Egypt’s National Council for Childhood and Motherhood said that it prevented a child marriage on Monday 17 December after videos and photos of an engagement ceremony which showed a 14-year-old groom dancing with his 15-year-old bride went viral and triggered an uproar on social media and Egyptian media.
In reaction to the uproar, the groom’s mother defended the act. “We did nothing wrong,” she told private television station DMC.
“The families of Fares and Nada are relatives. We wanted just to emphasise the idea that they will marry each other in the future. Therefore, we decided to hold an engagement where he offered the gold gift to his [would-be] bride,” the woman added, referring to an Egyptian engagement tradition.
“Both love each other. Therefore, we decided to make the issue official. If I saw my son unworthy of responsibility, I wouldn’t have agreed to the engagement. He may look young, but he is broad-minded.”
The mother said the two children will complete their education and will only wed when they turn 18.
She criticised what she called “excessive coverage” of the event. “There are more important things in Egypt than this. This is normal in our town where children at the age of Fares and younger engaged to girls.”
In a statement, the secretary –general of the council Azza El-Ashmawy said that the incident, which took place in Kafr El-Sheikh, was reported through the Child Helpline 16000, and the general committee for child protection was imminently contracted to investigate. According to the statement the parents vowed to postpone the marriage until the children reach the legal age.
The legal age of marriage in Egypt for both males and females was increased to 18 following amendment of Egypt’s Child Law in 2008, which prohibits, but does not criminalise, the registration of child marriages. But despite this legislation, child marriage is still being practised in some regions of the country on a large scale. According to an Egypt Census of 2017, nearly 1 in every 20 girls (4 %) between age 15 to 17 and 1 in every 10 (11%) adolescent girls 15-19 years are either currently married or were married before.
The Census found that there were large differentials between the rural and urban residence. Upper Egypt accounted for the highest percentage of child marriages and divorces in the report. Outskirt areas such as the Red Sea, Sinai, Marsa Matrouh and Aswan recorded a much lower 1.3 percent.
Such statistics led to the proposal of a new draft law in June 2018 which aims to criminalise child marriage. The draft law would bring with it a penalty of up to one-year imprisonment for those involved, while also taking children away from parents who allow them to be married.
The bill also stipulates that the Mazoun (an official who performs the marriage) must notify the General Prosecution if a child marriage is occurring. Failure to do so would be met with job suspension and one-year imprisonment.
Finally, the bill states that any marriage contract of a person under 18 would not be authenticated and could not be ratified without approval from the family court.
The causes of child marriage are complex and varied and the problem is widespread across the Middle East and North Africa where approximately 1 out of 5 girls are married off before the age of 18. Prevalence varies across the region, with rates of 32 % in Yemen and 3 % in Algeria. While the problem is rooted in gender inequality, high levels of poverty and a lack of educational opportunities for girls also exacerbate the practice.
Economic conditions have a significant bearing on child marriage as it is used by parents as a way to give their daughter future economic security as well as to reduce the economic burden on the family. While the number of those living in poverty on the continent has declined since 1990 – and global rates of poverty have more than halved – Unicef reported last December that since 2000 the number of Egyptians living in poverty has nearly doubled. A report released by UNICEF earlier this year said that poverty rates in Egypt reached 27.8 percent in 2015.
Massive inflation and a sharp drop in tourism since the 2011 revolution have ushered in a period of austerity in Egypt. Encouraged by the International Monetary Fund, President Abdel Fateh el Sisi’s administration has cut the subsidies for food and fuel that many Egyptians depend on. In 2016, Egypt’s central bank unpegged the Egyptian pound from the dollar, which plummeted overnight to less than half its previous value, resulting in surging costs of imports on which the country relies. Egyptians complain of difficulties in meeting basic needs after several jumps in fuel, medicine and transportation prices.
INEQUITABLE GENDER NORMS
Child marriage is closely associated with deeply rooted cultural practices and inequitable gender norms affecting the well-being and exposure to harmful practices such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) for adolescent girls. 92% of the female population in Egypt have experienced FGM, illustrating the persistence of patriarchal norms around women’s sexuality.
As girls reach adolescence, community norms dictate that they should conform to the roles of wife and mother, and have little freedom to postpone or step outside these roles to complete their education, develop an independent social life and gain economic independence, perpetuating the cycle of illiteracy and poverty. The phenomenon is not exclusive to a particular religion but runs deep in Arab and Egyptian culture.
In order to fight against the cultural and traditional roots of child marriage, there is a need to intensify campaigns against this practice based on the cooperation among local government, local media and local NGOs working directly with the communities.
EDUCATION AND HEALTH
Education is even more vital. Girls’ in Egypt have disproportionate access to education. 13% of females and 3% of males aged 10 to 29 have never been to school. The relationship between education and early marriage is bidirectional. Girls with less education are more likely to marry young than their more educated peers. And girls who get married young are typically not afforded the opportunity to continue their education despite the fact that it has been proven that education is the most effective means of empowerment. Education, indeed, enables people to find a job more easily, to earn money, to make the family’s daily life better by improving the living conditions (access to health, medicines, food and clean water, etc.).
As well as harming the educational prospects of young girls, child marriage also harms their emotional wellbeing. On a social basis, girls risk facing isolation. Girls who get married early often have to break off their prior social contacts after marriage and cannot maintain connections with persons outside their families. Isolation and a negative environment can result in severe psychological consequences for both mothers and their babies.
Young brides also face serious health problems due to their young age, immature bodies, and their inappropriate life of a wife. There is indeed an almost systematic link between child marriage and early child-bearing. Those risky pregnancies are the consequences of the poor access to medical care for the young brides, but also of the husband’s desire to have a child as soon as possible.
Child marriage is not only an obvious human rights issue, but also a huge population concern as it speeds population growth. Egypt’s population is growing at an unsustainable rate, with 500,000 children born to underage mothers every year, according to the Ministry of Health.
A five-year national strategy to prevent child marriage was launched in 2014. The process was led by the National Population Council, a governmental body which establishes national population policies and strategies in Egypt. Recognising the need to prioritise child marriage as a health and population issue, the strategy aims to reduce the prevalence of early marriage by 50% within the next five years. It came about against the backdrop of the proposals to lower the minimum age of marriage. There is a political will to end child marriage through opportunities for adolescent girl development and empowerment, particularly in the light of the prevalence levels shown by Egypt’s census 2017.
The National for Childhood and Motherhood, with the support of UNICEF, launched a series of the ‘Policy for Action’ series building on the strong partnership, to bring evidence closer to decision makers for the realization of child-wellbeing through better-informed policy decisions and implementation. The policy briefs cover broad areas of policy work relating to poverty, child protection, health and overall child well-being. The objectives of these policy briefs are to advocate and push for better use of evidence-based policymaking and child-related issue visible in the policy debate.
The policy brief stated that in addition to legal reporting mechanisms, there is also a need for strengthening local prevention and response mechanisms. “Besides this, having a unified framework, which provides the basis for coordinating the work of all partners, is also needed to integrate the edits of different stakeholders to achieve a unified goal,” the report said.
It also affirmed that criminalising child marriage as Egypt’s new draft bill aims to achieve is needed to effectively move towards ending child marriage and highlighted that legal reform and law enforcement on the criminalisation of perpetrators can also influence changing gender and cultural norms. But to change collective practices and beliefs there is also a need to optimise social and behavioural change opportunities to address child marriage, which includes engaging men to mobilise communities and media to shift perpetual norms. “Making influencers and religious leaders aware of the negative consequences of child marriage and supporting them to become vocal advocates can have a powerful impact on the perception of child marriage in society,” the report Policy for Action said.
The media can also play a key role in bringing the issue of child marriage to public attention. Journalists can use current data to inform human rights advocates and policymakers of the negative aspects of child marriage by covering the issue from multiple perspectives—the illegal violation of girls’ human rights, the mental and physical harm on girls’ development, and the negative consequences for families and societies.
Education is the most important factor influencing the age of marriage for women. The Policy for Action report said that special measures need to be taken to reach girls in disadvantaged areas and retain them in education by engaging with the parents and building their ownership in schools in their local communities. It also said that other areas of investment include building schools that are closer to the communities or subsidising transportation costs, as well as creating safe spaces for girls and boys to empower them outside the home.
Unicef and other international development agencies have partnered with the Egyptian government to expand access to basic education and close the gap between boys’ and girls’ enrolment. “The effort includes basic infrastructure improvements like better sanitation facilities and working with parents and educators to reduce harassment, to keep adolescent girls in school,” said Nadra Zaki, a child-protection specialist with Unicef in Cairo said.
In addition to improving access to education for both girls and boys and eliminating gender gaps in education, families need to be involved in the solution and encourage their daughters to stay in school and ensure a protected transition to adulthood. Increasing the years of compulsory education may be one tactic to prolong the period of time when a girl is in school and unavailable for marriage. Efforts are also needed to address concerns of those who are already married at a young age by ensuring their access to school, so they can fulfil their right to a full education.