In 2020, a Sarawakian girl from the Penan tribe was reported to have been legally married at the age of 12 years old to a 16-year-old boy. The girl became pregnant just three months after their marriage.
For us Penan people, this is the way of life since our ancestors’ time. As long as these two like each other, they want to get married, let them marry. – Tadang Anyop, grandfather of the child bride.
It is a sad fact that child marriage remains a problem in this country. And nowhere is this problem more prevalent in Sarawak. In 2020 alone, Sarawak recorded 83 child marriage cases, the highest out of 543 such cases in the year. And despite Malaysia placing a long-term National Strategic Plan to handle the causes of child marriage to be implemented between 2020 – 2025, Sarawak continues to be one of many states opposed to the complete and total ban on child marriage.
But why exactly do girls in Sarawak marry at such a young age?
According to Datuk Seri Fatimah Abdullah, the Sarawak Women, Child Development and Community Welfare Minister, the issue of child marriage is a complex and complicated issue as it involves several jurisdictions of marriage law, culture and custom due to the characteristics of Sarawak’s plural society.
Besides, there are other reasons such as pockets of poverty, school dropouts, poor or lack of sexual education or sexual reproductive health awareness and when (underage) pregnancy happens out of wedlock. – Datuk Seri Fatimah Abdullah, the Sarawak Women, Child Development and Community Welfare Minister.
Here’s a look at some of the reasons why Sarawakian girls marry at an early age.
As a Muslim-majority country, many Malaysian states will follow certain Islamic laws. Indeed, it is still legal for children below the age of 18 to be married under Islamic and civil laws in this country. Although, under civil law, non-Muslims can only marry from the age of 18, non-Muslim girls can marry as early as 16, provided they get the permission of the Chief Minister or Menteri Besar.
Globally, girls with poorer economic backgrounds were more likely to marry early as a means to ease the family’s financial burden. When it came to absolute poverty levels in 2019, Sarawak recorded some of the highest levels (9%) in that year.
A 2020 study conducted by BMC Women’s Health also identified poverty as one of the many factors for Sarawakian girls marrying young. Many of the girls mentioned in the study dropped out of school long before they engaged in child marriage, primarily due to their family’s financial straits. Many of these girls were as young as 12 or 13 years old when they dropped out.
I did not finish studying because we only lived a simple life; my parents were unemployed, my brothers worked but were not so rich, and then I decided to quit school when I was in Form 1 (at 13 years old). After I left, I wanted to continue, but then I pitied my parents, so I didn’t. My parents were okay with me quitting school; they didn’t really care. Then, my marriage was arranged by our parents when I was 16 years old. – Candidate No. 13, married at 16 years old (Malay).
Some have even gotten married to remove a financial burden from their parents. They reason that by getting married early, there would be fewer members in the family for their parents to take care of.
I wanted to quit school because my parents couldn’t afford it anymore. Then, I met my husband at my workplace, at the canteen. Then, I was pregnant, so I decided to get married. First, I felt scared that I couldn’t take care of my husband completely. Scared that I wouldn’t be able to give him food and cook for him. But I thought that my marriage would not burden my parents because my husband can take care of me, and we do not have to ask money from my parents anymore. – Candidate No. 12, married at 17 years old (Malay).
Unfortunately, marrying young will not alleviate poverty and may, in fact, worsen it. Poverty persists among those who marry young, as many would be unlikely to continue schooling, reducing their chances of proper employment in the future. Furthermore, lack of access to proper education and awareness not only makes a child more prone to the practice of child marriage but also keeps them trapped in a cycle of poverty. In addition, despite being married, the children still depend on their parents for financial help.
Because we had a difficult life, we got married and the husband will pay for everything. So, we have an open mind, we won’t burden our parents too much (by getting married) because I have five siblings. So, my parents had fewer burdens and could send my younger siblings to school. I, too, after I got married, could help my siblings. I bought them clothes, trousers and a little food. At the end of the month, I sent them money too. I got married, and my parents’ lives got easier. – Candidate No. 07, married at 14 years old (Iban).
#2: Syariah or Islamic Law
Sarawak, in particular, recorded some of the highest numbers of Muslim child marriage applications in Malaysia (974), between 2013 and 2018. However, the actual number could be higher as many couples do not register their marriages. From 2017 to 2020, a total of 1,638 underage individuals got married in Sarawak, with 500 of these couples having married underage according to Syariah or Islamic law.
When a pregnancy happens out of wedlock, involving teenagers – the major concerns would be – who will be taking care of the child? Should they (the couple) be allowed to get married? If they don’t, then the teenager is likely to end up as a single mother. So, this is the dilemma…, – Datuk Seri Fatimah Abdullah, the Sarawak Women, Child Development and Community Welfare Minister.
Under Islamic teachings, premarital sex or “khalwat” (close proximity) or premarital pregnancy are both strictly prohibited. Due to these religious norms and the potential shame or disgrace that may result, parents who discover that their daughters have committed these “sins” will immediately marry them off to their boyfriends as a means of concealing their “misdeed”.
Well, when I was young, I had premarital sex, so we had to get married. Our parents told us to get married as well, so it was better to get married. So, we fell in love only after we got married to each other. Before marriage, we just liked each other. My husband’s mother told us to get married because of premarital sex. I was still a student, but because of premarital sex and because he agreed as well, we just got married. I was in the middle of school. My father’s side of the family told me that instead of letting a bad thing (premarital sex) continue, it’s better to get married. – Candidate No. 17, married at 17 years old (Malay).
In Sarawak, where people of diverse ethnicities reside together, the Islamic teaching on the prohibition of premarital courtship may also apply to non-Muslims if their partners are Muslim. Such is the case for girls and young women belonging to the native Iban people.
When we were young we did not plan to get married, but at that time, we were caught doing indecencies. So, according to Islam, we had to get married. It’s like we were dating alone, just the two of us. We weren’t supposed to go out after 12 o’clock. – Candidate No. 15, married at 17 years old (Iban).
Some conservatives would even argue that girls should marry at a young age to curb premarital sex in this country. In 2014, this belief proved to be a concern for the UN, which noted that authorities in Malaysia were encouraging child marriage to curb premarital sex and children born out of wedlock.
#3: Cultural Norms & Perceptions
As highlighted by the 2020 case, culture also plays a role in the prevalence of child marriage in Sarawak. It is an unfortunate fact that child marriage remains a common practice amongst the Iban and other Bornean indigenous communities. Between 2011 – 2016, the Sarawak Council for Customs and Traditions recorded 1,472 child marriages among natives. The insulated nature of these communities means that many girls were raised on the notion that marriage is the road to a happy future.
#4: Alcohol and Drug Misuse
The 2020 BMC study also found that alcoholism and drug abuse have played a role in these child marriages, with some of the women involved in the study relating that they were involved in risky activities, such as consuming alcohol and drugs with their peers when they were adolescents.
Through the network of friends they developed, these women also found partners with whom they had sexual relations and became pregnant. According to some of these women, they were already under the influence of drugs and alcohol when they had their sexual experience. Although these women stated that the pregnancy was the triggering event for the decision to get married early, they also explained that they had wished to be married so that they could fill the void of loneliness, as they believed that by getting married, they could change their lives and not be involved in alcohol and drug use anymore.
After I quit school, I did nothing but just enjoy myself. I was more into enjoying myself. First, I was in jail because my mom was suspicious about my behaviour, and I always talked back. So, she wanted to check, and she told the police to take me. They checked my urine and took me to the drug rehabilitation centre. So, I was thrown into the (drug rehabilitation) centre. But even after I was released, my behaviour didn’t change. I was stubborn. After a while, I was tired of being bad, so I thought I should just get married. For me, I thought it would make my parents not worry anymore if I got married. If I didn’t have a husband, then they would be constantly worrying about me. I was very wild. I was like a crab, as they say; I always went out somewhere. Alhamdulillah (thank god), now that I have a husband, I am okay; I can change on my own. – Candidate No. 5, married at 16 years old (Malay).
#5: Familial Problems
Relationship issues with parents also seem to be an indirect influence on Sarawakian girls choosing to marry young. Some of the women who participated in the 2020 BMC study confessed that their relationships with their parents were strained during their childhood or adolescence and that they sought affection and comfort in early marriage instead.
My parents had their problems. They got divorced when I was in Standard 4 (10 years old); they separated. So, I stayed with my mom; my dad remarried. My stepmother never took care of us. She didn’t really like us, so she never objected to my marriage. It’s all up to my mom. I only took my dad as ‘wali’ (the bride’s representative in a Muslim wedding). – Candidate No. 16, married at 17 years old (Malay).
#6: Teenage Pregnancy
As mentioned in a few sections above, teenage pregnancy is heavily frowned upon in our society. As such, many families (particularly if they are Muslim) will attempt to marry a daughter who got pregnant out of wedlock to cover up their shame or disgrace. Fatimah also noted that some girls volunteered (with consent from their parents) to get married young due to having gotten pregnant already.
Fatimah warns that as long as teenage pregnancy remains a problem in Malaysia, then child marriage will also remain a persistent issue.
If we can bring down the number of teenage pregnancies, it also helps to reduce the number of child marriage cases. We are serious about ending child marriage in Sarawak, but it will not solve the issue completely if teenage pregnancy continues to happen or increases. – Datuk Seri Fatimah Abdullah, the Sarawak Women, Child Development and Community Welfare Minister.
Putting a stop to child marriage, not just in Sarawak but in the whole of Malaysia, is not a simple task, especially when dealing with delicate conversations around culture, tradition and religion.
Fatimah said that to properly deal with the issue of child marriage, the current legislation must be made clearer and tightened to protect the rights of children, especially girls, provide awareness and advocacy to the community about the impact of child marriage, children’s rights, and implement social interventions for vulnerable children.
While we fight for legislating the minimum age of marriage at 18 years old, I call for children to continue to be given access to education and attendance at school (at least) up to Form Five. Giving children access to education or vocational training, particularly the disadvantaged and low-income groups, would provide them with a brighter future and out of poverty. With education, they are empowered to make better decisions in their lives including when and who they want to marry. – Datuk Seri Fatimah Abdullah, the Sarawak Women, Child Development and Community Welfare Minister
Whilst lawmakers are still pushing for its total ban, there are changemakers out there who have been vocal in advocating the right for children to have a proper childhood. Below are some of the organisations fighting for the right for children to be children:
- Sabah Women’s Action-Resources Group (SAWO)
- PACOS Trust (Partners of Community Organizations in Sabah)
- Childline Malaysia
- Pasukan Pelindung WP
- Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO)
- Association of Women Lawyers (AWL)
- Yayasan Chow Kit
- Educational, Welfare and Research Foundation (EWRF)
- Malaysian Advocates for Child Health (MACH)
- The Fed of Reproductive Health Associations Malaysia (FRHAM)
- Malaysian Child Welfare Council (MKKM)
- Geutanyoe Foundation and Projek Layang Layang
- Challenges Foundation, National Early Intervention Council (NECIC)
- Voice of the Children (VOC)
- Refuge for the Refugees, Malaysian Child Resource Institute (MCRI)
- Reproductive Health Association Kelantan (ReHAK)
Explore our sources:
- 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.
- I. Lim. (2020). Ministry: 543 child marriages, including applications, in Malaysia from Jan-Sept 2020. Malay Mail. Link.
- Ministry of Women Family and Community Development. (2020). National Strategy Plan In Handling The Causes Of Child Marriage. Link.
- G. Pei Pei. (2022). Why does Sarawak have a high number of child marriages? New Sarawak Tribune. Link.
- World Bank. (2017). Economic Impact of Child Marriage: Global Synthesis Report (Conference Edition). Link.
- Lim. I. (2020). Statistics Dept: Malaysia’s new poverty line income is RM2,208, over 400k households considered poor. Malay Mail. Link.
- Kohno, A., Dahlui, M., Nik Farid, N. D., Safii, R., & Nakayama, T. (2020). Why girls get married early in Sarawak, Malaysia – An exploratory qualitative study. BMC Women’s Health. Link.
- Wiki Impact. (2020). Poverty Is One Of The Main Drivers Of Child Marriage (whitepaper). Link
- V. Brown. (2018). Child marriage is no happily-ever-after. The Star. Link.
- A. Nortajuddin. (2020). Will Malaysia ban child marriage? The ASEAN POST. Link.
- S. Said. (2019). Exploring the causes of teenage pregnancy in M’sia. Malaysiakini. Link.