New Proposals Threaten Women's Rights in Egypt

Authorities recently arrested a gang in Giza that was selling underage girls into marriage to wealthy non-Egyptian men, writes Amina Khayri. The bust coincides with parliamentary proposals involving women’s rights, such as lowering the marriage age, decriminalizing female genital mutilation and changing Egypt’s divorce laws.   

al-monitor Girls sit on a bench in a park overlooking the river Nile.  Photo by REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih.

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May 19, 2012

Name: Not important!
Age: 14
Schooling: None, due to lack of time
Occupation: “Part-time wife”
Supported By: The family, the broker and 21 “buyers” (husbands)
Prospects: Expectations of increased prosperity
False Explanations: Customs, traditions and religion
Real Explanations: Poverty and ignorance
Commonly Known As: “Sheltering” girls
Actually called: Human trafficking

A few days ago, one minor incident took place that failed to draw the attention of Egyptians caught up in the speeches of the presidential candidates', the complexities of the constitution and the mysteries surrounding the protests and sit-ins. The police in Al-Haram (in the district of Giza) arrested a gang involved in the trafficking of underage girls. These young girls were trafficked to marry old, wealthy non-Egyptian men. The gang was led by two women who were acting as “brokers” between the rich men and the underage girls’ families.

This kind of incident is old news in Egypt. This is just another episode within a phenomenon dating back to the 1970s. Authorities are trying to enforce a law that bans the marriage of girls under 18. Many individuals profit from the child-marriage industry: the families, the brokers, the lawyers who write the marriage contracts and the grooms.

The recent incident had interesting features. One case deserves a place in the Guinness Book of World Records: a 14-year-old girl was married 21 times in a single month. Aside from the deals’ profitability, the girl was bought and sold for 30,000 Egyptian Pounds each time, in addition to 50,000 Egyptian pounds paid to the brokers.

This incident coincided with something even more severe. Under the dome housing the post-January 25 Egyptian People’s Assembly, a deputy from the Salafist Al-Nour party proposed to open a debate to lower the legal age at which females can get married from 18 to 16. The deputy, Nasser Mustafa Shakir, elaborated: “The present law is not in line with the customs and traditions of Egyptian society.” He also stated that “The Sharia does not specify an age for marriage.”

150,000 Babies

The explanatory memorandum put forth by those who propose a change to the law states that the current marriage age law is among the “bad laws that harms the rights of many girls.” Proponents claim that the law passed by the previous parliament forces underage girls to refrain from documenting their marriage due to fear of imprisonment or fines.

It seems that Egypt's parliament is poised to lift the burden of embarrassment and fear that afflicts the families of these minors. Ali Wannis, a deputy from the Asala party, said that preventing girls from marrying before a certain age “is not proper in rational terms, nor according to the Sharia.” He supported his rationale by saying, “a girl postpones marriage because she is either going to school or is not yet mature... but what about those girls who mature before the specified age, and those who are not studying?”

There is one female deputy in the Egyptian parliament. A few months ago, she stated that not sharing in housekeeping chores is the main reason behind the lack of female education in Egypt. Now, it seems as if the debate has expanded into the acceptability of simply not educating girls under the age of 18.

Statistics do a good job at shedding light on this phenomenon. One study indicates that roughly 153,000 minors were married in 2006 — 29 percent of the total marriages in that year. Two years ago, a UNICEF and Ministry of Family and Population collaboration study showed that, in a number of Egyptian provinces, 74 percent of minors were married. Those marriages led to the birth of 150,000 babies. Since a large portion of those marriages are short-term, and involve wealthy men who are not necessarily Egyptian, the issue of fatherless children is also important. Most of these young mothers married due to poverty.

It should be noted that the “Revolutionary Parliament” is discussing other important proposals, such as “the decriminalization of female genital mutilation” and abolishing the “divorce law.” As with the reasons behind allowing younger girls to marry, these proposals are supposedly meant to “help” women!

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More from  Amina Khayri