Being a mother or a parent is often a celebratory event as nuclear families band together to welcome the entrance of a new addition to the family. As they said, it takes a village to raise a child. However, motherhood or parenthood of unwed single mothers in Malaysia is far from being a happy occasion. Many face unwanted glares and discrimination from society and are even shunned by their own family members.
Between 2017 and 2022, the Ministry of Health (MOH) recorded a total of 41,083 teen pregnancies. Of this figure, 35% were out of wedlock.
The problem with our society is that people dwell so much on what has already happened and in this case, the now-pregnant woman who had engaged in sexual activity. But the fact is – that is the past, and we as a society should instead focus on the matter at hand, which is the pregnancy, so that the situation does not get worse. – Yuzila Yusof, OrphanCare chief operating officer
It is easy to shun or even criminalise unwed mothers as witnessed in Terengganu in December 2022. The state amended its Shariah Criminal Offences Enactment 2022(Section 29A), criminalising out-of-wedlock pregnancy and birth.
To understand this recent change in enactment, which largely affects the Muslim community but has implications to non-Muslim communities as well, here are six things you should know about the cautions and lived realities of unwed single mothers and their children:
#1: Health Risks For Women And Girls
Although Terengganu is the only state that deems pregnancy and birth out of wedlock a criminal act, it is enough to raise the alarm for medical practitioners nationwide. The amendment is a problem because it affects the health care and service offered to women and girls in our country.
Instead of seeking proper medical attention, pregnant women who are unwed will avoid seeking proper healthcare services for the fear of being reported or turned in by medical professionals. Their fear is validated as we have Malaysian healthcare professionals in support of the amendment.
In a joint statement, the doctors – obstetrician and gynaecologist and reproductive medicine specialist, Datuk Dr Mohamed Hatta Mohamed Tarmizi, who is also I-Medik vice-president, and Dr Murizah Mohd Zain, said that rather than offering ‘consent and condoms’ as some sort of solution to social ills, we must address the root of the issue which is comprehensive management of sexual desires.
As Malaysia’s healthcare system strives to be forward-looking, shallow thinking takes us ten steps back.
#2: Unwed Mothers May Be Coerced To Give Up Their Newborn
Some mothers may have supportive families that would allow the newborn to grow up in the family. However, some may be forced to let go of their babies.
In many cases, the girl would be sent to a half-way house to deliver the child. Some parents would want their daughter to come home alone without the baby as they believe an illegitimate child would bring shame to the family. – Associate Prof Dr Aizura Syafinaz, UMSC obstetrician and gynaecologist
*Yvonne, an unwed mother, lives to tell her heartbreaking story of giving up her child. In 2019, the successful entrepreneur hid her pregnancy from her family and planned to give up her child. She was unable to bear the shame and added guilt that would’ve come from her own family, had they known.
A lot was going on in my mind when I found out I was pregnant. I thought about the baby growing up without a father, whether I am capable of bringing the baby up as a single mother without the help of family and friends. – *Yvonne
In Yvonne’s case, the stigma that surrounds unwed mothers and children born out of wedlock is still evident, especially in Malaysia. By virtue of living in a culturally conservative country, Yvonne was not free to choose if she wanted to keep her baby or give him up.
#3: Baby Dumping Cases May Increase
As a last resort, when women and teenage girls do not have anyone or anywhere to turn to – they may even dump their baby. Between 2010 and 2019, it was reported that 1,010 babies were dumped. Of the total, 64% of these babies did not survive.
Most were found in housing areas, toilets, garbage disposal areas, sewerage systems and drains. These are common dumping grounds because there are no CCTV cameras, less frequented by the public and are easily accessible. – Siti Kamsiah Hassan, Bukit Aman Sexual, Women and Child Investigations Division principal assistant director Assistant Commissioner
What makes it worse is that Malaysia has the highest percentage of baby dumping cases across South East Asia, with an average of 100 babies per year. This is partly the result of inadequate sex education and the stigma around abortion.
When we have a problem, the first thing we would think of doing is to get rid of it and that is what these women, especially young adults, did. In that point of time, overwhelmed with fear and desperation, these women who have been hiding themselves in fear for nine months or so, commit these acts in the brink of insanity. — Yuzila Yusof, OrphanCare chief operating office
#4: Greater Possibility Of Child Marriage
In 2021, 445 child marriages were approved and four states recorded a high permit approval rate – with Sarawak recording 183 cases, Sabah 86 cases, Kelantan 43 cases and Pahang (38). One of the reasons behind child marriage is an attempt to fix past transgressions or pre-marital sexual intercourse.
Tehmina Kaoosji, a gender equality activist, thinks that the ruling of the state government would only lead to a cycle of abuse, poverty and underage, unmarried single mothers may be forced to marry to save face.
Child marriage becomes the only option for pregnant teens/girls while the state takes no responsibility for ensuring basic child rights in harmony with the Malaysian constitution and various international treaties like CRC (United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child). – Tehmina Kaoosji, gender equality activist
#5: Citizenship Not A Guarantee For Children Born Out Of Wedlock
The babies that fortunately survive turn out to live unfortunate lives. A child born out of wedlock in Malaysia, regardless of religion, is considered stateless or without nationality.
These children can apply for citizenship through the Federal Constitution’s Article 15. The core condition of the legislation states that (1) one of the parents is a Malaysian citizen, (2) the application must be submitted by the parent or guardian and (3) the applicant provides their birth certificate.
However, it is a waiting game for years and many appeals have been repeatedly rejected. Another way around it is for the parents of the unborn child to register their marriage before the child’s birth.
Children should not be discriminated against on the basis of whether they were born within a legally-registered marriage or otherwise. – Motion to Protect the Rights of the Child and Abolish Gender Discrimination in Malaysian Laws
Putting the law aside, it doesn’t make sense for someone born in Malaysia to apply for citizenship that is rightfully theirs.
In 2021, a Motion to Protect the Rights of the Child and Abolish Gender Discrimination in Malaysian Laws was brought up during the Malaysian Bar’s extraordinary general meeting (EGM), urging the word “illegitimate” to be removed from documents of children born out of wedlock.
The children are blameless and as such, should not be suffering the consequence of how they came into being by the actions of their biological parents and the law all rights and entitlements of these children ought to be recognised and defended, whether it was outside of a marriage or a relationship which was consensual or otherwise. – Motion to Protect the Rights of the Child and Abolish Gender Discrimination in Malaysian Laws
#6: ‘Bin Abdullah’ – A Last Name For Muslim Illegitimate
Can you imagine that for your whole life, there is a constant reminder that you’re an illegitimate child?
Muslim children born out of wedlock in Malaysia were given the “bin Abdullah” surname. The ruling is based on the Islamic fatwa (a scholarly pronouncement on a matter of Islamic laws), written on the Muzakarah.
Children born out of wedlock or born less than six months from the date of marriage into a Muslim family would be registered with Bin/ Binti Abdullah in place of their father’s surname.
Five years ago, thirteen-year-old *Adam was a victim of this. When it was time to make his Malaysian Identity Card (IC), the National Registration Department (NRD) contacted, *Rahman, (*Adam’s father), asking him to withdraw the IC application .
When *Adam was born, “Permohonan Seksyen 13” was written on his birth certificate as he was born three months after his parents were married. Because of this, his IC had to say ‘Adam Bin Abdullah’ instead of ‘Adam Bin Rahman’, which was already on his birth certificate .
If our son had been given the bin Abdullah surname from the start, we would have accepted it and we could have explained to Adam why he doesn’t carry his father’s name but after 12 years, it is difficult for us to explain the situation to Adam.
It would be difficult for him to deal with the questions from his friends. Our only worry is how this would affect our son because we believe that our mistakes should not be borne by Adam. – *Aisyah, *Adam’s mother .
Discrimination Toward Unwed Mothers And Their Children Must Stop
When we remove all external factors that label us, we realise that we’re all human. If we put labels on Malaysia’s children, we subtly teach them exclusion is acceptable. In reality, this is far from the truth.
Malaysia must stop the practice of discrimination based on gender and amend the Federal Constitution and other relevant laws to ensure that the mother has equal rights as the father, especially when it comes to a child’s entitlement to citizenship. – Motion to Protect the Rights of the Child and Abolish Gender Discrimination in Malaysian Laws
Similarly, unwed single mothers need protection and proper resources to make informed decisions. It also comes down to early sex education, as knowledge is power.
Only 33.7% of respondents know a girl could become pregnant the first time she engages in sexual intercourse. Barely 33.3% know that condoms could prevent sexually transmitted infections and a mere 17.8% know that a girl could become pregnant even if the partner had ejaculated outside the vagina during intercourse. – Syirin Junisya, executive director of the Federation of Reproductive Health Associations Malaysia (FRHAM)
Aside from the OrphanCare Foundation, an organisation that aims to give unplanned newborn children a chance of having a caring family, there are other avenues for unwed single mothers to reach out to:
- Rose Virginie Good Shepherd Centre, Ipoh, the centre provides temporary shelter for women and girls in crisis in Ipoh, Perak. Different programmes and initiatives are in place to assist women and girls in their healing journey and start anew through counselling, needlework, computer skills, and job opportunities through the centre’s micro-enterprise project.
- Talian Kasih, a 24-hour hotline run by The Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development (KPWKM) can be contacted at 15999 and through WhatsApp at 019-2615999.
- Rumah Kita, established in 2015, is an NGO that provides shelter for pregnant women out of wedlock or victims of sexual assault. The shelter is based in Kuala Lumpur and provides support through maternity care, counselling, and nourishment for prenatal and postnatal mothers. The NGO aims to continually provide a safe space for mothers.
Explore our sources:
- CodeBlue. (2021). Rina: 28 Teens Get Pregnant Daily, 35% Unmarried. Link
- Kanyakumari, D. (2019). Pregnant and alone: In Malaysia, social stigma forces unwed mothers to give up babies. Link.
- CodeBlue. (2022). Terengganu’s Shariah Amendment Undermines Health System — Galen Centre. Link.
- S.Saleh. (2019).Teenage Pregnancy: Who Is To Blame? Bernama. Link
- Sinar Daily. (2022). Baby dumping still rampant. Link.
- FMT Reporters. (2021). 445 teens left school to get married in 2020. Free Malaysia Today. Link
- A.A.(2022). Gender equality activist enraged by Terengganu’s law punishing unmarried pregnant women. Sinar Daily. Link
- Lim, Ida. (2019). Why Malaysia-born illegitimate children with foreign mothers are stateless. Link.
- Consortium For Street Children. (n.d.) Malaysia. Link
- PropertyGuru. (2021). Born Out Of Wedlock In Malaysia: 3 Conditions Where Muslims Can Inherit Property. Link
- Parkaran, K. (2021). Bar EGM to discuss use of ‘illegitimate’ for child out of wedlock. Link.
- Denise, C. (2017). The untold story of the “bin Abdullah” children in Malaysia. Link.