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Human rights | Society | Gender - Women

Egyptian minors sold for prostitution under guise of marriage

afrol News / IRIN, 16 November - "Hanadi" was a teenager when she was sold into a short-term marriage by her father. "When I was 14, my father told me I was to be married to a man from Saudi Arabia," said Hanadi, who did not want to use her real name.

"Later on, I discovered that my father and the man had agreed I would stay with him for a month, until he returned home [to Saudi Arabia] at the end of the summer. There was never any intention for us to remain together any longer than his holiday in Egypt."

Hanadi is now 20 years old. She lives in a shelter run by Cairo-based non-governmental organisation the Hope Village Society, which cares for street children.

"Hanadi did not know at the time, but when her father agreed for her to spend a month with the Saudi tourist, he was paid a large sum of money in return in the form of a dowry, which she never had a share in," said Yasser Sobhi al-Okeili, who helps run the centre Hanadi lives in.

"Nor was the marriage officially registered, though she did not know it at the time. Eventually, after a failed marriage of her own choice, she found herself living in the streets. Many girls who have suffered a similar fate end up as street girls," Ms al-Okeili said.

Although there is no specific law that bans the sale of girls and women into such temporary marriages, which often amount to prostitution, the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Egypt is a signatory, forbids the sale of children and bans marriage under the age of 16, said Mohamed Tag el-Din Labib, Hope Village Society training and research director.

In addition, Egyptian law bans both prostitution and the marriage of girls under 16. "Minors in prostitution are sent to a sort of corrective centre, where conditions are often as bad if not worse than they are in adult prisons," said Nihad Abul Qumsan, director of the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights. "The man involved is not usually prosecuted, but rather acts as a witness in a trial."

However, rights workers say that because minors often go through at least some of the steps that would make a marriage seem legitimate make it difficult for any of the involved parties to be held accountable or be prosecuted. In addition, parents are almost always either in charge of a transaction of this kind, or at the very least are involved and have given their consent.

Superficially legal
When young girls are set up to be sold for sex, the matter is very often rendered superficially legal as the couple sign a civil marriage contract and are divorced upon the departure of the male party, or no marriage contract is signed at all, as was the case for Hanadi.

According to Ms Qumsan, rules can be circumvented in a number of ways, including falsifying birth certificates or not registering the marriage at all. Because of this, few statistics or studies on the matter exist.

The government's General Department for Women's Affairs does not directly target this practice, according to a ministry official in the women's department speaking on condition of anonymity. Similarly, rights advocates in several civil society organisations contacted by the UN media 'IRIN' said they do not deal with the phenomenon outside the framework of violence against women.

Local activists agree that the main reason for early temporary marriages, as well as other forms of child exploitation such as child labour, is extreme poverty.

"Money is always the main incentive," said Malaka al-Kurdi, director of a campaign combating violence against women at Cairo-based NGO Alliance for Arab Women. An estimated quarter of Egypt’s approximately 80 million inhabitants live just on or below US$ 2 per day, the United Nations-defined poverty line.

Ms al-Kurdi added that the experience of going through a temporary marriage whose sole purpose was the gratification of the male partner was enough to affect a girl for life, particularly in a conservative society such as Egypt. "The phenomenon is simply inhuman, in that a girl who undergoes such an experience is bound to lose out on her childhood," she added.

Hanadi believed it unlikely, despite her young age, that she would ever become fully reintegrated into society as a respected citizen. "After what I went through, no one respects me. The man I married after the Saudi left used to beat me and use me as a sex worker, inviting friends and acquaintances to the house and forcing me to sleep with them," said Hanadi.

"It was horrible. He kept all the money he made from me, of course, and for me it was a living nightmare," she added.

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