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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Child Brides

Saudi Arabia is the largest Arab country in the Middle East and the Kingdom is home to two of the holiest places in Islam - Mecca and Medina. It's also a country that for centuries has been marrying child brides to old men. But now for the first time, a 12 year old girl has won a divorce from her 80 year old husband after the State-run Human Rights Commission appointed a lawyer to represent her.

Her plight was reported in news media around the world and she could be responsible for a push to raise the minimum age for marriage to 16. Medical experts, child psychologists, social workers and scholars in Islamic law will debate the issue before announcing their recommendations. Then the Ministry of Justice will impose a legal minimum age for marriage for the first time and child marriage may be banned completely.

The Prophet Muhammad married a 9 year old girl and has been used as justification for the practice. But Sheikh Abdullah al-Manie, a senior Saudi cleric, said the Prophet's marriage 14 centuries ago could not be used to justify child brides today. The 12 year old girl was married against her wishes to her father's cousin last year. A dowry was paid and the marriage consummated. Last week another child bride was in the news, she died in hospital of internal bleeding after consummation of a marriage to a man she was forced to marry.

UN officials have discussed child marriage to Saudi's ruler King Abdullah but progress has been slow regarding women's rights. However, when the king was challenged by orthodox clerics last year, he went against their advice and opened the country's first mixed university in Jedda and last Saturday he axed the head of the religious police and appointed Saudi Arabia's first ever woman deputy minister in the biggest shake-up since he took over the throne.

The wheel of change is slowly turning.