Fatima was just twelve years old when her father sold her into marriage to a fifty year old man who already had a wife and ten children.
As her male guardian, Fatima’s father had the sole right under Saudi law to marry her off at any age to whomever he pleased. Her new husband bought her a Playstation as a wedding present.
Despite being contrary to numerous international human rights conventions and causing significant physical and emotional harm, early and forced marriage continues to be practiced in several countries around the world.
The World Health Organization estimates that over the next ten years one hundred million girls like Fatima will marry before their 18th birthday. Forced sex and subsequent premature pregnancy carries significant health risks, while pregnancy-related deaths are the leading cause of death for girls aged 15-19 years worldwide. Married life for a girl that young means lower access to education, no friends, no right to go where she pleases, limited control over resources. It also means that she is likely to experience domestic violence and will have little or no power in her new household.
“This destruction of a girl’s childhood and absolute rejection of the possibility that she has something to offer is endemic in several countries around the world”, explains Suad Abu-Dayyeh, Equality Now’s Middle East and North Africa consultant. Although Fatima managed to get a divorce, countless Saudi girls are potentially at risk of experiencing very similar predicaments. Abu-Dayyeh continues: “Extraordinarily brave girls like Fatima somehow manage to find something within themselves to demand their most basic right to be heard, to have a place in society, to be able to contribute and realize their full potential. The odds are severely against them, but with our support, young girls like Fatima can – and do – change the world on a daily basis”.
In an unprecedented move, the Saudi Ministry of Justice has drafted regulations which propose a minimum age of marriage of 16 for girls in the Kingdom and preconditions if the girl is younger than this. This responds to local media campaigns and ongoing international pressure from Equality Now and others. Abu-Dayyeh encourages the Kingdom to implement these provisions without delay, but to also “consider further regulations which will ensure the protection of girls from harm, including raising this age to 18 in line with international standards.
Child marriage typically sets a young girl up for a life of subservience and violence. In many ways, it is no better than slavery”. Although the timeline for enactment of the proposed law is not fully apparent, both Mohammed Al Issa, the Saudi Minister for Justice, and Fahd Al Bakran, a Ministry of Justice spokesperson, have indicated that the legislation will be sent to cabinet soon and should be approved quickly by the Shura Council.
Abu-Dayyeh suggests that the proposed minimum age of marriage is part of a revolutionary change in thinking which is starting to take place at higher echelons of Saudi Arabian politics: “Saudi Arabia is finally starting to deal with the fact that it cannot continue to ignore the basic human rights of women and girls”.
Recent history would seem to confirm this. In early 2009, Norah Alfaiz became the first female government minister, while Princess Loulwa Al Faisal, sister of the world’s longest serving foreign minister, Saud Al Faisal, spoke at the World Economic Forum about how Saudi women should be allowed to drive. ‘Women2Drive’, a local campaign calling for this de-facto ban to be repealed has been in operation since June 2011, but the Saudi government has yet to take action on this key issue. Women have recently been allowed to cycle as long as it is in a circle, with a male guardian and with no specific destination in mind. Recently, girls have also been given permission to play sports in private schools.
Once approved by the Saudi parliament, the proposed law on a minimum age of marriage will leave Yemen as the only country in the world without a codified minimum age of marriage. Although indications had been positive, moves towards enacting a proposed draft law there appear to have been postponed indefinitely. Abu-Dayyeh hopes that “the Yemeni government will be spurred on by the initiatives of its immediate neighbor”. A law which confirms a minimum age of marriage is certainly not a panacea and full implementation and monitoring is essential. However, it is a start and helps girls like Fatima and countless others in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and globally to finally access the basic freedom to live meaningful and empowered lives –something that will ultimately benefit us all.