CAIRO – 5 July 2018: Despite child marriage being illegal in Egypt, where adulthood legally starting from the age of 18, the Egyptian Ministry of Health and Population confirmed July 3, that 11 percent of adolescent girls, between the ages of 15 and 19, are currently married or have previously been married. Moreover, 5 percent of girls aged 15 to 17 are married.
The percentage of girls between 15 and 19 getting married has decreased by 6 percent over the past two years.
In fact, according to a 2017 national census released by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), the total number of women over the age of 18 who could legally get married has reached 27.7 million, with 23 million women married, which includes 119,000 girls who have married before reaching the age of 18.
Meanwhile, 18,000 women got married before the age of 16, representing 15 percent of girls who married before the legal age of marriage. The Ministry of Health and Population reported that 500,000 children are born every year to adolescent mothers.
Commenting on this, an official source at the Ministry told Egypt Today that although the legal age for marriage registration in Egypt is 18 years, girls below the legal age are still getting married without registering the marriage. Children born from unregistered marriages are also not registered, leaving the perpetrator free, without criminalization.
The source confirmed that the House of Representative’s (Parliament) Legislative Committee is currently considering a bill banning child marriage, under the age of 18.
The committee is looking into amending five laws to prevent child marriage altogether on health grounds; the amendments would mention possible health problems and social risk to girls and the family, in general. For example, girls older than 18 years are more likely to make it though pregnancy and more likely to survive childbirth and childbirth-related complications, according to Tarik Tawfik, rapporteur of the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood at the Ministry of Health. Girls under 18 years of age are likely to suffer from general weakness, miscarriage or stillbirth. Children born to mothers under the age of 18 are also four times as likely to be born prematurely.
Member of Parliament Abla el Hawary has proposed a draft bill that introduces amendments to five laws in the constitution, topping the laws are: the right of guardianship and custody for children (family law).
Hawary told Egypt Today that this bill stipulates that a father who forces his daughter to get married before reaching the age of marriage will be deprived from the authority of guardianship over the girl or her property.
The Egyptian law stated that a father is the natural guardian of his minor legitimate children, both sons and daughters. A father cannot be deprived of the natural guardianship of his minor children unless he has been found unfit.
“Child marriage affects both boys and girls. So, the proposed bill is against it for the protection of both genders. We cannot specify one gender, as it contradicts the constitutional equality principle,” Hawary said. The current law prohibits, but does not criminalize, the registration of child marriages.
Hawary called on women's rights associations to launch awareness campaigns in poor neighborhoods around Egypt to warn fathers of the legal penalty they will face if they participate in child marriages.
Hawary asserted that all women parliamentarians in the House of the Representatives supported this bill and signed to approve it.
The Ministry of Health and Population aims to decrease child marriage in Egypt by 15 percent in the near future.
Key figures 1. 13.9 million children – male and female – are victims of child marriage.
2. The rate of child marriage is higher in rural areas.
3. Despite Cairo having a reputation for having a highly educated population, 8.1 percent of children in Cairo are victims of child marriage.
4. The percentage is 9.1 in Giza and 7.7 in Sharqia.
5. Port Said and Suez governorates are amont the lowest in Egypt at 0.9 percent.
6. The average birth rate for marriages below 18 years old is 3.7 per mother.
7. The average birth rate for marriages above 22 years old is 2.79 per mother.
8. Child marriages result in 20 percent of births annually.
9. 33.3 percent of women between 25 and 29 years old who are married and living in rural Upper Egypt got married below the legal age.
10. The Ministry of Health and Population aims to decrease child marriage in Egypt by 15 percent in the near future.
Curbing child marriage by tightening laws
Currently, the Egyptian government is looking at a proposed new draft law that includes amendments to the child law article 12 of 1996 that states cases in which parents could be deprived from guardianship over the girl or her property in case of a child marriage.
A father who takes part in a child marriage, of either a girl or a boy, would be punished by a sentence of no less than one year and deprived of guardianship over their offspring. Any person who signs the marriage contract shall be punished by the same penalty, meaning witnesses will also be punished.
A marriage registrar who witnesses a case of child marriage shall notify the Attorney General. The marriage registrar, who documents child marriages, will be prevented from officiating marriages or will pay fines, and if it’s proved to be a repeated action, he might face a jail penalty of one year.
A marriage contract may be authenticated for a child who is under 18 years old, but the contract may not be validated without the approval of the competent family court upon the relevant request of the Public Prosecution.
The draft bill follows calls by Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi on September 30, 2017, to impose measures against customary marriage of underage girls. “I was surprised that the number of married 12-year-olds was not low,” Sisi said during a ceremony marking the population census that took place in April.
Sisi wondered how these young girls can assume the responsibility of marriage and a household. “This is something that pains me and pains anyone with a real conscience who cares for their sons and daughters,” he said.
Igniting the flame
Although this has always been an issue, a recent incident bright child marriage to the forefront of public interest: recently, many cases have been revealed, attracting attention to the crisis of child marriage in one of the villages of Al-Mahallah al-Kubra, in the middle of the Nile Delta, where a marriage registrar (imam) approved 27 cases of customary marriages for girls below 18 years old.
Because of a law drafted in 2008 as part of Egypt’s Child Law to raise the age of marriage to 18 and prohibiting child marriages, this imam convinced the families of the village that couples could have customary marriages until girls reach the marriageable age, after which the bond would be made legal.
In order to ensure young girls’ rights, the husbands sign on a trust receipt that the marriage registrar (imam) keeps with him.
Yet, a husband of one of the girls in the village refused to register the marriage legally. This action led the mother of the girl to notify the authorities about the imam. Investigations were carried out after a lawsuit was filed by the girl’s family.
In some incidents, girls are divorced or widowed, and left alone to be responsible for bringing up children, even though they are only 12 years old.
A long-term plan
Among Egypt’s efforts to control the phenomenon, 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 that establishes national population policies and strategies in Egypt.
This strategy aims to recognize child marriage as a health and population issue to reduce the prevalence of early marriage by 50 percent within five years, and to fight the proposals to lower the minimum age of marriage.
On October 15, 2017, Egypt’s National Council for Women launched the “No to Underage Marriage” campaign in cooperation with the Ministry of Religious Endowments and Christian clerics. The campaign’s main objective is to curtail undocumented marriages of minors.
In December 2017, the National Council for Population launched a campaign to implement and uphold legislations that forbig child marriage.
“As many as 250,000 children are annually born as a result of child marriages,” Vivian Fouad, a representative of the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood, told Egypt Today December 19, 2018.
“Given the fact that child marriage cannot go through legal documentation and validation, the young wife is therefore denied her civil and legal rights, like filing for divorce and the right to inherit…Social traditions and rituals are not to be easily challenged, particularly in rural societies, but major changes always take time,” she said.
Not to mention that child marriage often leaves girls, who are seen as responsible adults the minute they get married, unable or unwilling to continue her schooling. This happens either because her husband does not allow her, as is customary, or because she now has ‘responsibilities,’ a work those under 18 should not be all too familiar with, or she is ashamed or embarrassed to go to school after being married; girls have often cited shame, embarrassment, or fear of being singled out as factor of not returning to school after marriage.