Making a difference in orphans’ lives
That’s not to say that orphans are mistreated. Quite the contrary, they are well cared for by the staff. But the stigma attached to Saudi orphans has been questioned in recent years by Saudis due to inequities in their treatment and they want to see unnecessarily harsh attitudes re-examined.
As a result the Social Affairs Ministry has taken steps to ease the hardships that orphans face. An executive panel recently recommended that Saudi orphans be allowed to marry expats in an effort to offer greater opportunities for more independence and greater integration into society.
The committee also recommended that orphans be allowed to open bank accounts and it urged the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (SAMA) greater flexibility in helping individuals open accounts.
But the marriage issue is always problematic for orphans. The Social Affairs Ministry is particularly sensitive to marriage proposals to orphaned women from wealthy men, the disabled, elderly or individuals who exhibit signs of mental instability. There is also the issue of whether potential grooms are more interested in the SR60,000 the ministry provides for the marriage.
Currently, there are nearly 6,000 orphans living with foster families throughout the Kingdom. Females account for 3,602 orphans and males number 2,393. The majority of orphans in Saudi Arabia are girls and women, posing some tough choices in just how the ministry will deal with them when they reach the age to marry.
The ministry has taken the somewhat controversial step recently allowing female orphans misyar marriage. There is great debate about whether misyar marriages, or marriages of convenience, are appropriate and whether the arrangement subjugates women. A misyar marriage is much like a conventional marriage. Both parties must consent to the marriage, receive the blessing from the woman’s guardian, have witnesses present and have a government-approved sheikh record the marriage.
Although a dowry is generally required for a misyar marriage, it’s not nearly as high as a dowry for a conventional marriage. A misyar marriage allows the groom to avoid the cost of an expensive wedding or providing a home for his new wife. He also is not financially responsible for the wife and not required to spend any time at her home. In other words, a commitment is not necessary. Generally the marriage is kept secret and only close relatives know about it. These types of marriages are often traditionally limited to divorcees or spinsters. They can also lead to abuse, such as low-income families collecting the dowry in exchange for the daughter.
The advantages to the orphan are that she can live independently, enjoy the benefits that come with marriage to a Saudi and have children. While a misyar marriage may give orphan women a degree of freedom and independence, the lack of a financial commitment doesn’t serve them well. If a man does not see the need to provide an apartment or villa for his new wife, what exactly would be the advantage to an orphan already marginalized in Saudi society? But the Social Affairs Ministry has demonstrated over the years its commitment to providing some kind of a secure future to its wards. Its SR 60,000 marriage fund and an extraction of a commitment from the groom to secure appropriate housing could allow the scheme to work.
Given the ministry’s reputation for keeping close tabs on orphans who live with foster families, the same aggressive protective policy toward women in misyar marriages could help orphans gain a measure of independence and acceptance in Saudi society that they otherwise would not have.
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