Is Malaysia allowing “legal child abuse”?

Campaigners say a lack of action on stopping child marriage means the state is failing to protect vulnerable children from predatory behaviour. What are the facts behind the furore?

by Francesca Ross

Jenny was 12 years old when her mother told her she was getting married. She had met her husband-to-be just a handful of times.

“The man approached my parents and asked to marry me. He told me about it, and when I got home, my mother said, ‘You are going to be married tomorrow’,” the now 52-year-old woman said.

The man she married beat and insulted her, even when she was pregnant. At the age of 20, she took a bus to Singapore – sacrificing everything she ever knew. It was decades before she saw her children again.

New legislation will not stop child marriage, despite heated discussion

Forty years later the situation of child brides in Malaysia has not improved. The parliament has just passed the Sexual Offences against Children Bill 2017 without agreement on measures to outlaw child marriage.

National discussion on youth weddings has been ignited by inflammatory comments from one member of parliament on child marriage after rape. The current legal minimum age for marriage for either gender is 18 years old but girls can marry at 16 with special permissions. Religious marriages can happen at 16 years old but a Sharia court can allow earlier weddings.

The average age for Malaysian brides and grooms at their first marriage has been rising, said the United Nations (UN) Men were around 25.6 years old and women were 22.1 in 1970, by 2010 that figure had risen to 28 and 25.7.

Beneath this trend were the 10,267 married children between 10 and 14 years of age in the year 2000. Girls were more likely to be part of this group than boys (58% to 42%.) There were 53,196 girls and 11,833 boys between 15 and 19 years old and married in the same census period. Figures for 2010 showed a more even split of 82,382 females and 73,428 males.

Ever-married women in Malaysia (%)

Sharia courts must give permission for Muslim girls to marry but proceedings are not well-run

There is an argument that Sharia judges should have discretion on allowing child marriage as each case should be approached differently. Some situations could be genuine love matches and should be allowed. It also possible that a blanket mandatory age would open the system to abuse, lies and counterfeit documentation.

This is no excuse for predatory behaviour, say activists. “Our view is that the state has an obligation to protect children and this responsibility has been sorely abused,” said Shareena Sheriff, a programme manager at Sisters in Islam. “Child marriage is actually exacerbating the abuse of the children by making it legal,” she added.

The real truth behind these marriages is not one of informed decision-making, say critics. “Sometimes, the Sharia judges do not know the real story. So they would just allow the marriage application without knowing the background,” said Rosmawati Zainal, the chief executive of Raudhatus Sakinah.

“It is not that hard to get your application allowed. Some Sharia judges, they will not even interview the children, but only with the parents,” she added.

Rohingya refugees fleeing to Malaysia are being sold as child brides

Refugee girls are particularly vulnerable to child marriage as they flee their home countries and seek security somewhere new. Some of these girls will be underage. They may also be victims of human trafficking.

Rohingya women arriving from violent parts of Myanmar are being paired off with Malaysian men through hastily arranged marriages, say reports. Matthew Smith, executive director of the Southeast Asia-based migrant and refugee protection group Fortify Rights, had seen that violence in Rakhine had created a “significant” rise in the number of child brides.

There were at least 120 Rohingya child brides in Malaysia in 2010, said the United Nations.

The authorities do not want to step into the realm of religious courts

The measure of a society is in how it treats its most vulnerable members and the young people of Malaysia are not getting a good deal. Marriage is not, and should not be, about legalising sex. Instead it is the basis of a shared responsibility to build families and communities.

The activists mentioned earlier in this discussion are adamant that religious courts are driving underage marriage by giving exceptions to minimum age rules, and an election-wary Najib has ruled out intervening when votes are at stake. His weakness is paid for by the young girls beaten, bullied, scarred and killed by early marriage and the pregnancies that often come with it.

It is no surprise the Sexual Offences Bill did not expand into child marriage when there are such heavy religious undertones. The solution then is not in changing the law, but enforcing the law that already exists. While the country is alight with talk of one stupid comment, policeman, communities and families should take the chance to discuss and consider what child marriage has done to the women of their lives.

If the laws are ignored, so is the suffering that ignoring them brings. Jenny has waited 40 years for change, reform has been a long time coming.