An 11-year-old Thai girl married in June to a Malaysian man 30 years her senior was brought back to Thailand with her parents this week, where they will receive government support services until the girl reaches age 16, a Thai official said Friday.
The governor of Narathiwat province in Thailand’s mostly Muslim Deep South appeared to be trying to calm international outrage that ensued after the man’s second wife shared information about the marriage on Facebook in June. But he stopped short of declaring the marriage void, saying its status would be assessed five years from now.
“The girl and her parents crossed back to the province and officials under the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security are taking care of their mental and emotional needs,” Narathiwat Gov. Suraporn Prommul told BenarNews Friday.
He said the family was now staying at a ministry facility where doctors, psychologists, social workers and others were treating them and helping them find education and work opportunities.
“Into the future, we look to improve their livelihood, education and mental wellbeing,” Suraporn said. “Because the girl did not have compulsory basic education like others, the government sector must find a solution for her and enable her to live a normal life.”
The groom, identified as an imam or Muslim teacher, defended the marriage in a video in July, claiming it was a “nikah gantung,” a Malay term meaning a marriage that takes place with the understanding it will be consummated at a later date, in this case after the girl turns 16.
A relative who asked not to be named told BenarNews the family had lived in Kelantan, in northern Malaysia, where the parents worked on a rubber plantation and did small jobs for the groom’s family to survive. The wedding took place across the border in Narathiwat.
Islamic law allows a man to have four wives as long as he can provide for and maintain each of his families equally.
Under Thai civil law, a woman can marry at 20 without parental consent but can marry at 17 with her parents’ approval or at 15 through a court order, according to legal experts. But the four provinces in the Muslim-dominant south are exempt.
“In 1946, Thailand enacted Sharia law in Pattani, Narathiwat, Yala and Satun, on Muslim family issues such as engagement, marriage, divorce, spouse relationship, family relationship and wills, while other matters follow Thai laws,” Pattani Iman Sakariya Galeng told BenarNews.
In July, Safiri Jeha, president of the Islamic Committee of Narathiwat province, told BenarNews: “Islamic law allows youths age 15 and up to marry but they can be younger with parents’ consent. They can have a ceremony anywhere with an imam.”
“In the case of the 11-year-old girl who had wedding at Sungai Golok, they followed the Islamic teaching and Islamic law enacted in Yala, Pattani, Narathiwat and Satun,” he said.
Focus on child brides
Suraporn, however, suggested that the status of the marriage had not been determined.
“When she turns 16, we will assess this issue. The Malaysian groom is also an imam. He knows Islamic law, he would not break the rules,” Suraporn said.
Suraporn said he met with provincial clerics Wednesday and notified all mosques that in the future weddings of young brides to foreign grooms must be solemnized at the provincial Islamic office.
A national human rights commissioner questioned whether that notification would solve the issue of underage brides.
“What about the marriage status? The Ministry of Social Development and Human Security and the Islamic Committee must make it clear,” Angkhana Neelapaijit told BenarNews Friday. “What if the groom comes to claim his wife?”
The president of Duay Jai (With Heart) Group, a human rights advocacy organization in the Deep South, demanded that Islamic law be amended.
“In the future, we should prevent recurrence of this issue. We should amend doubtful Islamic law, create the right values among Muslim men and reconcile the laws across the border to have the same standard,” said Anchana Heemmina.
Malaysia has a civil legal system and a separate Islamic legal system. Sharia law, specifically, the Islamic Family Law (Federal Territory) Act of 1984, sets the legal age for marriage at 16 for girls and 18 for men, allowing for exceptions with court permission. The civil law sets 18 as the minimum marriage age for both men and women.
Islamic family law requires a Malaysian who marries someone in another country to register with the Registrar of Muslim Marriages within six months.
Malaysian government leaders said they would weigh religious and cultural considerations as they work on establishing an age limit for marriages.
In July, Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail said news of the child bride added urgency to calls to increase the legal marriage age to 18 – a plank in the Pakatan Harapan coalition’s campaign promise. The coalition took power in May after defeating the Barisan Nasional bloc in the country’s 14th general election.