Here is yet another reason to be grateful that you are a woman born in the U.S.A. and not in Saudi Arabia. A while back we reported on an 8-year-old Yemeni girl who wanted to leave the 30-year old man her father had forced her to marry. We also reported about a 10 year old Yemeni girl who went to a courthouse by herself to plead to be divorced from her much older husband, who beat her and raped her.
Those child brides were awarded their divorces, in one case with the repayment of a bride price.
But other children are not so lucky. Last week, a court in Saudi Arabia refused to annul the marriage of an 8 year old child and her 58-year-old husband. The girl’s father had married her off in August to pay off his debts. (He collected a dowry of $7,400.) The girl’s mother, who is divorced from the father, immediately started the annulment proceedings, and kept the girl living with her.
The judge, Sheikh Habib Abdallah al-Habib, dismissed the mother’s petition, CNN reported, because she "is not the legal guardian of the girl," the woman's lawyer, Abdullah al-Jutaili, said.
Wait. Let’s say that again. The mother – yes, the one that went through nine months of pregnancy so that her stomach stretched like a balloon and then had countless hours of labor to deliver the child and then took care of her since birth – that mother has no right to protect her child from a man 50 years her senior. O.K.
Fathers in Saudi Arabia have the sole right to make decisions, because men are the ones with all the power.
But maybe not for long. How fast can we say “Women of the world unite?”
Last week, a Saudi women’s group, the Society of Defending Women's Rights, released a statement criticizing the judge and saying that forcing children to get married makes them “lose their sense of security and safety. Also, it destroys their feeling of being loved and nurtured. It causes them a lifetime of psychological problems and severe depression.”
Under that pressure, the judge did allow that, when the girl reaches puberty, she may request a formal divorce. He also ordered the girl’s father to guarantee that the marriage would not be consummated until she is 18.
What are the chances that she will be pregnant by then, with a child who is the property of her husband?
In fact the mothers of two other Saudi girls, one 11 and one 16, are still waiting for another judge to dissolve their children’s marriages to men in their 70s. Yes, a girl of 11 married to a man in his 70s, a man, her mother says, who abuses her.
The reality of all this is just too awful to contemplate.
Christoph Wilcke, a Saudi Arabia researcher for Human Rights Watch, said his organization knows of many other child brides. "We've been hearing about these types of cases once every four or five months, because the Saudi public is now able to express this kind of anger, especially so when girls are traded off to older men," Wilcke said.
Zuhair al-Harithi, a spokesman for the Human Rights Commission, a Saudi government-run human rights group, said his organization is fighting child marriages. "The Human Rights Commission opposes child marriages in Saudi Arabia," al-Harithi said. "Child marriages violate international agreements that have been signed by Saudi Arabia and should not be allowed."
Al Harithi said that his organization has been able to stop at least one other child marriage. They stopped one.
That is a start. But the more we speak out, the more girls can be protected. Here is how to do more: donate to Human Rights Watch, and support the bill HR 3175 in the United States House of Representatives, a bill to create programs to protect girls in developing countries from child marriages.
The bill seems to be stuck in committee. Let’s see if we can get it moving. Add this to your list of New Years resolutions: write your congressman to register your dismay that innocent children are being forced into marriage against their will.