Child marriage has been hitting the headlines in Malaysia. In 2010, for example, the cases of a 10 and an 11 year-old girl who had been married to men in their 40s made national news.
More recently, rape charges were dropped when a 13 year-old girl reportedly ‘agreed’ to marry her 40 year-old alleged aggressor in May this year. The press reported that permission was granted for the marriage by an Islamic court, generating heated reactions.
These cases do help to raise awareness that the practice of child marriage is a problem in Malaysia. After all, it is too often denied that child marriage is even an issue in this country.
We can’t single out one community: child marriage happens across cultural groups in Malaysia
However, media coverage of the issue tends to be superficial. Articles presenting the ‘outcries’ from different parts of Malaysian society can sensationalise cases and distract from a full understanding of the nature and scope of the problem. Child marriage in Malaysia is not just about technicalities of marriage under Syariah law. Current media coverage misses this point.
Underage marriage involving Malay Muslim girls is only one piece of a broader picture. Child marriage occurs in different communities in Malaysia’s multicultural society whether Malay, Indian or Chinese. At the Malaysian Child Resource Institute, we have learned that girls in native communities are dropping out of school due to marry young, as is still customary among some indigenous peoples.
There are also reports of mail-order child brides from Myanmar arriving to be wed to refugees now living in Malaysia, a phenomenon that is rarely reported by the local press. Even though Malaysia is not party to the UN Convention on Refugees, we cannot overlook that child marriage is affecting this most vulnerable of populations. We must not forget too that as much as girls are most often the focus, boys are also affected.
Encouraging progress: Global conference opens door for constructive conversation on child marriage in Malaysia
The recent Women Deliver conference held in Kuala Lumpur on May 28-30 helped bring a more thoughtful approach to the discussion. It created a platform to share experiences and examine child marriage more closely. It also created an opportunity to link child marriage with other issues such as access to reproductive health, access to education and gender equality both in Malaysia and beyond.
Encouragingly, interviews with Girls Not Brides Global Coordinator Lakshmi Sundaram were widely covered in different languages by the Malaysian press. Many Malaysian publications also highlighted the arguments of civil society organisations that the consent of a 13 year-old girl to marriage cannot be deemed consent in the eyes of the law and that this did not justify the recent case of child marriage mentioned above.
Examining the phenomenon of child marriage in Malaysia remains difficult due to social taboos. We were encouraged, however, by the improved media coverage of the issue following Women Deliver, although there is still some way to go.
We were also buoyed by the release of a report shortly after the conference by the UN High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, which recommended that ‘end child marriage’ be used as an indicator to measure progress on the empowerment of women and girls in new development goals for the international community.
This is a welcome suggestion and as a member of Girls Not Brides, we hope that the indicator will not only help us monitor and call for action on child marriage based on concrete evidence, but also continue to raise the profile of the issue for more thoughtful discussions in the media and wider Malaysian society.
Child marriage represents a clash of the modern with the traditional as Malaysian society evolves. If we do not approach the issue with a real understanding, we will not be able to effectively address it. Media has a big role to play.
In the time it has taken to read this article 39 girls under the age of 18 have been married
Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18
That is 23 girls every minute
Nearly 1 every 3 seconds
Nicole Helwig is Programme Director at the Malaysian Child Resource Institute (MCRI)