Saudi Arabia inches closer to ban on child marriages

Law may finally catch up with public opinion and human rights organizations, which oppose child brides.

saudi wedding (r) 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
saudi wedding (r) 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Child marriages are commonplace in Saudi Arabia, an ultra-conservative kingdom where no law regulates the minimum age of marriage. But that may change soon, as local human rights organizations prepare the ground for new legislation protecting minors, especially women, from the perils of child marriage.
The Saudi Human Rights Commission (HRC), a Riyadh-based government-controlled watchdog, is preparing three studies outlining the damages of child marriages from a religious and social point of view. Legislation of a minimum marriage age is set to follow the studies' completion.
In Saudi Arabia, young girls are often married off by their parents to much older men. According to a local social worker interviewed by Saudi daily Al-Riyadh, some 3,000 Saudi girls below the age of 13 were married off to men at least 25 years their senior. But Fawzia Al-Bakr, a sociologist at King Saud University in Riyadh, said this was likely to change soon.
"I'm sure a new law will pass very soon," Al-Bakr told The Media Line. "There are many discussions about the matter in Saudi Arabia, with more and more people understanding the damage child marriages cause society."
Official data published in Saudi Arabia support Al-Bakr's claim. According to a recent poll conducted by the Saudi National Society for Human Rights (NSHR), two thirds of Saudis oppose girls under the age of 18 being married. NSHR called on the Justice Ministry to set 18 as the minimum age for matrimony.   
But the transition from words to actions is slow in the kingdom. In April 2009, Justice Minister Muhammad Al-Eissa announced that his ministry would regulate child marriages, but nothing has happened since. Eman Al-Nafjan, a Riyadh-based blogger and social activist, said she was skeptical about the prospects of a new law.
"The Justice Ministry won’t act on its own," Al-Nafjan told The Media Line. "Legislation must come from the king himself. But based on previous discussions, this is not likely to happen."
Al-Nafjan said studies emphasizing the damages of child marriage have been published in the past, but to no avail. One statistical study was even commissioned by the Ministry of Social Affairs and presented to the Shura Council, Saudi Arabia's legislative body, but had no effect.  
Young girls are married off to older men for various reasons, Al-Nafjan said. Impoverished parents "sell" their daughters to well-to-do men to win the high dowry paid for her by the husband. In other cases, girls are married to relatives in order to maintain a prospective inheritance within the family. But most surprisingly perhaps, Al-Nafjan said fathers often marry off their daughters to spite their ex-wives. The typical profile of a husband is that of a less-educated, somewhat rich and often rural man, she added.
Al-Bakr said child marriages were on the decline in Saudi Arabia, the result of better education and a name-and-shame policy by local media.
In 2009, a 50-year old Saudi man agreed to divorce his nine-year-old wife, after the marriage drew criticism from the United Nations and international media. The child's mother, who opposed the marriage which occurred when the girl was eight years old, took the case to court, but the judge in the small town of Onaiza upheld the marriage so long as the husband didn’t consummate it until the girl reached puberty.
"This is happening less and less, but there still needs to be a law," she said. "Newspapers scandalize the practice, mentioning names of parents and husbands involved. No one wants their name published in this context."       
For the first time in Saudi history, the parliament in January defined childhood as applying to citizens under the age of 18, in preparation for a new child protection law. The matter of child marriages, however, was intentionally excluded from the legislation under the pretext that it was a "touchy issue,”, Al-Riyadh reported. Eman Al-Nafjan was annoyed by the distinction legislators made between "a child" with regards to abuse, and "a minor" with regards to marriage.
"This is just semantics," she said. "It is an attempt to appease conservatives, who oppose placing restrictions on marriage practices sanctioned by Islamic law."
Attempting to quell public anger seeping into Saudi Arabia from its Arab neighbors, King Abdullah announced increased spending on social welfare on February 23. A new benefits package includes an increase of $260 million to the Kingdom's social security budget.