Last Updated: Mon Nov 01, 2010 12:01 pm (KSA) 09:01 am (GMT)

Saudi rights body seeks divorce for child bride

A lawyer has been hired to help a 12-year-old girl divorce her 80-year-old husband (File)
A lawyer has been hired to help a 12-year-old girl divorce her 80-year-old husband (File)

Saudi Arabia's human rights commission has hired a lawyer to help a 12-year-old girl divorce her 80-year-old husband, the lawyer said, a move activists hope will lead to a ban on child marriages.

Saudi Arabia has no minimum legal age for marriage. Fathers are granted guardianship over their daughters, giving them control over who their daughters marry and when.

The girl from Buraidah, a town near the capital Riyadh, was married to her father's elderly cousin late last year for bridal money of 85,000 riyals ($22,670), her lawyer Sultan bin Zahim told Reuters.

 We became involved in this case as a public rights issue... This case is still valid even after the mother withdrew 
Lawyer Sultan bin Zahim

Activists see the divorce proceedings as a test case that could pave the way for introducing a minimum age for marriage in the world's largest oil exporter.

The child's mother had earlier filed for divorce on her daughter's behalf but withdrew without giving a reason after a second court hearing in early February, bin Zahim said.

The government-affiliated rights watchdog then took over the case, again filing for divorce on the child's behalf.

“We became involved in this case as a public rights issue... This case is still valid even after the mother withdrew," bin Zahim said.

This is the first time the commission intervenes in a case of child marriage in the kingdom, an issue that was previously seen as a "family affair" and outside of the commission's realm of duty.

Pushing for a law

 We need to affect public opinion and I believe that Saudi Arabia will issue a law preventing child marriages soon 
Wajiha al-Huweider

Saudi Arabia is a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child, which considers those under the age of 18 as children.

"This case is an investment in order to push for a law," said Wajiha al-Huweider, a Saudi rights activist. "We need to affect public opinion and I believe that Saudi Arabia will issue a law preventing child marriages soon."

Zuhair al-Harthi, a member of Saudi Arabia's advisory Shoura Council, said that a draft law on banning child marriages was being studied by a government committee. But activists fear it could be a while yet before this law is passed.

"Such a law will take a long time to be passed as there are social, religious, and cultural aspects," said Mufleh al-Qahtani, chairman of the National Society for Human Rights in Saudi Arabia.

Harthi said a quicker way to address the issue could be for the government to ban notaries from performing marriages for girls under the age of 18 years, which would be an intervention on an administrative rather than legal level.

The girl's lawyer said he expected the judge presiding over the case to make a decision shortly.

"Within days we expect the judge to take into account our objection and issue a divorce, or this case will be taken to higher judges at the appeals court," bin Zahim said

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