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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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital