Sold for a Playstation and a car: Saudi's child brides

Over the next decade one hundred million girls will marry before their 18th birthday worldwide.

Twelve year old Fatima was sold into marriage to a fifty year old man in 2010. Her father Ali, who was unemployed and addicted to drugs, sold her into marriage for a sum of 40,000 Saudi Riyals (approximately £7,000), which he used to buy himself a car. Reportedly, Fatima’s husband bought her a PlayStation as a wedding gift. Earlier this year, along with the help of her uncle, Equality Now and our Saudi partners, she was finally able to get a divorce.

While this incredibly brave young girl had to fight hard to break out of this horrific scenario, recent developments in Saudi Arabia can potentially reduce the risk that something similar might happen to other girls. After years of debate the Ministry of Justice has finally drafted regulations, which include setting 16 as the minimum age of marriage for girls in the Kingdom. If a girl is under 16, her mother’s approval must be received, while if a male guardian applies, a designated court of marriage must also give its approval before consent is given. The girl must also be medically and psychologically fit, which includes a provision that the girl is not exposed to danger (although these requirements are not elaborated on). 

While these exemptions to the minimum age of marriage in relation to girls are worrisome, it does indicate a step forward in offering protection to girls such as Fatima who could otherwise be married off with no restriction. This signals a change to the absolute power of the male guardian in deciding a girl’s fate. These proposals will now be discussed by the Shura Council (the consultative assembly), the cabinet and various governmental committees. A timetable for their passage has not been announced.

Both Equality Now and our local partners welcome the draft regulations under discussion as a first step towards recognising the discrimination inherent in the Saudi male guardianship system and to fulfilling the government’s international human rights obligations in relation to child marriage. The draft regulations also help the Saudi government move towards fulfilling its international human rights obligations in relation to ending child marriage, which it should implement without delay.

Child marriages continue to be prevalent in various countries around the world despite clear evidence that such marriages have severe negative physical, emotional, psychological, intellectual and sexual implications on children. The World Health Organization has estimated that over the next decade one hundred million girls will marry before their 18th birthday. Child marriage violates the human rights of girls by excluding them from decisions regarding the timing of marriage and choice of spouse. It may mark an abrupt initiation into sexual relations, often with a husband who is considerably older and a relative stranger.  Premature pregnancy carries significant health risks and pregnancy-related deaths are the leading cause of death for girls aged 15-19 years worldwide. Early marriage also jeopardises a girl’s right to education. In addition, married girls have few social connections, restricted mobility, limited control over resources, and little power in their new households, while studies by UNICEF have found domestic violence to be common in child marriages.

Saudi Arabia has turned an important corner with these proposed regulations and has shown an increasing commitment to addressing concerns about its treatment of women and girls.  We hope that this will be an important step in dealing with the wider issue of male guardianship. We urge Saudi Arabian authorities to remove discrimination against women and girls, including access to education, employment, and justice and the ability to make their own life choices.

Nobody will lose out by restoring fairness and ensuring equal access to opportunities and justice.  Empowering women and girls in this way will benefit everyone socially, culturally and economically.

Equality Now is a partner of the Chime for Change campaign, which works to promote Education, Health and Justice for women and girls around the world.  To support our project and help overcome the obstacles to ending child marriage, please click here.

The city of Mecca. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Suad Abu-Dayyeh is the Middle East and North Africa Consultant for Equality Now, an international human rights organisation.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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