Protecting our girls from child marriage

WHAT a historic year this has been for women.

The international #MeToo movement catalysed the long-awaited reckoning of powerful male figures guilty of sexual crimes.

At home, this coincided with the election of a new government in May, paving the way for the appointment of the first female deputy prime minister.

As deputy prime minister, Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail’s stewardship of the Women, Family and Community Development portfolio signals the present administration’s determination to prioritise women’s issues.

Initial optimism waned however when the country was rocked by media reports on underage marriage. In July this year, news outlets reported the marriage of an 11-year-old girl in Kelantan to a 41-year-old man, becoming his third wife.

The reason for marriage? A supposed desire to “protect and provide” for her, as she was uneducated and came from a destitute family.

Similar reasons were cited for the marriage of a 15-year-old Kelantanese girl to a 44-year-old father of two last month. The parents reportedly consented to the arrangement because they wanted her to have a “more comfortable life”.

Although these two cases may seem like isolated incidents, approximately 82,000 child marriages have been recorded in Malaysia up until 2010.

The exact reasons for the prevalence of underaged marriage in Malaysia are unclear. Opinions on potential solutions have also been polarised. But regardless of the drivers and the specific solutions, Malaysians appear unequivocal in their disapproval of the practice.

The problem has been the subject of intense debate in the print, electronic and social media as the public has demanded firm and immediate response from lawmakers.

But what do Malaysian youths think about child marriage?

In a survey we recently conducted with hundreds of Form 4 students in 10 schools in Taiping and Kuala Lumpur, a majority of male and female respondents disagreed with the view that it was acceptable for girls to be married before the age of 18.

When asked to elaborate on the lack of support for the view, a student from a girls’ school insisted that it would “prevent them from achieving their fullest potential” – an opinion echoed by a male student in a co-educational school in Taiping.

In the same study, respondents also agreed that delaying marriage for the sake of their career would be acceptable, with no significant differences between males and females.

The preliminary evidence we have gathered based on conversations with adolescents in Kuala Lumpur and Perak shows that respondents clearly reject child marriage as a social practice and they are aware of how it limits their life choices.

The solutions to tackle the problem, however, has caused much schism.

Many policymakers, activists, and concerned citizens have renewed their call to raise the minimum age for marriage across all states, especially for Muslims. For Muslims, marriages under the age of 16 are permitted with the approval of a shariah court.

For non-Muslims, the consent of the chief minister of the state is required, except in cases of customary marriages conducted within the indigenous communities.

Opponents of the move to raise the minimum age for marriage among Muslims, such as Omar Nik Abdullah, the vice-president of Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), argue that such reforms would contravene religious teachings.

Such an interpretation is not only dangerous, but also misleading as it minimises the scores of religious opinions on the detriment of child marriages.

Compounding the problem further, Malaysia’s unique dual legislative system (civil and shariah) places Muslim family and marriage laws under the purview of each state. This complicates matters as a uniform amendment to each state’s shariah enactments would require the consent of each of the country’s nine sultans as well as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong.

The minimum age of marriage is also different for males and females in both civil and shariah laws, with the age for males set at 18 and females at 16. Why does such a disparity exist? Is it for the benefit of males over females, from the standpoint of both the education and labour markets?

Whatever the reason, the differing minimum ages signal an implicit ‘permission’ for parents to marry girls off earlier than boys. These are fundamental questions that merit further public scrutiny and debate alongside solutions to tackle child marriage.

In a historic year when Malaysia has appointed the first female deputy prime minister and girls outnumber boys in many public universities, the practice of marrying off daughters blights the country’s ambition to become an example for women empowerment around the world.

Therefore, the challenge before the newly elected Pakatan Harapan government is to ensure that regardless of race, religion and gender, no Malaysian girl by 2030 will look at child marriage as a means to a better life. – October 12, 2018.

* M Niaz Asadullah is Professor of Development Economics at the University of Malaya.

* Wan Farihah Ahmad Fahmy, a Teach for Malaysia alumnus, is a graduate student at the University of Malaya.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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  • Make the completion of education at 16 minimum compulsory for all children. This is a first step towards eliminating poverty. Invest more in the rural and indigenous population who find access to education more challenging.

    Posted 5 years ago by Malaysia New hope · Reply