“Our children deserve better than child marriage,” blogs Malaysian child rights organisation

Executive Director of PS The Children, Ms. Nagasayee Malathy, conducting a workshop on child sexual abuse

Update: In April 2016, Malaysia missed an opportunity to ban all marriages under the age of 18, irrespective of faith. The Lower House of Parliament amended the country’s Child Act 2000 without removing the legal exceptions allowing marriage before 18. Currently, girls aged 16 can marry with the permission of their state’s Chief Minister. For Muslims, Islamic law sets a 16-year minimum age for girls and permits earlier marriages with the permission of a syariah court. Read more: MalaysiaKini

A recent case of child marriage has drawn much attention in Malaysia. Earlier this year, a 40 year-old man was charged with the statutory rape of a 13 year-old girl in the Sabah region of the country. It is alleged that he then took the 13 year-old girl as a second wife.

People have spoken out to say that this man should not escape criminal charges by choosing to marry his victim. To do so would not only be an affront to justice, but would ignore the emotional, physical and sexual abuse girls often face in child marriage and would send the message that it is okay to assault a girl as long as you marry her.

Protect & Save the Children, a Malaysian child rights organisation, envisions a world where children are protected from all forms of sexual abuse and exploitation, including child marriage.

Our mission isn’t easy. We cannot openly talk about sexual abuse: it is shrouded in shame and secrecy and many deny its existence. Speaking of child marriage is complicated too, as people generally fail to see it as a problem. But as this recent case shows, it’s time to speak up.

Child marriage and sexual abuse, taboo subjects

In child sexual abuse cases, the grooming process often plays a crucial role. The abuser gains a child’s trust and makes her/him believe that abuse is how love and affection are shown. Grooming often leads to rape, which is not understood by the victims. In the majority of abuse cases the perpetrator is well known to the child.

This can explain why many cases of child sexual abuse are not dealt with to a full extent under the legal system. Most cases of sexual abuse occur at a very early age, around 2 to 5 years old, but adolescent girls are vulnerable too. Girls are made to feel guilty while the perpetrator is given favourable treatment in court: if he simply expresses regret or offers to marry the girl, the case can be dropped.

Child marriage is rarely seen as a human rights violation in Malaysia. The little recognition that it gets as a problem means that we are unable to reach out to victims. Once girls are married, they’re rarely able to pursue their education, let alone access our services.

Our best course of action becomes prevention: if we can act before abuse occurs, then maybe we stand a chance at preventing abuse and helping a girl stay out of child marriage.

“Say no! Run and Tell!” Our efforts to prevent child abuse and child marriage by educating children about their personal safety

We educate people of all ages about children’s rights and the lasting impact of violence and exploitation, including child marriage, on a child’s development.

We’ve developed an interactive manual for young children, which gives them tools to identify and report abuse. Comprised of creative activities and exercises, the manual helps them understand what sexual abuse is and explains what to do if they need help.

Learning about their private body parts is key to that process. We conduct lessons for girls and boys separately where we use visual and audio material to show them what safe or unsafe touch is

Adolescents explore those issues further in reproductive health workshops. In our sessions with teenagers, we discuss healthy relationships. Teenage pregnancies and their impact on girls’ physical and mental wellbeing are highlighted and we inform teens about the legal minimum age of marriage as well as the lasting consequences of early marriage.

Knowing what a healthy relationship looks like can protect them too. We teach adolescents how to assert their rights and wishes in a relationship and we emphasise that it is okay to say “no” to things they are uncomfortable with.

Educating adults isn’t enough: the child protection system needs improving

From government officials, to schoolteachers or counsellors, and including parents, we train a variety of people in our adult workshops. The reaction we get is usually one of disbelief: this kind of abuse doesn’t exist, they often tell us.

To overcome this initial resistance, we give participants statements to read aloud, encourage them to share their opinions and start a dialogue. This way we can understand where they’re coming from and address some of their concerns, including the stigma of girls having sex outside marriage.

For example, the statement “Children having sexual relationship at the age of 12 is not considered abuse” can spark discussions on what sexual abuse is, the role adults have to play in protecting children or why they shouldn’t encourage marriages before 18.

Yet, educating adults about child sexual exploitation isn’t enough: the child protection system has flaws that need addressing. In Malaysia, if a child becomes pregnant, it is difficult for her to attend school and continue her education because she might set a bad example for her classmates. Teenage mothers should be guaranteed their right to education, not banned from school.

There is an urgent need for more awareness raising campaigns, more education and for a child protection system that truly upholds children’s rights.

“Our children deserve better than child marriage”

Momentum is building. Parents who wouldn’t talk about child sexual abuse now bring their children into therapy. More adults who were victims of abuse during their childhood come and see us to talk about their problems and their suffering.

Child rights activists are organising at the national level and have united under the banner of Child Rights Coalition Malaysia. The existence of Girls Not Brides and the visibility child marriage has gained in international forums is very motivating for us as well.

It will take time for our message to sink in, but it’s important that we continue to speak up. Our children deserve better means for protection than child marriage.

Read more: Child marriage in Malaysia, a child rights issue