of the SSCHR represents a transformational step in Egypt's institutional efforts to deal with human rights issues in a systematic manner using a holistic, nationally led, and citizen-centered approach.

Furthermore, Egypt adopts an integrated development vision "Sustainable Development Strategy: Egypt Vision 2030", which is based on realizing basic human rights as the focus of development.

In conclusion, Egypt's foreign policy concerning women's rights, abortion, and prostitution is shaped by a complex interplay of domestic considerations, international obligations, diplomatic relations, and socio-cultural factors. Balancing these factors while striving to improve women's rights requires navigating challenges and leveraging opportunities for constructive dialogue and collaboration on a global stage.

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