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.

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.