http://www.arabnews.com/?page=1&section=0&article=112494&d=7&m=8&y=2008

Thursday 7 August 2008 (04 Sha`ban 1429)

      Call for legislation to stop child marriages
      Donna Abu-Nasr | AP
     
        
      RIYADH: An 11-year-old boy gave out invitations to his classmates for a 
big event his family was planning this summer - and it wasn't his birthday 
party.

      It was his wedding to a 10-year-old cousin.

      Muhammad Al-Rashidi's marriage was eventually put on hold, his father 
said, after pressure from the governor of Hail, who considered the elementary 
school student too young to marry.

      The case is among a recent spate of marriages involving the very young 
reported in the media and by human rights groups. They have been widely 
denounced by activists, Islamic scholars and others who say such unions are 
harmful to the children and trivialize the institution of marriage.

      The Kingdom is already rocked by a high divorce rate that has jumped from 
25 percent to 60 percent over the past 20 years, according to Noura Al-Shamlan, 
head of the research department at the Center of University Studies for Girls.

      "We are studying this issue so we can put an end to this phenomenon," 
said Zuhair Al-Harithy, board member of the Human Rights Commission. "These 
marriages violate international agreements the Kingdom has signed."

      Al-Harithy's group recently succeeded in delaying the consummation of the 
marriage of a 10-year-old girl after getting reports from medical centers in 
Hail that she and a man in his 60s had showed up for the mandatory prenuptial 
medical tests.

      He said the commission wrote to the province's governor and head of 
Islamic courts urging them to stop the marriage.

      But there are other marriages involving children that have gone ahead.

      One involved a 15-year-old girl whose father, Muhammad Ali Al-Zahrani, a 
death-row inmate, married her off to a cell-mate who also was sentenced to 
death. The father's sentence was carried out on July 21; he was beheaded for 
killing another man. Pictures of the wedding, held in the prison in Taif for 
the men, appeared in several newspapers.

      Media reports said inmates recited poems and delivered speeches in the 
presence of prison officials. The teenage bride and other women, as is the 
custom here, held a separate reception outside the jail.

      The groom, Awad Al-Harbi, and his bride were allowed to spend two nights 
together in special prison quarters after the wedding, according to Al-Watan. 
Al-Harbi told another newspaper, Al-Madinah, recently that his wife was 
pregnant.

      There are no laws defining the minimum age for marriage. Although a 
woman's consent is legally required, some marriage officials do not seek it. 
For example, a father can marry off a one-year-old girl as long as sex is 
delayed until she reaches puberty, said one marriage official, Ahmad Al-Muabi.

      Known as "mathoons," these officials have legal authority to preside over 
marriage contract ceremonies.

      They ask the groom and the woman's guardian if they approve of the 
marriage and then give them the marriage papers to sign.

      No statistics

      There are no statistics to show how many marriages involving children are 
performed each year. And it is also not clear whether these unions are on the 
rise or whether people are hearing about them more now because of the 
prevalence of media outlets and easy access to the Internet.

      But the phenomenon is not new, said Sheikh Muhammad Al-Nujaimi, a strong 
opponent of the marriages. He and other Islamic scholars, activists and writers 
have urged the government to pass legislation setting the minimum age for 
marriage and to resolve differences among the Kingdom's religious authorities 
over the issue.

      "There are different (religious) opinions regarding the marriages which 
is why we need the government to settle the issue through legislation," said 
Al-Nujaimi.

      Such marriages occur not only in Saudi Arabia. In April, an 
eight-year-old Yemeni girl sought out a judge to file for divorce from a man 
nearly four times her age. Her lawyer said she was one of thousands of 
underaged girls who have been forced into marriages in Yemen.

      Activists say the numbers in the Kingdom are not so high. They say the 
girls are given away in return for hefty dowries or as a result of longstanding 
custom in which a father promises his infant daughters and sons to cousins out 
of a belief that marriage will protect them from illicit relationships.

      Denouncing the custom, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Asheikh and top 
religious authority recently said a guardian should not impose his will on his 
children or promise them to their cousins.

      "Islam has stipulated that both parties agree to the marriage contract," 
he said. "The woman must express real consent to the suitor, and a guardian 
must not impose his choice of husband on her ... or force his son to marry 
someone he doesn't want."

      Al-Muabi, the marriage official, told LBC TV that because marriage in 
Islam takes place in two stages - a marriage contract can be signed months or 
even years before a woman moves in with her husband - that means a one-year-old 
girl can be married off.

      A man "can enter a marriage contract with a one-year-old girl, not to 
mention nine years, seven years or eight years," said Al-Muabi. "This is just a 
contract indicating consent, and the guardian in this case must be the father."

      Al-Muabi maintained such unions make sense in some cases, such as when a 
man is the sole guardian of many daughters. "Isn't it better to marry his 
daughter to a man with whom she can stay and who can protect her and support 
her, and when she reaches the proper age, have sex with her? Who says all men 
are ferocious wolves?" said Al-Muabi.

      However, Sheikh Abdul Mohsen Al-Obaikan, a legal adviser at the Justice 
Ministry, said a girl's consent is crucial.

      "A marriage official should not conclude a marriage contract without the 
woman's agreement and without her signature," Al-Obaikan told Al-Madinah 
newspaper. "Officials who ignore such instructions expose themselves to 
punishment."

      Until laws are put in place to protect children, human rights groups have 
been speaking out against the practice.

      "When girls are married off at a young age they will be deprived of 
education and the opportunity to enjoy their childhood," said Suhaila Hammad of 
the National Society for Human Rights (NSHR). "Their bodies won't be able to 
tolerate pregnancy and deliver children."

      But there's only so much the groups can do. 

      Muraiziq Al-Rashidi, the 11-year-old boy's father, said he will delay his 
son's marriage only by a year. "God willing, we will hold the wedding next 
year," he said.
     

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