I felt a cold shiver run through me this week when I heard the story about the 41-year-old man marrying an 11-year-old girl. According to reports, the rubber trader from Kelantan said he first met the child in the restaurant where her mother worked, adding they had been “in love for three years”.
Three years? So this “relationship” began when she was just eight?!
I get chills in my bones hearing about predatory behaviour.
I have an eight-year-old daughter. A beautiful and spirited child who loves Harry Potter, doing cartwheels and her cuddly soft toys. The world is mostly wonderful in her eyes. She is still in the age of innocence, naive and natural, which is so precious.
No child, at age eight, or 11, or 15, should be saddled with marriage. Leave marriage – with its restraints and responsibilities – to grown-ups. Leave children in the age of innocence. That’s why laws to protect children exist worldwide: because children are so vulnerable in their naivety.
While religion and tradition may weigh in heavily as driving factors, child marriage is also deeply tied to a lack of education and poverty.
Consider the above case. The girl, who is Thai, has had no education. She only went to nursery school. Her parents are dirt poor. According to media reports, the father is a rubber tapper whose income depends on selling rubber to – wait for it – the 41-year-old husband. And the girl’s mother works in a restaurant owned by the husband’s first wife. So it’s not easy for them to refuse this man, is it?
Perhaps they thought, as do many parents who marry off young daughters, that at least this was an escape from their poverty. Indeed the husband, who has six children from two other wives, has promised to “look after the family” financially, say reports.
Parents also often believe marriage provides protection and safety – child marriage has risen threefold in Syria since the war there began.
Yet reality shows otherwise. Young wives are more likely to become victims of violence. Marriage can be a prison of abuse. Childbirth also presents risks. In fact, globally, the leading cause of death for teen girls, aged 15 to 19, is childbirth and pregnancy, says the World Health Organisation.
Adolescents aged 15 to 19 are twice as likely to die in childbirth as women in their 20s, while girls under 15 years are five times more likely to die. Their bodies are not yet fully developed.
Young teens have a higher risk of complications at birth (such as haemorrhage and obstructed labour) and a higher risk of getting sexually transmitted infections such as HIV (due to the immature cervix and vaginal mucosal lining). Their newborns are also more vulnerable. And there is the loss of education and opportunities.
Of course, girls have been marrying young from time immemorial. Indeed, my own grandmothers married at 16 and 18 years. But remember, many women frequently died in childbirth then, which is why stepmothers were so common (think fairytales).
Far too many still marry young. One report – by Malaysian NGO Sisters in Islam (SIS) and regional women’s organisation Arrow (Asia Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women), using 2010 census data – found that 80,000 girls under 19 years were married in Malaysia.
In 2010, the deputy minister for women was quoted as saying that 16,000 girls under 15 years were married. In some cases, it was to avoid having a child out of wedlock.
Meanwhile, between the years of 2009 and 2012, adolescent deaths from childbirth and pregnancy tripled, the Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) reported.
Put simply, child marriage threatens girls’ lives. This is why 50 civil society organisations – including SIS, Arrow, the MMA and various women’s organisations – as well as Unicef have come together to call for amending Malaysian law to set the minimum age for marriage at 18 years in all cases (civil, Muslim and native customary law marriages). No exceptions.
The organisations also called for improved data and for a national campaign to challenge the issue. A Change.org petition calling to end child marriages also collected 13,000 signatures mid-week.
“Child marriage has no place in a country with ambitions for comprehensive and inclusive socioeconomic development,” Majidah Hashim from SIS says. A change of mindset is needed, and “this effort must be led by the government”.
Indeed, while we need laws to protect every child, those laws may simply be ignored, which happened in the case above.
Ultimately, we need to change deeply-held beliefs. Both the father and husband of the 11-year-old thought it fine for her to marry. The Deputy Mentri Besar of Kelantan also played down the incident, saying illicit sex and gays were bigger issues. And last year, an MP argued that when girls reach puberty, at “nine or 12”, their bodies are akin to “being 18 years old”.
We need clearer boundaries defining childhood. As Unicef tweeted recently: “A child is a child.” So let children be children and not become brides.
Human Writes columnist Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at email@example.com.
From The Editor: This post has been updated. Images not related to the subject have been removed.