Egyptian girls victim of forced marriages
Al-Suf, Egypt - A year ago, Ahlam underwent an experience that shattered her life as a teenager. The 15-year-old girl was pressured by her father to marry a Lebanese man, 25 years her senior, who — she was told — would buy her many gifts.
Not knowing what marriage meant, Ahlam, from a village in al- Suf, a rural area in southern Giza province, obeyed her father.
“I suffered a lot because of this marriage,” she said. “This man treated me as a commodity, not as a human being.”
Her father gave her away to this Lebanese man in return for about roughly $9,000. Ahlam ended with nothing but a damaged life.
Ahlam recalled how she woke up ten days after the wedding to discover that her husband had disappeared. He had taken all the presents he had bought for her. She didn’t hear anything about him for months but recently learned that he was living in Germany.
Every year, thousands of underage Egyptian girls are sold into marriage to wealthy men. Poverty is the main reason for the practice, which is common in rural areas on the outskirts of Cairo and in the Nile Delta.
“I cannot call this a marriage but rather a kind of legalised prostitution,” Mervat Abou Ouf, of the state-run National Council for Women, said. “It is widespread in some villages because of rampant poverty and ignorance.”
There are no credible figures about the number of child brides in Egypt because most of the marriages occur outside legal frameworks. However, Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of more than 500 civil society organisations committed to ending child marriage, says about 17% of Egyptian girls are forced into such marriages.
A 2008 Egyptian law prohibits the marriage of girls before the age of 18. Child marriages thrive in the summer when wealthy Arabs visit Egypt.
In addition to the enjoying times they spend at nightclubs in Cairo and Giza, some seek cheap and legal sex, which they find in rural areas where families don’t have money to buy food.
Brokers — some of them lawyers and marriage registration officials — help finalise the deal between fathers and the moneyed would-be husbands. Some marriages are concluded through non-binding contracts that expire when the husband returns to his home country. Other contracts falsify the bride’s age.
A new law gives Egyptian brides the right to register children from such marriages in their name, according to legal expert Fatma Ghoneim. She said the wife can file a request for divorce after the husband disappears, depending on the marriage contract and the accounts of witnesses.
“The court rules for her within months,” she added. Women’s rights advocate Nehad Aboul Komsan said underage girls have turned some Egyptian villages into an investment project. “This is a form of human trafficking,” she said. “The state has to protect these girls against such kind of prostitution and early marriage in general.”
Maamoun Gabr, a jurisprudence professor from al-Azhar University, said the marriage of underage girls to men decades their senior for money is against the teachings of Islam. Egypt, according to Human Rights Watch, took steps in recent months to promote the rights of children.
In February, the government withdrew its reservation to an article in the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child that sets the minimum legal age for marriage at 18, the organisation said.
When Egypt made the reservation in 1999, its law set the minimum marriage age for boys at 18 and for girls at 16.
Authorities have also started to take serious steps to curb underage marriages. In July, police stopped 12 attempts to marry young girls to older men. Egypt needs also to act strongly against another practice, the marriage of girls to rapists, activists say. The rapist easily evades imprisonment by proposing to marry his victim.
Gabr explained that Islam does not ban such a marriage because it can prevent a bigger problem. However, Aboul Komsan and other women’s rights activists maintain that that kind of marriage is another violation of women’s rights as the raped woman is forced to live with the man who attacked her.
Abou Ouf called for toughening of punishments over child and rape-related marriages. “The authorities must act strongly against these marriages because they destroy the lives of the girls concerned,” she said.
Ahlam, the girl forced into marrying the Lebanese man, would agree. She said she was helpless for months after her husband left. Only recently, did a court give her the right to divorce.
She lives with bitter memories of such an early and forced marriage.
“This is an experience that really ended my childhood very early,” she said.