Scandal of 'summer brides'

Milena Veselinovic on Egyptian schoolgirls married to foreigners for a price, and for a season only

Hundreds of under-age Egyptian girls are entering temporary marriages with rich tourists from the Persian Gulf during the summer in return for money for their families, a US report has found. These unions, dubbed summer marriages, are not legally binding, and end when the foreigners return to their own countries.

The marriages are organised by intermediaries who link wealthy men, mainly from Saudi Arabia, with poor families with young daughters, for commission. The foreign "husbands" give families money and presents akin to a dowry, with the "bride price" ranging between the equivalent of £320 and £3.200.

A recent US State Department report "Trafficking in Persons" found that wealthy men from the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, travel to Egypt to buy "temporary" or "summer marriages" with Egyptian females, including girls under 18, and that these arrangements are often facilitated by the girls' parents and marriage brokers. The report found that children involved in the temporary marriages suffer both sexual servitude and forced labour as servants to their "husbands".

Egypt has laws designed to combat trafficking, which state that it is illegal to marry a foreigner when there is an age difference of more than 10 years. Nevertheless, there are ways to circumnavigate this, with one common practice being to forge birth certificates to make the girls appear older, and the men younger. In 2009, a court in Alexandria sentenced two marriage registrars to two years in prison for conducting temporary marriages of hundreds of girls under 18, but non-governmental organisations (NGOs) say that this is the tip of the iceberg, and that more needs to be done to implement existing laws.

Pre-marital sex is forbidden under Islamic law, and most hotels and landlords demand proof of marriage before allowing an Egyptian to stay in the same room with a person of the opposite sex. So these marriage contracts are a way around this. In many cases, the family agrees to marry their daughter without her consent, but often the girls are willing participants as they see no other way of helping to feed their family.

In a thinly veiled form of human trafficking, some men take their Egyptian spouses back to their home country to work as maids for their first wives, in conditions comparable to slave labour. The ones left behind in Egypt do not fare much better, shunned by society and finding it difficult to marry in the traditional way, especially if their temporary marriage resulted in children.

Many abandon their offspring out of shame, either taking them to orphanages or leaving them to join thousands of other Egyptian street children. Some girls find themselves cast in a cycle of temporary marriages with Gulf tourists, and others are targeted by Egyptian men who marry them in order to force them into prostitution.

Dr Hoda Badran, who chairs the NGO Alliance for Arab Women, thinks that poverty is the main factor behind this phenomenon. She said: "If those families are in such a need to sell their daughters you can imagine how poor they are. Many times, the girl does not know she is marrying the husband just for the short term. She is young, she accepts what her family tells her, she knows the man is going to help them. If the girl is very poor, sometimes it is the only way out to help the family survive."

Through her work, Dr Badran met several former "summer wives" living in villages around Giza. One of them, Aziza (not her real name), married a 45-year-old man from Saudi Arabia when she was 17 because he promised to find a job for her brother in the Gulf, and gave her father the equivalent of £2,120, an enormous amount of money for her desperately poor family. He also bought her dresses and took her to expensive restaurants.

Aziza's Saudi husband stayed for a month, and before leaving said that he would send for her to join him later. She waited for several months and, by this time heavily pregnant, tried to get hold of him through the Saudi embassy so her child could be formally recognised by him. However, her marriage was not officially registered which meant that Aziza could not prove her claim. She had no choice but to go back to her family and raise her baby as a single mother, something extremely frowned upon in Egypt's conservative society.

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