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Rights group takes on Saudi child bride’s divorce case

A 12-year-old Saudi girl who wanted to divorce the 80-year-old husband she was forced to marry will get legal aid in what could be a test case for banning child marriage in Saudi Arabia.The kingdom’s state-run Human Rights Commission has hired a lawyer to represent the girl when her case goes to court in Buraidah, a town near the capital Riyadh. There is no minimum legal age for marriage in the Middle Eastern nation, and it is common in poorer, tribal areas for girls to be married off. But for a child bride to challenge the match is unheard of.

A law against child marriage is under discussion and rights campaigners hope this girl’s case will be a watershed in the campaign to ban the practice and set a minimum age for marriage between 16 and 18.  The case first appeared in Riyadh newspapers as that of a father who sold his 12-year-old daughter in marriage to his 80-year-old cousin last year against the girl and her mother’s wishes. It was reported locally that the marriage was sealed with a dowry of 85,000 riyals (£14,500) and consummated. The girl’s mother claimed that her daughter had actually been raped by the man and withdrew her case this month.

But now the child’s attempt to divorce her husband has been resurrected with the help of the Saudi government. It is the first time that the Human Rights Commission has intervened publicly in a case like this. “Our main concern is to safeguard the child’s rights ... said Alanoud al-Hejailan, a lawyer for the commission. “It is in the hands of the court, but the commission is firmly on the child’s side.” A court ruling is due within days and the commission has said it will pursue the matter through the appeals court, if a divorce is not granted.

The matter has sparked debate in Saudi Arabia, one of the most devout and insular countries in the Middle East. Some judges and religious leaders have justified child marriage with the Prophet Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha, who was nine or 10 years old. But in January Sheikh Abdullah al-Manie, a senior cleric, defended the girl, saying that the Prophet’s marriage 14 centuries ago could not be used to justify child marriages today. Saudi human rights activist Wajiha al-Huweider said: “We need to affect public opinion and I believe that Saudi Arabia will issue a law preventing child marriages soon.” 

By Hayley Jarvis for SOS Children