Saudi Arabia moves to ban child marriage with a new ruling

The reform is the latest in a series of measures to promote women's rights in the kingdom

In this photo released by Saudi Royal Palace, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left, and Yemen's President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, attend the signing a power-sharing deal between Yemen's internationally recognized government and Yemeni separatists that are backed by the United Arab Emirates, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. At top is a picture of Saudi Arabia's founder late King Abdul Aziz Al Saud. (Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP)
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Saudi Arabia on Monday issued a de facto ban on child marriages, in another social reform initiated since Mohammad Bin Salman became crown prince two years ago.

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, whether they are male or female”.

The order comes after an amendment to the kingdom's Child Protection Law was passed by the Shoura Council in January that sought to ban child marriages under 15 entirely and establish new rules around those between 16-18 years old.

Latifa Al Shaalan, a member of Saudi Arabia’s Shoura Council, reportedly described the move earlier this year as a "good step forward," despite being "not easy to reach."

Issa Al Ghaith, another member of the Shoura Council, also praised the move as well as his colleagues, including Ms Al Shaalan, for their work in passing the bill.

Although child marriages sometimes include boys, they are seen as mainly undermining the rights of teenage girls.

Children’s rights groups have long campaigned to end the practice globally, pointing out that it often bars girls from education, endangers their health and exposes them to cycles of poverty and violence.

It is the latest in a string of moves by the government to improve the rights of women in the kingdom.

In October, King Salman signed a decree permitting women to travel or obtain a passport without the permission of male guardians. The decree did away with the need for permission of a guardian to marry, apply for a passport and leave the country. In the same month, women were allowed to join the armed forces.

The amendments also granted women the right to register the birth of a child, a marriage or a divorce, and to be issued official family documents and be eligible as a guardian to children who are minors.

In January the authorities stipulated that women must be paid equally to men.

The sweeping changes began in June 2018, when King Salman announced that women will be permitted to drive, while female audiences were allowed to attend football matches.

Saudi women also no longer need permission from a male guardian to study at university, undergo surgery or get a job.