Divorce Impact: Mothers’ Struggle with Schools Rejecting Their Children

By: Nermin Suleiman

While education stands as an undeniable right for every citizen, upheld by the Egyptian constitution, the reality in some private schools paints a different picture. Here, the daughters and sons of divorced women face rejection solely due to their mothers’ marital status.

This issue particularly arises in non-governmental schools, where admission criteria are often crafted according to the school administration’s vision, leading to the exclusion of children from divorced mothers. Such exclusions may stem from various factors, including financial concerns, as some fathers resort to withholding school fees as a means of punishing the mother or coercing her into returning to him.

Even if the mother is financially capable of paying the fees, private schools can still encounter troubles posed by fathers. At times, fathers become a source of disruption for school administrations, insisting on unauthorized visits to the school premises to see their children, flouting legal boundaries. Often, this behavior serves as a means to harass the mother.

Ultimately, divorced mothers find themselves victimized by the obstinance of fathers and the inflexibility of private schools. Many embark on a grueling quest to secure a quality education for their children, only to face a dozen rejections from numerous private institutions. Instead of enjoying a range of educational options, their choices are often whittled down to just one school, or sometimes, none at all.

The issue of rejection of divorced mothers’ children in educational institutions is limited to private schools. The school administration conducts a personal interview with the child and his/her parents, and when the mother’s marital status is revealed, the decision is often to reject the child. While public schools accept children without interviews, the poor quality of public education pushes families to seek out private schools and submit to their stratified conditions.

The problem of excluding children of divorced mothers from educational institutions primarily plagues private schools. During the admission process, private school administrations typically conduct personal interviews with both the child and their parents. However, upon learning of the mother’s marital status, these institutions frequently opt to reject the child. In contrast, public schools generally admit students without such rigorous interviews. Nevertheless, due to the subpar quality of public education, families often feel compelled to pursue enrollment in private schools, despite the imposition of classist admission criteria.

Each private school sets its rules according to the convictions of the administration, sometimes disregarding laws that prohibit discrimination against children.

Private schools hold unilateral decision-making authority

After her divorce, Iman Mohammed went through a journey of suffering to secure her daughter’s enrollment in a private school in Egypt. To her dismay, she encountered a disheartening reality: many private institutions flatly refused admission to children of divorced women.

Iman told Sharika Wa Laken that before applying for her daughter, she turned to her friend’s mother, who works as a director of an educational department in Cairo, to learn about the procedures and paperwork required for her desired private school. But her friend’s mother told her that the school would not accept her daughter because of her social status, a customary rule that some private schools follow.

These words struck Iman like a bolt from the blue. Following her separation from her husband, she poured her energy into ensuring her daughter’s access to a decent life and quality education. However, her aspirations were dashed when she found herself unable to secure enrollment for her daughter in the esteemed school she had envisioned. Reluctantly, she settled for a lesser-quality educational institution, resigning herself to the harsh reality of the situation.

Iman’s lingering question reverberates: “What has a mere 6-year-old committed to warrant such social stigma and educational discrimination?”

For a divorced mother, the journey to enroll her child in a preferred school is a grueling odyssey. Ultimately, she is compelled to accept whatever school deigns to admit her child, leaving the satisfaction and acceptance of divorced mothers’ daughters and sons to the whims of chance.

In these poignant words, Samar, another divorced mother, recounts her tale of facing a series of school rejections until her son was finally accepted.

Business is what governs the work of private schools, and sometimes the children of divorced women often encounter delays in fee payment due to the fathers’ refusal to pay. This tactic aims to place the mothers in a predicament where they may struggle to afford fees, which certain schools do not accept.

Lawyer Intissar al-Saeed says that each private school sets its rules according to the convictions of the administration, sometimes disregarding laws that prohibit discrimination against children.

Children: victims of their fathers’ actions

As time passed, Iman received an answer to her pressing question regarding the rejection of children from divorced women by certain schools. The revelation came through her ex-husband’s actions, as he instigated a dispute with the school administration. He lodged a complaint with the Cabinet, insisting on monitoring his daughter’s educational progress. Subsequently, the complaint was referred to the school’s educational department.

The school responded to the complaint that the father could meet with the teachers, but not with the child. This was based on the Personal Status Law, which stipulates that there is a visitation provision in the place designated for that purpose.

“That’s when I knew why the school rejected my daughter,” Iman says. “Schools face ridiculous behavior from the fathers, and children pay the price.”

Iman’s ex-husband’s concern wasn’t his daughter’s education, but rather a desire to see her on school premises, contravening legal boundaries. It soon became evident that his true intention was to harass Iman, a fact corroborated by his subsequent behavior. He did not bother to follow up on his daughter’s education as he claimed in the complaint, nor did he ever ask to check on her.

This incident involving Iman’s ex-husband is just one of many instances where fathers create problems with schools, primarily to torment the mother. In numerous divorces, consent is lacking, as evidenced by the thousands of divorce and khula cases filed in family courts. Additionally, divorced women file thousands of alimony cases to compel fathers to support their children.

Schools turn into battlegrounds

Parents are constantly bickering with each other, and the child becomes a victim at school too, not just at home.

Divorce rates in Egypt are shocking and on the rise. According to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, the number of divorces nationwide according to the latest census for 2021 amounted to 254,777, compared to 222,039 divorces the year before.

Statistics show that the divorce rate among young people between the ages of 25 and 35 has increased by 19.8%. This is when children are often in the process of applying for school. As a result, some of them face rejection in schools, especially among the classes that can afford private and international education. Children who are enrolled in public schools do not face this crisis.

Mothers find themselves caught in a challenging dilemma between their ex-husbands and private schools. Often, it is the father’s conflicts with school administrations that lead to the refusal of many schools to accept the children of divorced women. When disputes arise over visitation rights, fathers may demand to see their children at school, despite legal prohibitions. While court orders typically allocate limited visitation hours in designated public places, such as clubs or youth centers, some fathers insist on meeting their children at school, sparking confrontations with school authorities.

In these contentious situations, if schools accommodate the father’s request, mothers are compelled to intervene, advocating against the violation of court rulings.

It’s important to note that it’s not about the mothers being inflexible; rather, many fathers fail to fulfill their financial obligations for education and living expenses, leaving mothers to cover the costs alone. Consequently, mothers argue that fathers have no grounds to demand unsanctioned visitations.

Strangely enough, obtaining educational guardianship is not a one-time affair but requires renewal every six months under Egyptian law.

Pleading with schools and employing “wasta”

In their pursuit of quality education for their children, some mothers find themselves resorting to pleading with private school administrations or leveraging “wasta” – personal connections or influence. This becomes necessary, particularly given the inadequacies of public education.

Hiba Ahmad, despite her relatively favorable financial and social standing, encountered a challenging ordeal while seeking her daughter’s educational rights. During the process of transferring her daughter between schools, she had to rely on “wasta” to secure admission.

Hiba says: “I finished filling out the application form and everything seemed fine. But as soon as the new school administrator learned that I was divorced, she backed out. She claimed that there was no current vacancy in the school and that as soon as a spot opened up, I would be contacted. Faced with this setback, I had to enlist the help of an intermediary to facilitate the transfer, after repeatedly begging the school for my daughter’s admission!”

Niveen Obeid, a researcher specializing in development and gender issues, highlights the pervasive discrimination faced by the children of divorced women, which stems from entrenched social stigmas. Such discriminatory practices not only undermine the principles of citizenship but also contravene established legal frameworks and constitutional guarantees.

As a member of the New Women’s Foundation, Obeid emphasizes the importance of activating government oversight of private schools and mandating them to provide transparent justifications for rejecting certain students. If a school is found to be in breach of legal provisions, recourse to legal action should be pursued through the court system.

Furthermore, Obeid underscores the need to challenge traditional gender roles that perpetuate the notion of the father as the sole provider for the family. Instead, she advocates for recognizing and promoting shared financial responsibilities between fathers and mothers.

Educational Guardianship: A source of trouble for Mothers

For divorced mothers, the challenges extend beyond finding a school willing to accept their children. Another arduous journey awaits them in the courts, as they navigate the process of obtaining educational guardianship for their children.

Educational guardianship entails the right to oversee a child’s educational matters, from school applications to transfers. Traditionally, this right belongs to the custodial parent, ensuring decisions are made in the child’s best interests.

While the law dictates that fathers originally hold educational guardianship, mothers do not need to formally request transfer of this responsibility through the family court. All she needs to do is present the divorce certificate to the school administration to receive educational guardianship.

This process must be repeated every six months, adding an ongoing burden to the mother’s responsibilities.

Intisar El-Saeed, a prominent lawyer and chair of the board of trustees at the Cairo Foundation for Development and Law, sheds light on this issue. Despite maintaining custody, mothers must repeatedly seek court approval for educational guardianship until their children turn 15, when custody ends per legal stipulations.

The requirement for periodic renewal raises questions. Why isn’t educational guardianship issued once, especially when custody remains with the mother? Unfortunately, this repetitive process leaves mothers vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous lawyers who demand exorbitant fees for finalizing guardianship paperwork.

Women’s rights lost in legal labyrinths: urgent need for personal status law reform

In Egypt, women’s lives are being consumed within the corridors of the courts, as they grapple with the daunting task of securing basic rights post-divorce. For divorced mothers, this ordeal is particularly burdensome, as they find themselves entangled in legal battles that should be unnecessary.

According to lawyer Intissar al-Saeed, the prolonged court involvement for mothers seeking educational guardianship is a significant source of hardship. She emphasizes the importance of enforcing a Ministry of Education decision from years past, which mandates the automatic transfer of educational guardianship to the mother upon presenting proof of divorce, eliminating the need for court applications.

In cases where the husband passes away or is absent due to travel, educational guardianship rightfully passes to the mother. However, if another individual holds custody rights as per the law, the mother must navigate the court system to attain educational guardianship.

Al-Saeed contends that the existing educational guardianship law is a relic of an outdated patriarchal system entrenched in the Personal Status Law of 1920, which is over a century old. The prospect of reform lies in the anticipated issuance of a new personal status law following presidential elections. Despite decades of advocacy by feminist and human rights organizations, these demands for reform have long been disregarded.

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