Sunday,25 June, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1345, (18 - 24 May 2017)
Sunday,25 June, 2017
Issue 1345, (18 - 24 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Abolishing green knots

Local and international organisations brainstorm new ways to abolish early marriages in Egypt, reports Mai Samih

Abolishing green knots
Abolishing green knots

Early marriage in Egypt is an issue repeatedly discussed in terms of putting an end to it. What is rarely broached is the legal system that should be changed to ban it or how to change the mindset of Egyptians living in rural areas who cling to the custom. However some have found one practical solution.

The International Population Council and the National Population Council held a press conference on Monday 15 May called “Towards evidence-based policies and programmes to end early marriage in Egypt”. The event aimed at discovering the social characteristics of extra-young wives as well as their medical needs. It also includes programmes that focus on the tradition, presenting ideas to abolish it as well as provide the social and medical needs of married adolescent girls (MAGs) with the aim of preparing them to integrate into society.

According to a Population Council report, Egypt’s 2030 strategy stresses the importance of adopting radical solutions to socially and financially empower women. However, the report said this will not happen until early marriage is eliminated, especially in rural Egyptian areas. Despite the wealth of information and research carried out in Africa about early marriages, there is still not enough information about the needs of teenage mothers in Egypt, especially concerning their reproductive health. For this reason the Population Council and the General Health Department of Assiut University jointly conducted research that features the needs of this marginalised segment of society. The sample of the sturdy was 729 MAGs, 324 from the governorate of Assiut and 405 from the governorate of Sohag, in the age group of 13 to 20, with an average marriage age of 16.5.

According to the report “Married Adolescent Girls in Rural Assiut and Sohag: Limited Choices and Unfulfilled Reproductive Health Needs”, 23 per cent of MAGs did not go to school and only 22.5 per cent completed primary school and 0.9 per cent completed education higher than secondary. Seventy per cent of girls in Sohag and 71 per cent of girls in Assiut were married before their 18th birthday and 41 per cent of MAGs in Assiut and 13 per cent in Sohag had wished to delay their marriages. Thirty-one per cent of MAGs reported being subjected to some sort of violence from their husbands in the last 12 months. They were also exposed to health hazards due to the lack of information about reproductive health.

Senior associate of the New York Population Council Sajeda Amin says they had a similar problem in Bangladesh. Eighteen months later they managed to decrease early marriages by one third by engaging the community and providing MAGs with incentives such as computing lessons. They plan to do the same in Egypt but a solution will not depend on discussing laws and prevention but addressing the basic drivers of child marriage. “The girls need to learn skills as they feel insecure, and they need to be seen differently,” Amin said. “I think the first thing that is needed here in Egypt is to have a programme that engages the community to try to understand what the community wants. Then to start with the girls and bring them together, to give them the networks. We had a very successful programme called “Ishrak” that worked in Egypt to empower girls. But it is really about providing positive alternatives to early marriages. I think computers are very important that we can do within the confines of homes. We have to acknowledge that there are very similar cases in Bangladesh where girls are not as mobile as in Egypt. So you have to accommodate these restrictions, even do it gradually.” Amina added that the rate of early marriages in South Asia, India and Bangladesh is much more than in Egypt, 60 per cent and 14 per cent respectively, making Egypt’s problem easier to change.

“We are working on abolishing this phenomenon which not only negatively affects the girl but also her family and the society she lives in. I call on Al-Azhar to issue a fatwa prohibiting early marriage,” said Nahla Abdel-Tawab, Population Council Country director.

“The issue of early marriage is an enigma as the law prohibits registering early marriages but does not prohibit the act itself,” Maysa Shawki, deputy minister of health, said. “Early marriage is depriving a child of rights and childhood. The physical and psychological growth of a teenage girl who marries is not complete. This could cause family fragmentation. Another problem in not registering this marriage is that children born as a result are sometimes registered under their uncle’s names since the mother has no marriage certificate and is not able to register them as her own children.” Shawki said this was a threat to the stability of society, adding that a map of these MAGs should be made to enable government organisations to assist them and raise their awareness.

Abdel-Tawab agrees. “We must make sure that governmental health services are provided for MAGs as in most cases their marriage certificates are not registered. This is not encouraging early marriage; only including them in society. They should also be re-educated and rehabilitated. In addition, the law should be revised to ensure that there should be harsh punishment to all those who take part in marrying off a teenage girl.”

“We in the Ministry of Awqaf are responsible for 83,000 mosques,” Sheikh Mohamed Eid Kelani, representative of the Ministry of Awqaf, said. “There is a will to change religious discourse which also concerns any issue that has a direct effect on society, including the dangers of early marriages. To prevent misconceptions the ministry decided to unite the topic of the Friday sermon in 2016. We have issued printouts that correct social misconceptions for token prices like LE3 so everyone can read them,” Kelani said.

Sameh Mustafa, human trafficking expert at the Council for Childhood and Womenhood, said child marriage “is also a type of trafficking especially if it is a marriage of convenience. So far, we have more than 90,000 ma’zoons (registrars) who have been implicated in crimes of early marriages.”

The report recommends that primary health care services should address the needs of MAGs since they are available in almost every village and neighbourhood. Health care providers should be trained in identifying MAGs and in addressing their sexual and reproductive health. They should screen MAGs for signs of physical abuse and refer cases to designated facilities for legal and emotional support. Community awareness activities should educate male partners about the benefits of birth spacing and family planning and rectify religious misconceptions about gender-based violence and encourage husband-wife communication.

The report said girls should be encouraged to stay in school by various mechanisms such as conditional economic support for parents who keep their daughters in school and unmarried. Livelihood opportunities should be made available to young women in Upper Egypt to enhance their status within their families and to alleviate the burden of their families to feed them. Socio-cultural norms that condone early marriage should be addressed through mass media, community conversations and educational and religious institutions.

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