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The Star Says

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Underage rape victims need help, not marriage

MOST of the time, we reflexively say we are fine when asked how we are. But the truth is, we have different ways of defining how it is like to be fine.

But here is something that is easier for us to agree upon – it is hard to imagine that a 16-year-old dropout is fine, considering she was raped at the age of 12, is married to the very man who violated her, and the husband is in prison for committing that crime.

That is a lot for a teenager to endure, let alone overcome.

By itself, statutory rape is already repugnant and devastating. But when the victim is married at such a young age to the person who took advantage of her naivete, she may well be facing hugely unfair odds in life.

The rape was committed in February 2013, in a parked vehicle on a road near a waterfall in Inanam, Sabah.

The man, a father of four and who is now 44, married the schoolgirl in May that same year in a bid to escape conviction.

He is currently serving a 12-year jail sentence. He was also jailed and fined for bribing the girl’s father so that the police report on his crime would be withdrawn.

The case sparked an outcry over the fact that it is legal in certain situations for rapists to marry their underage victims.

This is seen as a way for the rapists to avoid prosecution or at least to lighten their sentences.

The victims, however, may be deprived of the protection and support they need.

At the Dewan Rakyat on Monday, Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Rohani Abdul Karim provided an update on the teenager, who lives with her parents in Kota Kinabalu.

According to Rohani, the ministry visited the girl at her family home on April 18 and found her to be in good health.

The teenager did not go back to school after the controversy received wide media coverage. She told the ministry officer she was comfortable living with her parents and was taking care of her siblings.

While the parents indicated that they had no problems taking care of the 16-year-old, added Rohani, the girl said she intended to work so she could be self-sufficient.

Yesterday, the ministry issued a statement to point out that the Government did not encourage underage marriage as it affected a child’s potential and growth.

Referring to the case of the 16-year-old, the ministry said it would do its best “to give the necessary social support and counselling as well as monitoring intended to protect the child”.

Those words, perhaps, give the girl some comfort and hope. But even so, there are many questions about her future as the wife of the man who raped her.

There needs to be a more enlightened and realistic handling of underage marriages. When people marry for the wrong reasons, the outcome is rarely good.

In particular, how do we ensure that the interests of underage rape victims are always a priority?

If there is no firm solution, these young victims will have little chance of ever being fine, even if they put up a brave front.

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