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The unnoticed reform: Saudi Arabia on the road to ending child marriage

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Child marriage under 18 years of age and the status quo in the Middle East and the Western countries. Why Saudi Arabia voted for approving the regulation?

Nowadays we sometimes tend to think that child marriage is not something common in the 21st century, but globally more than 12 million girls marry before the age of 18 every year, according to Girls Not Brides – a coalition working to end child marriage. Around one in five young women in the Middle East and North Africa get married under the age of 18, with one in 25 girls doing so before their 15th birthday, according to a 2018 report from UNICEF. There is still a lot of work to be done, even today, if we want to see a world where everyone enjoys equality reaching their full potential. This is why it’s important to notice that Saudi Arabia, a country which is recently opening up, has already made a big improvement in the right direction.

Saudi Arabia has just voted to approve regulations of limiting child marriages to 18 years of age. The Shura Council, a top advisory body to the government, approved regulations on the 9th of January 2019 to prohibit marriage for girls and boys under 15, and those under 18 will need approval from a specialized court, according to council member Lina Almaeena. She said the approval by the council is a “great accomplishment” for the kingdom in protecting its young citizens.

 “There were no marriage limitations before, so for this to be passed and prohibit marriage for children is a huge accomplishment because you will be protecting young boys and girls,” she told The Thompson Reuters Foundation by phone.

Child marriage — defined internationally as marriage under 18 — remains legal in Britain. In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, teenagers can wed at 16 with parental consent. In Scotland, they do not need consent.

While Saudi Arabia is taking another step forward, the situation in the US is not looking too good. The majority of US states do not lay out a minimum age for marriage if statutory exceptions are met, such as parental or judicial consent or in case of pregnancy. Heather Hamilton, deputy director of Girls Not Brides, said it is “encouraging” that the kingdom is setting age limits for marriage. “We know that even in countries like the US and UK, courts offer little protection to girls who don’t want to marry but risk alienation or retribution from their families if they tell court officials their real feelings.”

The news of the council’s vote sparked a large conversation amongst Saudis on social media, much of which was positive toward the proposed regulations. Saudi lawyer Nayef al-Mansi tweeted that the vote was a “great step on the way to standartization”. Many other Saudi users joined the conversation using the hashtag “العمر_المناسب_للزواج#”, which in English means “the appropriate age for marriage”. Many other said marriage was about partnering with the right person as, when, and if, they were ready.

Campaigners say children married young are more likely to leave school, get divorced, experience domestic abuse and mental health problems and live in poverty than those who marry later. “There needs to be a complete ban on child marriage – with no exceptions. You have to make it clear to society that this is a negative social phenomenon and it should be stopped,” said Adam Coogle, Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch.

After all, Saudi Arabia is once again showing the world that reforms are taking place and it is happening fast. While the country is still being widely criticized by the Western medias, we failed to mention an important difference. A change which is certainly giving a good example to other countries in the Middle East.

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