Local NGOs and UNICEF pressed Malaysia’s government on Tuesday to shield underage children from being married after reports emerged that a Sharia court in Kelantan state had allowed a 44-year-old man to wed a 15-year-old girl.
Malaysian non-governmental organizations in particular criticized Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail for comments she made about the case, in which she suggested that the government had no power to stop the marriage.
“In an appalling response, the deputy prime minister gave excuses as to why child marriages are taking place and claimed that Putrajaya is powerless to intervene,” Latheefa Koya, executive director of rights advocacy group Lawyers for Liberty said in a statement.
The marriage was the second in recent months in religiously conservative Kelantan that involved an underage girl. The first case involved an 11-year-old girl of Thai origin who was married off to a 41-year-old Kelantan resident, during a mid-June ceremony solemnized by a Muslim cleric in neighboring southern Thailand.
“This response from the DPM will be a license for pedophiles around the country to groom, persuade or coerce children into ‘marriage’ for the purpose of having sexual intercourse with them,” she said, as she called on Wan Azizah to ensure a police investigation into whether the Kelantan was one of sexual grooming that may have violated the country’s child-sex laws.
Latheefa was referring to remarks made on Tuesday by Wan Azizah about the latest child marriage in Kelantan. The deputy prime minister said the federal government was undertaking efforts to raise the nationwide minimum marriage age to 18 years old but, she cautioned, it had no jurisdiction to overturn the decision of the state’s Islamic courts in the marriage of the 15-year-old.
“[T]hey were married by the Sharia court, so you have to also abide because it is also state regulations,” she said in remarks aired on KiniTV.
‘We want to save this girl’
Wan Azizah, who is also the minister of women’s affairs, said she did have a problem with child marriage but, at the same time, she understood the circumstances under which their families lived.
“If you understand the way they live, their way of life, you would have a little bit of understanding of why it happens,” she said.
The deputy PM added that officers from her ministry were looking into the case and had met with the child bride and her parents.
“We want to save this girl. We can go a long way if all of us pool our resources and give all the support,” she said.
Wan Azizah was reacting to news of the marriage, which was reported by the New Straits Times newspaper. It said the Sharia court in Kelantan, whose state government is controlled by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), had permitted the 44-year-old resident to take on the 15-year-old girl as his second wife in July.
Under Malaysia’s Federal Constitution, which sets the minimum age for girls to be married at 16, Muslim marriages fall under the purview of the respective state Shariah Courts, which can approve underage marriages with valid reasons.
According to the newspaper report, the girl’s family agreed to marry off the girl – the youngest of their 13 children – to the man, who is a People’s Volunteer Corps officer, because “they wanted her to have a better life.”
The bride’s father, Che Rahim Che Deraman, 60, said he did not want his daughter to live in hardship. He runs a sundry shop in Tumpat, close to the Thai-Malaysia border, and was reported to be living in poverty, earning between 200 and 300 ringgit (U.S. $48 and $72) a month.
UNICEF rep calls for ban
Other NGOs that reacted angrily to the latest child marriage included Sisters of Islam, which urged the new government to act.
“The government must not hide behind the excuse that they are ‘powerless’ to take immediate action against child marriage. Every hour they continue to choose to do so, more girls fall between the cracks they that refuse to repair,” the group said in a Twitter post.
Marianne Clark-Hattingh, the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) representative in Malaysia, also condemned the marriage in Kelantan.
“It’s unacceptable that yet another child has got married to an elder man. The new Kelantan case is proof of the need to raise awareness on the impact of marriage on the child and bring legislative change to ban the practice,” she tweeted.
She also proposed that new legislation on child marriage should be accompanied by other measures, including compulsory access to secondary education, sexual reproductive health education and poverty reduction.
To date, only Selangor, the richest and most developed state in Malaysia that circles the federal capital Kuala Lumpur, has broken the status quo and pledged to raise the marriage age for men and women to 18.