Economic Hardship Drives Child Marriage
ASSIUT, EGYPT—Sitting on a piece of cardboard near the street, Afaf Sweifi begged for coins in what has become a daily act of desperation.
At 22 years old, Sweifi has two young children and is coping with the loss of a third, who died after Sweifi wasn’t able to pay for much-needed medication.
Sweifi married when she was a teenager and now has no steady job, no idea where her husband is and no education. “For me, going back to school is just a dream to escape the nightmare I’m living, but things have not changed, so even dreams will not do me any good,” she said.
Economic hardship drove Sweifi to marry when she was younger than 18, underscoring just one of the factors contributing to the practice of child marriage across Egypt.
Sweifi, for example, grew up with six sisters and a brother in a one-room home in an Upper Egypt slum. She says she ranked second in her class in the sixth grade, but dropped out of middle school so she could help her mother sell vegetables. Sweifi’s father decided that her brother would pursue his education and that the girls in the family would wed.
But Sweifi married a horse-drawn carriage driver who was no better off financially than her family. Then, making matters worse, Sweifi’s husband left their home after she gave birth to their third child, forcing her to beg as a way of making a living.
While marriages can’t be registered legally in Egypt if one of the parties is younger than 18, couples wed without a legal contract and in front of an audience through “Sunnah marriage,” said Ahmed Saad Thabet, a lawyer who specializes in marital affairs in Assiut.
It is common for the groom’s father to then give a check to the family of the bride as a guarantee that a marriage contract will be legally registered when the couple reaches the legal age. Children who are born in the meantime will not be issued birth certificates until the marriage contract is legal, Thabet said.
That practice sometimes leads to disputes.
Maha Omar, who dropped out of school, married and then became a mother at 16, said she divorced her husband when he refused to officially register their marriage. Omar has since re-enrolled in secondary school. “I intend to pursue my education,” she said. “But unfortunately, I am no longer the same person.”
Hoda Al-Tamawy, head of the teachers’ syndicate in Assiut, said the main reason students drop out of school is economics. That’s why a ministry of education program works to offer students meals at school, provide them with simple jobs to help their families earn income and allow them a day off of school each week to go to the markets and help their families.
One challenge, though, is that schools don’t often enforce nominal punishments—warnings, police reports and small monetary fines—aimed at preventing students from missing school. “These measures are ineffective in practice and they all depend on follow-up by the schools,” Al-Tamawy said. “In most cases, parents ignore these procedures.”
Al-Tamawy said society considers marriage more important for girls than education—a viewpoint evident in at least one household in Upper Egypt.
“Marriage is a [form of] protection for girls, and the reason why they enroll in school in the first place is to improve their chances of marrying a better-educated man who lives in the city,” said Mohammad Abd Al-Malek Ali, 33, who never completed middle school and married when he was younger than 18. (Read also: Child Brides in Egypt Blocked From Education)
Ali said his father pulled him out of school so many years ago in an effort to protect him following the murder of his brother, who was killed in an act of revenge. That rationale led more than 28 girls and 30 boys in the family to leave school, he said.
Now Ali’s daughter, Farha, is planning for her own wedding. She is only 15 years old and plans to pursue her education from home. “I am not young,” Farha said. “Rural girls are different from city girls. Here, we work very hard and we take on responsibility for a whole household of an extended family at a young age.”
Farha’s father, Ali, said he does not mind if she continues her education after marriage if her husband agrees.