CHILD marriages, a thorny issue often conflated with debates over preserving local customs and adherence to religious laws, could soon be banned entirely in Muslim-majority Malaysia.
Following months of pressure from local rights groups, country’s progressive new government has announced plans to do away with legal provisions that allow Muslim men and women to wed in their teens.
No timeframe has been set but according to a Bernama report, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Mujahid Yusof Rawa said abolishing the provision would pave the way for a new law to be drafted that will effectively ban child marriages.
“We are proposing for such provisions to be abolished, or in other words to ban child marriages and to consider it an offence for anyone to get married before reaching the minimum legal age,” said the minister in charge of religious affairs.
“The ban is not in terms of Syariah law, but just in terms of administration.”
Malaysia’s civil law sets 18 as the minimum marriage age for both genders but a provision allows girls to marry at 16 with the permission of the court or respective state minister.
This law is overlapped by the country’s Islamic Syariah law, which sets 16 years as the minimum age for girls to wed and even earlier, with the approval of the Syariah court.
Some individuals circumvent the country’s courts and the minimum age requirement by holding marriages in neighbouring countries, thus seeking nuptial vows that is “legal” in the eyes of religion and bypassing the need to register the marriage with the state.
This loophole came under national scrutiny in the headline-grabbing case of a 41-year-old man from the northern-eastern state of Kelantan who married an 11-year-old Thai girl in June.
Taking Malaysia’s multi-religious and multi-culturalism into consideration, Mujahid admitted the process towards ending child marriages would not be so cut and dry.
He said several Islamic scholars, legal experts and non-governmental organisations will hold monthly meetings with the Women Family and Community Development Ministry to discuss the matter from a religious perspective.
“The discussion is also to see how the government can intervene in child marriages for the benefit of the public,” he said.
Malaysia-based NGOs Asian Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (Arrow) and Sisters in Islam (SIS), in citing data from the 2010 Population and Housing Census, recently said of the almost 153,000 children aged between 15-19 in marriages, 80,000 of them are female.
Of the total, the community most affected are the Malay-Muslims, making up more than 60 percent of the 30 million population.
Oftentimes, poverty and the inability to support daughters are used as reasons to “justify” such marriages but as an affluent Southeast Asian nation, the same excuse cannot be repeated in Malaysia.
The country’s Gross National Income (GNI) per capita ranked higher than India, Bangladesh and Nigeria in 2015, with an impressive female youth literacy rate of 98 percent and more women than men continuing their education to university level, a recent report by Arrow and SIS pointed out.
During the Girls Not Brides Global Meeting, “Tackling child marriage in South East Asia: Challenges and opportunities” recently, Arrow — which advocates sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of women and young people — also asserted that child marriages in Southeast Asia were largely driven by cultural and religious factors, and not financial ones.
“Religion and culture influence the justification of the practice and creating a legal environment – such as a lower age of marriage for some girls,” said Azra Abdul Cader, Programme Manager for Monitoring and Evidence Generation for Change at Arrow.
“Religious interpretations on linking the age of maturity to the attainment of puberty, the need to regulate girl’s sexuality, pressure to reproduce, and notions of guardianship, consent, and decision making also have an influence on the practice.”
Azra said girls often lacked decision-making power to use contraception and to determine the timing of pregnancies, with husbands, parents-in-law “strongly influencing or controlling married girls’ reproductive behaviour.”
“We need to recognise that child marriage is influenced by how girls are able to access their sexual and reproductive health and rights,” Azra said.
“Prevailing gender norms require girls to prove their fertility and conceive soon after marriage.”
A matter of urgency in Southeast Asia
For child rights advocates, Malaysia’s plan to amend local marriage laws could be the region’s much-needed catalyst to end child marriages altogether.
The East Asia and Pacific chapter United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) in April said child marriage, early unions and teen pregnancy continue to rise in some countries and are not falling rapidly enough in others.
Unicef also said the prevalence rates of child marriages remain high in Southeast Asia, despite declines in recent decades with the percentage of women aged 20 to 24 who were married or in union before 18 ranging from 35.4 percent in Laos to 11 percent in Vietnam.
According to Unicef’s State of the World’s Children report released last year, 25 percent of girls between the ages of 10-19 years of the total adolescent population (1.43 million) were married or in union in Laos, while the figure was 16 percent (3.05 million) in Cambodia and 14 percent of girls (9.2 million) in Thailand.
In Malaysia, the figure stood at six percent of girls of the adolescent population (5.51 million), who were married or in union.
Fortunately, the governments and civil society groups are working urgently to address the rights and sustainable development of young people, the UN agency said.
Unicef also pointed out that adolescent birth rates have remained generally stagnant or even increased in Southeast Asia, even though they have declined globally.
On average, the region sees 47 births per 1,000 females aged 15 to 19, higher than the average of 35 in South Asia and close to the global average of 50, the UN body said. Laos has the highest birth rates at 94, followed by Cambodia (57) Thailand (50), Indonesia (48) and Philippines (47).