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Egypt moves toward criminalizing child marriage

Many parents in rural Egypt feel no obligation to educate their daughters and instead seek to marry them off early; rights advocates want to put an end to the harmful tradition.

Azza Abdel Hamid Ezzat is in her early 20s but has already given birth four times. Ten years ago when she reached puberty, her father decided it was time she got married; he gave her away to the first suitor who came knocking on their door. It mattered little to him that the prospective groom was in his mid-30s at the time (more than twice Azza’s age) or that the bride-to-be had never actually met him.

“I was only 12 at the time, and he’d spotted me buying cookies from a small kiosk at the end of our street. When my father told me I had a suitor, I was excited about wearing a long, white dress and wanted to be a bride like the celebrity brides I’d seen in films and drama serials on TV,” Azza recalled. She did not think about what her life would be like after the wedding.

The second eldest of nine children (four of whom are girls), Azza and her sisters had never gone to school as “our family was too poor to afford it — only the boys in our family got an education.”

But it was not just poverty that kept Azza and her sisters out of school. “The only school in our village was some distance away from home, and my father worried about us making the journey to school back and forth every day.” So Azza had stayed home, looking after her younger siblings and helping her mother with the household chores.

Her brothers, perceived as the potential breadwinners in the family, completed their basic education but dropped out before reaching the last grade of primary school as they had to work to contribute to the family income. Soon after Azza was born, her father left his home village near the city of Mallawi in the Upper Egyptian governorate of Minya to work as a porter in a building in Cairo’s upscale neighborhood of Mohandessin. His wife and children were left behind and had to make do with the little money he sent home at the end of each month. His salary barely covered his family’s basic necessities, and he was only too happy to give his daughters away to whoever paid the highest bride price.

“My sisters and I were considered a financial burden, and my father just wanted to get us off his hands. He hoped that the families we married into would support us, relieving him of this burden,” Azza told Al-Monitor.

After the wedding, Azza moved into her mother-in-law’s house where she frequently suffered verbal and physical abuse at the hands of her husband, who accused her of “neglecting the household chores.” Girls who marry before they turn 18 are more likely to experience domestic violence, according to a 2014 UNICEF study. Nevertheless, Azza bore her husband four children before the couple divorced nine years later.

Azza’s story is all too common in Egypt’s poor, rural communities, where girls are often deprived of an education and become child brides soon after they reach puberty, despite the legal age of marriage in Egypt being 18. Many of the girls do not have birth certificates and have to undergo medical examinations at the village health clinic to determine their age. For a small bribe, some doctors are willing to add a few years to the girls’ actual age to allow them to get married. Hundreds of girls as young as 10 or 11 have been wed due to the forged birth certificates that falsely informed the marriage notaries that they were 18.

Girls are often deprived of an education and become child brides soon after they reach puberty.

In some cases of child marriage, families circumvent the law by having a lawyer write the marriage contract, which is not registered with the state authorities. The couple waits until the wife turns 18 before officially registering the marriage.

According to a 2016 UNICEF study, 17% of girls in Egypt were married before they were 18 (2% of them were married below the age of 15). Poverty, sociocultural norms and girls’ disproportionate access to education are some of the factors contributing to the problem of child marriages in Egypt, according to Fatemah Khafagy, a gender expert and former ombudsman at the National Council for Women (NCW).

“Many families in the rural south believe that a girl's role in life is to become a wife and mother. Because of this perception, parents do not feel obliged to educate their daughters. Marrying off their daughters soon after they reach puberty — sometimes to men that are much older than they are — is an accepted social norm in the poorer rural communities,” Khafagy told Al-Monitor.

“There’s a widespread belief that marriage at an early age helps preserve a girl’s ‘purity’ and, hence, protect the family honor,” she added.

Worse still are the so-called “temporary” or “seasonal” marriages, which Khafagy describes as “a thinly veiled form of human trafficking.” In some poor Egyptian villages, parents “sell” their young daughters to Gulf visitors for a bride price, financially benefitting from the transaction. But the “seasonal marriages” — often facilitated by a marriage broker or some other intermediary — only last for a limited period, often ending when the Gulf spouse returns home to his country of origin.

Rights advocates have sounded the alarm about Egypt’s child marriages, warning that the problem perpetuates the cycle of poverty and illiteracy. But the authorities have — until recently — largely turned a blind eye to the warnings, allowing child marriages to continue in violation of the 2008 law that raised the age of marriage for girls from 16 to 18. The current legislation prohibits but does not criminalize child marriages.

This, however, may be about to change.

In early October, a Muslim cleric in El Mehalla Al Kobra governorate was referred to trial after the mother of a minor accused him of marrying off at least two dozen underage girls, including her own daughter. The imam’s prosecution, a rarity in Egypt, marks a shift in societal attitudes toward the long tolerated practice of child marriage. It also sends a message that the authorities are serious about enforcing the law. The legal complaint against the imam came on the heels of an exhortation by NCW head Maya Morsi to parliament to raise the legal age of marriage to 21. In late August, Morsi also urged lawmakers to block any attempts to lower the marriage age to 16 and to draft a new law criminalizing child marriages. The move came after Egyptian parliament member Ahmed Sameh suggested amending the current law to lower the age of marriage to 16, arguing that the amendment was necessary “to close the gap between the existing legislation and the reality on the ground.”

“Hundreds of girls are getting married young but are not registering their marriages until the wife is 18. Lowering the age of marriage would stop citizens circumventing the law,” he told Ahram Online.

In a statement released in late August, the NCW slammed Sameh's proposal as “backward” and cautioned that lowering the legal age of marriage would disempower girls and further marginalize them from the public space.

“Early marriage puts girls at greater risk of experiencing complications during pregnancy and childbirth. That is why the Ministries of Health and Justice and the National Population Council are working together to push for new legislation criminalizing child marriages,” Vivian Fouad, an official at the National Population Council, told Al-Monitor.

Indeed, a 2014 World Health Organization study warns that complications during pregnancy and childbirth are the second cause of death for girls ages 15-19 globally, and babies born to adolescent mothers face a substantially higher risk of dying than those born to women ages 20-24.

“Some families aren’t even aware that they are breaking the law by marrying off their daughters at an early age, and prosecutions are seldom brought against the violators. We are hoping that criminalizing child marriages will change that,” said Fouad.

But for Azza and many of Egypt’s child brides, the proposed legislation is too little, too late.

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