End Child Marriages And Male Guardianship Over Women
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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.’
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.