Cairo: Two schoolchildren this week celebrated their engagement in Egypt’s Delta province, the latest in a series of underage union blamed for the rapid population growth in the country.
A video showing Fares, 15, and his 14-year-old bride Nada, exchanging the engagement rings surrounded by jubilant family members and relatives triggered a media outcry in Egypt and accusations of child abuse. Marriage age limit in Egypt is set at 18 years and above.
In reaction to the uproar, Fares’s mother defended the act.
“We did nothing wrong,” she told private television station DMC.
“The families of Fares and Nada are relatives. We wanted just to emphasise the idea that they will marry each other in the future. Therefore, we decided to hold an engagement where he offered the gold gift to his [would-be] bride,” the woman added, referring to an Egyptian engagement tradition.
“Both love each other. Therefore, we decided to make the issue official. If I saw my son unworthy of responsibility, I wouldn’t have agreed to the engagement. He may look young, but he is broad-minded.”
The mother said the two children will complete their education and will only wed when they turn 18.
She criticised what she called “excessive coverage” of the event. “There are more important things in Egypt than this. This is normal in our town where children at the age of Fares and younger engaged to girls.”
The incident unleashed anger and derision on social media.
“How can two children realise responsibilities of marriage?” said a man named Hamada in a tweet.
“The problem [of underage marriage] is getting serious especially in areas far from the capital,” commented another.
In a sarcastic post, a man named Ahmad Salah said: “For sure, they gave away Max Fruit, chocolate bars and cornflakes at this engagement party!”
Egyptians, who cannot afford the high cost of marriage, chipped in.
“It is said that the child bought jewellery worth 32,000 pounds [Dh6,666] and presented it as a gift to his child fiancee. Damn our bad luck!” tweeted a man, who said he is aged 33 and unmarried yet.
The state National Council for Childhood and Motherhood said its instructed its branch in Kafr Al Shaikh, around 140km north of Cairo, to contact families of the two children and make them aware of perils of early marriage.
The council’s secretary general Aza Al Ashmawi said that the two families were committed to avoid conducting both children’s marriage before the legal age.
The Egyptian parliament is debating a draft bill to toughen penalties against underage marriage.
The draft suggests jail terms ranging from five to ten years and a maximum fine of 100,000 Egyptian pounds. According to current Egyptian law, involvement in underage marriages is punishable by up to four years in prison.
Egypt’s current population stands at 106 million, including nine million living abroad with an annual birth rate of 2.5 million babies.
Rural traditions, backed by conservative clerics, recommend minors’ marriage, allegedly to head off sexual promiscuity, and also to have children early in married life.
In their attempt to circumvent the 18-year-age limit, some families informally marry off their minor girls with help of local clerics.
The family waits until the girl turns 18 in order to officially register the marriage, a step necessary to preserve her legal rights and those of her children, including those related to education and health care.