Where is a child to turn for help when the justice system she relies on to protect her is complicit in perpetuating the injustice for which she seeks redress? In his recent article entitled Child marriage still an issue in Saudi Arabia (SF Gate), Joel Brinkley challenges Saudi Arabia’s justice system to set a precedent that leads other sovereign states to defend child brides against the harmful consequences of early marriage. Brinkley cites two high-profile cases that illustrate how Saudi courts continue to condone child marriage by upholding the non-consensual unions:
[L]ast spring…a Saudi court refused to nullify the marriage of an 8-year-old girl from Unaiza to a man in his late 50s … The judge was willing to order the man not to have sex with the girl until she reached puberty, four or five years later. (If he violated that, who would know?) … Last month, a 12-year-old girl, fighting to divorce an 80-year-old man who paid her father $22,000 for permission to marry her, suddenly dropped her divorce request. She failed to appear in court on the day the judge was supposed to issue his decision. One can only guess what happened, but most 12-year-olds would find it difficult to reject adult advice or commands about something like this.
“Saudi Arabia has a serious child-marriage problem,” says Brinkley, “It’s emblematic of the nation’s struggle between modernity and traditional Islam. But the lives of thousands of little girls are being destroyed as the Saudi government ponderously debates a solution.” In the face of public outrage and heightened scrutiny from the international human rights community, at least one Saudi official – Justice Minister Mohammed Al Issa – has reportedly called for an end to child marriage:
His ministry, he told a Saudi newspaper, intended to stipulate 18 as the minimum age for marriage, “to put an end to arbitrariness by parents and guardians in marrying off minor girls.” His intent, he added, was to “preserve the rights, to end the negative aspects of underage girls’ marriage.”
Despite Minister Issa’s public pledge to end child marriage, Brinkley posits that legal reform is unlikely to occur so long as the majority of clerics remain opposed to ending this deeply entrenched custom. According to Brinkley, other countries’ legal systems similarly perpetuate harmful marriage practices:
Last year, Turkey made it legal for 12-year-olds to marry, if their parents agree. The Turkish Statistical Institute estimates that one-third of the state’s brides are under 18. In Yemen and Bangladesh, even among some sects in Burma, child marriage is commonplace. The victims, in those places and elsewhere: little girls who are forced into wasted, often miserable, lives.
Brinkley concludes his piece with a call to action: “[I]f Saudi Arabia, of all places, can change the law and recognize that little girls have the right to grow up normally, that will be an act heard around the world.”