Girls or Brides? The Issue of Child Marriage in Malaysia

“I see my friends and the next thing you know, they’re in Form 5,” a girl who left school at the age of 13 to get married speaks up. “They’re almost out of school. It’s a shame I didn’t go,” she now regrets.

Choosing who to marry and when. A basic human right for many, but not to all. This catastrophe remains to be one of the biggest, most prevalent plague of the century. In many parts of the world today, including developing countries, children as young as eight years of age and below are being forced into marriage.

While most of us have our education served to us on a silver platter, these girls can only look with envious eyes, just wishing that they can have this much ‘privilege’. Having your rights robbed at a very young age and your life be planned out without your consent is an inhumane experience no one should ever have to experience. It is very saddening to see that the only difference differentiating those girls and us is that very right to choose your own path in life and the right to proper education: their hand in marriage in exchange for their freedom and rights.

According to a UNICEF report, a non-surprising figure of 720 million women around the world today are married off as children and about 15 million girls are often married every year even before they turn 18 years old. This preposterous figure continues to be on the rise. Protecting children’s rights, safety and dignity should have long been our ultimate responsibility as we progress. With this, The Gryphon endeavours to unravel the recent Malaysian case where a marriage took place involving an underage child.

Back in July of this year, the marriage of a 41-year-old Malaysian man to an 11-year-old Thai girl caught the attention of many, developing into a major altercation from the public. The said man already has 2 wives and 6 children and is said to be a Muslim leader in his village. His children range from ages 5 to 18.At the premature age of 11 herself, the young bride has never been to school. The news reported that the parents had consented to the marriage but had imposed a condition where their daughter would only be allowed to live with her “husband” once she turns 16 years of age.  However, the Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, declared the marriage to be illegal due to the fact that the marriage had not received the consent of the Shariah Court, which is required as the girl was below the minimum legal age for marriage.

To digress a little, Malaysia’s legal system is one to be considered quite unique as they are predominantly governed by common law while also running in parallel with a separate Islamic law system, which is the jurisdiction of the Shariah Court in each state. With this, two sets of rules govern Muslims and non-Muslims marriages respectively. Shariah law only applies to every Muslim in Malaysia in respect of marriages, divorce, inheritance and so forth. Non-Muslims are to follow secular laws which deal with the same matters.

With the plural legal system that rules the country, the figure still stands as an unsettling one. The available data shows an alarming number of 6,584 child marriage cases among Muslims from 2011 to 2016. Furthermore, the research came to a figure of 5,215 cases where it only involved non-Muslim female children from ages 16 to 18 years old from 2005 to October 2015, which brings us to an average of more than 500 cases per year. Evidentially and undeniably, this issue remains to be very critical at hand and if the numbers were already this high in Southeast Asia, it would be distressing to even think about the girls in Africa or the Middle East where the matter is arguably much more rampant.

In relations to the Malaysian case, the Women Malaysian Chinese Association (WMCA) has taken a step forward in urging the government to once and for all criminalize child marriage under Federal Law. The Chief WMCA spoke up and said that in order to demonstrate the nation’s efforts in preserving children’s safety and rights, prohibiting child marriage would be the first step to take. She also pointed out that the country cannot have two legal systems, especially in dealing with matters related to the safeguarding of basic rights and interests of minors and children. Religion can be a state matter but when it comes to matters pertaining to child marriages and sexual violation where it infringes basic human rights, should this really still be categorised as a religious or state matter especially when the state laws do not seem to be protecting them? If the government were to make child marriage a criminal offence under Federal law, it would take precedence even if it comes into conflict with state laws, which would contribute in the journey towards protecting children’s rights.

In one previous occasion, a 15-year-old girl was married off as a second wife to a 44-year-old man by her family based on the reason of poverty and the family did not want to see their daughter living in the same fate as them. Also, on another occasion, it was reported that a father, who has 13 children, married all of his children off. It is long due that we recognize and acknowledge the severity of the matter.

Poverty and tradition have long been the drivers of child marriage. In fact, child marriage rates run the highest in countries facing poverty. It is common for parents who are unable to sustain their daughter’s education fees to marry them off or simply because of the economic incentives. It is sickening to know that in some parts of the world, the younger the bride is, the higher the dowry that the groom’s family must pay. While gender discrimination has been deeply rooted in many societies as well as patriarchal norms, it is no excuse for girls to be cheated of their rights. The expectations where girls are considered to be the property of their fathers and husbands and are to have limited or even no rights at all should be rendered outdated and obsolete.

Awareness is key and, with the voices we have, we should strive for the rights of these girls. At such a young age, it can be both physically and psychologically harmful. Young girls should not need to succumb to sexual demands or abuse by their spouse, something which human rights activists are fighting against. While we have a sounding voice, we have to use it to change perspectives of the world so that women aren’t seen property and more than just an obedient housewife in all areas of the world. It’s a new generation and it’s our turn to fight.

Andrea Kong