In Saudi Arabia, the only thing keeping an 80-year-old man from buying, marrying, and then raping his 12-year-old relative is … nothing. It happened this week.
The girl’s mother’s attempt to prevent the her father from selling her into a forced marriage with a man over six decades her senior was fruitless. The women’s advocacy groups who have expressed outrage have seen their protests come to nothing. And the three other underage girls this man is also married to might as well have been his housecats for all the voices they got.
The reason there is nothing to stop this man or any other from raping children under the guise of a marriage? Because Saudi Arabia has no minimum age for marriage.
For Saudi Arabia, this is hardly a unique case. Earlier this year, a judge refused to grant a divorce to an eight-year-old girl who was forced to marry an 47-year-old man by her father. Girl children before and on the verge of puberty can be forced into marriage by their families, even to men who already have other wives. In fact, marrying young girls is so easy in Saudi Arabia, that some advocates working in the country fear it will become a haven for wealthy Muslim pedophiles. With no minimum marriage age or regulations on who can marry children, pedophiles could jet into Saudi Arabia, pick up a young wife for a few thousand dollars, and then have a girl to rape and control for years to come.
In addition to the lack of a minimum marriage age, Saudi society contributes to families selling their daughters at incredibly young ages. Promiscuity (or even the appearance of non-Koran-sanctioned interaction with men) on the part of a female shames the whole family in some parts of the country. So some fathers decided to avert this risk by forcing their daughters into marriage before they are old enough to have an interest in dating or having relationships with boys. It’s a practice akin to reducing teen auto fatalities by cutting off all 16-year-olds’ feet to prevent them from driving. In other words, it’s a pretty bad plan to address the possibility of teen promiscuity.
Saudi Arabia needs to set a minimum age of marriage, but they also need to address the social and cultural reasons families sell their daughters off to old men when they’ve barely begun to think of boys their own age as anything other than cootie machines. Otherwise, the child marriage industry in Saudi Arabia will simply go underground. True, the legal tools will go a long way towards helping the families of girls like the one in this story, who have family and advocates fighting for their rights. But for every story like this one, there is easily one that is not in the newspapers because no one is fighting for the child bride’s rights. And a change in the law alone won’t help her.
Photo credit: anuarsalleh