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Death-Row Bride: Childhood Marriage in Saudi Arabia

In Uncategorized on February 19, 2009 at 5:32 am

page3terroristsWhat little girl doesn’t dream of one day walking down an aisle dressed in white, surrounded by friends and family?  In July 2008, that dream turned into a nightmare for a 15-year-old Saudi Arabian girl.  The aisle she walked ran between death-row prison cells.  Her father gave her away to his cell-mate.  Shortly after her two-day honeymoon in the prison’s special quarters, she discovered she was pregnant.

Unfortunately, childhood marriages occur regularly in Saudi Arabia.  On December 26, 2008, CNN reported the marriage of an 8-year-old girl to a 47-year-old man. The girl’s father arranged the marriage to pay off a debt.  Judge Sheikh Habib Abdallah al-Habib rejected the mother’s petition to annul the marriage, saying that the mother is not the girl’s legal guardian since she and her husband are separated.
Saudi Arabia currently has no laws determining the minimum age for marriage.  Fathers can give daughters as young as one year old in marriage, as long as the husband pledges to delay consummation until the girl reaches puberty.  While the law requires a women’s consent to marriage, some officials allow the woman’s guardian to grant consent for her.

The law may be silent on the issue of minimum age, but various religious opinions abound.  The BBC reported on April 12, 2005 that Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheik banned forced marriages, saying that the practice is not permitted by Islamic law.  Other religious leaders feel differently, including a top cleric who said, “’It’s not correct to say it’s not permitted…A girl aged 10 or 12 can be married.  Those who think she’s too young…are being unfair to her.”

For many families, childhood marriages are a matter of expediency rather than ethics.  According to an Arab News report on August 7, 2008, if a man is the single guardian of many daughters, he may give them in marriage in order to provide for them.  Poor families profit by receiving fees from the groom, while other families hope to prevent illicit relationships.

The myth that marrying at a young age protects girls is dispelled by the United Nations Population Fund report.  There are no official statistics regarding childhood marriage in Saudi Arabia specifically, but studies in Kenya and Zambia show that teenage brides are contracting HIV at a faster rate than sexually active unmarried girls.  In addition, girls age 10-14 are five times more likely to die in pregnancy than women age 20-24.  Over the next decade, approximately 100 million girls under the age of 18 will be married.

The Saudi Human Rights Commission launched a campaign in September 2008 to set the minimum marital age at 17.  Through their diligent efforts, the dream of a vibrant childhood may one day be granted to every Saudi Arabian girl.

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