Saudi Arabia: End child marriages and male guardianship over women

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Action Number: 
31.5
Date: 
16 May 2013

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In 2010, Equality Now took on the case of 12-year-old Fatima of Saudi Arabia, who had been sold in marriage to a 50 year old man who already had a wife and ten children. As her male guardian, Fatima’s father had the sole right under Saudi law to marry her off at any age to whomever he pleased. In a remarkable challenge to societal norms, however, Fatima escaped to her family home six months after the marriage, refusing to return to her husband and demanding a divorce. With the help of her uncle and support from Equality Now, she was finally granted a divorce in February 2013. Though Fatima showed great personal strength and determination, despite her young age, she is now suffering from psychological and emotional distress as she feels ashamed of her situation; she no longer wants to pursue her education, believing that she no longer has options in society as a child ‘divorcee.’

TAKE ACTION NOW! << Click on this link to send all letters below online.

Fatima’s experience highlights the plight and repercussions of millions of girls around the world who are married as children. Early/forced marriages continue to be prevalent 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.

Equality Now therefore welcomed the 8 April 2013 proposal by the Saudi Ministry of Justice to introduce new regulations on the marriage of girls. The government has confirmed the draft regulations which are said to set 16 as the minimum age of marriage and propose, as preconditions to any marriage below the age of 16: 

  • The approval of the girl and her mother especially if the mother is divorced
  • The approval of a designated court of the marriage on application from the male guardian
  • Provision by the guardian to the court of a medical report from a gynecologist, psychologist and social worker to prove the competence of the girl for marriage. The report should also include a statement that the marriage does not expose the girl to danger (although these requirements are not elaborated on)

Either a designated court or an imam may conduct the marriage, but the latter would need specific permission from the court to do so. While these exemptions to the minimum age of marriage in relation to girls are still worrisome, it does indicate a step forward in offering protection to girls, such as Fatima, who could otherwise be married off with no restriction, signalling a change to the absolute power of the male guardian in deciding a girl’s fate. These 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 nor have the regulations themselves been made available to the general public.

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.”

Our partners in Saudi Arabia and Equality Now welcome the draft regulations under discussion as a first step in recognizing the discrimination inherent in the male guardianship system and to fulfilling the government’s international human rights obligations in relation to child marriage. We therefore encourage the Kingdom to implement these provisions without delay. However, we are also calling on Saudi Arabia to implement further regulations to ensure the protection of girls from harm, including by raising the marriage age to 18 in line with the internationally recognized standard.

What You Can Do: 

TAKE ACTION NOW! << Click on this link to send all letters below online.

Please write to the authorities below and urge them to provide safeguards to ensure that girls and women have a real choice in the timing of marriage and selection of a spouse by:

  • Adopting and implementing the proposed regulations to set a minimum age of marriage
  • Going a step further to meet the international recommended standard by raising the suggested minimum marriage age to 18 years old
  • Ending the male guardianship system to remove discrimination against women and girls, including in their access to education, employment, and justice and the ability to make their own life choices

Letters should go to:

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

H.E. Dr. Abdullah Bin Mohammed Bin Ibrahim Al-Sheikh
Speaker of the Shura Council
Tel: +966-1-482-1666
Fax: +966-1-481-6985
Email: webmaster@shura.gov.sa

H.E. Dr. Muhammad bin Abdul El Karim 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, Fax: +966 1 461 2061, Email: info@hrc.gov.sa

Letters: 

Dear King Abdullah, Speaker of the Shura Council/ Minister:

As there is currently no minimum age of marriage law in Saudi Arabia, I welcome the 8 April 2013 proposal by the Saudi Ministry of Justice to introduce new regulations regarding the marriage age of girls. I understand that the draft regulations set 16 as the minimum age of marriage and propose preconditions to any marriage of a girl under the age of 16, which begin to offer protection to girls who would otherwise be married off with no restriction. I welcome these steps, which also reflect closer compliance with Saudi Arabia’s international obligations, and urge you to support their adoption and implementation without delay.

I respectfully call on you to go a step further, however, in accordance with international standards (including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child ratified by Saudi Arabia), by moving quickly to raise the minimum marriage age to 18 and by putting an end to the male guardianship system. Please also ensure there are appropriate safeguards to guarantee that a woman has a real choice in the timing of her marriage and the selection of her spouse. This will allow Saudi women and girls to enjoy their human rights and fulfill their aspirations.

I thank you for your attention.

Sincerely yours,

Cc: The Human Rights Commission email:info@hrc.gov.sa