RIYADH // Saudi Arabia for the first time is hosting a regional conference on the prevention of child abuse, with 950 registered delegates from across the Arab world. The conference comes amid rising public awareness in the kingdom of various types of child abuse, as well as a growing movement in recent months aimed at ending child marriage. The conference is co-sponsored by the International Society for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (ISPCAN) and the National Family Safety Programme, a four-year-old Saudi agency for developing solutions to the social ills of child abuse and domestic violence.
There have been two previous conferences on child abuse in the kingdom, but this is the first with international attendance. The conference has high-profile support from the Saudi royal family. At its first working session yesterday, Princess Adela bint Abdullah, whose father is Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, welcomed the attendees. Calling the protection of children a "fundamental issue", Princess Adela cited Quranic verse 11 in Surat al Nisa'a (The Women) mentioning children. She then added: "The verses in the Quran and Hadith which call for child protection are numerous, because when a child is subjected to abuse, this brings about many dangerous repercussions - physically, mentally and socially."
Abuse "affects their future" and "negatively reflects on society", she said. "Therefore, we must come together to study the causes of abuse and address them." The government's support for tackling the problem of child abuse was also made clear by the presence of four cabinet ministers (of health, education, information and social affairs) at the conference's opening ceremony on Sunday night. In an address yesterday, Abdul Rahman al Suwailem, a former president of the Saudi Red Crescent Society, noted that research has documented that child abuse is a problem in the Arab world. One study by the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control in the United States found that in 12 countries in the Eastern Mediterranean region, 42 per cent of males and 29 per cent of females ages 13 to 15 had been psychologically or physically abused between 2006 and 2007.
"This grim picture requires confrontation appropriate to its seriousness," Dr al Suwailem said. Child marriage was one of the topics raised by Dr al Suwailem and other speakers at the conference's first session. The issue has been subject to increasingly open discussion in Saudi Arabia, with the local press now regularly carrying articles about fathers marrying off very young daughters to older men.
In some cases, the girl is offered in marriage to settle her father's financial debt to the elderly groom. Some marriages occur without the consent of the bride, who is too young to know what is transpiring. Last month, Al Riyadh newspaper ran an interview with a woman whose nine-year-old daughter had been betrothed to her father's friend, precipitating a deluge of commentary in the press. "Instead of visiting a toy store and buying her a toy as a birthday present, her father brought her a husband five times her age," wrote Abdullah al Asmary in an opinion piece in the Saudi Gazette.
The press coverage has sparked public debate, which has drawn in Saudi Arabia's top clergyman, as well as human rights and women's activists. Islamic law sets no minimum marriage age. And in January, the grand mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Aal Al Sheikh, weighed in, declaring that girls as young as 10 could be married. "If a girl exceeds 10 or 12, then she is eligible for marriage, and whoever thinks she is too young, then he or she is wrong and has done her an injustice," he said.
Saudi civil law also has no minimum age for marriage. The 150-member Shura Council, the country's top advisory body, is studying the possibility of introducing such legislation, local papers have reported. Representatives of the government-run Human Rights Commission have said they favour setting a legal minimum age of 15, noting that child marriages violate international agreements signed by Saudi Arabia.
Ayman Abu Laban, Unicef's Gulf area representative, who lives in Riyadh, said in an interview after addressing the conference that he has noticed growing public awareness of this issue. "I don't know if there is an organised campaign but we can see that this issue is being more and more discussed," Dr Abu Laban said, adding that "the silence about this issue" was being broken in the press. "The most important thing is that the Saudis themselves, the government, the officials, realise there are changes" that have to be made, he said.
Some Arab countries, notably Tunisia, Jordan and Syria, are farther along than others in preventing child marriage, Dr Abu Laban said. Unicef favours a multi-pronged approach that relies on dialogue and advocacy, Dr Abu Laban added. "It is not advisable to do it through condemnation because these are very [deeply] rooted practices." Some Islamic scholars, he noted, have concluded that the "age of maturity is a condition for marriage and they identify this as the age of 18".