by Joel Brinkley
A senior official in the Saudi Arabian Justice Ministry boldly declared that the government is finally going to attack a significant national problem: child marriage.
It's not uncommon to hear about girls 12 years old or younger being forced to marry men in their 70s or 80s. For many years now, news stories about this problem have been tarnishing the Saudi government's image.
"The ministry has adopted a clear stance on underage marriages, and the issue was raised to the regulators," Mohammed al-Babetein, head of the Justice Ministry's marriages department, told the al-Madina newspaper. "It supports setting unified regulations to deal with such practices, which will ensure the safety of young girls."
The problem is, he made that statement more than a year ago, in April 2012. And that was hardly the first time. In fact, in 2009 the ministry announced that it intended to regulate the marriages of young girls. This came right after a court refused to nullify the forced marriage of an 8-year-old girl to a man in his late 50s. Then, in the spring of 2011 the Consultative Assembly, known as the Shura, recommended introducing a minimum age for marriage. The assembly advises the government on new laws but has no direct authority.
Finally, after so many years of fatuous promises, in April the Justice Ministry offered a draft regulation that would set 16 as the minimum age. This draft is riven with loopholes, however, including a provision that would allow the father to override the law under certain circumstances -- even though fathers are usually the villains in these stories. They're usually the ones who "sell" their preteen daughters to wealthy older men in exchange for a large dowry. The draft law also does not set out any penalties for violators.
Even some of the human-rights groups that lobbied hard for the new law recognize the problems. Equality Now, one of the key NGOs behind this campaign to end child marriage, remarked that "while these exemptions to the minimum age of marriage ... are still worrisome, it does indicate a step forward in offering protection to girls."
The Human Rights Commission of Saudi Arabia called on King Abdullah to raise the minimum age to 18. After all, Saudi Arabia signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child, which states that girls under the age of 18 are "children."
Given that it has taken so many years to get to this point, there's still no assurance the bill will pass. When I called the Saudi embassy in Washington last week to ask about the bill, embassy officers said they knew nothing about it. Obviously it's not a top-of-the-agenda item in Riyadh.
In fact, early this year, Saudi Justice Minister Mohammed Al Issa complained that "the marriage of underage girls in the country is not a phenomenon yet, as some claim," and "those who say this are wrong."
Equality Now is one of many groups that heartily disagrees. In 2010 it took on the case of 12-year-old Fatima, whose father sold her for marriage to a 50-year-old man who already had a wife and 10 children. Fatima managed to escape and finally did get a divorce this year, with help from Equality Now. And a 15-year-old who was married off to an 86-year-old man in Jizan in southeast Saudi Arabia, also managed to get a divorce in January, assisted by the Saudi Human Rights Commission.
Suad Abu-Dayyeh, Equality Now's regional consultant, said: "This destruction of a girl's childhood and absolute rejection of the possibility that she has something to offer is endemic in societies where girls are pawned off to the highest bidder."
By writing a draft law on "a minimum age of marriage," he added "Saudi Arabia is finally starting to deal with the fact that it cannot continue to ignore the basic human rights of women and girls."
A study by the University of California, San Diego, published in May said "nations with higher rates of girl child marriage are significantly more likely to contend with higher rates of maternal and infant mortality," the study's author wrote in the journal Violence Against Women.
Clerics and religious judges generally oppose the proposed law, citing Shariah law that "does not allow Muslims to make pedophilia illegal," as one anti-Muslim blogger put it.
But let's hope this time that the Saudi leadership, with a draft law actually in hand, even if highly flawed, can overrule the nation's extremists and finally begin tackling this terrible problem.
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