Malaysia has a child marriage problem – It’s time to act
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Malaysia has a child marriage problem – It’s time to act

MORE than 150,000 children are stuck in child marriages in Malaysia as a culture of shame and stigma continues to drive the practice, says a new report from Malaysia-based NGOs Asian Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW) and Sisters in Islam (SIS).

The organisations are calling on the new Pakatan Harapan government to raise the marriageable age of all Malaysians to 18 and put an end to child marriage in a country that still allows young Muslims to marry if approved by the courts.

Of the almost 153,000 children aged between 15-19 in marriages, 80,000 of them are female. The worst community affected are Malay Muslims, according to data from the 2010 Population and Housing Census and cited in the report.

According to Executive Director of ARROW, Sivananthi Thanenthiran, the irregular and inaccessible nature of reliable data leads many Malaysians to believe that child marriage is not a problem in the country.

“This is an alarming number and what is most worrying is that this data is from the 2010 Population and Housing Census,” said Sivananthi.

“It is also a matter of concern that this data has been withheld from the public for so long. As one of its immediate priorities, the new government should release updated data to understand the extent of the problem, and disaggregate the data, as a first step to understanding how to end child marriage.”

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While poverty and or an inability to support their daughters are often touted as reasons for child marriage in many countries, Malaysia does not have this excuse.

The report points out that Malaysia is upper-middle income level and has its Gross National Income per capita ranked higher than India, Bangladesh and Nigeria in 2015. It also boasts an impressive female youth literacy rate of 98 percent and more women than men continue their education to university level.

In the Muslim-majority nation, it appears the driving factor behind child marriage is not financial, but cultural.

“Reasons of sexual impropriety and the shame it carries – regardless of whether it was a consensual act” is the main driver for child marriage in Malaysia, the report finds.

“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.”

The message that premarital sex is the “number one sin in Islam” is pushed by the media and leaves both young girls and their parents left feeling that marriage is their only option when their teenage daughter “slips up.”

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The report points to an “archaic” and “narrow” interpretation of the Quran that is being used to justify the practice and often acts as an obstacle to introducing meaningful legislation.

While Malaysia has a law stipulating the minimum age for marriage is 18 for non-Muslims, it also operates a dual legal system which practises a civil legal system and an Islamic (Sharia) legal system.

Under the Islamic Family Law, the minimum age is set at 16 years for girls and 18 for boys, but exceptions are allowed with the permission of the Sharia Court.

While the National Fatwa Council in 2014 discouraged such practice, it did not explicitly reject or label it as haram or forbidden.

As a solution, the two NGOs are calling for a complete ban and improved sexual education for both children and parents to alleviate the societal pressures.

“While poverty is usually the reason for child marriage in many countries, culture, tradition, and a low tolerance for young children engaging with the opposite sex are the reasons for child marriage in Malaysia,” said Rozana Isa, Executive Director of SIS.

“The solution must be a total ban on child marriage through reform of legislation. The minimum age of marriage must be raised to 18 for both genders, regardless of faith and ethnicity, with no exceptions.”

This point will be reiterated at the Girls Not Brides conference, a global meeting on child marriage taking place in Kuala Lumpur next week, where the group of more than 900 organisations will call for the minimum age to be set at 18 globally.