Child marriage and pregnancy in Egypt
In late March of this year, I visited El Ayyat, a rural Egyptian village situated south of Cairo. Most of the girls in this village do not attend school. “[My mother] told me she needs my help to run the house and to take care of my one-year-old sister," 14-year-old Shaimaa, who was pulled out of school in fourth grade, told me.
I was in El Ayyat because I had collaborated with the NGO that had built the community’s school to hold a workshop for young girls in the village. I wanted to help them understand their own worth as well as the value of education; I tried to teach them how we can add value in our communities by focusing on our own development.
Shaimaa was one of the girls who came to my workshop. She sat in the Thursday afternoon breeze with her friends who were also attending the workshop. Shaimaa’s friends were all still enrolled in school, and Shaimaa wanted to be part of this educated group, even if just for the afternoon. Yet despite their studies, and despite the workshop, every girl there was called one by one to return home to cook their family’s lunch.
Even the girls who are permitted to attend school at all in El Ayyat don’t expect to be there long; their parents want them to get married. It’s not unusual for girls in the village to marry by the age of 14. Shaimaa is no exception and expects to get married soon. "We have to [do] what [our parents] want or they will hit us and stop us from going to school," 13-year-old Abla, a friend of Shaimaa’s, told me that afternoon.
When I returned from El Ayat to my city, Cairo, I learned of a young girl who lives and works in downtown Cairo with her mother. Twelve-year-old Asma goes to a public school next to the building in which she lives. Asma’s sister, who is a few years older, is already married. Asma’s cousin, who lives in Sharkeya, another governorate north of Cairo, wants to marry her.
But Asma doesn’t want to get married. She wants to escape the poverty in which she was raised and become a physician. She ranks first in her class, and works hard despite suffering from classist bullying at school. "The girls refuse to talk to me,” she told me, when I met her. “I heard them say, ‘How can the daughter of a washwoman rank first over us?’”
Asma’s mother, Um Rokaya, is the caretaker of their building, a job that she took over after Asma’s father died. The people in the building mistreat Um Rokaya and her daughters, and regularly threaten to kick them out of the tiny room in which they live because they’d prefer a male caretaker, who they say would be "stronger” and could “take care of their errands." Of course, Asma's education would be jeopardized should the building tenants follow through on their threats and leave her family homeless.
On top of everything, Asma’s uncle regularly threatens to take her out of her school and marry her to an older man. "My uncle is not letting the idea of my marriage go, so I started recording him and threatening to tell the police,” she told me.
In Egypt, it is illegal for girls younger than 18 to marry. Parents who force their daughters to marry as minors could face jail time. But parents still wed their daughters using a customary form of marriage called "Gawaz Urfi," which is not officially registered. While such marriage is not considered valid according to the Personal Status Laws of Egypt, once their child turns 18, the parents legally register their child’s existing marriage. According to the 2008 Demographic and Health Survey (DHS), 13 percent of women were married between the ages 15 and 19 in Egypt, with a higher concentration in specific geographic areas and governorates. As the cost of living increases in Egypt, some experts predict that the rate of child marriage will also increase. The surge of Syrian refugees now living in Egypt is also expected to contribute to a rise in child marriage If necessary steps are not taken to help them secure other means of income.
By the time these girls are legally married, they have likely already given birth to one child or even more, especially if they are married in a rural area. Early childbearing is more prevalent in rural areas (14 percent), while it constitutes only 5 percent of births in urban settings. Also according to the DHS, in 2014 more than 10 percent of young Egyptian wives delivered their first child when they were between the ages of 15 and 19.
“Girls often become pregnant while still adolescents, increasing the risk of complications in pregnancy or childbirth,” Aleksandar Bodiroza, the Egypt Country Representative of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), told me in an email. The UNFPA found that “one of the most negative consequences of child marriage is that girls often become pregnant while still adolescents,” which increases the risk of complications in pregnancy or childbirth.
In addition to health complications, these births also can cause legal issues. A child born to a minor who is not legally married also remains legally unregistered until their mother’s marriage is official. During that period, issues may arise between the husband and wife that can lead to divorce, which in turn can allow the father to legally deny any relation with the child.
According to Bodiroza, the UNFPA has been committed to supporting national partners as well as civil society with the development of policies, holistic programs, and strengthened legislation to address and curtail the practice of child marriage and, therefore, child pregnancy. Between 2015 and 2020, the Egyptian Ministry of Health and Population and the National Population Council will try to address the issue of early marriage on the level of families and local communities through advocacy to ensure the enforcement of existing laws at a local level, Bodiroza told me. As of mid-2018, the Egyptian government has been discussing amending existing laws so that parents could lose custody of the child if they are to marry them when they are younger than 18. The Egyptian state is also considering adopting general policies toward unemployment and poverty in the country to help ensure that parents do not resort to child marriage as a source of funding.
According to the World Bank, each year of secondary education “might reduce the likelihood of marrying before the age of 18 by five percentage points or more in many countries.” The Egyptian government confirmed on multiple occasions that it will work on providing educational opportunities from primary to secondary level, simultaneously addressing the gender disparities to ensure that girls and boys focus more on their education. Girls marrying before the age of 18 are more likely not to finish their education, putting them at the risk of financial dependency.
Like many other girls in Egypt and around the world, Asma is keen on getting her education, not getting married and facing the potential complications of early pregnancies. Hopefully, her dream will come true.
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