In the dock stood her parents, a lawyer and a broker, a woman who earned a living marrying underage Egyptian girls to wealthy old men from the Gulf. They pleaded not guilty to trafficking charges at their first court hearing on 20 April.
“If it were me, I’d never put you in jail,” the girl, 14, tearfully told her parents. The girl had been forced to marry a Saudi man, 50 years her senior; her father was paid 10,000 Egyptian pounds (about US$1,881) in return.
A few days later, however, the girl telephoned her father and said she would commit suicide if he did not help her escape her Saudi husband. She said the man did “weird” things to her and later, doctors said she had been abused.
Similar cases have made headlines in the local media, highlighting the issue of sex tourism.
Her parents’ lawyers said hundreds of rich Arabs came to Egypt for a temporary marriage. Some parents, particularly in the poor countryside and the slums of Cairo, marry off their underage daughters to rich men - usually 30 or 40 years older - for money. The marriage lasts a few months and costs an Arab tourist $3,000 at most.
Marrying off their daughters for money is a temporary respite from poverty in a country where more than 23 percent of the 80 million population live below the poverty line, according to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics.
“Extreme poverty stands behind the rise in this phenomenon,” said Ahmed Seif el-Islam, a lawyer and a human rights advocate. “These parents need money and they view their daughters as a deal that can bring them money.”
Joy Ngozi Ezeilo, the UN special rapporteur on trafficking in persons, who visited the country on 21 April, called on the government to take tougher action to combat what she called “a list of social ills”.
“There’s a growing trend of sexual and economic exploitation of underage girls through seasonal/temporary marriage, domestic servitude, other forms of sexual exploitation and prostitution,” Ezeilo said.
“Instead of offering protection to their daughters, parents force them to get married this way,” said Farkhunda Hassan, head of Egypt’s National Women’s Council, a government-affiliated agency. “They’re paid to do this and this is the crux of human trafficking,” she said at a recent conference in Cairo.
Egypt is a source, transit and destination country for women and children trafficked for the purposes of forced labour and sexual exploitation, according to the 2009 Trafficking in Persons Report by the US State Department.
“Culture to blame”
The new anti-trafficking law, which was approved by the Upper House of the Egyptian Parliament on 24 April and the Lower House on 2 May, states that individuals or groups who commit human trafficking crimes will be given life sentences and fined between 50,000 ($9,090) and 200,000 Egyptian pounds ($36,363).
The government is responsible for protecting survivors and offering the necessary medical, education, and social assistance so that they can be part of society again, according to the new law. A special fund will be created to offer the necessary financial assistance to victims of human trafficking.
But some rights activists were not convinced. “Laws alone can’t bring a social ailment like this one to an end,” Seif el-Islam said. “This is a matter of culture and social habits. We must address the root causes of the problem in order to solve it,” he said.
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