In Egypt, child marriage remains a serious problem
Cairo - As soon as Salah Sayed’s eldest daughter, Ahlam, turned 15, he started thinking about her marriage prospects.
For her father Ahlam’s marriage would significantly ease the family’s financial burden and potentially provide better opportunities for her three younger siblings.
“Her husband would financially take care of her,” said Sayed, a doorman at a plush Giza apartment building.
Ahlam was soon married. Her groom was closer to her father’s age — Sayed is in his 40s — than her own. However, Sayed expressed no qualms about the age difference. In Egypt, where government figures indicate 15% of girls are married before they turn 16, while a study published by the National Council for Women in 2013 showed 22% were married before the age of 18, such things were expected.
“She was physically mature, which encouraged me to take this decision,” Sayed said about his daughter.
Child marriage is a long tradition in Sayed’s family. His mother was 14 years old when she married his father. Some of his aunts and sisters were of similar age when they married.
Such practices are now illegal in Egypt, which increased the legal age of marriage to 18 in 2008. Still, child marriages take place, particularly in the poorest, most rural parts of the country where it is the norm.
“The fact is that the whole marriage culture in some parts of Egypt should change, especially when it comes to the right age for the marriage of girls,” said Maysa Shawki, Egypt’s deputy health minister and a senior official in the state-run National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM). “In some rural parts of our country, girls get married so early, which is bad because it has adverse health and social ramifications.”
Egypt’s National Population Council began a national strategy in 2014 that addresses the issue. The government has implemented a zero-tolerance policy for people found to have officiated at an under-age marriage.
Critics say that, while such regulation looks good on paper, it is a question of implementation and enforcement.
“People are easily violating these regulations everywhere to marry their children off at a young age,” said Samia Khedr Saleh, a sociology professor at Ain Shams University. “Some people do this under financial need and others just because they believe that girls must get married young.”
It is not easy to address an issue that is so ingrained in society and change takes place slowly.
Poverty is a major factor in underage marriages. Wealthy Arabs have been known to travel to Egypt to marry young Egyptians, a practice some consider closer to sex tourism than legal matrimony.
Poor parents and the wealthy suitors get around government regulations by not officially documenting the marriage. They sign a contract, with the help of a lawyer, which gives the wife none of the rights guaranteed by official marriage contracts. Such marriages are known as “urfi” — “customary” — marriages, a practice dating to the early days of Islam.
Ahlam was married in an “urfi” ceremony last year. Her father received a bride price of $2,272 — equal to three years’ salary.
Not long after her wedding, Ahlam suffered health problems and was admitted to the hospital. She was pregnant. Six months later, she gave birth to a boy. Her husband disappeared and she and her son have no contact with him.
Shawki said NCCM is working to change the way people such as Sayed think about marriage, including participating in workshops and talks in Egypt’s rural provinces about the dangers of child marriage.
“Marrying the girls off that early is a violation of all the rights they are entitled to,” Shawki said. “This type of marriage causes losses to all parties: The girls, the parents and society.”