from today's Times of London -
A 12-year-old girl fighting to divorce her 80-year-old husband in Saudi Arabia is to receive legal assistance from the Government in what could become a test case for banning child marriage in the kingdom.
The state-run Human Rights Commission has hired a lawyer to represent the girl when she takes her case to court in Buraidah, a conservative town near the capital Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia has no minimum legal age for marriage and it is common in poorer, tribal areas for girls to be married off. However, it is rare for a child bride to challenge the match.
A draft law prohibiting child marriage is under discussion and activists hope that the case will be a watershed in the campaign to ban the practice.
The girl was married to her father’s cousin last year against her wishes and those of her mother. It was reported locally that the marriage was sealed with a dowry of 85,000 riyals (£14,500) and consummated.
The girl’s mother filed for divorce but withdrew her case without explanation this month.
This is the first time that the Human Rights Commission has intervened publicly in such a case.
Alanoud al-Hejailan, a lawyer for the commission, said: “Our main concern is to safeguard the child’s rights ... it is in the hands of the court but the commission is firmly on the child’s side.”
The court is expected to rule in the case within days. The commission has indicated that it will pursue the matter through the appeals court if a divorce is not granted.
The draft law is expected to establish a minimum age for marriage of between 16 and 18. As a short-term measure activists are pressing for the Government to ban notaries from sealing marriages of girls under 18.
The case has sparked debate in Saudi Arabia. Some judges and clerics have used the Prophet Muhammad’s marriage to a nine-year-old girl as justification of child marriage.
However, in January Sheikh Abdullah al-Manie, a senior Saudi cleric, spoke out in defence of the girl, declaring that the Prophet’s marriage 14 centuries ago could not be used to justify child marriages today.
— In April 2009 a Saudi judge refused to annul a marriage between a girl, 8, and a man in his late forties, saying that she could not seek divorce until she reached puberty
— Anecdotal evidence suggests that Saudi Arabi’a child marriage rate is high, accompanied by a divorce rate of about 60 per cent
— Child marriage in Yemen became a cause célèbre in 2008 when Nujood Ali, 10, sought divorce from an abusive husband more than three times her age
— Marriage of young girls is most common in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia. In Niger 77 per cent of 20 to 24-year-old women were married before 18 and in Bangladesh the figure stands at 65 per cent