KUALA LUMPUR, June 21 — The Pakatan Harapan (PH) government must put a stop to child marriages in Malaysia by introducing laws that will make it illegal for anyone below the age of 18 from marrying, a combined 50 bodies, including several United Nations (UN) agencies, said today.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) and 49 groups said it was time for PH to fulfil its promise in its election manifesto to “introduce a law that sets 18 as the minimum age of marriage”.
“Malaysia has the unique opportunity to send a clear message: The law must be amended to set the minimum age for marriage to 18 years for all legal frameworks, including civil, Muslim and native customary law marriages, without exceptions,” the groups said in a joint statement today.
The 50 groups listed four steps that it wanted the PH government to do to end child marriages, including issuing a “statement of commitment” to raise the minimum marriage age to 18 years old.
The government must also carry out “law reform to set the minimum age for marriage at 18 years for women and men in all legal frameworks, including for civil, Muslim and native customary law marriages, without exception, and that the full consent of both parties be obtained for any marriage.”
Having noted the lack of official statistics that are systematically collected and reported, the groups said the government must collate public age- and sex-disaggregated data on child marriages, and make them publicly available to Malaysians, policy-makers and civil society.
They said the government should also start national-level campaigns to encourage social and cultural norms that do not tolerate child marriage in Malaysia, adding that UN agencies and civil society are ready to provide support for the campaigns.
The groups said Malaysia’s fellow Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) members, such as Muslim-majority nations Algeria, Bangladesh, Morocco and Turkey, had already increased the minimum marriage age to 18, noting that neighbour Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo had recently agreed to sign a decree that would ban child marriage.
Child marriages regardless of race, religion
In the same statement, the 50 local and international groups pointed out that child marriage in Malaysia affects everyone, whether they are boys or girls, living in urban or rural areas, and regardless of their religious affiliations.
The groups noted that child marriage in Malaysia is practised by all ethnic communities, including Chinese, Indians, Malays, the indigenous groups and even refugees such as the Rohingyas.
“Marriage before the age of 18 is a fundamental violation of human rights and the rights of a child that impacts every aspect of a child’s life. In Malaysia and elsewhere in the world, child marriage denies girls and boys their childhood, disrupts education, limits opportunities, increases the risk of violence, and jeopardises health,” the groups said.
The groups noted the widely-accepted social norms in Malaysia currently stand in the way of putting an end to child marriage, including children being pressured to get married and sometimes, by their own parents.
“For example, when faced with early pregnancies, child marriage is perceived to be the only solution to avoid the shame of having a child out of wedlock, to legitimise the relationship, and allegedly to protect the future of the bride.
“Therefore, eliminating child marriage effectively and sustainably requires a shift in attitudes and behaviours to establish new social and cultural norms that do not tolerate child marriage in Malaysia,” the groups said.
The groups said children should be learning in school, and not married before they turn 18 and become adults.
The statement comes just a few days before Girls Not Brides — a global partnership of hundreds of civil society organisations that want to end child marriage — holds its second global meeting in Kuala Lumpur from June 25 to June 27.
In a separate statement, Sisters in Islam (SIS) executive director Rozana Isa said poverty is usually why child marriages happen in many countries, but said Malaysia’s child marriages can be attributed to culture, tradition and a low tolerance for young children engaging with the opposite sex.
“The solution must be a total ban on child marriage through reform of legislation. The minimum age of marriage must be raised to 18 for both genders, regardless of faith and ethnicity, with no exceptions,” she said.
Under Malaysian laws, non-Muslims can only be legally married if they are aged at least 18 and will require parental consent for marriage if they are still below 21, with the exception the girls aged 16 can be legally married if the state chief minister or mentri besar or the federal territories minister approves it.
The states’ Islamic laws states that the minimum legal age for marriage for Muslims males and females is at 18 and 16 respectively, but allows those below these ages to still marry if they get the consent of a Shariah judge.
In Malaysia’s 2010 population census, a total of 155,810 teenagers in the 15-19 age group were married, composing of 73,428 male and 82,382 female.
The 2010 census oddly did not state how many in the 10-14 age group were married, unlike the 2000 census which showed 10,267 children in the 10-14 age group were married.
Malay Mail had last April wrote a story about child marriages which can be viewed here.