Despite rising criticism within Saudi Arabia of the practice of child bride marriages, in April a Saudi judge upheld for a second time the arranged marriage between an eight-year-old girl and a 47-year-old man. The head of the United Nations Children’s Fund, Ann Veneman, voiced her concern at the ruling, saying that ‘irrespective of circumstances or the legal framework, the marriage of a child is a violation of that child’s rights’. It also contravenes the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Saudi Arabia is a signatory.
The Saudi religious establishment is generally in favour of the practice, saying that the Prophet Muhammad married his wife when she was only six years old. But in the past few months, activists, writers and journalists within the country have become more outspoken about child marriage and have been demanding a minimum age for marriage to be enshrined in Saudi law. In response to the public debate, the legislative Shura Council passed a resolution on 24 November 2008 setting the legal age of majority at 18, but it shied away from defining a legal minimum age for marriage. As a result, the protests continue. In a recent statement, Saudi human rights activists declared that: ‘We will fight the phenomenon of child brides in our country by every legal means. We call for the passage of religious family laws to protect the rights of women and children within the family.’