PETALING JAYA: Women’s groups and academicians want the government to seriously look into the rising number of child marriages among non-Muslims in the country, saying that the previous debate had focused too much on Muslims.
“The rise of child marriages among non-Muslims is perhaps due to urban poverty and the lack of comprehensive sex education.
“It is time for the government to look into the increasing statistics and to understand what policies should be in place, and how we should combat this rise,” said Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) assistant treasurer Meera Samanther.
Meera, who is also the Association of Women Lawyers vice-president, said in view of the statistics by the National Registration Department (NRD), child marriages should not be seen as mostly involving Muslim youths.
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s professor of law in family, women and children Datuk Noor Aziah Mohd Awal said the increase was possibly due to young couples being in a relationship before the age of 16.
These youths, regardless of their religious background, were also getting involved in sexual activities from as young as 10 or 12, she said, adding that it was also worrying that there was a lack of information on the ages of the partners the girls were marrying.
Noor Aziah said her research in 2017 showed that there were only 15 cases of huge age gaps among the 2,143 Muslim child marriage cases she looked into.
“The rest of these Muslim marriages were children marrying children and also children between the ages of 16 and 18 marrying those in their twenties. These are boyfriend and girlfriend cases,” she added.
International Women’s Alliance For Family and Quality Education (Wafiq) president Assoc Prof Dr Rafidah Hanim Mokhtar said if child marriage continued to be addressed as a Muslim issue, then the issue would be neglected in many non-Muslim communities.
“The Orang Asli, for example. They also have a high number of child marriages and there could be problems where they don’t go to schools. So when we talk about child marriages, do not subject them to religion or even ethnicity,” she said.
Dr Rafidah believes that there are many child marriages in Sabah and Sarawak as well as a high number of teenage pregnancies, adding that this issue goes “hand in hand”.
Dr Rafidah said before the government or social activists could talk about banning child marriages in the country, crucial issues such as the accessibility of children to education had to be made a priority.
“How can you talk about making it compulsory not to marry but you don’t have schools? Some of them don’t even have (exam) certificates to begin with.
“We need education. We must have these infrastructures before we impose these very strict laws,” she added.