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Laws Are Not Enough: An Interview with Mehrangiz Kar on Children's Rights

By Sasan Ghahreman, Gozaar

Iran. As a lawyer, Ms. Kar worked for over 22 years defending victims and improving legal literacy among Iranians. During her years of legal practice she worked on cases of adultery, child abuse, and divorce as well as human rights abuses carried out by Iranian officials. She has fought to close the gap between laws on the books and core principles of human rights and human dignity. Ms. Kar has long advocated for the cause of children in Iran to the international community. She has written many articles (in both Persian and English) and books on these subjects.

Mehrangiz Kar (file photo)
Ghahreman: Ms. Kar, please tell us about the existing laws in Iran which protect children.
Mehrangiz Kar: There are plenty of laws within the Iranian body of law that protect children. For example, Article 1178 of the Civil Code states that "Parents are bound by law to use all their capacity to educate their children and not to allow them to remain idle." Article 1167 states that "Parents have both the right and the duty to raise their children." Article 1173 also clearly protects children. According to this law, whenever parents' moral corruption or inability to deliver proper care endanger a child's physical well-being or moral education, the judicial system can remove the child from the custody of the parents. In such cases, the courts act in response to the request of a child's close relative, guardian, or the District Judicial Office. Examples of circumstances in which parents' moral corruption and inability to deliver care could lead to the loss of custody include: 1) harmful addiction to alcohol, drugs, or gambling; 2) moral corruption or prostitution; 3) mental illnesses diagnosed by a medical examiner; 4) forcing children into immoral professions, such as prostitution, beggary, or smuggling; and 5) repeated physical assault or inappropriate punishment beyond the normal scope.
This fifth and last clause of Article 1173 undermines the protections offered by the other four clauses by undermining the physical and mental safety of children. Although it confines it to a "normal scope," this clause authorizes parents to beat their children. Thus, protective laws can lose their effectiveness with one subversive clause like this one.
In the Iranian Constitution, education for children and adolescents during primary and middle school is free and compulsory. According to Article 2 of the law "Creating the Facilities and Possibility of Education for Iranian Children and Adolescents" approved in 1975, "In every district and location where, according to law, public and free education is available and children can attend primary and middle schools which are free and compulsory, parents are required to make the necessary arrangements for the registration and education of the children under their guardianship." This law was approved on July 29, 1943, and was amended on June 19, 1971. According to Article 4 of the same law, a child's father, mother, or legal guardian, who eschews this responsibility, will be punished by law and is subject to fines.
Although this law is progressive, the concrete grounds for its implementation are sadly lacking. The law by itself cannot resolve people's problems. Governments have a duty to provide the necessary conditions for carrying out the laws on which growth and development depend. How can progressive laws be put into action when the government does not perform its function by improving the economic conditions of impoverished classes, creating employment opportunities, and aiding low-income families with the expenses of their children's education? In the current academic year of 2007-2008, about three million children, according to official sources, and five million children, according to unofficial sources, have been prevented from attending primary and middle schools across the country. Instead of finding a solution to this predicament and removing obstacles, the Iranian officials have threatened parents, mandating that if they refuse to send their children to primary and middle school, they would be fined up to 1,200 dollars. These threats have no effect. Low-income segments of society prefer to generate illegal income by forcing their children to beg on streets rather than send them to school.
In the sphere of employment, the Labor Law also protects children and adolescents. For example, certain sections of the Iranian Labor Law approved in 1990 set up a number of protective measures including the codification of the legal age for employment. According to Article 79 of the Labor Law, "The employment of individuals younger than 15 years of age is prohibited." According to Article 80 of the same law, "A worker who is between 15 to 18 years of age is called a young adult worker and must undergo medical examination before beginning his work." According to Article 81, "The medical examination of a young adult worker has to be repeated at least once a year and relevant documents should be kept in his/her employment file. The doctor responsible for medical examinations will determine whether a particular job is suitable to the abilities of a young adult worker or not. In the case of negative response, the employer should accommodate the young adult worker as much as possible by giving him/her another job." According to Article 82, "A young adult worker's hours of work are half an hour less than normal workers. The use of this privilege will be arranged through an agreement between the worker and the employer." According to Article 83, "assigning a young adult extra work or night shift or labor-intensive and harmful tasks, which involve lifting heavy loads with hands without the use of mechanical equipment, is prohibited." According to Article 84 of the Labor Law, "The minimum age for jobs or positions which may be physically or morally harmful for trainees and young adults will be 18. The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs will implement this regulation."
The protective laws which were mentioned above lack solid guarantees. Laws that are not supported by practical considerations do not truly benefit people. Many children and adolescents in today's Iranian society are deprived of the refuge and comfort of a family that can afford an education for them. For this reason, they are frequently forced to work illegally for opportunist employers in workshops that lack the most basic safety standards. In exchange, these children receive very little money, no insurance or other protective privileges that are granted to workers through the Labor Law or the Social Welfare Laws.
In this sense, in the absence of practical economic policies and a genuinely accountable government, protective laws remain empty shells incapable of securing the welfare and happiness of people.
Are there laws to prevent psychological and physical abuse of children inside of families?
I think I have already answered this question. Various individuals, judicial officials, and public prosecutor can prevent physical and psychological abuse of children by filing complaints against parents or guardians. There are, however, too many obstacles against these laws. For example, a wife rarely files a complaint against her husband for abusive behavior toward their children. In this context, any reaction of the wife can undoubtedly lead to divorce which will have dire financial consequences for most women from lower social classes. Another problem is the fact that neighbors and close relations should also testify or present the public prosecutor with initial reports. This is no easy affair because neighbors and close relations often refuse to get involved in the internal clashes of other families. But even if we disregard these obstacles, there are many other legal setbacks.
In the Iranian legal system, a father and his male ancestral line are recognized as the sole masters and possessors of the life and existence of his child. Take a look at these examples in our legal code: Article 220 of the Iranian Criminal Code states, "If a father - or his male ancestors - kills his child, he will not be condemned to qesas [retribution and retaliation in Islamic Law]. In addition to some taziri [based on Shari'a law] imprisonment, the most severe punishment he may receive is to pay diyeh or blood money to the murdered individual's heirs." Likewise, article 1179 of the Civil Code states, "Parents have the right to punish their children within the limits prescribed by law."
While the Iranian Constitution includes a number of progressive laws which aim at hampering the abuse of children, there are also many regressive laws that cancel out these progressive laws. For example, Article 1179 of the Civil Code permits the physical punishment of children "within the limits prescribed by law" or "within the normal scope." But who defines these "limits" or boundaries? The judge, of course. But if the judge himself sanctions violence at home, he will seldom press the case against parents accused of child abuse. Such cases frequently end with some stern advice or earnest words for the accused.
What are the limitations of these laws? How can they be rectified or become more useful?
In societies that have implemented effective measures against child abuse, the law operates in two ways: it requires that perpetrators of violence against children attend educational courses and often punishes domestic violence more severely than non-domestic violence. This perspective has not yet found its way into Iran's legislative system. Meanwhile, relief networks for helping children in danger of domestic violence are not formed yet. If Iranian police officers, doctors, and managers of emergency medical services are trained adequately, they can play a major role in reducing domestic violence. Independent organizations cannot accomplish much without the help of a broad network.
Look at the increasing statistics of "runaway" girls in Iran. The judgmental adjective alone should demonstrate the necessity of training police and judges to implement protective laws. Why do girls escape their homes? They often escape from the violence of one or more members of their families. But instead of incriminating the perpetrators of domestic violence, the Iranian legal system accuses the victimized girls.
The creation of a wide network will turn the fight against the abuse of children into a national priority. This network should concentrate on two crucial issues: heavier sentences for parents or other family members who abuse children and the education of the police and the public through the media. The government is not able to uproot domestic violence solely through legislation, but it can assign part of the budget of Seda va Sima (the state-run radio and television network) to cultural issues. It also has a duty to support the independent civil society organizations that work to promote the rights of children. If these non-governmental organizations remain deprived of government's vast funding and people's voluntary contributions, they will be unable to create effective networks to deal with important children's issues. Therefore, right from the start, we should accept that prevention of the abuse of children and adolescents depends on a broad-based effort. Part of this effort takes place in the sphere of legislation, but other important activities carried out by civil society organizations require public financial support and other forms of assistance to create successful networks.
State-run radio and television can play a decisive role in changing people's views about the punishment of children.
Are there any credible statistics for Iran on child labor, illiteracy among children, child abuse, child poverty, prostitution and drug addiction among children, and children who commit crimes or are in prison?
The existing statistics are contradictory or at least lack consistency. According to Clause 5 of Article 156 of the Constitution, the chief task of the Judiciary is "proper action to prevent crime and reform criminals." In order to perform this most crucial function, the judiciary has to publish the statistics on the crimes that are examined by the judicial system every month. This gives researchers a concrete and accurate dimension to their analysis. The government can also benefit greatly from this research and these statistics by basing its general policies on their findings. So far, the judiciary has refused to do so. As a result, many social afflictions are not analyzed correctly. As an example, researchers do not have access to the statistics on the number of cases of incest and adultery whose perpetrators are tried by the judicial system. They are, therefore, unable to determine which social segments normally commit these crimes. In the same vein, there are no clear statistics on the cases of child abuse by families. Of course, the Judiciary is only responsible for the collection and publication of reported crimes, but even these official statistics can help researchers to gain a relative perspective on the extent of such crimes. This will enable them to diagnose the sources of such social malaises. At this point, there are no definite statistics for what you described. The Judiciary is responsible for these statistical shortcomings at least in regards to reported crimes. The government and its related institutions should assign budgets for research on social pathology and provide universities with necessary means to carry them out. Unfortunately, not only have such budgets been slashed relentlessly, many knowledgeable and dedicated professors and researchers have been removed from Iran's universities.
Are there any reliable and useful services for children in Iran?
Certainly there are, but one cannot speak of these services as an adequate solution to the existing problems. Taking into account the oppressive financial poverty and traditional attitudes of low-income people, these services run into endless problems as soon as they find injured and traumatized children. In a country where there are no proper legal channels to separate children from abusive families, and where there are no suitable centers to give these children a refuge and educate them and provide them with basic psychological and material comfort, these services cannot save abused children.  Unfortunately, sometimes activists in social services for children conclude that it is preferable for a child to stay with the family which tortures and abuses him/her rather than separating that child from that family and sending him/her to a center or orphanage. In fact, social services for children assume that an unemployed father or hungry mother cannot behave kindly toward their children. Yet, Iranian people refuse to participate actively in organizing volunteer and relief efforts for children. The position of the government is also clear. The statistics on unemployment is the best indication of government's inefficiency. The inability of government to create jobs and provide comfort for three to five million children or street children demonstrates the difficult condition in which impoverished children live. Where administrative and oversight institutions are made irrelevant by a paralyzing political system, there will be no hope for the existence of an accountable government.
In your view, what are the roots of a phenomenon like "street children" and how can this problem be resolved?
The root of this catastrophe is in the economic disarray in which Iran finds itself. While the rise in oil prices increases revenues and economic power of government each year, economic corruption and financial mismanagement create the current unraveling economy. All Iranians - not just children - will benefit from an accountable government.
About Gozaar:
Gozaar - in English 'transition' - is a monthly Persian/English web journal devoted to discussion of democracy and human rights issues in Iran.  Recognizing that free access to ideas and information is the cornerstone of freedom, Gozaar: A Journal on Democracy and Human Rights in Iran seeks to help Iranian democrats fulfill the universal aspiration for freedom of expression by creating an inclusive and provocative space for the discussion of liberty.

... Payvand News - 10/5/07 ... --

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