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Child marriage case showcases deep splits in Saudi society

Judge approves marriage of 8-year-old girl amid controversy in country where child marriage is still widespread.


Ayman A. Abu Laban, UNICEF’s Gulf area representative, said in a recent interview that the silence about child marriage “is now being addressed” in the Saudi media.

“As UNICEF, we are for having children enjoy their right of childhood before they get married, meaning they enjoy their rights in education, in health, in maturity, in recreation...and then they move into responsibility and be ready for marriage.”

Some Arab countries, including Tunisia, Jordan and Syria, have already set a legal minimum marriage age, Abu Laban noted.

So far, Saudi Arabia has not followed suit, despite a recommendation from the state-run Human Rights Commission to fix 15 as the legal marriage age. 

The case has also drawn international criticism.

“Irrespective of circumstances or the legal framework, the marriage of a child is a violation of that child’s rights,” UNICEF Executive Director Anne M. Veneman said in an April 13 statement expressing her concern.

Two days later, a U.S. State Department spokesman said that “child marriage is a clear and unacceptable violation of human rights in our view...and we’ve made that point clear to the Saudi Government.”

Amid this week’s crescendo of criticism, Justice Minister Mohamed al-Issa told the paper Al Watan that his ministry intends to issue regulations that will "put an end to arbitrariness by parents and guardians in marrying off minor girls."

The rules will seek "to end the negative aspects of underage girls' marriage," the minister said, implying an outright ban is not in the works.

Bandar Al Hajjar, vice president of the Shura Council and past chairman of the National Society for Human Rights, said in an interview that he was “expecting in the future probably there will be a law organizing this matter” of child marriage.

But if the government sets a legal age for marriage “a lot of people won’t obey this law,” Al Hajjar added. “First you need to educate people about the negative impacts of getting married [at an age younger] than 18 or 16.”

While marriage contracts involving minors do not always lead immediately to sexual relations, which are often delayed until the girl attains puberty, the increased press spotlight on the practice has underlined the role of money in such contracts.

The father of the 8-year-old Onaiza girl contracted to marry his daughter to his friend, who is 47, in order to repay a debt, according to attorney Abdullah Al Jutaili, who represents the girl’s mother.

In a phone interview, Al Jutaili said the girl is now living with her mother, who first raised the alarm by petitioning Judge Al Habib to void the 2007 marriage contract, which was concluded without the mother’s knowledge. She intends to appeal the judge’s latest ruling, Al Jutaili added. The girls’ parents are separated, he said.

The lawyer said he hoped the Onaiza case would spark reforms and galvanize those who seek change in this matter.

"Before this, many young girls were settling for their fate and suffering silently,” Al Jutaili said. “But this mother chose to fight back and I am very optimistic about that, especially with the attention this case is getting.”

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