Page last updated at 09:58 GMT, Wednesday, 15 April 2009 10:58 UK

Saudis 'to regulate' child brides

Saudi Arabian women in Riyadh (March 2009)
Saudi Arabia is ruled with an austere and patriarchal form of Sunni Islam

Saudi Arabia says it plans to start regulating the marriage of young girls, amid controversy over a union between a 60-year-old man and a girl of eight.

A court in Unaiza upheld the marriage on condition the groom does not have sex with her until she reaches puberty.

Justice Minister Muhammad Issa said his ministry wanted to put an end to the "arbitrary" way in which parents and guardians can marry off underage girls.

But he did not suggest the practice would be abolished.

Human-rights groups oppose such marriages, which they say are often motivated by poverty.

Saudi Arabia implements an austere form of Sunni Islam that bans free association between the sexes and gives fathers the right to wed their children to whomever they deem fit.

'Selling daughters'

The Unaiza case was brought by the eight-year-old girl's mother who wanted the marriage to be annulled.

The judge said he had tried to persuade the husband to accept a divorce, but the man refused.

The girl is still with her family and there is no suggestion that she will live with her husband until much older.

The judge said that once she reached puberty, she could ask for a divorce.

Local press reports say the case seems to be an example of how some Saudi families sell their daughters for money.

Correspondents say the girl's father appeared to have sought the dowry from the groom to pay off debts.

Saudi commentators also point out that the marriage took place in the central province of Qaseem - the heartland of Saudi Islamic fundamentalism.

Earlier this year, the country's highest religious authority, the Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Shaikh, said it was not against Islamic law to marry off girls who are 15 and younger.

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