APRIL 7 — Mariam was a 14 year-old Form 2 student when she was forced to stop schooling after she had granted marriage to a 28 years old school clerk by her parents. She is now 20 years old, abandoned by her husband, left her with 3 young children without any financial support.
She works in a factory earning a meagre income besides getting some monthly financial aid from local Welfare Office. When asked about how she would care for her young children, she stared blankly and muttered, “I wish I hadn’t left school that early!”
The burden of child marriage in Malaysia
Globally, child marriage has affected an estimated 400 million women now aged between 20-49 years old. According to United Nation (UN) estimates, without concerted action taken, in the coming decade, approximately 14 million girls annually or 39 000 daily will get marry too young!
In Malaysia, under the Child’s Act 2001, a “CHILD” is defined as a person under the age of 18 years. Within the Act, its is clearly stated and acknowledged that “a child, by reason of his physical, mental and emotional immaturity, is in need of special safeguards, care and assistance…” Therefore, the minimum legal age for marriage is set at 18, but it is 16 for Muslim girls under the Syariah Law.
Not withstanding that, those aged below 16 can still be married off with consent of the Syariah Court. Such perplexed legal disparity is disturbing and ironic while the arbitrary age of “16” is considered legally incompetent to be privileged to have a driving licence and only allowed to watch movies with Film Classification or Censorship of “U” (Universal) and “PG” (Parental Guidance), one on the other hand is allowed and can be lawfully married off to shoulder the cardinal role of being a “wife” and soon starting one’s “motherhood,” which has far reaching impact to the individual and the society as a whole!
Child marriage in Malaysia is not rare but rampant! UN report in 2010 showed that over 82 000 married women in Malaysia were girls aged between 15 and 19.
It was revealed by the Deputy Minister in the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development (KPWKM), that, in the same year, nearly 16,000 girls below the age of 15 were in a marriage. Figures from Malaysian Syariah Judiciary Department (JKSM) showed that in 2012, there were around 1,165 applications for marriage where the brides were below the legal age. The Syariah Courts had approved 1,022 of them.
On the same note, it was rather disappointing when National Fatwa Council merely published a fatwa in 2014 declaring that child marriage was not obligatory and that it was not a “healthy” practice following a national outcry and condemnation over one incident in 2013 where a 40 years old businessman who purportedly paid some money to marry a 13 years old girl, whom he had raped, in order to avoid being charged for raping the minor.
Unspoken violence against women and girls
Child marriage is a subtle manifestation of “domestic violence,” putting women and girls at risk of repeated sexual, physical and psychological abuse throughout their lives. The sad thing about this is the silence, indifference and passive permissiveness of our society over this kind of violence against children and women underpinning by religious dogmatism.
In many cases parents feel that it is in their daughters’ best interest to get them married away earlier as they believe the marriage will protect the girls from physical or sexual assault from unintended person. Yet, this belief is often unsubstantiated.
In fact, contrary to the misbelief, girls who marry as children are particularly at higher risk of experiencing violence from their partners or members of their partners’ family. They are more likely to be beaten or threatened by their husbands than girls who marry later.
The greater the age gap between child brides and their husbands, the more likely they are to experience intimate partner violence. They are also more vulnerable to be deceived by the notion that a man is justified to beat up his wife on the pretext of “educating” her, and they are less likely to be empowered to make choices and decisions over their lives.
From the medical point of view, plenty of evidence in the medical literature to show that child marriage is harmful to women’s health as well as health and well-being of their offspring. Early engagement in sexual activity and becoming pregnant before their young bodies are fully matured can have multitude of devastating short term and long term impact, not just physical but also emotionally.
They are more likely to end up with poor spacing of pregnancies, pose greater risk of HIV and HPV infection, at higher risk for complications and death from early pregnancy and child birth.
WHO statistics showed that pregnancy & childbirth is the second leading cause of death for young mothers age 15-19. The risk of death is higher for younger mother below the age of 15.
Furthermore, after the young bride gives birth, the vicious cycle of poverty, poor health, curtailed education, domestic violence, family instability, disregards of the rule of law by their spouse and other social and societal discrimination often continue into her next generation, especially in the daughters she may have.
Loss opportunity for basic education and perpetuation of poverty
A child bride usually drops out from school as she takes on her new domestic role and shoulders the family responsibilities. She is forced to give up her childhood, pushed to be a “small” adult in her community, learning new survival skills and double up as breadwinner for her newly assigned family.
Parents who marry off their daughters at young ages often see child marriage as a way to securing economic stability for their daughters apart from easing their own family’s burden. In fact, quite the opposite frequently happens and it is too late to reverse their decisions when they came to realisation.
Child marriage is well-recognised to perpetuate vicious cycles of poverty by cutting short girls’ education, pushing them into early and repeated pregnancies, limiting their opportunities for gainful employment, prohibits them from social engagements and participation in the economic development within their communities.
In the case of Mariam, she could have been still studying in the university now if not given into marriage early. She could potentially be a scientist, a doctor, a lawyer or a community leader. She could have better opportunities to be gainfully employed, be able to empower herself with better bargaining power in life and have a better future than where she is now.
Ending child marriage is a smart investment
In order to realise the vision of becoming a high income nation, Malaysians from all walks of life need to recognise that child marriage is a barrier to girls from achieving their full potential. It is also stumbling blocks to the development and progress of the community and the country.
At national level, streamlining the Civil and Syariah law on minimum legal age for marriage to above 18, in line with the Child’s Act 2001, is pivotal to protect young girls from being given away in marriage too early, thus protecting their inherent potential for growth, safeguarding their future well-being, ensuring long term economic gain while at the same time avoid loss of valuable human resources needed for nation building.
The impact of child marriage on girls and the nation are substantial that championing against child marriage not only the right thing to do, but also a socio-economically sound decision. The government should study the socio-economical implication of child marriage and healthcare financing when a child is prematurely being pushed into motherhood through child marriage.
Ending child marriage requires strong political will from Government of the day with concerting efforts and collaboration from all sectors of society, including government agencies, parliamentarians, legislators, civil societies, community leaders, and the whole nation. Concrete political and financial commitments to end child marriage benefit national efforts to end violence against women and children; a crucial investment to envision our country to be a high income, respected and civilised first world nation.
* Dr Sharifah Halimah Jaafar MD, M Med O&G, AM (Mal) is consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at Regency Specialist Hospital and a women’s health activist