Two women’s advocacy groups are urging the new Malaysian government to fulfill an electoral pledge to declare 18 the legal age to wed and ban child marriage because, they say, this violates human rights.
Religious conservatism, patriarchal beliefs and reasons of sexual impropriety are the main drivers of child marriage in Malaysia, the NGOs Sisters in Islam (SIS) and the Asia Pacific Resource and Research Center for Women (Arrow) said in a new report published ahead of an international conference next week in Kuala Lumpur that will focus on the issue.
“The solution must be a total ban on child marriage through reform legislation. The minimum age of marriage must be raised to 18 for both genders, regardless of faith and ethnicity, with no exceptions,” said Rozana Isa, executive director of SIS.
In its election manifesto, the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition promised to introduce a law requiring citizens to be at least 18 years old to marry.
Malaysia has a civil legal system and a separate Islamic (Sharia) legal system, and Muslim scholars have argued that a girl should be allowed to marry once she reaches puberty.
The report by the two NGOs quoted 2010 government statistics showing that 153,000 people below the age of 19 were married. Of those, 80,000 were girls and most were from the Malay Muslim community, the country’s ethnic and religious majority.
Child marriages are most prevalent in the Borneo state of Sarawak with about 1,745 recorded, followed by northern state of Johor with 999, and Selangor with 687, according to the report, which based its information on data from the Ministry of Home Affairs, from 2000 to 2014.
Rozana said reforms must include strong outreach and public education campaigns demonstrating how child marriage can bring about irreparable social and economic damage to girls.
She made her comments in preparation for the three-day Girls Not Brides 2nd Global Meeting beginning Monday in Kuala Lumpur. The organization describes itself as a global partnership of more than 900 civil society organizations committed to ending child marriage and enabling girls to fulfill their potential.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, which has also called for a ban on child marriage in Malaysia, said the country’s civil law sets 18 as the minimum age for marriage, but its Sharia system has a younger age requirement for girls.
The Islamic Family Law (Federal Territory) Act of 1984 sets the legal age for marriage at 16 for girls and 18 for boys, allowing for exceptions with Sharia court permission.
In 2014, the National Fatwa Council discouraged such practices but did not explicitly reject or label it as prohibited. It declared that child marriage was not a healthy practice.
During a parliamentary session last year, Shabudin Yahaya, a lawmaker from the then ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, caused an uproar when he said 9-year-olds were “physically and spiritually” ready for marriage.
The former Sharia court judge also said there was nothing wrong with an underage rape victim marrying her rapist because it could serve as a remedy to an increasing number of social problems.
He spoke out while debating the Sexual Offenses against Children Bill of 2017 after several then-opposition lawmakers suggested amending it to include child marriages. Their proposal was shot down by the majority in parliament.
In May, Barisan Nasional, which had ruled Malaysia since its independence, lost the general election and government power to the opposition PH coalition.
In Sabah, another state in Malaysian Borneo, a mufti said discussions needed to focus on the call to raise the legal age to marry to 18 and not on marriages involving children.
“Some communities, including those in Europe, are debating lowering the legal age to 16. So why should we set it at 18? On what grounds are those 18 and above ready for marriage?” Bungsu Aziz Jaafar told BenarNews.
He said Sharia court mechanisms are adequate to ensure that marriages involving those younger than 18 did not cause harm.
He said a Sharia judge would take into consideration the bride’s or groom’s maturity as well as family support and religious upbringing before deciding whether to approve the application for marriage.
“I don’t agree that a legal marriageable age should be set. It all depends on the circumstances and what’s provided for in Islam is adequate for this matter,” he said.
But Geshina Ayu Mat Saad, a psychologist at Science University of Malaysia, disagreed.
“It is very short-sighted to use parental power to approve a marriage to go forward and expect the child to be able to function overnight as a married adult,” she said, adding that the range of problems related to such marriages were interrelated.
“The physiological and health condition, especially if both parties are under age, the psychological preparedness and maturity, social environment, educational growth and financial stability of a person are interrelated. These problems are experienced to varying degrees by the child wife or child husband,” she said.
Meanwhile, a 34-year-old man who asked not to be identified, spoke out in favor of child brides. The man said he had married a 13-year-old in 2005 when he was 21.
A husband’s good character is what makes or breaks a marriage, regardless of his wife’s age, he suggested.
“The husband must tend to his wife’s needs, be a loving and caring husband, expose her to religious and good values, and treat her with respect. Insha Allah (God willing) all will be OK,” said the father of three.