The shame of child marriage in Egypt

The shame of child marriage in Egypt
5 min read
15 September, 2014
Poverty forces families to take their girls from school to the marital beds of men decades older, at grave personal risk to the children.
Marrying underage girls is a tradition [Glow Images, Inc].

“I had to sell myself to feed my family after the Ministry of Social Solidarity told my 50-year-old father he wouldn’t be able to receive his pension until he was 60,” said Nahla, who was married as a child.


“I was 12 when a strange man visited our house, and talked with my father in a hushed voice. Later, I learned he was a middleman. My father told me the man knew someone in the Gulf who wanted to marry a young girl, and was willing to give her family a large amount of money,” said Nahla, now 19.


“My father immediately agreed to our marriage because he was out of work. The next day the middleman came to our house accompanied by another man in his 50s. My mother came to the room I shared with my sister, who is two years older than me, and told me to put on some clean clothes. I had been chosen. I didn’t understand what was going on. I then found myself alone with the man in a flat, where I learned I had become his wife in exchange for a sum of money given to my parents. They would also receive a monthly salary from him.”


     Marrying underage girls is a social tradition in the Egyptian countryside, and happens due to poverty and a fear these girls will never marry.

Nahla’s story does not end there. “He asked me to travel with him to his country, where I found myself in a house with his first wife and seven of their children, of which three were boys. The youngest was three years older than me. I became their servant, and when I objected, his wife would hit me with a cane and insult me. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I went to the Egyptian consulate but they told me they couldn’t help me because I had married him willingly. With the help of some neighbours I managed to get a divorce and return to Egypt.”


Nahla is just one of many Egyptian girls in similar marriages. Mervat was also forced to marry when she was a child, just after she finished primary school. She was married to a man from the Gulf in his 60s. He housed her in a flat in Egypt, and would visit her for a week every two months.


Mervat said: “He forced me to take birth control because he was married to another woman and had enough children. This continued until he sent me a message saying he couldn’t visit me again, and he had destroyed our marriage certificate, of which I didn’t have a copy.” Mervat’s father had received 14,000 Egyptian pounds ($1,960) in exchange for his young daughter.


“I went to see the middleman who had arranged for me to marry my ex-husband, and he said he would bring me another one.” Impoverished Mervet went on to marry four other men from the Gulf to help support her siblings.

Getting around the law


Normally underage girls are married in urfi [“unofficial”] marriages in Egypt, where the legal age to marry is 18 years. In urfi marriages, the man has the right to annul the contract at any time, and when the couple separate, the girl is left without a contract to prove the marriage ever existed.


Sabrin, a 12-year-old, is another victim. She was taken out of primary school by her parents, and married to the owner of the factory where her father works in exchange for a dowry of 20,000 Egyptian pounds ($2,800). He married her in an urfi contract - and six months later divorced her. She returned to her family pregnant.


Sanaa, 19, has yet another similar story: “I was married when I was 14. I wanted to finish my education but my father told me he needed financial help to raise my siblings, and marrying me off would solve the problem. I agreed to marry a man 30 years older than me, and living with him was the most miserable time of my life.”


Several studies have been carried out on child marriage in Egypt, including one carried out by the American University in Cairo, which showed that 17 percent of women in Cairo aged ten to 29 had married before they were 18.


“Marrying underage girls is a social tradition in the Egyptian countryside, and happens due to poverty and a fear these girls will never marry,” said sociologist Adel Sultan.


Azza Karim, professor of sociology at the National Centre for Social Research, agreed. “Child marriage is a form of modern slavery that has its roots in pre-Islamic times, when women were bought and sold for the pleasure of men,” he said. “These marriages violate the girls’ human rights and are a danger to society because of the increased number of divorced girls.”


In Karim’s opinion the solution is not just to pass new laws but also to increase awareness of the problem.


Hamdi al-Sohagi, a lawyer specialising in personal status law explained: “The problem isn’t with the law, which says a girl must be 18 before any marriage contract can be signed. However, parents use loopholes in agreements with clerics, especially in poor areas, to sign urfi wedding contracts.”


Sohagi thinks punishments need to be implemented to stop these marriages happening in the first place.


“The marriage of premature girls can cause infertility, abortion, pregnancy poisoning, anaemia and maternal death during childbirth because the girls are not fully grown,” said gynaecologist Attia Sulaiman.    


This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.