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

Egypt's justice ministry says it will begin strictly enforcing a  law requiring foreign men to pay to marry a woman 25 years younger or more. Human rights groups say the law only bolsters a business that preys on the poor and the vulnerable.
George Peters
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Egypt's justice ministry says it will begin strictly enforcing a law requiring foreign men to pay to marry a woman 25 years younger or more. Human rights groups say the law only bolsters a business that preys on the poor and the vulnerable.

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 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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