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Child Marriage Perpetuates In Malaysia

Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it has become a memory

Dr Seuss. 
Young girls playing netball. Source: S. K. Seri Bayu

For a child who is forced to grow up too fast, their childhood memories become a distant memory far too quickly. The days that were meant to be dedicated to learning, creating, growing and playing are snatched away. These children are forced to pick up burdens that are only meant for adults – paying bills, raising children and growing a family. Truth be told, these burdens are a struggle, even for some adults – what more children? 

Child marriage is what we are talking about here. 

The occurrence of child marriage strips away a child’s privileges and forces them into adulthood with little or no skills and knowledge to chart the future. Let’s break it down here: 

An estimated 12 million girls under 18 are married each year globally[1]. This is approximately 32,876 girls a day, or 23 girls EVERY MINUTE.
1 in 5 women aged 20-24 years old married before they reached their 18th birthday[2].
1 in 30 young men is faced with the same problem[2].
In Malaysia, at least 1,500 children marry every year, either via a formal or an informal union[2].
According to the Department of Statistics Malaysia (DOSM), in 2010, more than 52,000 teenagers between 15 and 19 were married[2].

Where Are These Marriages Happening? 

Contrary to popular belief, this is not just limited to rural regions. Child marriage occurs throughout Malaysia in both rural and urban settings. From Selangor to Sabah, all the states consist of both urban and rural regions. 

Malaysian child bride from Sarawak. Married at 12, Mother at 13. Source: SCMP

Previously between 2013 – 2018, JKSM mentioned the states with the highest number of Muslim child marriage applications were Sarawak, Kelantan and Sabah. In comparison, non-muslim marriages were concentrated in Sarawak, Johor and Selangor[3].

However, in 2018, the highest numbers of registered Muslim child marriages were from Sabah (334), Pahang (177), Johor (167) and Selangor (163). The highest figures of non-Muslim child marriages that year were, in fact, from Pahang (102), followed by Sarawak (55), Perak (35), Johor (35) and Selangor (20). Pahang overtook Sarawak with an increased number of child marriages[2].

Is It Just Religious Rituals? 

The incidence of child marriage is not bound by geographical location, a certain ethnicity, culture, religion or tribe. It is seen in varied pockets of Malaysian society. 

Source: FreeMalaysiaToday

Between 2013 and 2017, there were 5,362 Muslim child marriage applications to JKSM[2]. In 2018, there were 1,542 being Muslim children married. 

On the other hand, when a case study was conducted on the non-muslim marriages involving adults marrying underage brides – these marriages took place among Chinese, Indian Orang Asli and indigenous communities throughout Malaysia. There are even instances of marriages occurring within the refugee communities[2].

Refugee Children that were brought to Malaysia just to be married off. Source: REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

As it occurs in almost every ethnic community and religion in Malaysia, religion and culture are not the main reason these children are married. There is, however, a common thread among all underage marriages – most of them are socially vulnerable. They could have severe financial limitations or face marginalisation in other areas of life. These vulnerabilities make them highly susceptible to child marriage.

Child Marriage Enablers In Vulnerable Communities

A variety of interlinking factors drive child marriage in Malaysia, each as important as the other.  Everything from legislation, social norms, lack of access to education and household income[2]. To properly mediate the issue of child marriage, intervention is required for each factor. 

Girl Scouts Malaysia protesting against child marriages. Source: MalayMail

For example, a young girl from a low-income family may be inclined to help her parents financially if they are already doing poorly. Child marriage may seem like a good option as her family may receive financial assistance or a dowry for marrying off their daughter off. At the same time, the young girl may feel that she has helped relieve her parents from the financial burden of feeding and caring for her. 

The simple-mindedness of short-term thinking, in many instances, have caused young girls to sell away their futures. 

Malaysian law states that every Malaysian citizen child must attend school until Primary 6[4]. Many children drop out of school after that because their family cannot afford the hidden expenses of education such as transportation, school uniforms and books[5]

With no formal educational qualification, children are more prone to enter the workforce early or be married off at a young age. The effects of child marriage set off a trail of other negative impacts. 

Recommendations To Combat The Problem

In March 2021, UNICEF released an advocacy brief that addressed the topic of child marriage in Malaysia. It mentioned that solving child marriage alone would benefit the country’s future generations and help Malaysia meet at least eight of the Sustainable Development Goals under the United Nations.  

United Nation Sustainable Development Goals. Source: United Nations
  1. Poverty (Goal 1), 
  2. Food security (Goal 2), 
  3. Health (Goal 3), 
  4. Education (Goal 4), 
  5. Gender equality (Goal 5), 
  6. Economic growth (Goal 8), 
  7. Reduced inequalities (Goal 10) 
  8. Peace, justice and strong institutions (Goal 16).

In order to do so, several recommendations were included to combat the occurrence. 

1) To improve the centrality of data on child marriage.

This includes the need to address the need for standardised data collection and the lack of disaggregated data.

  • By conducting regular analysis throughout the country, it will be easier to identify and profile the victims and vulnerable demographics of child marriage. 
  • Only with more data can the correct measures be taken. 
  • By collaborating with both government and non-government stakeholders to achieve the same target, accurate statistics on child marriage occurrence across the country, causes and effects can be properly addressed. 

2) Address Malaysia’s poverty problem.

  • As poverty is a significant driver of child marriage and closely interlinks with other drivers, it is an issue that is crucial to address. 
  • By providing provisions for lower-income families to keep their children in schools to ensure that these children do not exit the education system prematurely. 
  • Addressing low paying salaries, unemployment rates, and benefits to low-income groups, so they do not have to resort to child marriage as a means of “taking care of their child.” 
  • Targeting upskilling programs to low income, vulnerable communities to help with job search

3. Improving access to education

  • Currently, only primary education is mandatory for all Malaysian citizens. By keeping children in school for longer (until form 5), the younger generation’s likelihood of developing, learning, and striving for a better tomorrow increases.
  • Providing financial aid/waivers for lower-income families so that education expenses do not need to be pondered. 
  • Allowing non-Malaysian children to have access to schools, basic education and basic knowledge on sexual and reproductive health. 

Children have to stay as children when they can. After all, childhood is a right, not a privilege.[1] – Tan Ejin, Advocacy Champion at the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS)

For a more in-depth look at Child Marriage In Malaysia, its implications and the list of changemakers working to combat this issue, read our whitepaper

Explore Our Sources

  1. GirlsnotBrides. Link.
  2. UNICEF. (2021). Advocacy Brief: Towards Ending Child Marriage in Malaysia. Link.
  3. Wiki Impact. (2020). Sticky Situation: Sarawak Has the Highest Number of Child Marriages. Link.
  4. Education Act. (1996). Laws of Malaysia. Education Act. 29(a) Link
  5. N. Syed. (2018). Malaysia reveals shocking reason behind dropouts. Link.

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