Saudi Arabia bans underage marriage – a move that protects the rights of children

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has taken a step in the right direction, like its neighbours, with an unspoken caveat. The Islamic epicentre has set a minimum age for marriage at 18 years old.

The Minister of Justice and Chairman of the Supreme Judicial Council, Sheikh Walid Al-Samaani, issued the new directive in a circular sent to all the courts in The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Why we are excited? There are some 750 million child brides globally – an epidemic by all measures. The Middle East adds 700,000 child brides every year to that.

Saudi Arabia’s move to update its marriage laws is a huge deal for many reasons.

The Middle East is home to over 40 million child brides and counting. 

Saudi Arabia is easily the most influential state in the region due to its religious relevance to over 2 billion Muslims worldwide. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), for all its economic importance in the region, cannot compare.

Just this year, the UAE lifted the ban on the consumption of alcohol and cohabitation between unmarried couples of the opposite sex. The relaxation of the laws was met with general indifference from the Muslim world, why? It is just Dubai, and Dubai will do what Dubai does – make money.

With Saudi Arabia, there is a lingering hope that this will give the Muslim world pause, particularly troubled regions in Africa that look up to the kingdom. Northern Nigeria and some parts of North Africa will benefit from arriving at an understanding of religion that allows both regions to create provisions that could potentially better protect children.

Without a doubt, there exists the depressing possibility that unregistered marriages will continue to fly under the radar. Turkey, which has a legal marriage age of 18 with marriage at 17 allowed with legal tender, continues to have child brides – many from the Syrian refugee community of over 3 million.

The legal framework protecting children is however good regardless. The case of a 9-year-old Yemeni girl married to a man five times her age, who then managed to go to court for redress and won her freedom, puts this in perspective.

Children shouldn’t have to fight to have a decent life, but if they must, the better to have a fighting chance like the one a protective legal framework provides.

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