Does Egypt's Law Protect 'Short-Term Brides' Or Formalize Trafficking?

Feb 1, 2016
Originally published on February 2, 2016 5:38 pm

Egypt has an unusual law known as the "seasonal marriage" law, and the government says it's aimed at helping the many poor families who resort to selling their daughters into temporary or long-term marriages with wealthy, older foreign men to support themselves.

Egypt's Justice Ministry says it will begin strictly enforcing that law, which requires foreign men — usually from Gulf countries — to pay to marry women 25 years or more their junior. And it's increasing the amount the men must pay. All this, it says, is to protect Egyptian women.

Human rights groups say the law formalizes sex trafficking and bolsters a business that preys on the poor and the vulnerable.

People like Hind.

Hind is 27 years old. She is ashamed. And because of that, she asks me to use only her first name when she recounts her story.

Two years ago, a marriage broker came to the one-room apartment that she, her four sisters, her invalid father and her ailing mother shared.

Hind worked different jobs, mostly in retail, to support them all on less than $100 a month.

Hind says the broker spoke to her father. After he left, her father explained that there was a 59-year-old Saudi man who wanted to marry a young Egyptian woman. He'd pay about $2,000 to marry Hind for two months while he was visiting Egypt.

Her father said, "Hind, you see the life that we're living and what this money will do for us," she recalls. "I said, 'OK, I will do it.' "

Her mother pleaded with her not to. Hind's mother said she'd rather beg than sell her daughter. But Hind thought the money could go to medicine for her sick mom and to help her sisters.

She quickly realized she'd made a mistake.

"I was disgusted by him. I was with a man older than my father," she says. "But it didn't matter. I'd already sold myself, sacrificed myself to rescue my family."

She cries often during our conversation. A few weeks after the marriage, her mother died — of sadness, Hind believes. When the agreed-on two months were over, she moved back in with her family. Now they're in a slightly bigger apartment in a new neighborhood, where people won't know her story.

"I was an innocent girl who believed in love and marriage," Hind says. "Now I hate the word 'marriage.' "

She wishes her parents had thought before having so many children with so little money to support them. She wishes there were a welfare system in the state to help people like her family. She wishes she could've made a different decision.

Last month, when Egypt's justice minister said authorities would start strictly enforcing the law, it increased the amount from about $5,100 to the equivalent of just under $6,400, to be invested in an Egyptian bank in the woman's name.

The law originally banned marriages between foreign men and women who were 25 years or more younger unless special exceptions were made. But in 1993 the government began requiring foreign men to pay for the right to marry much younger Egyptian women. Over the years the amount has increased and so has the practice. And while there are no hard numbers on how many Egyptian women are married off to much older foreign men, human rights groups say it's a thriving business, and in parts of the country, whole villages resort to selling their daughters to support the family.

Although it's billed as protective, rights advocates say this is helping the practice thrive. The money formalizes sex trafficking and forced marriages, they say.

"It is an industry, especially in the north of the country, whereby you have kind of tourism marriage," said Amr Abdel Rahman, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

What he calls "tourism marriage" is basically sex trafficking. Older men, usually from wealthy Arab Gulf countries, typically with wives already at home, come to Egypt to buy a wife — often temporarily. Sometimes they take them outside the country. The practice peaks in the summer.

In a country where more than a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, Abdel Rahman says there are whole villages where poor families sell their daughters simply to keep themselves fed.

The amended law will benefit those hired to seek out poor families for the marriages. With the government enforcing the regulation and increasing the amount paid, he says, the brokers' business will become even more profitable. They'll get more money, and so will Egyptian banks.

"Those brokers, their business will flourish in light of that decision," Abdel Rahman says.

"It's basically making everyone profit without providing any protection to the girls," he says. "These girls need medical protection. These girls need a social safety network. These are not there. They were not there before the decision and they will continue being absent after the decision."

One marriage broker whom NPR spoke to says she expects little to change. She asks us not to use her name because she arranges marriages off the books and the men don't pay the required government fees.

Her business is small. She brokers a deal every couple of months. But there are whole offices dedicated to finding young brides for older foreign men, she says.

"I've seen fathers force their daughters into the marriages because they have nothing, not even a bed to sleep on," she says.

She does the work for the same reason: to support her family.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And let's hear about an issue that's altogether different in Egypt. Older, wealthy men - many from the Gulf states, spend a few thousand dollars for a few months with young brides. Many of the women are then abandoned. Egypt's justice ministry says it will begin enforcing a law that requires those men to at least pay up front and also up the amount they pay. But NPR's Leila Fadel reports human rights groups say it's just institutionalizing exploitation.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Hind is 27 years old, and she's ashamed. Because of that, she asks me only to use her first name when she recounts her story.

HIND: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: Two years ago, a marriage broker came to the one room apartment that she, her four sisters, her invalid father and her ailing mother shared. Hind worked to support them all on less than a hundred dollars a month.

HIND: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: Hind says the broker spoke to her father. And when he left, her father explained. A 59-year-old Saudi man wanted to marry a young Egyptian woman. And he's pay just under $2,000 to marry Hind for two months while he was visiting Egypt.

HIND: (Through interpreter) He said, Hind, you see the life that we're living and what this money will do for us. I said, OK, I will do it.

FADEL: Her mother pleaded with her not to do it. But Hind thought the money could go to medicine for her sick mom and to help her sisters. She'd quickly realize she made a mistake.

HIND: (Through interpreter) I was disgusted by him. I was with a man older than my father. But it didn't matter. I'd already sold myself, sacrificed myself to rescue my family.

FADEL: She cries often during the conversation. A few weeks after the marriage, her mother died, she believes of sadness. When the agreed-upon two months was over, she moved back in with her family, now in a slightly bigger apartment in a new neighborhood, where people wouldn't know her story.

HIND: (Through interpreter) I was an innocent girl who believed in love and marriage. Now I hate the word marriage.

FADEL: Last month, Egypt's justice minister issued a decision that was presented as a way of protecting women like Hind. It said it would start strictly enforcing a rule that requires a payment up front for any man coming from abroad to marry an Egyptian woman 25 years or more younger than he is. It increased the amount to the equivalent of just under $6,400 that would be invested in an Egyptian bank in the woman's name. But rights advocates say this isn't a solution; the money formalizes sex trafficking and forced marriages.

AMR ABDEL RAHMAN: It is an industry, especially in the north of the country, whereby you have kind of tourism marriage.

FADEL: That's Amr Abdel Rahman, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. What he calls tourism marriage is older men, usually from wealthy, Arab Gulf countries who typically have wives at home, come to Egypt to buy a wife, often temporarily. It peaks in the summer. He says the amended regulations will just benefit those hired to seek out poor families for the marriages.

RAHMAN: Those brokers actually, their business will flourish in light of that decision.

FADEL: With the government enforcing the regulation and increasing the amount paid, he says, the brokers' work will be even more profitable. They'll get more money, and so will Egyptian banks.

RAHMAN: It's basically making everyone profit without providing any kind of protection to the girls. These girls need medical protections. These girls need kind of a social network or a social safety network. These are not there.

FADEL: And one marriage broker that NPR spoke to says she expects little to change anyway. She asks us not to use her name because she brokers the marriages off the books, and the men don't pay the required government fees.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: Her business is small. She brokers a deal every couple months. But she says there are whole offices dedicated to this business.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: She says she's seen fathers force their daughters into the marriages because they have nothing, not even a bed to sleep on. And she says she does the work for the same reason, to support her family. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.