Amira was a bright teenager with dark eyes and braided hair, a twinkle in her eye and a smile that appeared to make the whole world smile. Inside and outside school, she was resoundingly popular. She was smart, vivacious, dynamic, and also a brilliant student. Her mother felt so proud of her, the envy of her neighbours. Amira was confident she would score sufficiently well in her examinations to make it to university and become the successful professional she always dreamt of becoming.
A few days into her sixteenth year, all Amira’s hopes were dashed. Her father, a poor peasant, insisted she discontinue her schooling and marry a distant cousin, a man 20 years her senior, who she had never set eyes upon. The teenager was devastated. But no tears, no pleas, nothing at all would make her father change his mind, no not even when her mother gathered her courage and made a shy plea in her daughter’s favour. The matter was settled, he insisted, and that was that.
Today, Amira is 26, but looks much older. The light in her eyes has dulled, she is thin and feeble, appears uninterested in anything but the hard work of serving her family of four children and a husband who is hard, non-understanding, and expects her to put in a huge amount of effort to supplement his meagre income and to serve him, the children, and his aged parents. She dare not object; she knows the reply would be a string of verbal and physical abuse. Amira’s once hallmark childish good cheer and self-esteem? All gone! Possibly never to come back.
Amira is not one of a kind. The results of the latest census announced a few weeks ago indicate that number of married children in Egypt amounts to 122,464. The figure caused extensive alarm, especially that its breakdown showed that among them 4,522 were under 15 years of age, 13 per cent of them boys (859), and 81 per cent girls (3,663). President Sisi, who was attending the ceremony during which the census results were officially announced by Khaled Gendy, head of the CAPMAS, displayed shock and pain at the figures, and said that something must be done to stem the phenomenon; “How can we be so hard on our daughters?” he cried in disbelief.
In Egypt, the minimum legal age for marriage is 18. The State has already begun moving against the phenomenon of underage marriage. A bill has been drafted that stipulates harsher sentences for all who take part in the crime of marrying off underage men and women.
More important, the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM) has launched a nationwide awareness campaign themed “A child not a bride”, in collaboration with the Ministry of Awqaf (Religious Endowments) and the Ministry of Health and Population. The aim is to spread awareness of the perils and illegality of the marriage of children.
“The fact is that the entire marriage culture in some parts of Egypt should change, especially when it comes to the right age for the marriage of girls,” Maysa Shawki, Egypt’s deputy health minister and a senior official in the State-run NCCM, said. Those who get married early are not able to bear responsibility, since they are immature mentally, psychologically, physically and emotionally, which frequently leads to divorce.”
According to the recent census, the total number of divorced persons in Egypt is 710,850. Some 200,000 cases lay in the age group between 25 and 30 years old, 60.7 per cent of them in urban districts and 39.3 in rural areas. “The tragedy,” Dr Shawki said, “is that number of widows [on account of marrying much older men] among them is 1,203, while divorced girls who lost their legal rights amount to 1,189.”
“Outdated customs and traditions are among the reasons girls are married off too early, a practice rampant in Upper Egypt and rural regions,” she said. “Other reasons have more to do with money matters; in many cases the father feels marrying off his daughters relieves him of her financial burden. In other cases girls are made to marry cousins or family members in order to keep the inheritance of the females inside the family.”
Other causes of divorce, according to Dr Shawki, are the financial troubles that face the young immature families; these troubles are exacerbated by the rising increasing, social incompatibility between couples, lack of responsibility, drug addiction, and interference of older family members and friends in the life of married couples.”
“Marrying the girls off that early is a violation of all the rights they are entitled to,” Shawki said. “This type of marriage causes damages to all parties: the girls, their parents and the community.”
The NCCM is offering programmes for couples engaged to get married or newly-wed, which counsel on the best bases upon which to build a family.
The Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt already offers family counselling courses for couples planning to get married, also for newly-weds; the courses are a precondition for getting married in Church.
The NCCM works in the interest of children and mothers from a rights-based approach. It focuses mainly on issues that concern women and children such as: female genital mutilation, girls’ education, child labour, prevention of tobacco and drugs addiction, children with disabilities, children at risk, and street children.