U.S. calls Saudi child marriage a rights violation

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Wednesday called the case of an 8-year-old Saudi girl married to a man 50 years older a “clear and unacceptable violation of human rights,” in a rare criticism of its oil-producing ally.

State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the United States has frequently raised the issue of child marriages with Saudi officials, although he could not say whether this specific case had been raised.

A court in the town of Unaiza in Saudi Arabia upheld for the second time last week the marriage of the Saudi girl to a man who is about 50 years her senior on condition he does not have sex with her until she reaches puberty.

“Child marriage is a clear and unacceptable violation of human rights, in our view,” Wood told reporters in Washington. “U.S. officials at all levels frequently raise with the Saudi government our human rights concerns, especially those dealing with ... children and child marriages.”

On Tuesday, the Saudi justice minister was quoted as saying Riyadh plans to regulate the marriages of young girls after the court refused to nullify the 8-year-old’s marriage.

Saudi Arabia is a patriarchal society that applies an austere form of Sunni Islam that bans unrelated men and women from mixing and gives fathers the right to wed their sons and daughters to whoever they deem fit.

The justice ministry aims “to put an end to arbitrariness by parents and guardians in marrying off minor girls,” Justice Minister Mohamed al-Issa told al-Watan newspaper, partially owned by members of the royal family.

The minister’s comments suggested the practice of marrying off young girls would not be abolished. The regulations will seek to “preserve the rights, fending off blights to end the negative aspects of underage girls’ marriage,” he said.

Many young girls in Arab countries that observe tribal traditions are married to older husbands but not before puberty. Such marriages are also driven by poverty in countries like Yemen, one of the poorest countries outside Africa.

On Monday, the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF also expressed concern over the issue. The agency’s chief, Ann Veneman, said consent to marriage could not be free and full when either party was too young to make an informed decision.

“Irrespective of circumstances or the legal framework, the marriage of a child is a violation of that child’s rights,” Veneman, a former U.S. agriculture secretary, said in a statement.

Reporting by Arshad Mohammed; editing by Will Dunham