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Saudi advisory council approves regulations to limit child marriages

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Saudi advisory council approves regulations to limit child marriages
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Saudi Arabia's Shura Council, an advisory body to the Saudi government, has voted to approve regulations on limiting marriages of those under 18 years of age.

Specifically, the council voted in favour of banning marriages involving children under 15 years old, while some exceptions could still be made for those between the ages of 15-18, the council confirmed in a series of tweets on Wednesday.

Shura Council tweet calls for prohibiting of marriages of those under the age of 15.
Shura Council approving marriage exceptions of those under the age of 18.

Around one in five young women in the Middle East and North Africa get married under the age of 18, with one in 25 girls getting married before their 15th birthday, according to a 2018 report from UNICEF.

Several council members publicly lauded Wednesday's vote, thanking others for helping create the recommendation to apply a minimum age for marriage, something the Gulf kingdom does not yet have.

Latifa al-Shaalan, one of the female council members, said the decision was a "good step forward," despite it being "not easy to reach."

"My personal opinion is that, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, we are fast approaching putting a legal system in place that will prevent marriage for those under 18. This will happen one day," she said.

A move in the right direction?

While some in Saudi Arabia have applauded the positive vote, several human rights organisations point out that there is still a long way to go before the kingdom could see these big changes.

Speaking to Euronews, Human Rights Watch Middle East researcher Adam Coogle said the council vote marked a step in the right direction, but highlighted that this isn't enough.

"It’s very important to note that Shura council decisions are merely advisory, nothing changes until the cabinet approves a new regulation," he said.

"But you could say this is symbolically a small step in the right direction and indicates there is political will on part of the Saudis to make some small strides in this area."

However, comparing other countries with similar safeguarding regulations on marriages of those between the ages of 15-18, Coogle said the outlook remained fairly negative.

"They have not proven very effective over the years," he said. "And these child marriages tend not to be treated as exceptional cases and get approved rather easily by judges or courts (depending on the country)."

Heather Hamilton, the deputy director of the Girls Not Brides organisation, echoed Coogle's sentiment, saying the regulations were merely a "far cry from the change needed to bring an end to this human rights violation."

Alongside new laws, a change in attitude towards child marriages were also necessary, Hamilton said in a statement to Euronews.

"While laws and policies are essential in preventing child marriage, we also need to change the attitudes that make child marriage acceptable in the first place," she said.

"That means working with communities, parents, and girls themselves; it means expanding girls' access to education and services and empowering them so that they can choose if, when and whom they marry."

Reaction from the Saudi population

The news of the council's vote sparked a large conversation amongst Saudis on social media, much of which was positive toward the proposed regulations.

Saudi lawyer Nayef al-Mansi tweeted that the vote was a "great step on the way to standardisation."

Many other Saudi users joined the conversation using the hashtag "العمر_المناسب_للزواج#", which in English means 'the appropriate age for marriage."

One user said he believed marriage should generally occur when people reach the ages of 25 to 27.

Several users said they believed the ages should differ between men and women, but should still be above the age of 18.

The following Twitter user suggested women should be 18 and above, while men should marry from the age of 26.

However, a large number of Saudi social media users disregarded rules around age entirely, choosing more to focus on couples being able to choose their own partners and decide for themselves when they are ready to marry.

Jeddah-based dental student Noor Mohammed said someone should be allowed to marry "if you find a right person."

This sentiment continued to be echoed with many Saudis on Twitter, who said marriage was about partnering with the right person as, when, and if, they were ready.