The fight to end child marriage

An Indian groom puts vermilion, a traditional marriage symbol, on the forehead of his underage bride during a mass wedding outside Kolkata. India is one of 12 countries working with the UN to halt the forced marriage of children. (AFP)
Updated 21 January 2019

The fight to end child marriage

  • Saudi Arabia’s Shoura Council has moved to abolish a practice that remains a hidden scandal in many parts of the world
  • Child marriage is a generations-old custom still practiced today around the world

RIYADH: When Saudi Arabia’s Shoura Council voted on Jan. 11 to ban child marriage in the Kingdom, it joined a global movement seeking to end a practice that is harmful not just to girls’ health — child brides are more likely to experience domestic violence and die in childbirth — but also to their future, as they are less likely to remain in school.

According to UNICEF, the term “child marriage” is used to refer to both formal marriages and informal unions in which a girl or boy lives with a partner before the age of 18. An informal union is one in which a couple live together for some time, intending to have a lasting relationship, but do not have a formal civil or religious ceremony.

The Shoura Council banned child marriages for both genders with the approval of two-thirds of its members.

The law was eight years in the making, and was put before the council at least five times in last year’s council sessions. The members voted to approve regulations limiting marriages of those under 18 years of age and banning marriages involving children under 15 years of age. The law was effective immediately.

Shoura Council member Dr. Hoda Al-Helaissi said the law is an important step in protecting children’s rights.

 “The idea was to protect girls more than anything, but also young boys,” she said. “You cannot expect a girl of 10 or 12 to understand what marital relations are, or for her body to correctly carry a baby. There are a lot of health issues involved.”

Al-Helaissi explained the reason behind the delay in approving the law. “The usual argument was that it took place in the days of the Prophet (Muhammad). But times have changed since the olden days, and we are not just talking about Islam. It was used as a bartering tool for (those in) poverty, where the fathers received dowries. 

“Things are completely different now,” she said. “The law gives them the possibility of an education and future.” 

Times are certainly changing in Saudi Arabia, which is modernizing under the Vision 2030 reform plan. And while the latest step is one of many taken recently to empower women, the Kingdom is not even among the 20 countries that have the highest absolute numbers of child marriages. 

Most child marriages take place in poverty-stricken countries in which families benefit financially from a daughter’s marriage, or in countries that adhere strictly to traditional norms. In many such countries, girls are viewed as a burden on families — in need of safeguarding to protect their honor — while boys are considered breadwinners. 

Child marriage is a generations-old custom still practiced today around the world in countries including India, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Indonesia and Mexico. The custom has often gone unquestioned in such places since it has been part of communities’ lives and identities for a long time.

Families marry their daughters in return for dowries, passing the responsibility of their daughter’s care to the husband. This eases the financial strain of impoverished families because they have one less mouth to feed. In conflict areas, many believe marriage is in the daughter’s best interest to protect her from physical or sexual harassment.  

India has by far the highest  number of child brides. Even though child marriage is technically illegal there, many are falling victim to the practice.

A study published in UNICEF’s “State of the World’s Children” report in 2017 estimated that there were more than 15 million women in India who married when they were children. 

According to a study carried out by Girls Not Brides — a global partnership of more than 1,000 civil society organizations committed to ending child marriage — 27 percent of Indian girls are married before the age of 18, and 7 percent by the age of 15. India is one of 12 countries selected to be part of the UN Population Fund and UNICEF’s Global Program to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage. 

Child marriage is not just restricted to the developing world, however. It is legal — taking judicial exceptions into account — in 49 US states. 




Child bride Sunita Bishnoi, 5, at her parents’ home near Jodpur in
India’s northwest. (AFP)

States often make exceptions to their minimum-age ruling if those below the age of 18 have parental consent, the approval of a judge, or are recognized as adults. And 25 states have no statutory minimum age for marriage to begin with, meaning that minors can legally marry other minors or adults.

Minors are most likely to get married in places that are rural and poor, said Nicholas Syrett, who combed through historical marriage records while researching his book “American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States.”

He wrote: “Almost all the evidence indicates that girls in cities don’t get married young, that girls from middle class or wealthy families don’t get married young. This is a rural phenomenon and it is a phenomenon of poverty.”

According to Unchained at Last, an organization dedicated to ending forced and child marriage in the US, an estimated 248,000 children — some as young as 12 — were married between 2000 and 2015 in America.

The new law in Saudi Arabia is in keeping with the country’s existing child protection law, which applies to people under the age of 18, Jeddah-based divorce lawyer Bayan Zahran told Arab News. “Anyone under this age limit is considered to be under the child protection system,” she said. 

The new law confirms the view that minors cannot be expected to function as adults in a marriage, Zahran said, and will help prevent divorces that result from these dysfunctional partnerships.

Dr. Fawzia Aba Al-Khail, a member of the Shoura Council, emphasized the importance of the matter being debated thoroughly by the council — even if that meant taking a long time to pass the law. 

“The fact that a minority of the council’s (Islamic and judicial affairs) committee disagreed with passing the law shows they have a right to their opinion, and that the committee discusses (matters) intelligently, with a focus on human rights. 

“Yes, there have been many discussions before, but you need the majority, and the Shoura Council is made up of many different backgrounds … In passing this law, we have agreed to protect all minors.”


Cyberattacks hit 95% of Saudi businesses last year, says study

Updated 23 min 37 sec ago

Cyberattacks hit 95% of Saudi businesses last year, says study

  • Data, money and reputation at risk

RIYADH: Cyberattacks hit 95 percent of businesses in the Kingdom last year, according to a new survey, as a cybersecurity expert warned that there was a lack of awareness in Saudi Arabia about the seriousness of such attacks and what people could do to protect themselves.

More than 800 global business and cybersecurity leaders took part in the survey, including 49 from the Kingdom. It was commissioned by a cybersecurity firm, Tenable Inc., and carried out by Forrester Consulting.

According to the study, 85 percent of Saudi survey participants had witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of business-impacting attacks in the past two years. The effects of the attacks were serious, with organizations reporting loss of customer or employee data, ransomware payments and financial loss or theft. Around 61 percent of security leaders in Saudi Arabia said the cyberattacks also involved operational technology.

Cybersecurity expert Abdullah Al-Jaber said the primary reason that most of these cyberattacks were successful in the region was due to a lack of awareness about the gravity of these incidents and the ways that people could protect themselves against them.

“A lot of cybersecurity attacks happen because of a lack of cybersecurity awareness in a company’s employees,” he told Arab News. “Many attacks start from phishing campaigns and lead to major incidents, similar to the attack that happened recently on Twitter,” he said, referring to a Bitcoin hacking scheme that happened on the social media platform last month.

Al Jaber recommended educating employees about proper internet security, keeping work and personal internet browsing and email access on separate devices if possible, and avoiding unsafe behavior such as pirating music, movies, and TV shows.

“Improving cybersecurity awareness to employees is key for companies to make sure they don't open any malicious links or files that might lead to an incident. Also, understanding the environment and which systems are exposed to the Internet and making sure those systems are hardened and protected. The National Cybersecurity Authority (NCA) has published frameworks for organizations to follow, which help many organizations in improving their cybersecurity maturity,” he added.

He also recommended choosing complex passwords for email access and enabling two-factor authentication protocols whenever possible for added security.

The Tenable poll showed that fewer than 50 percent of the security leaders who took part said they are framing cybersecurity threats within the context of a specific business risk. For example, although 96 percent of respondents had developed response strategies to the COVID-19 pandemic, 75 percent of business and security leaders said their response strategies were only “somewhat” aligned.

Al-Jaber warned that these attacks could be dangerous for many reasons and not only because of the financial impact they could have on companies, as many factors came into play in terms of phishing scams.

“Some of the impact caused by cybersecurity attacks are the loss of sensitive information such as customer or employee personal identifiable information, financial loss, and even to the company’s reputation. A company that is known for being more vulnerable to cyberattacks might have less of a value on the stock market or to potential investors,” he said.

A royal decree requires all organizations to improve cybersecurity standards and procedures to protect their networks, systems and electronic data, and commit to the adoption of policies, frameworks, standards, controls and guidelines issued by the NCA.