Saudi Arabia: End Child Marriages and Male Guardianship over Women

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Action Number: 
31.3
IMPORTANT: This archived action campaign has been completed or discontinued, and the information contained in it may not be current. Please see Take Action for current and ongoing campaigns.
Date: 
29 Nov 2010
Update Date: 
6 Nov 2012
Update: 

UPDATE 20 MARCH 2013: The judge heard Fatima’s case earlier than expected and in November 2012, issued divorce papers without requiring repayment of the dower. After a required 90-day waiting period, Fatima’s divorce was finalized on 10 February. We will continue to work with Saudi activists to get a ban on child marriage in Saudi Arabia.


UPDATE 6 NOVEMBER 2012: Our Saudi Arabian partners have recently informed us that as of May 2011, 12-year-old child bride Fatima is back at home with her family and has refused to go back to her husband; she is attempting to get a divorce with the support of her uncle. Her husband wants her to move back to his house when she is older, and says that he will not grant her a divorce unless he is paid a large amount of money.  A judge has scheduled the first hearing in her divorce case for 12 December 2012.

We are strategizing with our partners on legal support services for Fatima so that she can continue pursuing the divorce case. However we are concerned that the judge will rule against her unless she can find a way to pay back the dower her father has already spent. Please continue to take action and keep pressure on the King of Saudi Arabia to issue an edict banning child marriages by establishing 18 years as a minimum age of marriage, and providing punishments for adults who enter into or facilitate such unions. Call upon him to annul the marriages of child brides whose marriage contracts have been executed but who have yet to be handed over to their husbands, and to ensure that child brides already living with their husbands are given the means to annul their marriages.


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 from Najran who was married on 5 October 2010 to a 50 year old man who already has a wife and ten children, most much older than Fatima. Her father Ali, who is unemployed and addicted to drugs, sold her in marriage for a sum of 40,000 Saudi 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 and his family. According to her paternal uncle Mohamed, Fatima’s husband has subjected her to sexual relations. Fatima’s paternal grandfather and uncle were strongly opposed to the marriage but could not prevent it because Fatima’s father, as her male guardian, has the right under Saudi law to marry her off at any age to whomever he pleases. Fatima’s grandfather and uncle are frustrated that the Saudi legal system recognizes only the right of the father and not the right and interest of the child. They are also concerned that Fatima’s two younger sisters Noura, age 9, and Basma, age 7, may be subjected to a similar fate. TAKE ACTION!

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

Child marriages continue to be prevalent in Saudi Arabia despite clear evidence that such marriages have severe negative physical, emotional, psychological, intellectual and sexual implications on children. 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 jeopardizes girls’ right to education. In addition, married girls have few social connections, restricted mobility, limited control over resources, and little power in their new households, and studies by UNICEF have found domestic violence to be common in child marriages.

Saudi Arabia has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Article 1 of the CRC defines the child as “every human being below the age of eighteen years.” Article 16(2) of CEDAW states that the “betrothal and the marriage of a child shall have no legal effect, and all necessary action, including legislation, shall be taken to specify a minimum age for marriage and to make the registration of marriages in an official registry compulsory.” Article 16(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 full consent.” However, Saudi Arabia has neither defined a minimum age of marriage nor taken steps to ban child marriages. On the contrary, Saudi Arabia’s commonly accepted practice of male guardianship over women, where a woman is considered to be under the guardianship of her father or closest male relative all her life, is directly contradictory to international human rights standards. The combined effect of the lack of a minimum age of marriage and practice of male guardianship over women mean that a Saudi girl can be forced into marriage at any age at the wish of her male guardian.

Saudi law is not codified, rather the legal system is based on individual judges applying their interpretations of shariah (Islamic law). Although some agencies of the Saudi government, such as the Ministry of Justice and the Human Rights Commission have spoken out against child marriages and have instituted some intermediate 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, or to adult (often middle-aged) men who seek to marry and have sexual intercourse with child brides. Under the current Saudi legal system, the only effective solution to this issue would be an edict from the Saudi King prohibiting child marriages, establishing punishments for those who enter into or facilitate such unions, and overturning the system of male guardianship, which informs all aspects of women’s lives in Saudi Arabia.

What You Can Do: 

Please write to the King of Saudi Arabia asking him to issue an edict banning child marriages by establishing 18 years as a minimum age of marriage and providing punishments for those who enter into or facilitate such unions. Call upon him to take urgent action to annul the marriages of child brides whose marriage contracts have been executed but who have yet to be handed over to their husbands, and to ensure that child brides already living with their husbands are given a real choice to annul their marriages. Please urge him to ensure that the system of male 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 to guarantee the rights of women in marriage and divorce, ensuring that such a law is based upon principles of equality and non-discrimination. Please send a similar letter to the Minister of Justice and a copy to the Human Rights Commission. TAKE ACTION!

Letters should go to:

His Majesty, King Abdullah 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
University Street, Riyadh 11137
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Fax: +966 1 401 1741

With a copy to:

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

Letters: 

[His Majesty King Abdullah 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
University Street, Riyadh 11137
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Fax: +966-1-401-1741]

 [Date]

[Your Highness] [Dear Minister],

I am writing to express my deep concern about the issue of child marriage in Saudi Arabia and the extremely negative impact of such marriage on girls.  A recent case is that of 12-year-old Fatima from Najran who was married by her father to a 50-year-old man with a wife and ten children in exchange for 40,000 Saudi Riyals which her father used to buy a car.  Fatima’s paternal grandfather and uncle were opposed to the marriage but could not prevent it because, as her male guardian, her father Ali had the right under Saudi law to marry her off at whatever age to whomever he pleased.  They fear that Fatima’s two younger sisters will be subjected to a similar fate.

Child marriages violate the human rights of girls by excluding them from decisions regarding the timing of marriage and choice of spouse.  International organizations such as the World Health Organization, UNICEF and UNFPA have underscored the negative physical, emotional, psychological, intellectual and sexual implications of child marriage on girls.  Fatima’s marriage will, among other things, deprive her of an education and severely jeopardize her right to mental, emotional and physical well-being.

I urge you to issue an edict banning child marriages by establishing 18 years as the minimum age of marriage, and providing punishments for those who enter into or facilitate such unions.  I also urge you to take urgent action to annul the marriages of child brides whose marriage contracts have been executed but who have yet to be handed over to their husbands, and to ensure that child brides already living with their husbands are given a real choice to annul their marriages.  Please ensure that the Saudi legal and judicial system reflect your government’s stated claim before international bodies that women are not subject to male guardianship, but rather have the right, among other things, to enter into marriages of their choice.  In this respect, I urge you to support the establishment of a codified personal status law to guarantee the rights of women in marriage and divorce, ensuring that such a law is based upon principles of equality and non-discrimination. 

I thank you for your attention.

Sincerely yours,

Cc: The Human Rights Commission (email: hrc@haq-ksa.org)