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Child marriage in Malaysia, a child rights issue

Chairperson of Voice of the Children Sharmila Sekaran

Voice of the Children, a member of Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage and a member of the Child Rights Coalition Malaysia, about the situation of child marriage in Malaysia.

The marriage of a 12-year-old girl to her 19-year old boyfriend made the international headlines in November last year. How common is child marriage in Malaysia? Where does it happen and who is most affected?

It is difficult to know exactly how many children are affected by child marriage in Malaysia. The numbers suggest that it is a common practice among Muslims as well as indigenous communities; however it is also prevalent amongst the Indian and Chinese communities.

In 2000, the census showed that child marriage affected 6,800 girls below the age of 15 as well as 4,600 boys in Malaysia.  Of those girls, 2,450 were Malay, 1,550 Indigenous, 1,600 Chinese, 600 Indians, and 600 others. Subsequent censuses did not collect such information so it is hard to gauge the true extent of the practice.

In 2010, a United Nations report showed that over 82,000 married women in Malaysia were girls between the ages of 15 and 19. To make matters worse, the Deputy Minister for Women revealed that, for that same year, nearly 16,000 girls below the age of 15 were in a marriage.

The true scale of child marriage in Malaysia may, however, be even higher as many couples who take part in religious or customary weddings do not register their unions.

What does Malaysian law say in regard to child marriage?

Malaysia has a dual legal system, which means that the minimum age of marriage can be determined by either civil law or Syariah (Islamic) law. This creates a situation where it is difficult to have a consistent definition of what age you are a child until and what constitutes child marriage.

As a rule, non-Muslims may only marry from the age 18, but girls can be married as early as 16 provided they or their parents have the permission of the State Chief Minister.

The majority of the population in Malaysia are Muslims. According to Syariah law in the country, the minimum age of marriage is 16 for girls and 18 for boys. Crucially, exceptions can be made for girls or boys to marry at a much younger age as long as they obtain Islamic courts’ consent. And data, while sparse, shows that girls are most affected by these legal exceptions.  For instance, this can be seen in the state of Kedah where underage marriage applications increased by 35% between 2008 and 2010. Over 90% of those applications involved girls younger than 16.

Why does child marriage happen in Malaysia?

Unwanted, early pregnancies contribute to the prevalence of child marriage in Malaysia. A high number of Muslim teens marry just before they are of legal age to marry, which indicates some haste to wed before a pregnancy progresses.

Religious beliefs as well as the taboo around sex outside of marriage play a major role too. When asked why they consented to their daughter’s marriage, parents often explain that girls are “too wild” and beyond control and that marriage is the best solution to protect them from themselves.

In poorer communities, many girls make the sacrifice of getting married at a young age to ensure their families’ economic survival.

What makes child marriage such a sensitive issue to bring up and challenge in Malaysia?

It is difficult for organisations coming from an urban setting to challenge the traditions and cultural practices of various communities, as they are perceived as lacking the credibility and experience needed for this context.

The close link with Islam makes child marriage a taboo issue to raise – non Muslims are perceived as ill-informed to raise this issue and avenues for discussion are extremely limited.

How is Voice of the Children tackling child marriage?

As members of the national Child Rights Coalition, we advocate for better protection of children and, through our online advocacy in particular, we stress that marriages between a child and an adult are a violation of a child’s rights.

We are following the work of researchers, which will help us build a solid case against child marriage. This will lead to an understanding of the extent and consequences of the practice in Malaysia. We also plan to work with organisations for specific insights into the various communities involved.

We hope that this above knowledge will give us enough tools to develop an advocacy plan for child marriages, why it happens in Malaysia and how to address it.

What priority actions are needed to bring an end to child marriage in Malaysia?

Due to the close links between child marriage and Islam, a working relationship with Muslim organisations and policymakers who speak out against the practice are likely to have the strongest influence.

As part of Child Rights Coalition Malaysia, we urge the Malaysian government to amend the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce Act) 1976 as well as Islamic Family laws to set the minimum age of marriage at 18 for all, regardless of religion and with no exception.

Until this reform takes place, the government should establish a register to monitor underage marriages and document the reasons why the courts or the Chief Minister granted this permission.

The government should work with civil society to improve public awareness of the dangers of child marriage for girls’ education and health, and train judges and those involved in administering child marriages to understand how the practice violates the human rights of the child.

Read more: Child marriage case draws attention in Malaysia