By Heba Kanso
BEIRUT, Jan. 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Saudi Arabia is trying to ban child marriage through new regulations, but loopholes are leaving young girls in the deeply conservative kingdom unprotected, campaigners said on Thursday.
The Shura Council, a top advisory body to the government, approved regulations on Wednesday to prohibit marriage for girls and boys under 15, and those under 18 will need approval from a specialised court, according to council member Lina Almaeena.
Currently, the conservative Muslim country does not have a minimum legal age for marriage, and women live under a guardianship system where they must have permission from a male relative to marry, work, and travel.
Almaeena said the approval by the council, which does not have legislative powers but can propose laws to the king and the cabinet, is a "great accomplishment" for the kingdom in protecting its young citizens.
"There were no marriage limitations before, so for this to be passed and prohibit marriage for a child under 15 is a huge accomplishment because you will be protecting young boys and girls," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
Globally, 12 million girls marry before age 18 every year, according to Girls Not Brides, a coalition working to end child marriage.
The United Nations regards the practice as a human rights violation.
Heather Hamilton, deputy director of Girls Not Brides, said it is "encouraging" that the kingdom is setting age limits for marriage, but the rules are a "far cry" from protecting children under 18, who can still marry with court approval.
"Girls are still at risk of being forced into marriage if their parents can persuade a court to agree," she said in an emailed statement.
"We know that even in countries like the US and UK, courts offer little protection to girls who don't want to marry but risk alienation or retribution from their families if they tell court officials their real feelings."
Child marriage — defined internationally as marriage under 18 — remains legal in Britain. In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, teenagers can wed at 16 with parental consent. In Scotland, they do not need consent.
The majority of US states do not lay out a minimum age for marriage if statutory exceptions are met, such as parental or judicial consent or in case of pregnancy.
Campaigners say children married young are more likely to leave school, get divorced, experience domestic abuse and mental health problems and live in poverty than those who marry later.
"There needs to be a complete ban on child marriage - with no exceptions. You have to make it clear to society that this is a negative social phenomenon and it should be stopped," said Adam Coogle, Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch.
(Reporting by Heba Kanso @hebakanso; editing by Jason Fields. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)