In the eyes of activists, the occurrence of child marriages robs boys and girls from their childhood. However, the same sentiment is not shared by some religious authorities. The clashing values with no solution in hindsight have only contributed to the increasing rate of child marriages in Malaysia.
Each year at least 1,500 children tie the knot without realising its consequences, and girls become brides before they turn 18 years old. We strung together 10 unsettling facts about child marriage practices in Malaysia:
#1:What Is Child Marriage?
- It is seen as “a form of forced marriage, given that one and/or both parties have not expressed full, free and informed consent” by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and the Committee on the Rights of The Child.
#2: The National Trend In Child Marriage
- The number of approved child marriages in 2021 fluctuated to 445 from 451 approved child marriages in 2020. However, the reduction may be due to the adherence to standard operating procedure (SOP) by Jabatan Kehakiman Syariah Malaysia that requires medical and social reports before an application can be approved.
# 3: Dual Legal System
This ongoing practice is partially due to the permissive dual legal system of Syariah and civil law that contributes to 5 child marriages per day.
- The Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976 states that the minimum age for marriage is 18 years old. Yet, if a license is obtained from their state’s chief minister, a girl can marry at 16 years old. However, non-Muslim children cannot marry below the age of 16 years old
- Under the Syariah court, boys are permitted to marry at the age of 18 years old and girls at the age of 16 years old. The catch is that the Syariah court is allowed to grant consent for marriages below the stated age under the discretion of the Shariah court judges .
- The reasons for approval of Shariah court judges include if the children are able to support and manage a household, memorisation of basic Islamic teachings and the availability of the family support . Also, there is no minimum age for Muslims to marry.
- The simple process of applying to district Syariah court or National Registration Department Offices (NRD) within the timeframe of 21 days to 6 months before the marriage date provided no hindrance to the practice from taking place.
#4: But Some Are Exempted From The Law
- However, the Act does not apply to indigenous (native) people living in Sabah and Sarawak, as well as the Orang Asli in the peninsular. Their marriages and divorces are subjected to native customary law or customs, and the prevalence admittedly will not be part of the national statistics of child marriages .
- And with that exception, child marriage practices are common among the indigenous community. It was reported by the Sarawak Council for Customs and Traditions, that 1,472 child marriages took place between 2011-2016 amongst the natives.
#5:Not Quite Rural/Urban Divide When It Comes To Reported Child Marriages
- In 2021, there was a high permit approval rate for child marriages in four different states in Malaysia – with Sarawak recording 183 cases, Sabah 86 cases, and Kelantan 43 cases and Pahang (38).
- Other states reported lower numbers compared to the mentioned four states: Terengganu (21), Perak (21), Kedah (17), Selangor (12), Johor (10), Perlis (4) Penang (4), Negeri Sembilan (3), Melaka (2), and Labuan (1).
#6:Neither Ethnicity Or Religion Is The Driver For Child Marriage, But Poverty Is
Globally, girls with poorer economic backgrounds were more likely to marry early as a means to ease the family’s financial burden. Poverty, instead of culture or tradition, is the proponent of child marriages in Malaysia.
- In addition to the Malaysian Law (Act 550) that made education up to Primary 6 compulsory, marrying off their children would happen relatively early especially if parents are unable to support their further education.
- A dowry is often customary to the bride’s family in the Muslim culture. This provides an economic incentive to low-income households to marry their daughters off.
- The refugee community, for example, with no proper documentation and basic education are unable to secure a proper job. Thus, marrying into a financially stable family becomes an alternative.
#7:Marrying The Children Off Did Not Stop Poverty
The notion that child marriage is the solution to ensure a better future is flawed.
- Poverty persists among those who marry young, as many would be unlikely to continue schooling, reducing their chances of proper employment in the future. In addition, despite being married, the children still depend on their parents for financial help.
#8:Alleviating Societal Shame
There are instances where child marriage takes place to combat premarital intercourse or even as a fix to past transgressions.
- A 12-year-old girl was forced to marry her 19-year-old rapist four months after she fell victim to gang rape in 2012.
- An 11-year-old girl became the second wife to a 40-year-old restaurant owner in 2013 after he was charged for statutory rape to avoid prosecution. The marriage was approved by the girl’s father, and the voice of the victim was overruled by her wali or guardian.
#9: A Solemn Future For A Young Bride
From the 445 child marriages reported in 2021, 411 girls have dropped out of school.
- Those who marry young tend to be out of school early and permanently. Child brides soon become young mothers, and with offspring to care for, school becomes a distant dream .
- Sexually transmitted diseases are common health scares among child brides because of the uncertainty of previous sexual activities and the health of their partners.
- Additionally, pregnancy among young girls may increase the risk to both mother and child. The young pregnant mother may have a higher probability of developing prenatal and postnatal complications, further increasing the risk of infant mortality.
#10: More Than Just A Dowry
Girls are more than just a barter deal between two families. Child marriages aren’t the answer to fix heinous crimes such as rape.
- With the uproar incited by the union of an 11-year-old marrying a 41-year-old man, the Malaysian government has initiated a long-term National Strategic Plan to tackle the causes of child marriage to be implemented between 2020- 2025.
- To date, the only state that has increased the minimum marrying age to 18 years old is Selangor . The federal government was unable to ban child marriage practice fully in 2019 as states with the highest incidents of child marriages and highest rate of poverty; Sabah, Sarawak, Terengganu and Kelantan were opposed to it.
Whilst lawmakers are still pushing for its total ban, there are changemakers out there who have been vocal in advocating the rights for children to have proper childhood such as the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), Association of Women Lawyers (AWL), and Voice of the Children (VOC).
Explore our sources:
- F.Kwan and J.Y. Teoh. (2021). Child marriages down, says data – but are the numbers true? Free Malaysia Today.Link
- UNICEF. (2021). Advocacy Brief: Towards Ending Child Marriage in Malaysia. Link.
- UNICEF. (2018). Child Marriage in Malaysia. Link.
- A. Adilah. (2018). How Malaysia’s legal system allows child marriage, five cases daily.Link.
- Easy Law. (2009). Law Reform ( Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976. Link.
- Syariah Government. (2003). Islamic Family Law (State of Selangor) Enactment 2003. Link.
- FMT Reporters. (2021). 445 teens left school to get married in 2020. Free Malaysia Today. Link
- Ng K., Seah S., Tay S. (2020). Married at 12, a mother at 13: a Malaysian child bride’s story. South China Morning Post. Link.
- World Bank. (2017). Economic Impact of Child Marriage: Global Synthesis Report (Conference Edition). Link.
- CommonLIII. (1996). Malaysian Legislation. Education Act 1996. Link
- Wiki Impact. (2020). Poverty Is One Of The Main Drivers Of Child Marriage (whitepaper). Link
- K. Hodal. (2013). Malaysian Rape Accused Marries 13-year-old Alleged Victim. The Guardian. Link.
- M. A. Sani. (2013). Married off because she was raped. Astro Awani. Link
- Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women Arrow. (2018). National Report: Child Marriage: Its Relationship with Religion, Culture and Patriarchy. Link.
- Lim. I. (2020). Statistics Dept: Malaysia’s new poverty line income is RM2,208, over 400k households considered poor.Malay Mail. Link.