Egypt To Stiffen Child Marriage Penalties

Egypt’s government is considering a series of laws to tamp down on underage marriage and women’s advocates hope these policy changes will close all the loopholes.

street children egypt 311 (photo credit: The Media Line)
street children egypt 311
(photo credit: The Media Line)
The Egyptian government will amend the country’s marriage laws, including setting a minimum age and extending penalties for child marriage to include fathers or other male guardians.
The law criminalizing child marriage will be submitted to President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi as part of a national project on family planning to be launched next year.
The announcement, which defines a child in such a marriage as being under the age of 18, appeared in an article published this week in Egypt Today, which was also posted on the Egypt State Information Service website, the official media body for international journalists. 
Child marriage is rampant in Egypt, which has the 13th highest incident rate globally. While couples can only officially register for marriage when both parties are 18, the practice continues with unregistered marriages in a custom known as urfi. 
According to the organization Girls Not Brides, child marriage impacts 17 percent of girls in Egypt under the age of 18 and two percent of girls under 15.
Egypt raised the minimum age to register for marriage by two years to 18 in 2008, according to The National Council for Childhood and Motherhood Child Rights Observatory.
Suad Abu-Dayyeh, an Amman-based Middle East/North Africa consultant for Equality Now, an organization that advances the rights of women and girls, says that there are three crucial components to any legislation to prevent child marriage.
“It has to have clear provisions in the family law which state that 18 is the minimum age of marriage; it shouldn’t include any exceptions for judges to marry girls before that age; and you have to have punishment for anyone who contributes to conducting a marriage and the sentences should be severe,” she told The Media Line. “Maybe if there is high fine and a prison sentence then we will see better results in reducing child marriage not just in Egypt but also in other places.” 
She says that Egypt’s amended laws will be more specific about setting 18 as the minimum age for marriage. 
“Egyptian family law lacks a specific provision clearly defining the marrying age as 18. This is a very good step,” she told The Media Line. 
However, Abu-Dayyeh particularly stresses the “no exception” component for efficacious child marriage laws in order to circumvent what is occurring in Jordan and the Palestinian territories, where child marriage under 18 is officially prohibited, but only technically.
“Even if you have a clause that says the minimum age of marriage is 18, but you still have exceptions in the same law, then it doesn’t mean these judges will comply” due to their own personal beliefs about child marriage, Abu-Dayyeh said.
“In Jordan for example, the minimum age under family law is 18, but there are other articles in the same law which authorize judges to marry girls before the age of 18 … In Palestine also they set the minimum age of marriage for 18 but then they give the judge exceptions to marry girls before that age,” she said, adding: “Unfortunately you have so many judges that believe in child marriage, that’s why they approve marriages of girls under 18.”
Abu-Dayyeh explains that there are different kinds of child marriages in Egypt, including “tourist” marriages. This practice often involves citizens of the countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council - Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - going to Egypt for vacation and traveling to rural areas which are renowned for child marriage. There the travelers enter into unofficial marriages in exchange for payment to the local girl’s family that end when the trip is over and the traveler returns to his home country. 
“Sometimes these girls get pregnant, they are left without a breadwinner, without anything. There are no legal rights for them because the marriages aren’t registered,” she said.
“Even if a child is married, it’s rape: She doesn’t consent to it, she doesn’t have a say” in the matter, Abu-Dayyeh added.
The Equality Now consultant says there are various reasons why child marriage occurs in Egypt.
“The reality of child marriage is that you sell your daughter in return for a certain amount of money because of poverty, unemployment and sometimes also cultural issues,” Abu-Dayyeh said. “Some families believe that the only time women are respected is when they are married.”
“There is this Arab mentality in general and part of the mentality in Egypt that, at the end of the day, a girl’s fate is to end up in her husband’s house, taking care of [him] and the children,” she also said. 
Reda Eldanbouki, lawyer and executive director of the Women’s Center for Guidance and Legal Awareness in Egypt, stresses that the final outcome of the law is still unknown.
“If the minimum age of marriage is changed to over 18 years, I agree. We don’t have the final code yet. But if they change it to less than 18, it will be bad, and go against the Egyptian constitution and international agreements,” he told The Media Line. 
Eldanbouki is referring to Article 80 of the Egyptian Constitution, which defines children as being under the age of 18 and says, among other things, that it is the government’s responsibility to shield them from “sexual exploitation,” and to observe Article 89, which bans slavery and human trafficking. Arguably the most famous international agreement Egypt has ratified is the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits child marriage. Article 93 of Egypt’s constitution says that these ratified agreements and conventions “have the force of law after publication.” 
Eldanbouki says child marriages cause a variety of problems: “If women marry before [they’re 18] they can’t have a good education and there is a bigger gender gap in achievement There are more birthing complications birth when they are so young,” he said. “It also presents problems when this [child mother] raises her own child. The girls have to move into the family homes of their husbands where they are forced to obey their mothers-in-law and can become victims of abuse.” 
Eldanbouki argues the law does not go far enough in expanding women’s rights in other areas of marriage.
“The law is good in some things, but it doesn’t do enough for women’s rights,” he said. 
“There needs to be faster progress in court when it comes to women getting alimony for children after a divorce. Women have to go to Egyptian family court many times, and there are loopholes so that the husband doesn’t have to pay,” Eldanbouki added. “It should take the court six months, not the two to three years it takes now … and the law must be more clear.”
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