Child Marriage and Female Genital Mutilation in the MENA Region

On June 20, 2022, Egyptian college student Naira Ashraf was beaten and murdered by a man who had harassed and stalked her for years, despite her repeated rejections of both his advances and his many propositions of marriage. Just days later, Iman Rashid, a college student in Jordan, was shot to death on campus by a man who fled the scene before later shooting himself when police closed in on him. Unconfirmed reports indicate that he had texted her the day before the shooting, threatening, “If you refuse, I will murder you like the Egyptian man who killed the girl yesterday.”

For women across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, these incidents were another painful reminder of the widespread gender-based violence that affects vast numbers of women in the region, and that includes physical and sexual assault, in-person and online harassment, and femicide—the murder of women. This last category is sometimes perpetrated under the guise of what are colloquially called “honor killings,” which often come at the hands of a close, usually male, relative or partner. The United Nations estimates that 5,000 such murders occur globally each year.

Thirty-seven percent of Arab women are reported to have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime, though sources indicate that the true percentage is actually higher. Two practices that fall under the broad and ugly umbrella of gender-based violence and control are female genital mutilation (FGM) and child and forced marriage (CFM), which together affect tens of millions of women worldwide. While these practices do exist around the world, they are especially concentrated in the MENA region, as well as in the Horn of Africa, Central Africa, and parts of Southeast Asia.

While female genital mutilation and child marriage exist around the world, they are especially concentrated in the MENA region, as well as in the Horn of Africa, Central Africa, and parts of Southeast Asia.

Although gender-based violence and human rights violations exist to some degree in all societies, the practices of FGM and child marriage have drawn particularly close attention from policymakers and global initiatives, in part due to the horrific and long-lasting consequences of these practices. In fact, both are considered targets of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal initiative, which aims to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.” To determine success in the initiative’s target of eliminating “all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation,” countries must measure the proportion of young women who were married before age 15 and age 18, as well as the proportion of women who have undergone FGM. According to the UN, not a single region is on track to eliminate these practices, and early evidence suggests that the pandemic may have even increased their prevalence, especially that of early marriage.

Deficiencies in the MENA region regarding women’s rights are many, and include, but are not limited to, gendered workplace discrimination, lack of reproductive rights and control, and even the inability of some women to freely leave their home. Changing many of these issues requires uprooting deeply-held toxic beliefs and practices, and demands long-term interventions at all levels of society in order to achieve meaningful reform. Both FGM and child marriage practices stem from the same misogynistic beliefs about women, their bodies, and their roles in society. In fact, these practices often coexist because of an assumption in some communities that a girl’s marriageability increases if she undergoes FGM. Although recent decades have seen some decline in these practices across the MENA region, they are still prevalent in some communities, demonstrating that much work still remains to be done before they can be stamped out for good.

The Practice of FGM Across MENA

Female genital mutilation, formerly known by the inaccurate and misleading term “female circumcision,” denotes the partial or total removal of external female genitalia for nonmedical reasons. In fact, the practice provides zero health benefits for women and a host of potential side effects, including bleeding, infection, urinary problems, psychological trauma, and complications during childbirth that can lead to the death of both mother and child. And despite claims to the contrary, no religious texts recommend the practice; rather, it is a cultural and social norm found in communities with conservative views on women, femininity, and modesty, views that are often defended by the claim that they are religiously prescribed.

Despite claims to the contrary, no religious texts recommend the practice of female genital mutilation; rather, it is a cultural and social norm found in communities with conservative views on women, femininity, and modesty.

FGM was initially recognized as a form of violence against women in the 1993 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women. Global advocacy work dedicated to ending the practice accelerated in the 1990s, and in 2012 the UN General Assembly adopted the first resolution against FGM. Most victims of FGM are under the age of 15 at the time of abuse, and it is estimated that nearly 200 million women alive today across 31 countries have experienced some form of FGM, with an additional three million girls at risk every year. Several MENA states, including Egypt, Iraq, and Yemen are counted among these 31 countries.

Egypt is one nation where the practice persists on a wide scale, and nearly universally in some governorates. Among Egyptian women between the ages of 15-49, a shocking 90 percent have undergone FGM. While FGM occurs across all socioeconomic levels, it is practiced most often on women living in less wealthy households, in rural areas, and with less education. Interestingly, in Iraq this trend is reversed; it is girls from the wealthiest households that report the highest rates of FGM, at 22 percent, compared to 7 percent for all women aged 15 to 49. Furthermore, while in Egypt just over half of households still support FGM, in Iraq a full 94 percent think the practice should stop. In Yemen, meanwhile, overall rates of FGM stood at 20 percent in 2020, with the highest proportion among the poorest girls and women, and about 75 percent of women and girls in Yemen thought the practice of FGM should stop.

Although FGM is traditionally performed by local practitioners, there has been an increasing trend of medicalization in the practice, meaning that medical professionals perform the procedure. This has especially been the case in Sudan and Egypt, where, in 2017, medical professionals were carrying out FGM 67 and 38 percent of the time, respectively. Even though some argue that this approach reduces harm, ensuring that girls who undergo the procedure at least have access to a medical professional in a controlled setting, this does not change the fact that FGM is an abuse of human rights regardless of the provider. There are also significant violations of medical ethics involved in performing the procedure and perpetuating the cultural norms that promote it, as well as in profiting financially from doing so.

Child and Forced Marriage in MENA States

UNICEF defines child marriage, also known as early marriage, as, “Any formal marriage or informal union between a child under the age of 18 and an adult or another child.” While boys are sometimes married young, the practice affects them at only one sixth the rate of girls, who are more likely to be seen as either an economic burden or as capital to be leveraged. It is estimated that 650 million women alive around the world today were married as children, and the practice continues; one in five girls are married before the age of 18—a rate of 28 girls every minute.

Some parents, encouraged by cultural traditions, may even see child marriage as a form of protection from sexual violence or from being dishonored due to premarital sex or other perceived transgressions. Child marriage is also more common in conflict-afflicted environments due to widespread social and economic shocks. Other life disruptions, such as the death of a parent, can increase a girl’s risk as well. Forced marriage, where one of the parties to the marriage has not freely consented to the arrangement, is a practice that can affect men and women of any age. However, all child marriages are considered forced since children cannot express fully informed consent to the process.

Child marriage is more common in conflict-afflicted environments due to widespread social and economic shocks. Other life disruptions, such as the death of a parent, can increase a girl’s risk as well.

The practice of child marriage has, fortunately, decreased in recent decades due to multiple initiatives at all levels of society. Rates are now relatively low across the MENA region, which reports about 6 percent of the world’s child marriages, most of which take place in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. However, because many children were taken out of school during the COVID-19 pandemic and many vulnerable families were pushed into poverty, it is thought that about 10 million more girls are now at risk of being married early. Between 2020 and 2030, an estimated 100 million girls are likely to become child brides, half of whom are expected to be under the age of 15.

Across the MENA region, there are approximately 40 million child brides, most of them in Sudan, where nearly 27 percent of females were married before age 15, and Yemen, where 32 percent married before age 18. Other countries with high proportions include Iraq (24 percent before age 18), Egypt (17 percent), Morocco (16 percent), Palestine (15 percent), and Syria (13 percent). An additional 700,000 girls throughout the region are forced into marriage every year. Several countries in the Middle East have instituted minimum legal ages for marriage, with various standards regarding parental consent, though some countries have set a minimum age that is still too young to properly consent to marriage (in Yemen, for example, the minimum age is 15). Furthermore, the existence of a legal standard does not necessarily dissuade communities from engaging in the practice of child marriage, especially in rural areas.

Child marriage poses significant challenges for girls worldwide, and has received attention from human rights groups for decades, having been included in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1979 Convention on the Eradication of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (which contends that these marriages should not even be legally recognized), and the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. Child brides are more likely to drop out of school—if they were ever enrolled in the first place—and experience worse economic outcomes than girls who are able to wait to get married, which ultimately perpetuates a cycle of poverty in which they and their children remain caught. Early marriage also means earlier pregnancy, which is especially dangerous, as maternal mortality is the main cause of death for girls aged 15-19. Young brides are also more likely to be victims of domestic abuse, kept isolated from their families and peers, and to in general lose many opportunities throughout their lives, including the chance to just be a child.

Ending FGM and Child Marriage

Gender-based discrimination and violence are not limited to one region, religion, culture, economic status, or to any other personal or societal characteristics. Despite this, certain groups are often perceived as more harmful to women due to their formal and informal policies and attitudes. But without recognizing and acknowledging the patriarchal systems that limit opportunities for all women and also negatively affect both men and our societies at large, it will remain difficult to make meaningful progress on the most brutal aspects of these systems, including FGM and child marriage. Following the US Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade—the federal precedent that had long protected the right to abortion in the United States—many fear that other hard fought women’s rights, including access to contraception, may soon be on the chopping block as well. The US also faces its own challenges in dealing with FGM and child marriage. More than 500,000 girls in the US have undergone FGM, and only six US states have enacted laws to ban child marriage without exception. And in fact, nearly 300,000 US children (86 percent of whom were girls) were married before the age of 18 in the period from 2000 to 2018. In the European Union, meanwhile, only three nations ban child marriage outright and FGM has been reported in various member states. These statistics make clear that there are broader structures at play that encourage these and other harmful practices, no matter where in the world they take place.

Both the United States and the European Union face their own challenges with female genital mutilation and child marriage. The practices are not limited to certain regions of the world.

There are many potential areas of intervention for ending practices that restrict and control girls and women. These include increasing access to education and sex education; engaging in outreach about the harms of practices like FGM and child marriage; supporting grassroots organizations working in at-risk communities; increasing access to legal avenues for girls being coerced into such practices; and involving community leaders, often men, in awareness campaigns. Many participants in such practices simply accept them as traditional without understanding the harmful effects or questioning their underlying assumptions. A multilevel approach could help provide the tools necessary for countering this blind acceptance.

Ultimately, ending FGM and child marriage requires a combination of targeted efforts and broader interventions that challenge widespread and often institutionalized patriarchy and misogyny. In the MENA region, where many women are still fighting for basic rights and protections, the task of dismantling oppressive traditions and customs that discriminate against women seems especially daunting. However, for the region to progress in any capacity women must be afforded their full human rights and protected against practices that keep them impoverished and dependent on potentially abusive spouses and family members, that cause poor health and social outcomes, and that prevent them from fulfilling their aspirations. As one girl who twice escaped child marriage, first at age 14 and then again at 17, said of her experience, “My life is not theirs to decide.” This basic tenet, that every human being should be in control of their own body and life, absolutely must inform all gender-based programs and interventions so that one day every society comes to uphold it as an unquestioned truth.