Today, I was in Cairo University participating in a youth event for NGO employment and volunteering opportunities. I was happy to see so many youth interested in the reproductive health awareness initiative we’re doing. We were distributing booklets and flyers about those topics and things were going great and smooth until that guy showed up.
One of the flyers was on child marriage explaining the social and health implications of such practice. I never thought it could provoke people because family planning and HIV were the foremost topics that do. The guy asked me how come I want people to delay marriage until 18 while it is completely natural, and his own sister is married at the age of 12! He went on to say that old people used to marry at this age and no one ever complained, wondering why we want to change “the nature” of the society. He even said he’s engaged to a 15 year old and they are about to marry soon. He said that the practice is common in his hometown (rural lower Egypt) and that they marry without issuing official papers until they turn 18 then they declare it legally.
Away from rural Egypt, I took the discussion to twitter, I was even surprised by another Egyptian living in Canada who found increasing marriage age to 18 was exaggerated and unnecessary. He said that early marriage has no health or psychological implications. He even said that world suffers from many problems because of delayed marriage! It’s scientifically known however that early marriage jeopardizes the health of both mothers and children, causing more risk of abortion and maternal mortality.
Back to the rural person, what made me unable to argue with him was the fact that he used Prophet Mohammed as a justification for early marriage as it is known that he married his wife Aisha at a very young age. That was basically why he believed such awareness efforts were corruptive of “good societies”. He said he saw Prophet Mohamed as a role model for life and that all Muslims should take this view. While I tried to argue that there’s no comparison between that day’s society and ours, etc it evidently seemed useless.
This conversation made me think of culture and how it impacts people. While this person is educated, he still thinks that all those practices are natural and pose no health threat. He places no value to science over what he was raised to. Is it that his perception of health concepts is limited? What about the rights of those girls? Their right to freely choose their husbands, to finish their education, and to happily live their adolescent years. These are all necessary factors to form a woman able to raise healthy children.
Yes, the conditions rural Egyptians live in are different and women carry more responsibilities from an early age which make them mature earlier. The community there sees women’s sole function is to marry and raise children; however I can’t help but see it as a violation of these young girls to develop themselves fully.
I’d like to think that these two guys were an exception, however studies show that 11% of currently female youth in rural areas were married before age 16, and 30% before 18.
There is a law against marriage before age 18 and awareness efforts taking place, but these kinds of attitudes have to be dealt with carefully since they’re deeply embedded in the culture. Religious leads have to play a key role in countering such beliefs and attitudes.
Child marriage is obviously declining in Egypt, there’s more to be done, much more!