JEDDAH Saudi Arabia is edging closer to setting a minimum age for marriage, a Justice Ministry official was quoted as saying on Wednesday, following international criticism of cases of child brides.
"The ministry has adopted a clear stance on under-age marriages and the issue was raised to the regulators," Mohammed al-Babetein, head of the Justice Ministry's marriages department, was quoted as saying in the daily al-Madina newspaper.
"It supports setting unified regulations to deal with such practices, which will ensure the safety of young girls," he said.
Babetein said the ministry was still in discussions over what age the limit should be set at, al-Madina reported.
Last May the consultative Shoura Council, which advises the government on new laws, was reported in the local press as recommending the introduction of a minimum marriage age but there have been no concrete reports of further progress.
Human rights organisation Amnesty International said the Saudi government had been saying for several years that it planned to introduce a minimum age for marriage.
"But until we see actual legislation and how it's implemented, rather than merely fine words, we will continue to have serious concerns about lack of protection for girls from early and forced marriage," said James Lynch, Amnesty's Middle East spokesman.
Saudi Arabia, a patriarchal society that applies an austere version of Sunni Islam, currently has no minimum legal age for marriage and fathers are granted guardianship over their daughters, giving them control over who they can marry and when.
Financial considerations have in the past prompted some Saudi families to wed young daughters to much older men in return for lavish dowries.
Many Saudi clerics, including the kingdom's most senior religious figure Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh, endorse the practice subject to some restrictions such as ensuring the girl has reached puberty.
Cases of child marriage, including brides as young as eight-years-old, have made headlines in local and international media in recent years, drawing heavy criticism against the conservative U.S. ally.
In 2010, the Saudi Human Rights Commission, a government-affiliated group, hired a lawyer to help a 12-year-old divorce her 80-year-old husband.
Activists at the time saw the divorce proceedings as a test case that could pave the way for introducing a minimum age for marriage.
In 2009 the Justice Minister said that there were plans to regulate the marriages of young girls after a court refused to nullify the marriage of an eight-year-old girl to a man 50 years her senior.
Saudi Arabia is a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child, which considers those under the age of 18 as children.
(Reporting by Asma Alsharif; Editing by Angus McDowall and Angus MacSwan)