Child Marriage in Malaysia: Why Is This Still a Thing?

All children deserve the right to education and the right to decide their future. That shouldn’t be an uncontroversial statement. Yet somehow, in many parts of Malaysia today, it still is. Child marriage is still a massive barrier standing in the way of many children obtaining an education and having control of their future.

In 2018, Malaysians were outraged when a 41-year-old man married an 11-year-old girl. Unfortunately, there are many more cases of child marriage which are less extreme that Malaysians don’t see or hear about. This sensational case shed light on the issue but was merely scratching the surface of the harsh reality.

In Malaysia, there were 15,000 girls who were married off before the age of 15 as of 2010 according to the UN. More recently, in 2018, there were close to 2,000 child marriages in Malaysia. The actual number of child marriages could be even higher as many couples do not register their marriages. Child marriage also disproportionately affects young women, due to gender norms and cultural practices.

WHAT’S GOING ON IN MALAYSIA?

Before going into it, what do we mean when we say child marriage?

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child defines child marriage as any marriage where one or both of the partners are below 18 years of age. In Malaysia, there is no solid definition as children as young as 12 have been allowed to marry. The minimum age of marriage depends on whether you’re Muslim or not.

If you’re non-Muslim, both male and female need to be 18 to be married, but a Menteri Besar can grant a license for a female younger than 18 to be married. If you’re Muslim, the minimum age is 18 for the male and 16 for the female. However, a Shariah judge has the ability to overrule this limit and allow even younger children to be married. A study found that Shariah judges have been very accepting of child marriages as it is common for children as young as 15 to marry.

As of today, only six out of Malaysia’s fourteen states have agreed to ban child marriage while it is still legal in the rest. Despite that, most Malaysians agree that child marriage isn’t right.  An overwhelming 95% of Malaysians disagreed with child marriage. It is easy to blame it on religious factors but that would be an oversimplification of the issue. The truth is, there are many factors that contribute to child marriage in Malaysia.

POVERTY

Poverty is a key driver of early marriage globally. It is unsurprising that child marriage rates are highest in countries that are poorest in the world. This mirrors the child marriage rates in Malaysia, which are highest in rural areas. This is simply because poverty can drive people to make difficult decisions. Parents marry off their children when they cannot afford to pay for their schooling, or in extreme cases, when they cannot afford to feed their child. 

More maliciously, parents have also been found to marry off their child due to the financial incentive of the dowry, which is money passed from the groom’s family to the bride’s family. A report has found that the younger the bride, the higher the dowry. This incentivises families to marry off their daughters earlier to “earn” a higher dowry.

In the case of the 41-year-old and 11-year-old bride, the bride’s family did not have the means to support her, so thought it was better to marry off their child to a man capable of supporting her. However, child marriage also happens when the child themselves chooses to get married due to the fact that they believe they have no other alternatives.

Firzana Redzuan, the president and co-founder of Monsters Among Us, an NGO dedicated towards raising awareness about child sexual harassment, stated in an interview that “[these] young women often don’t have any other choice. They are only educated up to primary school, they have no career prospects or skills within their communities, and everyone in their communities feed them the narrative that the only thing they have to look forward to is marriage.”

Having little to no prospects, more often than not, the only path to independence from their families is early marriage. All of these factors combined paint a bleak picture for children in rural communities which drive them towards early marriage.

EDUCATION

A lack of education is another critical contributing factor to child marriage. This is because young educated women are more likely to go on and work or move out of their communities. A study concluded that girls with no formal education are more likely to be victims of forced marriage at a young age than girls who are equipped with secondary and higher. Additionally, attaining an education also helps improve the power dynamics between a husband and wife in a household, which in turn leads to lower rates of domestic abuse.

Photo by Yannis H

Unfortunately, in Malaysia, only primary education is compulsory. This results in many children in Orang Asli communities or more rural areas having no formal education after age 12 as parents are often not be able to afford to send their kids to school.

“I see my friends and next thing you know, they’re in Form 5” says a regretful girl who left school in Form 1 to get married. 

– Unnamed young girl in UN Study

Furthermore, the lack of knowledge on sexual and reproductive health also contributes to higher child marriage rates. In Malaysia, an estimated 18,000 underage girls get pregnant every year and up to 35% of Malaysian female youth believe that having sex for the first time does not lead to pregnancy. In Malaysia, the sex education being taught is insufficient as it only talks about the biological process rather than the act of sex itself. This topic is still taboo in Malaysian schools and 90% of Malaysians believe that sex education has “not been taught” in Malaysian schools or that most of the information given is vague

Poor sex education leads to higher rates of teen pregnancy, which leads to higher rates of child marriages. This is because of the cultural and religious backlash and stigma associated with having a child out of marriage in Malaysia. One of the ways to avoid the stigma and backlash is to get married, thereby “legitimising” the child

GENDER DISCRIMINATION AND CULTURE

Another massive factor that contributes towards child marriage in Malaysia is gender discrimination and culture. For instance, violence against young women is a common occurrence in Malaysia. If a young girl is sexually assaulted or raped and the case is dealt with in Shariah court, it is not uncommon for them to be forced into marrying the man who has sexually assaulted them so that the perpetrators can avoid criminal charges – sometimes taking the girl as a second wife.  

A study has found that Shariah judges view these child marriage applications as “trivial” as their interpretation of Islamic Law allows child marriage. These judges also prioritise saving the unborn baby from “illegitimacy” rather than prioritising the victim’s emotional and psychological wellbeing.

Photo by Raquel Garcia

This pressure to marry can also come from parents who fear religious backlash and social stigma.For instance, instead of letting girls go to school, some parents intend to marry their daughters off to “protect them” from the “dishonour” that rape or sex poses. From 2005 to 2015, there were 10,240 child marriage applications where parents were manipulating the legal system to have their underage daughters married to cover up instances of rape. Statistically, most of these marriages end in divorce, ultimately leaving the young girl with no education, a child to support and no prospects.

CONCLUSION

In January 2020, Datuk Seri Wan Azizah Ismail under the previous PH government had initiated a five-year National Strategic Plan and established a committee to eradicate child marriages in Malaysia. However, as the new PN government has taken over and Parliament has not been active, this committee has not yet done anything but establish their aims. Moving forward, the government needs to establish a clear action plan to eradicate child marriage or at the very least, tackle the root causes which cause child marriage.

Child marriage in Malaysia is a complex issue. On top of the issues listed above, child marriage has been linked to higher incidences of domestic violence, health risks to the younger child, and poor personality development for the child; this problem causes a domino effect and creates many more problems for children later on in life. Aside from that, freeing children from the shackles of early marriage grants them freedom; on a larger scale, the freedom to choose their career path or life partner and much more importantly, the freedom to direct their life and make their own choices. 

This is the Malaysia maju that we should all strive for; not skyscrapers and shiny bridges, but a Malaysia where girls have dignity, choices and equal opportunities.

Photo by Gabriel Buoys, AFP Correspondent