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Saudi Arabia: End Child Marriages And Male Guardianship Over Women

Equality Now has been informed of several cases of Saudi girls being married off at the behest of their male guardians.

The most recent case concerns 12-year-old Fatima fromNajran who was married on 5 October 2010 to a 50 year old man who already has awife and ten children, most much older than Fatima. Her father Ali, who isunemployed and addicted to drugs, sold her in marriage for a sum of 40,000Saudi Riyals (approximately US$ 10,665), which he used to buy himself a car.Reportedly, Fatima’s husband bought her a PlayStation as a wedding gift.Fatima, who has not yet fully reached puberty, now lives with her husband andhis family. According to her paternal uncle Mohamed, Fatima’s husband hassubjected her to sexual relations. Fatima’s paternal grandfather and uncle werestrongly opposed to the marriage but could not prevent it because Fatima’sfather, as her male guardian, has the right under Saudi law to marry her off atany age to whomever he pleases. Fatima’s grandfather and uncle are frustratedthat the Saudi legal system recognizes only the right of the father and not theright and interest of the child. They are also concerned that Fatima’s twoyounger sisters Noura, age 9, and Basma, age 7, may be subjected to a similarfate. TAKE ACTION!

In June 2009, EqualityNow issued a news alert highlighting the case of Amneh Mohamed Sharahili, a 10year old school girl, who was to be married by her father to a 25-year-oldSaudi man. Equality Now called on the government of Saudi Arabia to preventAmneh’s marriage and to ban all child marriages by enacting and enforcing a lawestablishing a minimum age of marriage. Since we issued our alert we have beenunable to get news of Amneh and we fear her father has married her off. In ourJune 2009 alert, we also highlighted the reported case of an eight-year-oldgirl from Onaiza who had been married by her father to a middle-aged man tosettle a debt. The mother of the girl petitioned for a divorce but the Saudicourt held that it was the male guardian’s right to contract such a marriageand only the girl (and not her mother) could contest her own marriage when shereached puberty. In that case, due in part to international outcry, the husbandwas reportedly prevailed upon to grant the eight-year-old a divorce.

Child marriagescontinue to be prevalent in Saudi Arabia despite clear evidence that suchmarriages have severe negative physical, emotional, psychological, intellectualand sexual implications on children. Child marriage violates the human rightsof girls by excluding them from decisions regarding the timing of marriage andchoice of spouse. It may mark an abrupt initiation into sexual relations, oftenwith a husband who is considerably older and a relative stranger. Prematurepregnancy carries significant health risks and pregnancy-related deaths are theleading cause of death for girls aged 15-19 years worldwide. Early marriagealso jeopardizes girls’ right to education. In addition, married girls have fewsocial connections, restricted mobility, limited control over resources, andlittle power in their new households, and studies by UNICEF have found domesticviolence to be common in child marriages.

Saudi Arabia hasratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention onthe Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Article 1of the CRC defines the child as “every human being below the age of eighteenyears.” Article 16(2) of CEDAW states that the “betrothal and the marriage of achild shall have no legal effect, and all necessary action, includinglegislation, shall be taken to specify a minimum age for marriage and to makethe registration of marriages in an official registry compulsory.” Article16(1) (b) of CEDAW also stipulates that women shall have the same right as men“freely to choose a spouse and to enter into marriage only with their free and fullconsent.” However, Saudi Arabia has neither defined a minimum age of marriagenor taken steps to ban child marriages. On the contrary, Saudi Arabia’scommonly accepted practice of male guardianship over women, where a woman isconsidered to be under the guardianship of her father or closest male relativeall her life, is directly contradictory to international human rightsstandards. The combined effect of the lack of a minimum age of marriage andpractice of male guardianship over women mean that a Saudi girl can be forcedinto marriage at any age at the wish of her male guardian.

Saudi law is notcodified, rather the legal system is based on individual judges applying theirinterpretations of shariah (Islamic law). Although some agencies of theSaudi government, such as the Ministry of Justice and the Human RightsCommission have spoken out against child marriages and have instituted someintermediate steps such as requiring the age of marriage on marriage contracts,these are not enough to be a deterrent to male guardians, like Fatima’s father,who choose to sell their (sometimes prepubescent) daughters into marriage, orto adult (often middle-aged) men who seek to marry and have sexual intercoursewith child brides. Under the current Saudi legal system, the only effectivesolution to this issue would be an edict from the Saudi King prohibiting childmarriages, establishing punishments for those who enter into or facilitate suchunions, and overturning the system of male guardianship, which informs all aspectsof women’s lives in Saudi Arabia.

Recommended Actions

Please write to theKing of Saudi Arabia asking him to issue an edict banning child marriages byestablishing 18 years as a minimum age of marriage and providing punishmentsfor those who enter into or facilitate such unions. Call upon him to takeurgent action to annul the marriages of child brides whose marriage contractshave been executed but who have yet to be handed over to their husbands, and toensure that child brides already living with their husbands are given a realchoice to annul their marriages. Please urge him to ensure that the system ofmale guardianship over women is abolished so that Saudi women secure the right,among other things, to enter into marriages of their choice. In this respect,urge him to support the establishment of a codified personal status law toguarantee the rights of women in marriage and divorce, ensuring that such a lawis based upon principles of equality and non-discrimination. Please send asimilar letter to the Minister of Justice and a copy to the Human Rights Commission.TAKE ACTION!

Letters should go to:

His Majesty, KingAbdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud 
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Fax: +966 1 491 2726

His Excellency Dr.Muhammad bin Abdul Elkarim 
Abdul Azziz El Issa
Minister of Justice
UniversityStreet, Riyadh 11137 
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Fax: +966 1 401 1741

With a copy to:

The Human RightsCommission
P.O. Box 58889 Riyadh 11515
King Fahed Street, Building 373, Riyadh
Kingdomof Saudi Arabia. 
Email: hrc@haq-ksa.org

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Article License: Copyright - Article License Holder: Equality Now

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