SAUDI ARABIA: Child marriages, an issue still not resolved

Summary: Some studies published suggest that no less than 3,000 girls in the Kingdom were under 13 when they got married, while their husbands were at least 25 years their senior.

[JEDDAH, 8 March 2011] - The Human Rights Commission (HRC) is preparing to release three studies covering child marriages in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

It will also recommend a minimum age for marriage in Saudi Arabia as well as criminalizing the act.

The three studies, explained HRC media relations head Mohammad Al-Ma’addi, will address the religious, health and social issues associated with child marriages. “The studies will discuss the negative effects of minor marriages on child wives, their babies, and society in general,” he said,

“After the studies are completed, we will present them in a seminar and discuss our recommendations, most importantly to set a law that criminalises the act and set a specific minimum legal age for marriage in the Kingdom.”

A recent poll conducted by the National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) revealed over two thirds of those surveyed were against marriages involving girls under the age of 18.

Some critics oppose issuing rules that prohibit something legitimised by Islamic teachings. The majority of them call for stricter regulation of child marriages where would-be husbands are banned from exercising complete freedom in the marriage contract.

The NSHR has examined four cases in 2010 where young girls were forced into marriages and called for the Ministry of Justice to resolve the issue by banning any marriage involving children under the age of 18.

Both the NSHR and HRC have been campaigning for this issue after extensive reports about these cases in the local media.

Though there has been no exact figure of child marriages, some studies published in the media suggested that no less than 3,000 girls in the Kingdom were under 13 when they got married, while their husbands were at least 25 years their senior.

Minister of Justice Mohammad Al-Eissa said in April 2009 that the ministry would regulate child marriages soon.

He added that they would do this to “protect rights and prevent any vice and to prevent the negative trend of minor marriages.”

He also said this would stop parents and guardians from forcing their girls into marriage. Arab News spoke to the ministry’s public relation department officials, who confirmed that there has been no update. Prominent child marriage cases include that of a 12-year-old girl in Onaiza, whose father married her off to a man in his 80s. There was another similar case in Sakaka. Both cases received local and international attention.

Suhaila Zain Al-Abideen, a Saudi activist for child and women’s rights, said the Ministry of Justice has had enough time to address the issue.

“Two years are more than enough to come out with a system to moderate these marriages. Such marriages affect the young girls and their children and lead to physical, psychological and social problems.”

Suhaila added that a new civil status law to be implemented jointly in the GCC countries would cause further problems, as it allows the judge to approve the marriage of any 15-year-old child, even if the parents or guardians do not approve.

“The judge according to this law will be able to O.K. these marriages. If we approve this law, we are basically undermining the importance of marriage contracts and being casual about the security of our families.”

She said that there is no data available on child marriages.

“The Ministry of Justice should provide us with that data, but unfortunately we don’t have any. The Ministry of Justice has recently included a clause in the marriage contract document forcing the couple to state their age. What is the use of that clause if we are not going to curb these marriages? More importantly, how can we make sure the ages we record are accurate?”


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