In the latest development following the reform measures of Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has issued de facto ban on child marriages.
The National reported that the Justice Ministry issued an order to the courts that any marriage application for someone under the age of 18 would have to be referred to a special court to make sure that “marrying those below 18-years old will not harm them and will achieve their best interest, no matter their gender.”
It could be recalled that in January; the Shoura council passed the amendment of the kingdom’s Child Protection Law that established marriage age to 16-18 years and above, discrediting the 15 years of age it was formerly based on.
An avalanche of unprecedented changes has been swirling through the kingdom following the reform agenda of Prince Salman. In June, Salman announced that women will be allowed for the first time in the history of the kingdom, to drive and also watch football matches in stadiums with men.
Saudi women were also permitted to study at the university, undergo surgery or get a job without the permission of a male guardian. The amendment also granted women the right to register the birth of a child, a marriage or a divorce, and to be issued official family documentation and be eligible as guardians to minors.
The ground breaking rule came with the announcement that women will be paid equally as men at the same job.
While the unequal pay remains a global challenge, child marriage is a tradition more prevalent in Islamic countries. And Saudi Arabia being the host of Mecca, the Islamic holy land, it’s widely being copied in many things relating to the Islamic faith, especially by developing countries.
In Nigeria, child marriage is a culture associated mainly to Islam, and it’s a debilitating norm in the Northern part of the country. Girls of 8 years and above are given in marriage to adult men way older than them, some old enough to be the girls’ fathers.
According to Unicef, Nigeria has the highest number of child brides in Africa. Most of the marriages are arranged by the child’s parents against her will and education, breeding a generation of unlettered child brides and parents who will grow up to bequeath the same tradition to their own children. And to cap it up, the practice is spearheaded by those in authority.
In 2013, a former governor and Senator, Ahmad Sani Yerima, was accused of importing a 13 year old bride from Egypt. The development exposed the gravity of the practice that was backed by Islamic beliefs and therefore opened the topic for debate. In 2013, the child-bride practice stirred outrage in Nigeria that the hashtag #ChildNotBride trended for days.
The controversy that followed Yerima’s child-bride did not quell it; in fact, it did not stop him from taking the little child as a wife. This is because the Nigerian constitution does not establish a minimum age of marriage. The Child’s Right Act of 2003 set the age of marriage at 18 years old, however, most northern states have failed to adopt the Act. So in some states of the country, the approved age of marriage is 12.
Attempts to change the system, even by Muslim right groups have proved futile. Some activists did propose 15 years as marriage age, but it was rejected based on religious ground. Awwal Tesleem Shittu, a member of the Muslim Lawyers Association of Nigeria said that putting a limit to a girl’s age of marriage is anti-Islam. According to him, a girl’s readiness for marriage cannot be determined by her age.
“A girl of 13 years old, if she is not physically okay, maybe she doesn’t have a sound mind, she could not comprehend, she could differentiate between right and wrong, she is not fit for marriage. She is not ripe for marriage.” He added “A girl of nine years, if she is sound, she is physically okay, she can go in, because in Islam there is no barrier to that.”
The Quran says that girls can marry once they reach maturity. While some Muslim countries set the maturity age at 18, some conservatives, like those in northern Nigeria define it as puberty. And girl children are bearing the severe brunt.
According to Global Health, Nigeria has the highest number of Vesico vaginal Fistula (VVF) in the world, with over 800, 000 women living with the problem and over 20, 000 cases being recorded annually. The majority of these cases is as a result of child marriage. Female children not old enough to practice sex or bear children, but are forced to do so due to ignorance, illiteracy or religious belief. Another factor attributed to the increase is poverty. It is said that many poor parents in the north want the bride price for their girl children not minding her age.
Upon the news that Saudi Arabia has set the age limit of marriage at 18, many Muslims from northern Nigeria took to social media to register their displeasure over the development. Activists believe that the number of Islamic countries that set the marriage age at 18 is enough to convince northern Nigerian states to do the same by adopting the Child’s Right Act of 2003. They said Nigeria cannot be more Muslim than Saudi, if the kingdom can see a reason to change the narrative, northern Nigeria should do the same.