By Ali al-Ahmed
8 November 2011
Atgaa, 10, and her sister Reemya, 8, are about to be married to men in their 60s. Atgaa will be her husband's fourth wife. Their wedding celebrations are scheduled for this week and will take place in the town of Fayaadah Abban in Qasim, Saudi Arabia.
The girls are getting married because their financially struggling father needs the money that their dowries will provide: young girls of this age can fetch as much as $40,000 each.
Many readers might be shocked at this news. How can it be legal? The answer is that Saudi Arabia has no minimum age for marriage, and it is perfectly legal to marry even an hour-old child.
Three Saudi ministries share the blame for allowing and facilitating child marriages. The health ministry is tasked with conducting genetic tests for couples considering marriage. Saudi law requires potential brides and grooms to provide certificates of genetic testing before marriages can officially proceed.
The justice ministry regulates the marriage process and issues licences. And the interior ministry registers families and documents the relationships between family members. It is also the most powerful government agency; it has authority over all other ministries and can direct their activities at will.
As with many pernicious practices, child marriage would not exist without tacit support and approval from the country's leadership. Far from condemning child marriage, the Saudi monarchy itself has a long history of marrying very young girls.
Sarah, who is now a brilliant Saudi doctor, told me she was barely 12 when the late prince Sultan proposed to her after seeing her walking at a military base where she had lived with her father. Luckily, her father had the wits to claim that she was chronically ill, at which point the proposal was swiftly rescinded.
Camel festivals, held at his time of the year in Saudi Arabia, witness the practice called akheth ("taking") in which girls aged 14 to 16 are "gifted" to the usually elderly members of the monarchy for a few days or weeks. This practice, reminiscent of the infamous droit du seigneur in medieval Europe, is maintained to this day with the monarchy's protection.
Saudi Arabia has probably the highest number of child marriages in the Middle East and yet there has been almost no international outrage or objection directed at the practice. I have personally sent two letters to Ann Veneman, the director of United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), regarding the Saudi practice and asking her to make her views on the issue public, as she did with Yemen.
Instead, UNICEF lauded Saudi efforts to protect child rights and even honoured Prince Naif, whose interior ministry is one of the departments overseeing child marriages. So no wonder the Saudi monarchy feels confident that such a practice can continue.
The US government has been similarly indifferent to the plight of child brides in the kingdom. In April 2009, I wrote to William Burns, the undersecretary of state, regarding the case of Sharooq, 8 – also from Quasim. I never heard back from him.
At a public conference, I asked a former senator, Chuck Hagel (seated next to Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former head of Saudi intelligence), if he personally or the US would accept the friendship and alliance of a family that allows child marriage. The answer was nothing short of shocking: "We cannot decide for other countries what is appropriate or not," he said.
So far, no UN body, such as Unicef or the human rights council, has issued a single statement condemning child marriages in Saudi Arabia [see footnote]. In fact, not one country has made a statement in the human rights council on this issue, and not a single western government has asked the Saudi monarchy to stop the practice. The ugly tradition of child marriage thus continues with the help of the monarchy and its apologists in the west.
If any governments, especially in the west, are seriously concerned with this barbaric and medieval practice, they should ban the heads of Saudi justice, interior and health ministries from entering their countries. If this action were taken against government leaders facilitating crimes against children we would soon see a resolution of this issue.
Saudi Arabia must be pressured to set a minimum age for marriage and save children like Atgaa and Reemya.
• This footnote was added on 15 November 2011. UNICEF would like to make clear that a statement was issued in 2009 by Ann Veneman, then its executive director, expressing deep concern about child marriage in Saudi Arabia.