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JEDDAH (Reuters) - A 50-year old Saudi man has agreed to divorce his 9-year-old bride, media reported on Thursday, after the marriage drew international criticism.
The decision, reported by newspapers Alwatan and Al-Riyadh, came after months of court hearings, criticism from the United Nations and an international media frenzy about Saudi Arabia's human rights practices.
"This is a good step and I think the man did it because he was in a lot of pressure from everyone," Wajeha Al-Huaider, founder of the Group for Women's Rights in Saudi Arabia, told Reuters by telephone.
Al-Huaider, who campaigned for the child, said she hoped the pressure generated by the case would eventually lead to a law banning child marriages.
The child's mother, who opposed the marriage which took place when the girl was 8 years old, took the case to court last year. The court in the small town of Onaiza upheld the marriage on condition that the husband did not consummate it until the girl reached puberty.
In Saudi Arabia's patriarchal society, which applies an austere version of Sunni Islam, fathers have the right to decide whom their daughters marry.
"Islam does not specify an age for the marriage contract. The contract is one thing and the consummation of marriage is another," Ahmed Al Modi, an Islamic scholar and writer, told Reuters.
In the case of the Onaiza child bride he said the judge could not order a divorce because the marriage contract was carried out according to established rules for marriage, which include the approval of the father.
"When the child is under age the father can approve the marriage contract but as soon as the child reaches puberty she can object to the marriage," Al Modi said, emphasising that it was merely a contract, signed to "secure her future."
He explained that in such cases the child usually remained in her parents' custody and her husband would be able to visit her. But he would not be permitted to live with her or consummate the marriage until she had reached puberty.
Discussion about a legal age for marriage in Saudi Arabia took off after a senior Saudi cleric, Sheikh Mohsen al-Obaikan, was quoted in a local newspaper recently saying that girls under 18 years of age should not be allowed to marry.
Many clerics in Saudi Arabia, including the Kingdom's chief cleric, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz Al al-Sheikh, endorse the practice of young girls marrying.
The Onaiza case attracted international criticism.
"Irrespective of circumstances or the legal framework, the marriage of a child is a violation of that child's rights," UNICEF's chief, Ann Veneman, said earlier this month.
Al Modi said Saudi Arabia was falling behind in the issue of child marriage.
"Egypt assigned a legal age for marriage in 1975, now we have started to awaken," he said, adding that Arab countries like Jordon Syria, Lebanon and Egypt had already assigned a legal age for marriage.
Reporting by Asma Alsharif; editing by Erica Billingham and Richard Balmforth