JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia’s state human rights body has hired a lawyer to review the case of a girl whose mother sought her divorce from an 80-year-old man, a move activists hope is a first step against child marriage.
Saudi Arabia, a patriarchal society that applies an austere version of Sunni Islam, has no minimum legal age for marriage. Fathers are granted guardianship over their daughters, giving them control over who their daughters marry and when.
The girl — believed to be 12 years old — from Buraidah, a conservative town near the capital Riyadh, was married to her father’s elderly cousin late last year for bridal money of 85,000 riyals ($23,000), lawyer Sultan bin Zahim said.
Activists see the divorce proceedings as a test case that could pave the way for introducing a minimum age for marriage in the kingdom, where child marriage is common in poorer tribal areas.
The child’s mother had earlier filed for divorce on her daughter’s behalf but withdrew without giving a reason after a second court hearing in early February, Zahim told Reuters.
The state-affiliated rights body then took over the case, to investigate the mother’s reasons for withdrawal as well as the age of the child and her husband, which have been disputed, before they assess further action that they can take.
The lawyer had previously stated that the Human Rights Commission is filing for divorce on behalf of the child.
“(HRC) became involved in this case as a public rights issue that concerns the Saudi community ... This case is still valid even after the mother withdrew,” Zahim said.
This is the first time the commission has intervened in a case of child marriage, an issue that was previously seen as a “family affair” and outside the commission’s remit.
“This intervention is part of the commission’s authority in accordance with its rules, however it cannot propagate these measures until it confirms the facts in this case,” Zahim said.
Saudi Arabia is a signatory of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of a Child, which considers those under 18 as children.
“This case is an investment in order to push for a law,” said Wajiha al-Huweider, a Saudi rights activist. “We need to affect public opinion and I believe that Saudi Arabia will issue a law preventing child marriages soon.”
Zuhair al-Harthi, a member of the advisory Shura Council, said a draft law on banning child marriages was being studied by a government committee. But activists fear it could take long.
“Such a law will take a long time to be passed as there are social, religious, and cultural aspects,” said Mufleh al-Qahtani, chairman of the National Society for Human Rights, a non-governmental organization.
Harthi said a quicker way to address the issue could be for the government to ban notaries from performing marriages for girls under the age of 18 years, which would be an intervention on an administrative rather than legal level. (Reporting by Asma Alsharif; Editing by Dominic Evans)