False notions of shame and honour biggest obstacles to ending child marriage in Egypt

'Not Brides' study finds a quarter of female Egyptians aged 15 to 19 are or have been married

Anyone below the age of 18 who is forced to marry is considered a victim of human trafficking by the UN. AFP
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Many Egyptians believe women and girls who do not marry early in their lives bring shame on their families, a study says.

It is still widely believed that pre-marital relationships — or even being raped or harassed — could ruin marriage prospects for women and girls, the “Not Brides” study found.

A quarter of Egyptian girls aged from 15 to 19 have been married, the study said.

It was designed to underline the impact of child marriage in Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation, and to help policymakers end the practice.

The study was conducted by the Tadwein Centre for Gender Studies, one of Egypt’s few independent research and statistics centres, which aims to raise awareness of gender-based violence — a rampant problem that affects millions of Egyptian women.

Tadwein conducted in-depth interviews with 42 women, 21 in Fayoum, a rural province 100km from the capital, and 21 in the Greater Cairo area.

The ages of the women ranged from 17 to 29. All of them were married under the age of 18.

The study also included 10 women divorced before the age of 18 after having been married for several years.

Tadwein worked with community organisations to reassure women over cultural and social roadblocks that may have led the participants or their families to object to revealing intimate details about their lives.

Shame-honour nexus

The study found, for all the women interviewed, the notion of “sutra” — an Arabic word meaning “protection” or “shelter” — was the most significant driver of their early marriages.

An outlook that equates puberty with a readiness to get married and bear children was also one of the main drivers of child marriage, Tadwein’s study said.

“This is why girls get married at a young age — their fathers and mothers force them. They say it is sutra,” Aisha, 17, a divorcee, said during her interview.

“They would be afraid that other men would rape her or trick her. So they marry her off.”

Child marriage in numbers. The National

The notion of honour and shame also plays a significant role in why child marriage continues to be so rampant in Egypt.

“All that concerns these families is the preservation of women’s sexuality, which is always deeply associated with the honour of the men in the family,” Tadwein’s founder and managing director Amel Fahmy told The National. “It comes from a very toxic understanding of masculinity.”

Why some young Egyptian girls 'choose' to marry young

These beliefs are strongly held not just by men in Egypt, the study found, but are deeply rooted in the minds of the majority of the study’s participants.

Because of various external pressures, the child brides themselves will acquiesce to getting married so young, Ms Fahmy said.

Many of the participants were convinced that if they refused multiple proposals, they would be seen as not suitable for marriage, which could lead to social exclusion.

Many gave in to peer pressure and reported feeling out of place in a community where most of their female friends and family of the same age were married.

The festivity of weddings in Egypt and the special attention placed on brides during preparations were also found to be strong motivations for marriage.

Many of the participants had never had “experiences such as going to the hairdresser or getting a body scrub”.

More action from state institutions

Ms Fahmy told The National she has been collaborating with a parliamentarian to introduce a draft law aiming to criminalise child marriage in Egypt.

Although prohibited by law, it is often left unchecked in the absence of any real consequences.

She said many families in Egypt’s rural provinces take their daughters out of school because of the long travel distances, especially for secondary schools which are fewer and more widely dispersed than primary schools.

Families fear that long commutes pose a greater risk of assault or harassment.

The state should ensure there are schools that these girls can get to safely, Ms Fahmy said.

The survey was co-sponsored by the Spanish Embassy in Egypt and the Co-operacion Espanola.

Ms Fahmy was joined by the Spanish ambassador to announce the results on Monday at the Cervantes Institute in Cairo’s Dokki district.

Anyone below the age of 18 who is forced to marry is considered a victim of human trafficking by the UN.

Updated: November 29, 2022, 4:16 PM