Mary* and Norita* from East Malaysia tied the knot when they were 12 and 13 respectively – one for love and one to ease the burden of her parents. Another girl named Lia* got married at 16 to her 32-year-old boyfriend after finding out she was pregnant. These girls’ stories are among the named and identified child marriages in Malaysia. Many still go unreported.
In 2021, 445 child marriages were reported. Despite the slight decline from 451 in 2020, child marriages in the nation is still a cause for concern. Children have the right to be children, and with marriage, child brides are expected to consummate the marriage and eventually bear children at a young age.
Adding to this,14,561 (35%) out of 41,083 teen pregnancies recorded by the Ministry of Health (MOH) between 2017 and 2021 were out of wedlock. This raises the question of how many young brides became young mothers shortly after marriage and how these young moms are coping.
With the majority overruling the decision of increasing the minimum marrying age to 18 in 2021, the minimum marrying age stayed at 16. The long-standing practice of child marriage is still permissible in Malaysia because of the dual-law (Islamic and civil law) allowing children to marry at the age of 16.
Adding to the mix, the native law allows indigenous communities to marry without any minimum age requirement.
With the legislation unbudged, perhaps, it’s time to shed light on the repercussions of child marriages and the life experiences of young mothers.
Their Reasons For Marrying
Mary, a Sarawak native from the Penan tribe, got married at 12 years old to her then, 18 year old husband, Peter.
In 2021, Sarawak recorded 183 approved child marriages – the highest in Malaysia. Despite Mary marrying for love, there was a hint of sadness when Mary had to drop out of school following her marriage with Peter. Mary dreamt of becoming a teacher and was interested in Mathematics, Science and English.
I wanted to study further and not marry, but my husband got angry. He asked: ‘Why? Because our parents already know that we are together, and to them, we are already considered married. – Mary, a Penan child bride at 12 years old
The native law and the tribal customs view marriage as a good thing and indigenous communities see no disadvantage to the union, in spite of the young age.
To us, marriages are good. It’s our belief that it’s God’s will, to fall in love and get married. And so be it. – Mary, a Penan child bride at 12 years old
In Sabah, 86 child marriage applications were approved in 2021 and poverty was cited as the main reason for marrying early.
But child marriage practices aren’t limited to East Malaysia alone. Every state in Malaysia recorded varying incidences of child marriages. Sometimes, child marriage is also a way of legitimising pregnancy and ensuring the unborn child would not grow up with the stigma of having children out of wedlock.
Lia was a few months away from finishing her secondary education when she found out that she was pregnant. She tied the knot with her then-boyfriend with the approval of her mother.
To her mother, marriage is a solution to her past transgression. Her mother had given her blessing with the hope that marriage could “tame” Lia’s rebellious nature. Lia eventually sat for her Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) with an A in English and C’s and D’s in other subjects. However, with no support from her then-husband coupled with the responsibility of raising her baby, Lia did not pursue further education beyond SPM.
My mother agreed as she thought getting married would help ‘tame’ me. – Lia married her then-boyfriend and was pregnant at 16 years old
Their Departure From School
In 2021, 411 girls out of 445 reported child marriages dropped out of school. The traditional notion that girls should take on the homemaking role while husbands earn a living has contributed to the discontinuation of education for girl brides.
Mary, who initially refused to marry early, relented over the persistence of her husband. In the eyes of their parents Mary and Peter being together, it is as good as being married.
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, Mary’s grandfather
In the case of indigenous child marriages, tradition and custom rule and take precedence over personal desire. This is often at the expense of the girl.
Norita managed to finish her primary school education. She left school as her family was unable to cope with the additional costs that come with schooling.
Child marriages often occur during the transition between Standard 6 and Form 1 (12 and 13 years old) because only primary education is compulsory in Malaysia. This is true in Mary’s case where she was married to Peter as soon as she finished primary school education.
Poverty, especially in rural areas, has been cited as the main driver of child marriages. Based on PACOS Trust findings, at least 87% of young couples came from a household with an income below RM 1000.
By getting married, I was able to ease the burden of my parents. I have three younger siblings who need my parents’ care. – Norita, a child bride at 13 years old
But the promise of a better life by marrying her off did not benefit Norita. Norita and her husband stayed in the poverty cycle because her young husband only earned a meagre salary as a farmer.
When Child Brides Become Young Moms
Three months into her marriage, Mary, still 12 years old became pregnant. Without adequate knowledge of her pregnancy, she went into labour in a blur. The hospital was located 6 hours away from her village and in an emergency situation, Mary gave birth to her son in the car.
I was surprised. I felt like I was going for a number two, but when I went to the toilet and felt pain in my back, I realised I was actually ready to give birth. – Mary, a Penan child bride at 12 years old
She only knew about the increased risk to both mother and child, along with the higher probability of developing prenatal and postnatal complications after an antenatal consultation.
Her labour experience is a clear example of the low health literacy rate in rural areas. Evidently, there is a need for more and better health outreach programmes for youth in rural areas.
A month after giving birth to her son, Mary had to give him away for adoption to her cousin who had been trying to conceive for two years. Now aware of the risk posed by young pregnancy, Mary is placed on oral contraceptives and advised to wait until she turns 18 before she tries for another child.
Norita, however, had given birth to three children. The first was when she was 14, her second at 16 and the third when she was 17. The consecutive childbearing pattern may allude to the lack of family planning information and resources such as access to contraceptives and gynaecology advice.
For Lia, it isn’t a fairytale ending either. She suffered from postpartum depression and exhaustion. Seven months after giving birth to her son, her husband was no longer doing odd jobs to support the family. Lia had to work as a sales assistant in a pet shop, earning only RM900 a month. But Lia’s father stepped in to assist her financially.
I am just lucky that my own father had cared for the baby [when he was born]. He paid hospital bills and provided the necessary care for the baby. – Lia married her then-boyfriend and was pregnant at 17 years old
Despite Lia being content with raising her son singlehandedly, there is not a day when she did not regret her decision of marrying young. Early marriage is often seen as the only solution for expectant mothers outside of wedlock in a community that views sex before marriage with disdain.
Can Young Moms Escape Early Parenting?
What are the options for young mothers who are unprepared to become parents? Abortion is out of the question because it is illegal in Malaysia and unacceptable to some religious viewpoints.
In dire cases, babies are dumped, abandoned and left on their own. There were 443 reported cases of baby dumping from 2018 to 2021.
There are welfare homes run by religious organisations that accept expectant mothers. Most of these locations are undisclosed to keep the privacy of the young mom and their family intact.
Baby hatches, for example, by OrphanCare were condemned for supposedly encouraging premarital sex, but to unwed expectant mothers, it is an option.
If we want to solve the problem at its root, sex education should be available not just in schools but as community outreach programmes. Girls and boys do not have decision-making power when it comes to marriage. It often involves parents, family and even the community.
Do Young Mothers Have A Bright Future?
Mary wishes to continue schooling and pursue her dream to become a teacher. For now, it seems out of reach.
I want to, but it’s up to my husband as well. I’m not sure. Because even if I want to, my husband may not. -Mary, a Penan child bride at 12 years old
For many other young brides including Mary, education is just a distant dream.
PACOS Trust found that 97% of young couples they interviewed did not return to school.
Adding to this predicament, child brides often lack decision-making powers within their households. In rare cases where they are allowed to work, young brides take on informal jobs with low pay.
Lia filed for a divorce 18 months after her wedding. Despite the blessing of a child, regretting her rash decision is always at the back of her mind, and she hoped her story would serve as a reminder to others to not give up their future in the name of ‘love’.
I wish I had the opportunity to be a teenager because when everyone was busy growing up, I was at home being a wife and mother but I have nobody else to blame but me. It was such a bad experience and I am glad that I have the chance to share my story as a lesson. – Lia married her then-boyfriend and was pregnant at 17 years old
These stories of young brides turned mothers are a clear example that child marriage is not a solution to curb premarital sex or legitimise pregnancy. Even though Mary remains in a happy marriage, she had to give up her dream to become a teacher because her childhood was cut short.
Norita is saddled with the responsibility of being a mother at an age where she should be allowed to mingle with her peers and Lia is tormented by her past decision and wishes someone had stopped her from marrying young.
Ending Child Marriage In Malaysia Is Still On The Cards
Child marriages are not just specific to the poorest states in Malaysia. It is an ongoing practice nationwide.
Changemakers such as Women’s Aid Organisation, Association of Women Lawyers, PACOS Trust, Childline and Yayasan Chow Kit are fighting to increase the legal marrying age with a greater aim of putting an end to child marriages from permeating society. The marriage of young girls who are still growing is a lost opportunity as shown by the stories of Mary, Norita and Lia.
But the fight to end child marriage is a long-drawn process. While waiting for the legal age to be increased, there are organisations such as Teach For Malaysia, Soroptimist Puberty Organising ToolKit (SPOT), and MMICare Association intervening via education, awareness and improving the likelihood of families so that girls are at lower risk of being married.
To single mothers like Lia, there are organisations out there assisting single mothers such as Women of Will and Kasih Ibu Smart Selangor (KISS).
* Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.
Cover image: Sherlyn Seah, retrieved from South China Morning Post
Explore our sources:
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- Codeblue. (2021). Rina: 28 Teens Get Pregnant Daily, 35% Unmarried. Codeblue. Link
- K.Ng., S.Seah. & S.Tay. (2020). Married at 12, a mother at 13: a Malaysian child bride’s story. South China Morning Post. Link
- FMT Reporters. (2021). 445 teens left school to get married in 2020. Free Malaysia Today. Link
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