This article is one of two in a package. The other is “Economic Hardship Drives Child Marriage.”
CAIRO—Child marriage, a practice still relatively common in Egypt, blocks women from getting education and results from ignorance, poverty and social traditions, research has found.
Child marriage, it appears, is a classic “vicious cycle.” Lack of education drives families to marry off their daughters young. And those who marry young are unlikely to ever get an education.
“Education empowers girls,” said Gamal El-Khatib, projects manager at Pathfinder International in Egypt. “It empowers families, and it’s the lack of it that is the main reason for such practices.”
Since 2008, Egyptian law has stated that girls cannot legally marry under the age of 18. But in the international arena, Egypt’s intentions were unclear until recently. The government had submitted an objection to an article in the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child that set 18 as the minimum legal age for marriage. In February, that reservation was withdrawn, Human Rights Watch reported.
To enforce the law, the government bans registration of marriages among couples under the legal age. “Nevertheless, child marriage remains endemic in rural areas, where families frequently accept a sort of unregistered marriage contract until the girl reaches 18,” Human Rights Watch said. In fact, a study by UNICEF and Egypt’s Social Solidarity Ministry in 2010 found that 11 percent of marriages that year involved girls under the legal age.
Child marriage is common in areas with strong tribal traditions such as the Sinai Peninsula, which is home to about a dozen Bedouin tribes, and in rural areas of southern Egypt including Sohag and Fayoum, El-Khatib said. Early marriage can also be found in big cities, including in the country’s capital.
One survey found that 17 percent of married Egyptian women were married before they were 18. That figure came from a study of 4,000 Egyptian women between the ages of 10 and 29 conducted in 2013 by researchers at the American University in Cairo’s Social Research Center. Of the total number of married Egyptian women, 4.6 percent got married when they were younger than 16.
“It’s shocking,” said Zeinab Khadr, a senior research scientist at the university who who led the study and provided the data to Al-Fanar Media.
A study by the Ford Foundation and the Egyptian Society for Population Studies and Reproductive Health contrasted the amount of education that women were able to get with the age at which they married. Women who married young often had great difficulty getting an education. Of 300 women interviewed, 42 percent of those who married before the age of 18 were illiterate. Only 5 percent of them completed secondary education and none had a university degree.
In contrast, the women who married at an older age were much more likely to be educated. Among the women who married when they were 18 or older, almost 30 percent could read and write and 12.5 percent had completed their university education, according to the study.
Some families appear to plan to marry their daughters off at an early age and so don’t bother to invest in their education. In the study by the American University in Cairo’s Social Research Center, 63 percent of the women who married under the legal age had never attended school or dropped out either before or after their weddings. (See a related article, “Economic Hardship Drives Child Marriage.”)
Only 9 percent of the women said they dropped out as a result of their marriage. “Parents keep the young girls at home because they are going to get married,” Khadr said.
Child marriage not only violates rights to education but also a slew of other rights, including freedom from violence, reproductive and sexual health care, employment and freedom of movement, Human Rights Watch says.
Local and governmental agencies have begun efforts to combat the problem, which stems from religious beliefs, traditions, financial factors, unemployment and poverty, in addition to lack of education, experts said.
Often a combination of factors leaves families feeling that they are helpless and unable to protect and provide for a girl, and that she would be better off in someone else’s care, El-Khatib said. Child marriage is also more common in families where mothers were married young, becoming a practice passed from generation to generation, said Khadr.
Care Egypt, which is part of Care International, began a project in 2011 to raise awareness about the harm early marriages cause and to encourage communities to protect adolescents’ rights in select areas of Upper Egypt. The idea was to increase girls’ knowledge and skills, so they would be able to reject child marriage or make a deliberate choice between matrimony and education, and not just be forced into it. The project also sought to inform girls’ parents and families, who ultimately decide whether a girl will marry, about the dangers of child marriage, the importance of education and the ways in which their communities can support girls.
Care Egypt is among seven organizations that worked on a national strategy to combat child marriage. The strategy, which will be put into place over the next 15 years, seeks to ensure that girls living in areas where child marriage is prevalent have access to quality education. It also focuses on increasing employment opportunities so girls don’t feel they need to rush into matrimony to financially survive. And it aims to raise awareness about reproductive health, to make sure girls who are currently married have access to healthcare services and to ensure that the law against child marriage is enforced and respected, El-Khatib said.
“Not only does Care see [child marriage] as a priority, but it’s a priority in our country,” said Vivian Mokhtar Thabet, the women’s rights program director for Care Egypt. The organization considers child marriage a form of domestic and gender-based violence, “and it affects the abilities of girls to continue her education,” Thabet said.