Judge Refuses To Divorce 8-Year-Old Girl, Sparks International Debate

A Saudi judge has, for a second time, refused to annul a marriage between an eight-year-old girl and a 47-year-old man.

[The person seen in the image at left is not the girl in question] The girl's mother petitioned for the annulment in December, but was refused on a technicality. The eight-year-old's father arranged the marriage between his daughter and a "close friend" in order to settle debts with the man. According to Al Arabiya News Channel the marriage contract was created as part of a loan repayment agreement. In exchange for the girl, the groom agreed to deduct the equivalent of $8,000 from the debt owed him by the girl's father.

The judge ruled that the child bride will be allowed to petition for divorce once she has reached puberty. Her husband was also forced to sign an agreement that he will not have sex with her until then. There are reports that the judge initially tried to negotiate with the groom, asking him to divorce the girl in exchange for monetary payment. The girl's uncle was unhappy with this idea. "We cannot accept that. It's like rewarding him. The court has to make an example of him so that others won't try to do the same thing," he said. An unnamed relative told the press that the girl's mother plans to continue to seek an annulment for her daughter.

Many members of the Saudi government maintain that it acceptable for girls as young as 10 to wed. "It is incorrect to say that it's not permitted to marry off girls who are 15 and younger," said Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh, the kingdom's grand mufti, during an lecture on underage girls being forced into marriage. "A girl aged 10 or 12 can be married. Those who think she's too young are wrong and they are being unfair to her." Al-Sheikh also reassured the public that "sharia law has not brought injustice to women."

On Monday, UNICEF expressed its "deep concern" over the court ruling.

"Irrespective of circumstances or the legal framework, the marriage of a child is a violation of that child's rights," said Ann Veneman, executive director of UNICEF.

"The right to free and full consent to marriage is recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Consent cannot be free and full when either party to a marriage is too young to make an informed decision."

Many believe that the mere fact we are talking about this, and that the young girl's mother would have the courage to petition the courts, signals a change in attitude. Christoph Wilcke of Human Rights Watch tells CNN that he hears of cases like this every few months, and not because the practice is new: "Saudi public is now able to express this kind of anger — especially so when girls are traded off to older men," he said. Further support comes from the Saudi Society for the Defense of Women's Rights. Recently the group released a video titled "I am a Child, Not a Woman." They are also campaigning to raise the legal age of marriage to 17 for girls and 18 for boys.

And there may be hope yet for the 8-year-old bride: Earlier today, the justice minister announced plans to regulate the marriages of young girls. Justice Minister Mohamed al-Issa told newspapers that they aim to "to put an end to arbitrariness by parents and guardians in marrying off minor girls."

Saudi Judge Refuses To Annul 8-Year-old's Marriage [CNN]
8-Year-Old Girl's Marriage Ruled Legal [UPI]
No Divorce For 8 Yr. Old Saudi Girl, Says Judge [Al Arabiya News Channel]
Saudi Arabia To Regulate Girls' Marriages [Reuters]
Liberals And Child Brides [NRO]
UNICEF 'Deeply Concerned' Bbout Marriage Of 8-year-Old [CNN]