1 Nov 2010

Saudis Annul One Case of Child "Marriage" But Law And Custom Still Allow Child "Brides"

The Media Line - The MidEast July 9, 2009

Saudis Annul Child Marriage

Written by Rachelle Kliger

Two Saudi families have agreed to annul the marriage of an 11-year-old girl to a 40-year-old man, bowing to pressure from local rights organizations.

The case marks a victory for children’s rights organizations, who say the practice of child marriages is harmful to children both physically and mentally, and requires legislation to end it.

The marriage was annulled after the young bride’s three older siblings - two brothers aged 18 and 19 and a sister of 20 - asked Saudi Arabia’s National Human Rights Society to intervene, the United Arab Emirates Gulf News reported.

They told the society their father was “adamant in his decision” to have their younger sister married to the older man.

“There is a debate going around that hasn’t been finalized yet regarding the minimum age for marriage,” Mazen Baleela, a member of the Shura Council, the kingdom’s legislative branch, told The Media Line.

There are no statistics as to how prevalent the practice is, but Baleela said the trend has been going down, especially more recently.

“Usually you see it in the small villages, but in the major cities there are very few cases,” he said.

Last year, the Saudi Human Rights Commission (SHRC) launched a campaign to set a minimum age for marriage in the kingdom. The campaign was launched following several high profile trials, where young girls, sometimes younger than 10 years old, were married off to men above the age of 50 and even 70.

Saudi authorities are mulling a law that will impose a minimum age to prevent child marriages, as there is currently no such law defining the minimum age of nuptials.

Such a law would impose a ban on marriage before the bride and groom reach 18.

Regarding these legislative efforts, Baleela said this was a new concept in Saudi Arabia.

“The decision has always been left to parents and Islamic scholars, or Ulama,” he said. “But now, as many cases are showing abuse to the wife, there are some serious discussions to make the aged fixed at 18.”

The Gulf News reported that Dr. Hussein A-Sharif, who heads the NHRS Mecca branch, told them that the marriage of the 11-year-old was declared null at a reconciliation meeting between the father and the groom.

As well as abrogating the marriage, the society also managed to secure a pledge from the father that the girl would not be married until she was 18.

The girl’s 65-year-old father, who has another five children, was paid a dowry that included a car and a large amount of money.

The mother was also supportive of the marriage, which weakened the argument of the siblings.

The bride’s 20-year-old sister was also married off at the age of 11 and divorced at 20. She described her ordeal as a bitter experience and did not want her sister to go through the same thing.

Rights organizations say child marriages are a form of forced marriages, since valid consent has not been obtained from the bride. They say this can lead to severe health complications, since the girl is not psychologically, physically and sexually mature to enter wedlock.

For many in Saudi Arabia, the custom of marrying off young girls to older men does not seem immoral. Poor families find this a profitable bargain, as they receive high bridal fees from the old grooms.

Saudi Arabia is governed by a strict form of Sunni Islam called Wahhabism.

Observers say many practices and prohibitions in the kingdom do not stem from strict laws but are the result of deep-rooted cultural norms that are hard to change.

In a separate development, Saudi women’s activists say Saudi officials are continuing to require women to obtain permission from male guardians to conduct basic affairs, despite government claims that these requirements do not exist, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.

Women still need permission from their male guardians to undergo elective surgery and to get divorced, travel, study, work and carry out day-today activities such as opening a bank account or receiving medical care. A male guardian will usually be a father, husband, brother or son.

HRW said the government is saying one thing to the Human Rights Council in Geneva but doing another inside the kingdom.

“It needs to stop requiring adult women to seek permission from men, not just pretend to stop it,” the organization said.

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