Three years ago, 12-year-old Fatima was "sold" into marriage to a man more than four times her age. Her father, unemployed and addicted to drugs, sold her into wedlock for about $10,500, money that he then used to buy himself a car. You might be asking yourself how this possible. The answer – because there is no minimum age of marriage law in Saudi Arabia.
But Fatima didn’t give up. With the help of Equality Now, her uncle and our Saudi partners, Fatima beat the odds earlier this year to secure something many thought was impossible given the cultural norms she was pushing up against – a divorce. And with new regulations being considered that would effectively set a minimum age for marriage of 16, Saudi Arabia may finally be taking the steps necessary to ensure that children like Fatima are spared a similar ordeal.
After years of debate, the Ministry of Justice has drafted regulations setting 16 as the minimum age of marriage in the Kingdom. If a girl is under 16, her mother’s approval must be received. If a male guardian applies, a designated court of marriage must also approve the marriage before consent can be given. The girl must also be medically and psychologically fit, and there is a provision that the marriage must not be expose her to danger (although these requirements are not elaborated on). The 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.
Clearly, the draft regulations are only a start, and the exemptions to the minimum age are still troubling. But in a country where the male guardian had absolute power in deciding a girl’s fate, the proposed legislation is a welcome step in the direction of recognizing the discrimination inherent in the male guardianship system.
The draft regulations also help the Saudi government move toward fulfilling its international human rights obligations in relation to ending child marriage, which it should implement without delay. But it should also press forward and work to meet the internationally recognized standard of a minimum marriage age of 18.
Sadly, Saudi Arabia is not the only country sidelining the rights of children – child marriages continue in numerous countries, despite the clear evidence that such marriages have severe adverse physical, emotional, psychological, intellectual and sexual implications for the children involved. Indeed, the World Health Organization has estimated that over the next decade, 100 million girls will marry before their 18th birthday.
The emotional consequences of child marriage are obvious as the practice violates the human rights of girls by excluding them from decisions regarding the timing of marriage and choice of spouse. But the adverse impact on their health is equally troubling, with such marriages frequently marking an abrupt initiation into sexual relations, often with a husband who is considerably older and a relative stranger. Premature pregnancy, meanwhile, carries significant health risks, and pregnancy-related deaths are the leading cause of death for girls aged 15 to 19 years worldwide. Early marriage also jeopardizes girls’ right to education, while stifling the potential for social connections. Marrying girls restricts their mobility, limits their control over resources, leaves them with little power in their new households, and, according to studies by UNICEF, places them at considerable risk of domestic violence.
Saudi Arabia has undoubtedly turned an important corner with these proposed regulations, and has demonstrated an increasing commitment to addressing concerns about its treatment of women and girls. And the draft regulations should be seen for what they are – a step toward addressing the wider issue of male guardianship. Saudi Arabian authorities, however, must be encouraged to abandon discrimination against women and girls, whether it be over access to education, employment or justice through the legal system.
Saudi women, along with all women, should have the ability to make their own life choices, and nobody will lose by restoring fairness and ensuring equal access and opportunity. Empowering women and girls will have enormous economic, cultural and social benefits for Saudi Arabia as a whole. The question now is whether the country’s leaders are willing to keep pressing ahead.