Nothing divine in child marriage

Early marriage can have serious harmful consequences for children. The figures show that is a problem that crosses all races and states, raising many disturbing questions that need to be answered.

TWO MONTHS ago, there was public outcry over the marriage of two little girls, aged 10 and 11 to much older men in Kelantan. It was two too many. But now the 2009 data on pre-marital HIV screening, mandatory for all Malay Muslim couples wanting to get married, shows that this problem is more prevalent than expected.

Data in the 2010 progress report to the United Nations on HIV in Malaysia prepared by the Ministry of Health reveals shocking statistics on the number of Muslim girls under the age of 14 who have undergone pre-marital HIV screening in order to get married.

The data shows that 32 girls under the age of 10 and 445 girls between the ages of 10 and 14 went through this testing in 2009 alone in preparation for marriage!

What is also significant is that this phenomenon is taking place in the more developed states in Malaysia, with the highest numbers recorded in Penang (195), Malacca (103) and Johor (87).

As could be expected, only two boys under the age of 14 underwent the HIV screening at the same time. These girl children were obviously being married off to older men. The data however does not indicate whether the Syariah Courts granted permission, as legally required, for these girls under 16 to get married.

The data for Muslim girls between the ages of 15 and 19 who underwent screening in 2009 was also high at 6,815 compared to 1,911 boys.

Until the incidence of the two girls in Kelantan, child marriage was largely regarded as a non-issue in Malaysia.

However, in 2005, Malaysian women’s groups had reported its concern on the age of marriage and the prevalence of child marriage in its Shadow Report on Malaysia’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

Data in the 2000 Population and Housing Census revealed that 6,800 girls under the age of 15 were married, with Selangor recording the highest number, followed by Sabah. Malays recorded the highest incidence of child marriage at 2,450, followed by other bumiputeras 1,550, Chinese 1,600, Indians 600 and others 600. In terms of incidence per population, Sabah leads, followed by Malacca, Penang and Selangor.

While the mean age of marriage for men has increased from 25.6 in 1970 to 28.6 in 2000 and for women from 23.8 to 26.9 years, the disaggregated data on age of marriage has revealed that child marriage remains an issue in Malaysia. In fact, the 2000 census data also showed there were 235 children between the ages of 10 and 14 who were already widowed and 77 divorced or permanently separated!

Cutting across races

That child marriage exists in Malaysia should be of grave concern to a country that is categorised in the upper middle income bracket in UN tables.

Not only that, the data shows it is a problem that crosses all races, and richer and poorer states in Malaysia. The figures raise many disturbing questions that need to be studied and answered.

How could there be at least 3,000 non-Muslim children married under the age of 15 when it is illegal for a man to be married under the age 18 and girls between the ages of 16 and 18 could be married only with the authorisation of the Mentri Besar or Chief Minister. Any non-Muslim girl below the age of 16 cannot get married. No exceptions. Obviously, there is a gap between legal protection and implementation, and cracks exist within the system that allow for child marriage to take place among non-Muslims.

The situation is different for Muslims. The minimum age for marriage under the Islamic Family Laws of the various states is 18 for men and 16 for women. However, there is a loophole in the law which allows for earlier age of marriage with the permission of the Syariah Judge in “certain circumstances”.

The law does not define what “certain circumstances” mean. And unlike civil law which places 16 years as the absolute minimum age a girl can be allowed to marry, no such minimum age exists for Muslims. With the permission of the court, a Muslim girl in Malaysia can be married off once she reaches puberty.

Thus in the case of the 33-year-old man who married the 10-year-old girl recently, the offence he committed was not one of marrying a child, but of marrying without the permission of the court.

The Minister in the Prime Minster’s Department in charge of Islamic religious affairs Jamil Khir Baharom, in defending the loophole in the law reportedly said: “Maturity is a subjective question. It depends on the development of the person. Maturity is not based on age solely,” he said, implying that a 10-year-old girl could be exceptionally mature and be married off.

The fact that the 11-year-old girl who was married off at about the same time was later found abandoned and in a semi-conscious state at a mosque could only indicate the trauma she must have experienced.

UN reports state that even in countries with legal minimum ages of marriage, early marriage (defined as marriage of children and adolescents below the age of 18) still prevails as it is condoned by religious and customary laws and practice.

A 2001 Unicef report states it is hard to assess the prevalence of early marriages as so many are unregistered and unofficial. But it says there are grounds for believing that the practice is under-reported in areas where it is known to occur, especially for children under 14 who are virtually invisible in standard data recording.

Economic burden

UN studies show parents choose to marry off their daughters early for many reasons. Poor families may regard a young girl as an economic burden and her marriage as a necessary survival strategy for her family.

They may think that early marriage offers protection for their daughters from the dangers of sexual assault, or a strategy to avoid girls becoming pregnant outside marriage. Gender discrimination can also underpin early marriage. Girls may be married young to ensure obedience and subservience within their husband’s household and to maximise their childbearing.

The Ministries of Health, and Women, Family and Community Development must undertake a serious study on the particular situation in Malaysia, and especially the higher prevalence rate in the more developed states.

Could this be due to pockets of acute urban poverty that forces parents to marry off their children to ease their economic burden? Could the high birth rate among Malays be a contributory factor?

The 1994 Malaysian Population and Family survey showed that only 46% of Malays used contraceptives, compared to 73% of Chinese. The survey also showed that 47% of married Muslim women did not want another pregnancy and yet were not taking any contraceptive, thus constituting a high percentage of “unmet needs”.

Could tradition and religious belief also be a contributing factor to child marriage? I have met young people who said it is better to get married and be divorced in order to engage in legitimate sex than to commit a sin by having sex outside marriage.

But we know that early marriage can have serious harmful consequences for children, including the denial of childhood and adolescence, denial of education, premature pregnancies leading to higher rates of maternal and infant mortality, vulnerability to sexually-transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS, and not least, domestic violence.

The Malaysian Shadow Report has called on the Government to lift all its reservations on CEDAW, including Article 16 (2) which states: “The betrothal and the marriage of a child shall have no legal effect, and all necessary action, including legislation, shall be taken to specify a minimum age for marriage and to make the registration of marriages in an official registry compulsory.” The NGOs have thus demanded that both civil and syariah laws be amended to raise the minimum age for marriage of girls to 18, equal to that of men.

Arguments to justify opposite actions.

But any campaign to end the practice of child marriage in traditional Muslim societies face particular criticisms and challenges from the conservative religious perspective. The Minister in Charge of Religious Affairs has already said the law should not be amended.

In Yemen, where tragedies of child marriage often hit the national and international media headlines, recent government attempts to raise the age of marriage to 18 years have been denounced as “unIslamic” and seen as an attempt to impose Western values on Yemenis, and activists pushing for reform were accused of being infidels and agents of the West.

It is the tragedy and a reflection of the identity crisis that beset many Muslim communities that anything that is progressive is seen as Western, alien and the evil conspiracy of the West trying to lead Muslims astray from the true path of Islam.

There is nothing Islamic about child marriage. It is historical and contextual. Up to the 19th century, the age of marriage under English and Scottish common law was 12 years old!

Some Muslims cite the example of the Prophet Muhammad who married Aishah when she was six years old and consummated the marriage when she reached puberty at the age of nine, as the reason why it is unIslamic to establish a higher age of marriage.

But why is the Prophet’s marriage to Aishah selected as the exemplary age of marriage for Muslims while his marriage to Khadija, a widow 15 years older than him, or his marriage to other widows and divorcees ignored as exemplary practices? There are also new studies that assert that Aishah was more likely to be 19 at the time of her marriage, rather than six.

Under the Islamic revolutionary government in Iran, the age of marriage for girls was brought down from 15 to eight years and nine months to reflect true “Islamic” teachings. But this was later raised to 13 because of pressure from women’s groups and also a population explosion that adversely impacted Iran’s education, health and social services. In both situations, Islamic arguments were used to justify opposite actions.

It is clear there is nothing divine that prevents a government from setting the minimum age of marriage at 18. It is whether it chooses to make political gains by flying the flag of tradition and religion or it chooses to do what is right, just and fair for its citizens.

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