Rohingya child brides in Malaysia

Displaced Rohingya people in Rakhine State, Myanmar. Foreign and Commonwealth Office/Wikimedia Commons

So-called Rohingya people in Rakhine State live in apartheid-like conditions. Young girls head to Malaysia to flee persecution and violence only for their future prospects to unravel at the hands of people traffickers.

By John Pennington

Myanmar’s violence-ridden Rakhine state is a horrible place for young so-called Rohingya women to live. One of their only escape routes is to head to Malaysia to marry men they have never met. Girls as young as 12 travel to Malaysia to escape persecution.

So-called Rohingya people are virtually stateless in their own country

As a minority Muslim group in majority Buddhist Myanmar, so-called Rohingya people have few rights and the Myanmar government sees them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Myanmar forces are accused of multiple atrocities against the so-called Rohingya, including murder, rape and destruction of villages.

Violence in the Rakhine state since 2012 has killed hundreds. Tens of thousands have fled to Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. Those who left initially were primarily men who now dominate so-called Rohingya communities in these countries. United Nations (UN) statistics report 56,000 so-called Rohingya live in Malaysia, mainly in poor suburbs around Kuala Lumpur. Men in these communities seek a wife and a family to gain social status meaning demand is high for so-called Rohingya women.

Some marriages are pre-arranged but the majority are not

Some marriages are arranged in advance. A family in Rakhine will welcome a marriage proposal from a so-called Rohingya man based in Malaysia. It is an obvious way out from the increasing fear of sexual violence. Men in Malaysia pay a lesser bride price (mahr) for a girl in Rakhine than for one in Malaysia.

However, in the main human traffickers abduct girls from Rakhine and sell them. Up to 7,000 ringgit (US$1,571.80) changes hands if a captured girl is either released to her family or sold on to a man. “The (trafficking) agent said I had been sold to a man and I asked, how could do they do that?… My heart was heavy and I was scared,” an unnamed 13-year-old told Reuters. Their families do not have the resources to do anything more to help.

The people traffickers trick the girls and their families into believing prospects in Indonesia and Malaysia are better and offer a low price to make the journey. The traffickers then change the arrangement, imprison the girls, and ask for more money. Unable to pay, they are left with no choice but to accept the offer of marriage to a stranger; the alternative is to face being sold into prostitution.

We know women have been recruited by brokers in Rakhine State either for free or at a very reduced cost because their traffickers were anticipating that they could charge men in Malaysia a lot higher fee,” said Amy Smith of Fortify Rights, a migrant and refugee protection group based in Southeast Asia.

Statistics are elusive but the trend is increasing

Official statistics are non-existent but in 2015 the UN identified 120 child brides in Malaysia but it could not detail how many of them had been trafficked. Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, reported a “significant” increase in the number since the violence in Rakhine stepped up in 2012.

2010 statistics from the UN showed more than 82,000 married women in Malaysia were aged between 15 and 19. By law, girls can marry at 16 with permission of their state’s chief minister and the Shariah court permits marriages before the age of 16. Independent non-governmental organisation (NGO) Arakan estimated that 5 to 15% of so-called Rohingyas fleeing by sea are women and children.

Heading to Malaysia and other countries with the help of people smugglers is a last resort for so-called Rohingya people. Thousands of them were forced into overcrowded settlements when the violence began and the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates more than 416,000 now require relief. There are around 90,000 so-called Rohingya asylum seekers in Malaysia.

The initial violence in 2012 led to thousands of so-called Rohingya men fleeing the country. Significant numbers of so-called Rohingya girls are now making the same journey. All of them are at the mercy of both the Myanmar government and the people traffickers.

Little progress is being made to resolve the situation

More attention is being paid to the appalling plight of these young girls. They receive some support including counselling from so-called Rohingya women such as Sharifah Shakirah, who tries to convince others that the practice is wrong. She founded the Rohingya Women Development Network after fleeing Rakhine herself.

Ex-UN head Kofi Annan took charge of an investigation into violence in Rakhine, with the support of the National League for Democracy (NLD). This raised hopes of a brighter future only for violence to break out once again. UN human rights official Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein urged Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi to act and end the persecution of the so-called Rohingya. The government says its clearance operations in Rakhine are over.

If the peace lasts, it may not spell the end for people trafficking and child brides heading to Malaysia, and certainly not immediately. The numbers of displaced so-called Rohingyan men means the demand for so-called Rohingya brides still exists. It could take generations to equalise the gender imbalance.

Rakhine may be a difficult place for a young girl to live, but you only have to read the story of Rashida to realise just how quickly the dream of a better life in Malaysia became a nightmare. Imprisoned, raped and impregnated by traffickers, she was married and with a child by the age of 15. Now she poignantly states: “If I knew all of these things would happen, I wouldn’t have come here. I think Myanmar was better for me.”

About the Author

John Pennington
John Pennington is an English freelance writer and a self-published author. He graduated from the University of Warwick with a bachelor’s degree in French and History in 2006. After spending time as a sports journalist, he now writes about politics, history and social affairs.