Egypt unveils draft law to boost efforts against child marriage

President El Sisi has repeatedly expressed personal dismay over parents marrying off their underage daughters

Egyptian women carry pictures of late singer Umm Kulthum at a rally in Cairo to support women's rights and protest against harassment and child marriage. Reuters
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Egypt’s government has approved a draft law on child marriage aimed at plugging holes in existing legislation and eradicating the practice.

The draft, details of which were included in a cabinet statement, broadens the number of people who could face imprisonment or fines in connection with the practice of child marriages.

Underage marriages are not uncommon in Egypt, particularly in rural areas where girls are married off shortly after they reach puberty to boys their age or a little older. They are often motivated by economic hardship that prompts parents to marry off their underage daughters to save the cost of feeding and clothing them.

The existing law sets the minimum age for females and males to legally wed at 18. Those found to have forged documents or lied about the age of minors to allow them to wed face a maximum of two years in prison and a fine.

To circumvent the existing law on underage marriages, some parents arrange a “traditional’ marriage for their children that does not involve the “maazoun” — the person licensed by authorities to officiate marriage ceremonies and register them with the government.

The parents later seek official documentation when the couple are 18.

President Abdel Fattah El Sisi has repeatedly raised the problem of child marriages in recent months. In December, he said he wanted parliament to tighten existing laws.

Last month, the Egyptian leader — who has made championing women’s rights a cornerstone of his domestic policies — publicly berated parents who marry off their underage daughters.

“They are 12 or 13 and they want to marry them off. What are you doing? They say life is tough. Is that what we do as believers? Is that halal [religiously permitted]?”

Addressing parents, he said: “You want to save the cost of feeding her? Then you don’t eat so they can.”

The draft law, according to the cabinet statement, obliges the maazoun to report to the local prosecution service when an underage couple or their families seek official ratification of the traditional marriage. Failing to do that will be punishable by a minimum prison term of six months and a fine of no less than 20,000 pounds ($1,008).

Adults who arrange child marriages, act as witnesses, and the maazouns who officiate over the ceremonies, will face a minimum jail term of 12 months and a fine of up to 200,000 pounds. Those who have instigated a child marriage in any way will face the same punishment, it says.

The draft law will go to parliament for approval, with its passage a foregone conclusion since the house is dominated by government supporters.

Updated: April 14, 2022, 2:01 PM