There must be no compromise.
Child rights’ activists want the legal age of marriage for all Malaysians, regardless of race or religion, to be fixed at 18, with no dispensation that can give room to child marriage.
This means, no “special circumstances” that allow Shariah court judges or state administrators like chief ministers to consent on behalf of the child to marriage under 18.
“Laws are norm-setting; they tell us what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. We need to make it illegal for children under 18 to marry. And, we must make sure the law applies to men (who marry underaged girls), parents as well as judges who consent to these marriages and or those who perform them.
“This will send a strong message and act as a deterrent not just for men who want to transact marriage to children but also anyone who consents to early and forced child marriages. If it’s against the law, parents will not want to marry their daughters off, and judges and priests or imams will not marry them,” says executive director of the Asia Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (Arrow), Sivananthi Thanenthiran.
The recent news of an 11-year-old girl from Gua Musang, Kelantan who married a 41-year-old man in her kampung in Thailand has raised a furor among child rights’ groups, human rights activists as well as the general public who have called on the government to intervene and ban child marriages.
In response, Deputy Prime Minister and Women, Family and Community Development minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah had a meeting on Tuesday with her ministry, government agencies and representatives from civil society to address the issue of child marriages in Malaysia.
Although Dr Wan Azizah said she would “look at” raising the minimum age of marriage to 18, her political secretary Rodziah Ismail later announced that the ministry would introduce new “standard operating procedures” for marriages involving minors. These include “tests on their health and education to ensure the well-being of their family”.
The government’s response has come under fire for it’s far from an unequivocal ban on child marriage.
Setting 18 as the minimum age of marriage is one of Pakatan Harapan’s election manifesto.
“There are no guarantees that strict guidelines and operating procedures will work in preventing child marriages as its application will clearly be subjective. Providing this loophole only allows abuse to continue to take place and we are strongly against the continued exposure of our children to this vulnerability,” says executive director of Sisters in Islam (SIS), Rozana Isa.
Not an isolated case
There are at least 152,385 children aged between 15 and 19 who are married, according to the 2010 population and housing census – this is more than double the 65,029 that was recorded in the 2000 census.
Unfortunately, the 2010 census did not specify a further breakdown of child marriages according to age cohorts – everything was lumped into marriages under the age of 19.
The 2000 census however did so and revealed that 10,267 children aged between 10 and 14 were married. From this, it is safe to assume, say activists, that these figures have also since gone up.
“What the data shows is an alarming increase in child marriages in Malaysia. It also shows that existing structures that are in place are not working to prevent these marriages from happening.
“It is also important to note what the data does not tell us: we do not have a database of child marriages in Malaysia that is disaggregated by age, economic situation, education levels and geography. We don’t have data on who approves these marriages,” says Rozana.
She adds that information is also absent on the criteria used by judges to allow for child marriages, as well as data on how many of these child marriages are between children and how many between children and adults.
There is also no follow-up data on how many of these marriages lasted or even the consequences of child marriages.
Such data is crucial in order to determine what kind of intervention is needed for these communities, says Sivananthi.
“If we don’t know who are the families affected, the reasons they go into child marriages, how do we research and come up with programmes to help and support them?
“In Bangladesh, for example, poverty was found to be the main reason children were taken out of school and forced into marriage. It was a way to alleviate the family’s economic burden.
“To address the problem, these families were given economic incentives to keep their children in school and as a result, the number of child marriages reduced.
“Families were no longer compelled to marry their daughters off. But before we can address the situation here, we need the data,” she says.
In their report, “Malaysia – Child Marriage: Its Relationship With Religion, Culture and Patriachy” published this year, SIS found that child marriages in Malaysia involved more females (80,195) than males (72,640) and that the most affected were the Malay Muslim community.
It also revealed that while poverty is often cited as the main cause in countries where child marriages are more widespread, it isn’t so in Malaysia.
“The main driver for child marriages in Malaysia is reasons of sexual impropriety and the shame it carries.
“Ultimately, it is the conservative culture and outlook that Malaysia wraps itself around on the topic of sex and sexuality that perpetuates the practice of child marriage as a legitimate solution to sexual impropriety,” SIS states in its report.
Parents as well as young adolescents see marriage as a form of protection, particularly if the young adolescents are pregnant or have been sexually active out of wedlock.
“Premarital sex is propagated and emphasised in the media as the number one sin in Islam that is to be avoided at all costs. In the course of SIS’ advocacy for a total ban on child marriages, these were justifications that were brought up,” explains Rozana.
But child marriage does not protect girls; rather it denies them their rights.
“Traditional societies believed that once girls achieved puberty, they are ready for marriage. But we have developed as a country and the opportunities for girls now are so much more than just marriage and motherhood. They are denied their rights to education and schooling, to negotiate relationships, to start a business, to form friendships... there is a whole range of rights that they will be denied.
“That is why the law should change ... so it does not become the norm. In fact, with more than 150,000 girls and boys married under the age of 19, these are not “exceptional cases” anymore. They are becoming the norm,” points out Sivananthi.
The child comes first
Although they are calling for a total ban on child marriage, activists recognise a need for a pragmatic approach in eradicating early and forced marriages to achieve a common ground with conservatives and fundamentalists.
“We must first all agree that what is most important is the welfare of the community we live within. All children, including Muslim children, need to be nurtured and protected. We need to focus on principles that prescribe care and compassion for children. As adults, we have the responsibility to equip them with education and skills so that they can fulfill their full potential,” says Rozana.
Good laws alone will not protect girls. Law reform needs to be accompanied by education and awareness-raising among children and also communities on the harmful impact of child marriage.
“Falling in love and forming a relationship... these are things that occur during adolescence. This is normal but what are we doing to prepare girls and boys to experience these feelings and, form and negotiate relationships?
“How does an 11-year-old understand the spectrum of what love is? What does she know of the world outside what is around her?
“We need comprehensive sexuality education to help children understand their own bodies as well as the biological and emotional needs. And also the repercussions... how they must protect themselves against HIV transmission or sexually transmited diseases and even violence,” says Sivananthi, adding that such education must also reach out to young people out of the school system, including children of migrant workers.
Comprehensive sexuality education isn’t about encouraging children to have sex, she emphasises. Rather it provides accurate information about human rights, gender norms and consent in relationships.
Comprehensive sexual education teaches children about puberty, their bodies as well as reproductive and sexual health.
“It imparts critical information that girls need for life, including pregnancy prevention, safe sex, understanding their bodies and boundaries, navigating relationships. It also teaches respect. It empowers young people to make decisions that are for their good.
“It also shows girls that marriage is not the final destination,” says Sivananthi.