Childhood Interrupted: Egypt issues a new law to criminalize child marriages

Saturday June 8, 2018                               By: Alexandra Kinias

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While most twelve years old girls go to bed dreaming of doll houses, ballet classes, crayons and scrapbooks, princesses in sequence dresses and tiaras, nightmares keep others awake in fear that the sunlight of the new day willsteal their childhood. In one of the most heinous crimes that are still committed to humanity, underage marriages are still practiced worldwide, Egypt included.  Unfortunately, in regions where it is practiced, communities keep a blind eye on these illegal marriages, which in reality legalize pedophilia, prostitution, rape and human trafficking.

According to a UNICEF report published in 2013, every day, 39,000 girls are forced to marry before they turn 18. This number translates to 14.2 million girls are forced into marriages annually, in violation to their rights and are robbed from their childhoods. In Egypt, the latest Demographic and Health Survey revealed that 14.6% of girls in Egypt are married between the ages of 15 and 19.

7e89cb7d99ebfc5ea978c8842fc5cde8Child marriages are sparked by poverty, ignited by sexually sick societies and protected by religious scholars. And in communities where social customs and traditions are still powerful, law is hardly enforced to stop these marriages. Forcing a child into marriage is a violation of human rights, which has negative impacts not only on the girls, but also on their children and the communities they live in. These marriages are propelled by poverty and perpetuate in the girls’ poverty. Not just they rob their childhoods, but also their chances for better lives. These girls bear children while they are still minors themselves, and end up with more offspring over their lifetime than those who marry at an older age. With no education, girls are left with minimal wage jobs if they seek employment. And with more mouths to feed in their household and low chances of employment, the cycle of poverty not only perpetuates, but the level of poverty also increases.

Poor families marry their daughters off at a young age to rid themselves of their financial burdens. Girls are traded off like commodities. Their dowries become a source of income to their families, who if given the choice, they would rather invest in boys’ education than girls’. Girls would inevitably get married and follow in their mothers’ footsteps, thus education is of irrelevance to their future. Families also believe that early marriages protect the girls’ honor from the risk of engaging in any sexual activities that may bring shame to the family. Mothers who were married as children throw their girls to the same fate. With their ignorance, greed and shortsightedness, families are the main cause of the perpetuation of their daughters’ misfortune and poverty.

179261_14_1468162143In Egypt, child marriages, have taken a horrific twist. While many families are just following the customs and traditions of their communities, marrying their daughters at a young age to protect their honor and releases the fathers from their financial responsibility, others are making business out of them.

The government’s incompetence to either fight or enforce the law to control underage marriages is mainly because these marriages are undocumented; a manifestation of the power of the religious institutions over the government. Families draft urfi marriages, a religious contract between the girl’s guardian and the groom, signed by two male witnesses and blessed by the mosques’ imams. Urficontracts are not official documents and don’t protect the wife’s rights in marital dispute. They are temporary vehicles used to legitimize the situation till the girls are old enough to register the marriage. If the marriage fails before the girls reach eighteen, children born out of them share the same fate and status as illegitimate children.

Unregistered children face a lifelong stigma. They also don’t have access to services that require a birth certificate, as enrolling in schools or health services such as vaccinations. If fathers walk away with the marriage contract, the burden to prove parenthood fell on the shoulder of women. Resorting to courts to issue a birth certificate is a lengthy and costly procedure most can’t afford, not to mention that it exposes the families to the unlawful crime of marring an underage girl, a crime which if proven is punished by the law.

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The same concept – urficontracts – is used by some families to marry their underage daughters to wealthy Arabs, or what have become known in Egypt as “seasonal marriages,” because they take place mainly during the summer season. Wealthy Arabs travel to Egypt in the summer, and through marriage brokers, they purchase underage girls for sex, a classic case of child sex trafficking.

In Egypt, laws to stop these heinous crimes are not enforced, and ever since these laws came into effect, less than a handful of people were prosecuted and jailed.The incompetence of the government to combat this crime is outrageous, but also proves how hard for civil laws to fight thousands of years’ old traditions, especially those shrouded with religious justifications.

Because pedophilia in the Middle East is practiced with the blessings of religious scholars, this crime will not be eradicated in the near future, if ever. With religion as their guideline, and following their own laws and traditions, dwellers of villages in rural areas, with disregard to the law, follow the preaching of their imams, promoting girls’ eligibility to marriage when they reach puberty. Birth certificates of underage girls are forged or simply an unregistered contract, urfi, is drafted between their male legal guardians and the groom; most appropriate to call it a selling contract.

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Betrayed by their male guardians, family members and society, the victims have no saying in these decisions. As they reach puberty and before their bodies are fully developed, girls would go through a cycle of repeated pregnancies, as contraceptives are uncommon in their communities. They are helpless and broken souls. They become victims of illiteracy, slavery, sexual abuse and domestic violence.  Their childhood is stolen and their future no longer belongs to them either. Some of the girls are sold to one man after the other. Most of them end up suffering from several psychiatric disorders as depression and anxiety. They return back to their family home with unwanted offspring. Yet with all the social and physiological damage they experience, on their shoulders lay the burden of upbringing the future generation of children who were breast fed their misery, agony and exploitation.

The crawling efforts by NGOs and civil institutions to spread awareness against underage marriages have been overpowered by tradition, culture, ignorance, financial gain, and above all medieval religious fatwas exploiting the innocence of these girls. Dropping the marriage age to 16, was among the Islamists agenda after they came to power in Egypt in 2012. The newly elected Islamist parliament had proposed a law to drop the minimum age of marriage to 16. Luckily, the parliament was dissolved before the law was approved.

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Photo by: Elham El Dessouky

But with more pressure by local and international civil and women rights groups and organizations, it seems there is finally a silver lining in the clouds. The Egyptian Ministry of Justice sent a draft law criminalizing early marriage to the Cabinet for review and approval, before sending it to the House of Representatives to pass it.

The new law will address marriages of minors under the age of 18 as a form of violence against girls. The law will also toughen the penalties to 7 years’ imprisonment and fines to all culprits, including family members of both the bride and groom, and the imams in the mosques who officiate the marriages. And to ensure the enforcement of the law, new marriage and divorce contracts will be secured with watermarks to prevent forging them. Also, marriages will require the IDs of both parties, as a condition to officiate it, and will not take into accounts medical certificate to determine the ages of the brides and grooms.

It’s yet early to evaluate how effective these laws will be. It is best to be cautiously optimistic, as the road to combat this crime is long and paved with thousands of years’ old traditions that will not be easily eradicated. Nonetheless, the battle has to be fought, as we can no longer sit in the bleachers and watch in silence as more virgins are sacrificed and their innocent blood is spilled on the matrimonial alter.

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