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Activists look to raise awareness about child brides

Posted by vmsalama on August 17, 2005

By Vivian Salama
Daily Star Staff
August 17, 2005

CAIRO:  Amira Abdel Seit was only 16 years old when she married.  Her suitor, a relative, had come to Cairo looking for work in the cement industry when he proposed marriage.  Her father having suffered major kidney problems, Amira’s family had virtually no income, and so she felt that by marrying, it might lift some of the financial burden off her family. 

            Now 18, Amira has had two miscarriages and is two months into her third pregnancy.  Her dreams of financial stability completely obliterated, Amira lives in a closet-sized room which her husband rents from Amira’s aunt.  Furnished simply with a bed and a small stove, at times, Amira and her husband cannot even meet the rent – to their good fortune, they are exempt from paying more often than not. 

            “I have a dream that I have children, an apartment and my own furniture and a supportive husband,” says Amira.  “But my life is a mess.  Right now, the few things we have are a mess.”

            Bound to a man she says is only with her to make children, Amira dreams of her lost childhood, when she lived with her parents, went to school and played with her siblings. 

            “Originally she was going to finish her education and then choose a husband,” explains Samia Gamal, a counselor with the Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women (ADEW).  “She wanted to find someone who loves her and she loves him.  She didn’t want someone, of course, who wants a baby and doesn’t worry about her health.  But he just wants a baby.  Amira is not important [to him].” 

            According to the Population Council, 30 percent of women in Egypt marry before age 18.  Generally, in the Middle East, marriage at or shortly after puberty is common among those living in traditional lifestyles, as compared to Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where it is most common.  Egypt’s early marriage rate among women is considerably low, as compared with countries such as Bangladesh, 81 percent; Niger, 64 percent; or Yemen, 64 percent.  In the United Arab Emirates, 55 percent of women under the age of 20 are married.  Of the 331 million girls aged 10–19 in developing countries – excluding China – 163 million will be married before they are 20, according to findings by the Forum on Marriage and the Rights of Women.

            In Egypt, the legal age for a woman to marry is 16.  Still, the trend exists as many women, mostly in the most impoverished areas, marry as a method of economic survival for both the girls and their families.  There are several international regulations that seek to protect the interests of young women who might otherwise be forced into marriage.  In 1964, Articles 1 through 3 of the Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages outlines recommendations on the issue.     

Article 2 reads:  “States Parties to the present Convention shall… specify a minimum age for marriage (“not less than 15 years” according to the nonbinding recommendation accompanying this Convention).” 

It continues: “No marriage shall be legally entered into by any person under this age, except where a competent authority has granted a dispensation as to age, for serious reasons, in the interests of the intending spouses…”

            Still, authorities on the issue of underage marriage in Egypt insist that the issue is not black and white.  Much of what influences are on a societal level, namely poverty, education, awareness on health issues and the cultural prevalence of family.

            “In most cases, the girl is very happy to marry,” explains Iman Bibars, President of ADEW.  “They live in terrible conditions.  They have no water.  Now, she’s going to stay in an apartment, she’ll have hot water, she might even have a maid for sometime.  This is a dream for her life.  It is not the bleak picture of girls being tortured into marriage.”

            A past study conducted by the Ministry of Social Affairs, in cooperation with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) entitled Early Marriage in Selected Villages in Giza Governorate, explored issues surrounding marriages in five of Egypt’s poorest villages.  Research showed young girls being married off to much older men from oil-rich Middle Eastern countries via brokers. 

            Bibars even disputes the idea of marriage middle men and brides for sale, where families sell off their daughters, often to locals or Arab visitors.  “It’s not like selling children for prostitution, like in Thailand for example,” Bibars insists.  “You have to understand, marriage is the goal for the parents and the children of poor uneducated people.  What else do you have to look forward to if you’re a father and a mother and you have 10 kids or six, and they’re going to really bad schools and most of them won’t even continue?”

            Early motherhood equates in most cases to early motherhood.  Often pregnancy occurs too early, when a woman’s body is not yet fully matured.  Thus, an undeveloped womb greatly threatens the survival of both the mother and child.  Education is key, Bibars insists, to building a young woman’s self-esteem and helping her grasp the health risks involved in early motherhood. 

            “There are three major problems:  lack of education, lack of awareness and poverty,” she explains.  “Let’s say I am a poor woman, my husband is a poor man.  We are both uneducated.  We living in an awful little room, we have nothing.  We have little kids.  That’s all we do, is make kids.  We have nothing else to do.  This is their goal.”

             UNICEF notes that poverty is the underpinning cause of early marriage.  Women are often viewed as an economic burden to families with meager means of living.  This is especially common in the Middle East and Latin America, where marrying off young girls is seen as a method of survival.  Many marriage go unregistered, as often entire villages rely on spoken agreements for marriage, with no legal documentation to bind them.  This leads to even greater problems as it means the children cannot be registered by law.      

            Activists have worked for years to mobilize action from within the smallest of villages which otherwise have no means of gaining awareness.  UNICEF, in a 2003 report called Early Marriage-Child Spouses – issues its recommendation for catching young women before it’s too late.  “To end the practice of early marriage,” the report reads, “resources must be mobilized at all levels, within a coordinated and cooperative structure. All actors have a role to play – families, communities, health providers, education services, religious leaders, local and national government, and international organizations.”

            “We say they are suffering, but it’s a lot deeper than that,” explains Bibars.  “It’s an issue of awareness. They don’t know any better.   Let’s find out what’s happening and why it’s happening.  Let’s look at it and do something.”


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