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.