x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Saudi push to end child marriages

But religious authorities may frustrate moves to set minimum age between 16 and 18

JEDDAH // The Saudi government is looking to prevent child marriages by setting a minimum age, but activists say reconciling any new law on the matter with the kingdom's religious authorities will be difficult. The head of the government-run Human Rights Commission (HRC), Bandar Al Aiban, said that government bodies, including his, rights groups and others were holding talks to draft a new regulation to set the minimum age between 16 and 18.

"This is under serious review ? we are discussing what is the appropriate age for marriage," he said. Saud Kateb, a Saudi university professor and children's rights activist, said girls younger than 17 were too emotionally immature to be married. "I don't know how they want to allow a girl that has not completed her elementary school to get married?" he said. "If the parties involved in drafting the regulation reach an agreement on any age below 18, they will need to convince the government to grant full legal rights to girls at that age."

In Saudi, although girls can marry even before reaching puberty, they cannot terminate the wedding contracts according to the Hanbali legal school, one of four major schools in Sunni Islam, which gives complete control over the female to the male guardian. Setting the minimum age of marriage for women in Saudi Arabia is a controversial issue because the Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al Shaeikh, and many senior religious scholars define the age of adulthood for women as puberty.

But after facing heavy international pressure for permitting pre-teen and prepubescent girls to be married off by their parents, the Saudi ministry of justice is trying to find a way to legislate for an end to child marriages by setting a minimum age. Child marriage has existed for centuries in Saudi but it aroused controversy after an international outcry late last year when an eight-year-old girl in the city of Onaiza, north of Riyadh, was forced by her father to marry a man in his 50s as a part of a debt settlement.

The girl's mother challenged the marriage in court but it was upheld twice. In April, the parties agreed under heavy public pressure to a divorce in an out-of-court settlement. Under most versions of Sharia, a female virgin needs her guardian's approval (usually her father) to be married. Fathers cannot force daughters to marry, and the marriage must be consensual. However, under the Hanbali interpretation of Sharia, which is applied in Saudi, the father can issue a marriage contract without the consent of his daughter, though it can be terminated by the girl when she reaches puberty.

Human rights groups in the kingdom have repeatedly opposed child marriages and asked for the minimum marriage age for women to be set at 18. The National Society for Human Rights, a Saudi non-governmental organisation, said in its March report that the government must not allow women younger than 15 to marry. The former head of the government-run HRC, Turki al Sudairi, said underage marriage was a human rights violation, contravening the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Saudi Arabia is a signatory.

Mr al Sudairi, who was removed from his post in February, called on Saudi authorities to end the practice and raise awareness in society of its negative consequences. The Saudi parliament, the Shoura Council, passed a resolution in November setting the age of majority at 18 for both men and women. The ministry of health endorsed the council's views by saying that permitting girls younger than 18 to marry might damage their health.

Saudi Arabia's top cleric, the Grand Mufti, who has the final say on religious laws, refused to accept the resolution and it was not passed. wmahdi@thenational.ae