Saudi Authorities have drafted a law to curb child marriages after a surge in such cases triggered bitter criticism by the local media and protests by human rights groups inside and outside the Gulf Kingdom.
The Ministry of Justice has drafted the long-awaited legislation which only restricts such marriages but does not totally ban them as it will give the bride’s father the final decision and does not include penalties for offenders.
The draft law, to be endorsed by the cabinet and passed by Shura (appointed parliament), bars Maazoun (Sheikh who performs marriage rites) from conducting the marriage without a prior approval by a special court.
The bride’s father can decided on marriage but has to obtain court consent if she is below 16 years old and must present a medical report showing his daughter is eligible for marriage physically and psychologically. The report must state that marriage does not endanger the girl’s mental and physical health.
The London-based Saudi Arabic language daily Sharqalawsat, which published part of the proposed legislation, said the court also requires the bride’s consent for consummating the marriage, especially those whose mothers are divorced.
“Once all conditions are met, the marriage contract must not be signed before the bride’s father makes sure she is fully prepared for the marriage life…his daughter must have training for the new family life before she is married,” the report said.
Quoted by the paper, Ministry of Justice spokesman Fahd Al Bakran said the draft law would be presented soon to the seven-man supreme scholars authority for endorsement before it is sent to the cabinet and Shura.
“Under the new draft law, fathers still have the powers to have their daughters married but they must have prior approval from a special court,” he said.
“As for penalties, it does not include punishment of fathers because they are the custodians of their daughters and have the final word regarding their daughters’ marriage…they know their daughters’ interests more than anyone else and we hope they will just comply with the new rules for the sake of their daughters.”
Saudi Arabia, one of the most conservative Moslem nations, have considered curbing marriages of minors for many years following a sharp rise in such cases and growing criticism of the absence of relevant legislation.
In recent comments, a Shura member who pushed for the enforcement of such laws, lambasted child marriages as a “murder of innocence and childhood.”
Zuhair Al Harthi said the majority of the council supports a law to end child marriage in oil-rich country, with a population of around 28 million.
His comments followed a chorus of criticism by local newspapers and human rights groups against fathers who sell their little daughters to rich bridegrooms. The campaign gained momentum in 2011 after reports that a 55-year-old man married a 12-year-old girl with the blessing of her father.
“To be frank, I want to say that the marriage of minor girls amounts to a murder of innocence and violation of childhood…it is an already losing deal,” Harthi said.
“These little girls are being subject to crimes involving manipulation, quick profit and mere pleasure…they are not capable yet of shouldering the burden of marriage nor can they even realize its meaning.”
Saudi Justice Minister Mohammed Al Issa has said the Kingdom is planning to enact a law to regulate the marriage of minor girls.
He said the new regulations are needed to put an end to what he described as widespread controversy and confusion about such marriages.
"The marriage of under-age girls in the country is not a phenomenon yet as some claim... those who say this are wrong. We are considering regulations in line with the Islamic Shariah to govern this kind of marriage."
Al Issa said he hoped the new law would contribute to "ending all problems and confusion associated with female teen age marriage".
In 2011, Saudi Arabia’s newspapers opened up the heat against authorities for their failure to enact laws banning child marriage following reports of the wedding of the 12-year-old girl to the 55-year-old Moslem cleric.
The cleric married the girl, a student at a Koran memorization centre in the southern province of Jazan, despite strong objections from her grandfather. The marriage also sparked angry reaction from a local human rights group.
In a strongly-worded statement, Saudi Arabia’s main activist group, the National Human Rights Commission, said the marriage violated the girl’s rights.
“The marriage constitutes a violation of the rights of this child, who at this age needs to be cared by her family, pursue her education and enjoy her childhood… we call upon all members of the community to rally against the marriage of children and teenagers. Media institutions should also play a bigger role in defending children and their rights.”