Egypt’s Population Council talks about the changes in youth sexual health awareness since January 2011 and why further research on sexual health habits is so important.
by Farah El Akkad
When it comes to sexual health in Egypt, research into youth healthcare has become a necessity since youth (ages 10-29) make up about 40% of Egypt’s total population. Spearheading research in this field is Egypt’s Population Council, which recently held a conference to discuss findings of their study titled “The Egyptian Youth’s Sexual and Reproductive Health and Needs.”
‘The project studies the changes in youth sexual health awareness after the January 25th uprising in 2011 concentrating many aspects including youth sexual awareness, problems related to youth sexual health and sources of information youth use to learn about sex,” explains Population Council Regional Director Dr. Nahla Abdel Tawab.
Youth and Sex
According to Abdel Tawab, early marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) have the biggest impact on youth sexual health today and “are the main factors that lead to sexual problems between youth in our society.” She explains that even though nowadays the average marriage age for Egyptian girls ranges between 21 and 23 years, early marriage is still widespread in rural villages and other areas. According to the Population Council, in 2014 more than 27% of girls from different Egyptian cities aged 25-29 got married before turning 18. In Upper Egypt that percentage was even higher at 33%. In most cases, early marriage is linked to illiteracy, research showing that more than half of girls who got married before the age of 18 never went to school.
Other reasons for early marriage include poverty and misconceptions about the girl’s reputation and honor. “Unfortunately, results show that early marriage is also linked to domestic violence and being exposed to sexually transmitted disease,” Abdel Tawab adds.
Lack of sexual education is another huge concern. At Assiut University, Dr. Manal Darwish found that a number of teenage wives experience problems during intercourse, often being forced to have sex. Compounding the problem, her research shows, is that these women do not really know what to do about it or where they can get advice, which leaves them in a devastating psychological state.
Even though Egyptian law states that it is forbidden to document a marriage contract before both partners are 18, many families have no qualms about marrying off their children at a younger age. “In rural areas, marriage contracts of young teenage girls are approved by an authorized sheikh (maa’zoon) but are not officially documented before the husband and wife are both 18,” Abdel Tawab explains.
Last month the minister of justice caused a furor for suggesting new legislation forcing husbands-to-be to deposit LE 50,000 in a government bank, ostensibly to safeguard the bride’s rights. Public backlash against the proposed legislation was fierce, with detractors branding the move one that would help consolidate underage marriage. Others criticized the government for trying to regulate the practice rather than eradicating it altogether.
Population Council research confirms that sexual harassment rose steadily after January 2011. In 2014, about 40% of girls between the ages of 13-35 were victims of assault at some point in their life, increasing to 62% in slum areas. What is more worrying is the finding that girls of younger age (13-17) are more prone to being victims of sexual assault (49%) versus older women between the ages of 25-29 (33%). “This presents a higher threat,” says Abdel Tawab because younger girls usually do not know how to defend themselves and are usually terrified to tell anyone about the incident.”
But perhaps the most alarming finding was that about 62% of male youth and 56% of female youth blame girls who are sexually harassed because they wear “provoking” clothes and act “inappropriately.”
Another sensitive area where blame is heaped on the shoulders of the victim is HIV/AIDS. Because of the sensitivity of the subject, there has been very little research reported on the issue of HIV/AIDS: incidence of the virus in Egypt is reported at less than 0.02%, but its spread is considered high specifically among homosexual men and drug addicts reaching (7%) in 2010. Unfortunately, the Population Council finds, most youth who suffer from HIV avoid getting treatment because in most cases the society looks down on them and people see them as a threat. “What is the worse is they do not tell their wives/husbands before getting married and they transfer the virus to their partner and sometimes to their children,” Abdel Tawab notes.
Working to Raise Sexual Health Awareness
Parents are the main source of information about sexual health. As children grow up, Abdel Tawab advises, parents should gradually give them information about sex and be ready for any questions or fears they have about the issue. Research proves that in 2014 about 34% of male youth (13-35) said they had spoken to one or both parents about the changes related to puberty and sexual health. On the other hand, only 21% of females from the same age category had spoken to their parents about the issue. Abdel Tawab believes this is partly due to the lack of communication between parents and children. She explains parents are often unable to present this kind of support to their children which forces youth to look for information elsewhere, from the internet or their friends. According to a research conducted at Al Azhar University in Sharqiya, 60% of parents had never talked to their children about the issue and funnily enough “believe their teenage sons must have some knowledge about it.”
In an effort to enhance communication between parents and children, a number of development centers located in poor areas in Cairo give sessions to mothers about the changes that happen to their teenage sons and daughters and how they should talk to them about it. Mothers who utilized these centers later stated they felt a great difference in general communication with their children. One of them commented, “The sessions opened my eyes, I used to feel really shy talking to my daughter about the subject but, no I am not anymore.”
The government too, is trying to do its part in raising sexual health awareness. In 2008 a law was issued obligating both partners to undergo medical tests and obtain a health certificate prior to official consent to marry. But unfortunately, Abdel Tawab says, there is evidence that most of these medical reports can be issued and signed by any hospital official and not necessarily a doctor and/or after both partners have actually undergone medical tests to make sure they do not suffer from any illness or sexually transmitted diseases.
Additionally, many NGOs across Cairo and in cities such as Alexandria, Mansoura and Port Said provide youth with awareness sessions; the sessions are held by young volunteers who are usually in the same age category as the attendees, making it easier for youth to ask them for advice. Other initiatives presented by the Ministry of Health and Population provide useful information about sexual and reproductive health through hotlines and the internet.
Yet despite private and government efforts, there is still a shortage of credible information available to youth. Abdel Tawab emphasizes that the government needs to work on increasing awareness campaigns to enhance the role of parents and communication with their children about the issue. She also points to the important role of schools and religious institutions in helping educate children about the subject and correcting misconceptions youth have about issues such as FGM. “Reproductive health and puberty changes are hardly ever discussed, even though there is a whole chapter about in science. The teacher usually skips it and/or students do not attend the day of the lesson because they are too shy and it is ‘wrong’ to talk about this issue,” Abdel Tawab explains.
In addition, Abdel Tawab recommends conducting further research on different issues about sexual health and habits of youth that require a stronger cooperation between NGOs and the government. She also lobbies for laws affecting sexual and reproductive health to be applied, in particular those related to sexual harassment, FGM and early marriage.
Without the support of other sectors, however, little advancement can be made, Abdel Tawab cautions. “The needs of youth must be paid more attention and efforts should be made in different sectors and not just in one sector alone. We need to work on the overall health of youth by developing nutrition programs in school and environmental awareness campaigns to eliminate pollution. All these aspects affect youth’s sexual health.”