UPDATE: Saudi Arabia: Child bride granted divorce

The Times

A girl aged 12 has won a divorce from her 80-year-old husband in Saudi Arabia in a case that may help to introduce a minimum age of marriage in the kingdom for the first time. Update on Saudi Arabia: Rights panel take up child bride case

The girl’s unusual legal challenge to the arrangement generated international media attention and scrutiny of Saudi Arabia’s record of child marriages.

It also prompted the state-run Human Rights Commission to appoint a lawyer to represent her. The commission has capitalised on the case and pushed for a legal minimum age for marriage of at least 16.

Three committees have been assembled to examine the possibility. Medical experts, child psychologists, social workers and scholars in Islamic law will debate the issue over the coming months before submitting their recommendations to a public hearing.

Based on these findings, the commission and the Ministry of Justice will issue new guidelines and impose a legal minimum age for the first time. “The main aim is to not allow cases like this to happen again,” said Alanoud alHejailan, a lawyer for the commission.

“There will be some opposition, of course, but we feel that public opinion has changed on this issue. We want to gather all the public support we can for a minimum age for marriage.”

Since the girl’s case became public, judges and clerics in Saudi Arabia have waded into the debate about whether child marriages should be banned.

The Prophet Muhammad’s marriage to a nine-year-old girl has been used as justification for the practice in some quarters. In January, however, Sheikh Abdullah al-Manie, a senior Saudi cleric, spoke out in defence of the girl, declaring that the Prophet’s marriage 14 centuries ago could not be used to justify child brides today. The 12-year-old has been fighting her case through the courts in the conservative town of Buraidah, near Riyadh, the capital. She was married against her wishes to her father’s elderly cousin last year. A dowry of 85,000 riyals (£14,500) was paid and the marriage consummated.

She has now reached agreement with her family that a divorce will be settled privately, and has dropped her legal challenge to the marriage.

Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights Commission said that it would continue to monitor her situation. It is also looking to increase co-operation with international bodies on children’s rights and human trafficking.

Under King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia’s ruler, slow but steady progress has been made to improve human rights within the kingdom, helped by the foundation of the commission in 2005. Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, is on a tour of the Middle East and met King Abdullah in Riyadh on Monday.

UN officials confirmed that child marriage was discussed with King Abdullah and the Ministry of Justice. Ms Pillay noted an “encouraging level of government activity to improve human rights” in the region, but rogress has been particularly difficult on women’s rights.

King Abdullah faced down criticism from orthodox clerics last year when he opened Saudi Arabia’s first mixed university in Jedda.

By Hugh Tomlinson in Dubai
April 22, 2010