12 year old Saudi girl fights to divorce 80 year old husband

From The Telegraph U.K.

Girl, 12, fighting to divorce 80-year-old husband in Saudi Arabia

A 12-year-old girl who wants to divorce her 80-year-old husband in Saudi Arabia will receive legal assistance from the government in what could become a test case for banning child marriage in the kingdom.

Published: 7:00AM GMT 09 Feb 2010

The state-run Human Rights Commission has hired a lawyer to represent the girl when she takes her case to court in Buraidah, a conservative town near the capital Riyadh.

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. However, it is rare for a child bride to challenge the match.

A draft law prohibiting child marriage is under discussion and activists hope that the case will be a watershed in the campaign to ban the practice.

The girl was married to her father’s cousin last year against her wishes and those of her mother. It was reported locally that the marriage was sealed with a dowry of 85,000 riyals (¬£14,500) and consummated.

The girl’s mother filed for divorce but withdrew her case without explanation this month. The case was since taken up by the commission.

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.

Alanoud al-Hejailan, a lawyer for the commission, said: “Our main concern is to safeguard the child’s rights … it is in the hands of the court but the commission is firmly on the child’s side.”

The court is expected to rule in the case within days. The commission has indicated that it will pursue the matter through the appeals court if a divorce is not granted.

The case has sparked debate in Saudi Arabia. Some judges and clerics have used the Prophet Muhammad’s marriage to a nine-year-old girl as justification of child marriage.

However, in January Sheikh Abdullah al-Manie, a senior Saudi cleric, spoke out in defence of the girl, declaring that the Prophet’s marriage 14 centuries ago could not be used to justify child marriages today.

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.

Saudi Arabia is a signatory of the UN 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.

“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 organisation.

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