BANGKOK (TrustLaw) - Early last year, there was uproar in Malaysia when news came to light of two girls, 10 and 11 years old, marrying men in their 40s in the deeply religious Kelantan state in the north.
The 11-year-old was found days later abandoned and in a state of shock. The marriage was ruled illegal, not because of the age of the child, but because they did not follow Malaysia’s Islamic law where marriages of girls under 16 are allowed with the permission of the Syariah court.
Then in December, a 14-year-old Muslim girl who married a 23-year-old teacher in July participated in mass wedding celebrations attended, according to reports, by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Jamil Khir Baharom.
For all its image as a progressive and model Muslim-majority nation, Malaysia has not managed to - or decided not to - stop the practice of child marriage, fuelled by poverty and belief that it is perfectly normal to marry young girls under Islamic doctrine, rights groups told TrustLaw.
“It’s very clearly a poverty factor above everything else,” said Zalifah Azman, part of the team writing a shadow report on Malaysia’s compliance with the Convention of the Rights of the Child.
However, in certain places, “the cycle (of child marriage) seems to perpetuate also because it’s usually validated by the use of Islamic doctrine for some reasons,” she told TrustLaw.
Activists say as many as 16,000 Malaysian girls under 15 are already married and have called to amend the Syariah Family Law which governs Malay Muslims that make up 60 percent of the nation’s 28 million population.
A NUMBERS GAME
Statistics on child marriages in Malaysia are hard to come by, partly because there is no central database and also because many are undocumented. And only the most sensational cases make it to the English-language newspapers.
Yet piecing together bits of available data paints a worrying picture.
In 2009, 477 girls under the age of 15 - 32 were younger than 10 - went for premarital HIV screening mandatory for all Malay Muslims, meaning they were getting ready for marriage. According to the 2010 United Nations’ country report on HIV/AIDS, 6,815 girls between the ages of 15-19 also underwent the screening.
The most recently available Census, conducted in 2000, also showed 6,146 girls aged 10 - 14 years were married.
The practice is not limited to girls but their numbers are significantly higher. Only two boys younger than 15 went for premarital screening in the same period and 4,600 were identified as married in the Census.
In June, local paper Berita Harian reported the Syariah court in Kedah state as saying of the 275 applications for underage marriage in the state in the past three years, 90 percent involved girls.
In January, Baharom told audience in a workshop on underage marriages it only accounts for 0.725 percent of all marriages documented in the Syariah courts in the country. Activists however say many cases remain unreported.
Child marriage is not only for Malay Muslims either. The ethnic breakdown of the 6,000-odd girls identified as married in the Census includes 1,600 Chinese and 600 Indian girls, despite the law governing non-Muslims stating the minimum age of marriage as 18.
Dr. Farah Nini Binti Dusuki, an expert on child law at University of Malaya, however advised against rushing to judgment based on isolated incidents.
She told TrustLaw, “I believe it is not too common in Malaysia to marry off young girls to older men as awareness is better than before on this matter. That was why the public was outraged (over 10 and 11-year-old girls incidents).”
POVERTY AND RELIGIOUS BELIEF FUEL THE PRACTICE
Rights group say the majority of child marriages occur for economic reasons, either in rural areas with high levels of poverty or poor families in big cities.
“Many poor Malaysians still view girls in a more cultural lens,” Azman told TrustLaw. Girls are a “burden” and for families with attractive daughters, the attention of wealthier men who promise financial support is seen as an immediate rescue, she said.
Parents also push for child marriages because of their children’s behaviour, Ratna Osman, acting executive director of rights group Sisters in Islam, told TrustLaw.
“Syariah judges are confronted by parents who are pushing them to marry off their sons and daughters because they’ve been having sex and of course in Islam, it is considered sinful,” she said.
Parents also fear child birth outside wedlock but Dusuki said such actions are more knee-jerk than looking into the cause of the problem.
“What is more worrying is religious authorities cited that… there were applications for divorce hardly a year after such marriage took place on the ground of incompatibility,” she said.
In addition to the possibility of becoming a young divorcee, teenage mothers also suffer health-wise because the biological make-up of a girl especially below 16 is not equipped to conceive, experts say, resulting in a high-risk pregnancy with an increased risk of maternal and infant death.
“As (the babies) grow up there are greater risks of educational failure, juvenile crime and they will become teenage parents themselves so the cycle continues,” said Azman.
TIME TO CHANGE THE LAW?
Marriage between a bride and groom with a huge age gap also raise other alarm bells.
“Most of the time, the male partner who commits to such a marriage would have paedophilic tendencies,” Azman said. This means the child bride will not be the first or the last and will leave her severely traumatised, she said.
Activists also say construing consent from the child brides based on maturity - in Islam this means whether or not a girl has reached puberty - is no basis to say she is ready for a married life.
Groups such as SIS has been calling for the minimum age of marriage to be raised to 18, saying it deplores government officials and religious authorities that give tacit approval of the practice or passing off responsibility to the Syariah Court.
They have also asked the government to review the duality of legal systems - one for Malay Muslims and one for non-Muslims - which they say enable people to abuse the law.
Dusuki, however, said society needs to understand allowance of child marriage does not equate to encouragement.
“This law has to stay at least until the Malaysian society, particularly the young people are well-equipped with sexual reproductive health knowledge which current research shows they are generally sorely lacking amongst them,” she said.
Malaysian politicians have repeatedly refused to change the law, saying it would be un-Islamic.
And this - the long-held belief that it is permitted under Islam - is perhaps the most difficult to combat when it comes to ending child marriages in a patriarchal society where the majority of politicians and lawmakers are men.
Proponents of child marriage usually invoke the historical precedence involving the Prophet who married six-year-old Aishah. Activists counter that new studies show Aishah was more likely to be 19.
SIS’s Osman also told TrustLaw recent studies such as the report by Cairo’s Al-Azhar University and U.N.’s children agency UNICEF on Islam and children clearly says child marriage is not allowed in Islam.
However, because the belief “is clearly embedded in the historicity of Islamic narrative, it would be very hard to change the mindset of the majority Malay Muslims in Malaysia,” said Azman.
Yet it must change, she said.
“Some things are just wrong and child marriage is just wrong.”
See entire TrustLaw child marriage series at www.childmarriage.trust.org. Child Marriage: Denying girls' rights, perpetuating poverty", a multimedia documentary by TrustLaw, will be launched on Aug. 4.