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World News

Saudi Arabia to regulate girls' marriages

RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia plans to regulate the marriages of young girls, its justice minister was quoted as saying on Tuesday, after a court refused to nullify the marriage of an 8-year-old to a man 50 years her senior.

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.

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 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.

A court in the Saudi town of Unaiza 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.

The minister added that any new regulations would be made under the provision that the requirements of universal laws were not binding to religious commandments.

Officials at the ministry could not be reached for comment.

Financial considerations could prompt some Saudi families to wed their underage daughters to much older men. Many Saudi clerics, including the kingdom’s chief cleric Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdelaziz Al al-Sheikh, endorse the practice.

“For them this is allowed by Islamic Sharia law,” lawyer Abdul-Rahman al-Lahem said.

“Some (clerics) will be against this (plan) but the justice minister is also a cleric and a member of the kingdom’s top clerics body.”

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.

The U.N. children’s agency UNICEF expressed on Monday its “deep concern” over the Onaiza court ruling.

“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 in a statement.

Reporting by Souhail Karam and Patrick Worsnip in New York; editing by Robert Woodward

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