A girl and a boy who allegedly tied the knot in an Egyptian Nile Delta in violation of a law banning marriage under the age of 18 years. Picture: Courtesy of Al Watan newspaper. Image Credit:

Cairo: The Egyptian parliament will debate a draft bill suggesting tougher penalties against underage marriage, as the most populous Arab country struggles to curb an alarming population growth.

The draft suggests jail terms ranging from 5 to 10 years and a maximum fine of 100,000 Egyptian pounds (Dh20,833).

Member of Parliament Mohammad Al Aqad, who made the proposal, said his aim is to stop child marriages, calling it a “national security issue” on Saturday. “Underage marriages threaten society and have a direct effect on the population increase,” Al Aqad said in a statement.

“These penalties are necessary to stop the marriage of those who are under 18 years in order to preserve their rights and build a wholesome society based on mature thinking,” he added.

According to current Egyptian law, involvement in underage marriages is punishable by up to four years in prison.

The lawmaker’s proposal comes days after the Egyptian government warned against what it termed as the “horrifying” annual birth rate of 2.5 million babies in the country. Egypt’s current population stands at 106 million, including nine million living abroad.

“Misconceptions are one of the reasons for the population increase. We will face this by launching a major media campaign to raise people’s awareness about the importance of family planning,” the government’s spokesman Nader Saad said last week, without details.

The legal marriage age in Egypt is set at 18 years. But rural traditions, backed by conservative clerics, recommend minors’ marriage allegedly to head off sexual delinquency and have children at an early age.

In their attempt to circumvent the 18-year age limit, some families informally marry off their minor girls with the 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.

Around 118,000 Egyptian women aged less than 18 years are married, according to official figures.

In recent months, Egyptian media have exposed alleged cases of minor marriage, prompting state agencies and non-governmental groups to step up their efforts to halt such marriages, blamed for health hazards for the child mother and court disputes over paternity of children resulting from these non-registered matrimonies.