Breaking the Chains: Stop normalising child marriages

24 Dec 2023 10:35am
Child washing dishes (Sinar AI generated image)
Child washing dishes (Sinar AI generated image)

While there has been a global decline in child marriages in recent years, this deeply ingrained and widespread practice continues to persist, flagrantly violating human rights and standing as a significant moral blight, tarnishing the very societal fabric.

Despite global attempts to eradicate this practice, millions of young girls find themselves thrown into child marriages, perhaps willingly or unwillingly, often with significantly older spouses.

As reported by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), approximately 640 million girls and women currently alive experienced childhood marriage, with one in five young women aged 20 to 24 married as children, compared to nearly one in four a decade ago globally.

According to former deputy minister of the Women, Family and Community Development (Ministry MWFCD) Hannah Yeoh, from 2007 until 2017, there were 14,999 cases of child marriages, with 10,000 occurring within the Malay-Muslim community. In addition, in 2020 it was reported that 445 students dropped out of secondary school due to marriage.

As reported, approximately 1,500 children were married off each year (between 2007 to 2019) and 90 per cent of them were girls. A recent parliament session highlighted a positive decline in child marriages, with a 19 per cent decrease reported—from 1,354 cases in 2020 to 1,086 cases in 2021.

To date, accurate statistics on child marriages in Malaysia remain elusive due to the absence of a centralised database, exacerbated by the sensitivity of the topic and the prevalence of undocumented cases. A meta-analytical study by Kohno et al. (2020) found evidence that among the major reasons for child marriages are poverty, human insecurity, family conflicts, inadequate legal protection for victims, victims lack of knowledge on child marriage, cultural and religious values, influence of the patriarchal influence, etc.

Consistently, data collected by the Shariah Judiciary Malaysia Department (JKSM) in 2018 indicates, there was a high prevalence of child marriages in Sarawak (974 cases), Kelantan (877 cases) and Sabah (848 cases). The total ban on child marriages is contested, particularly in these states that also persistently experience high levels of poverty.

Child marriage often occurs covertly, leaving the child as a silent victim. Public awareness about this phenomenon only rises when the media spotlights specific incidents. The following are a few instances of the tabloid-worthy mentions of child marriage in Malaysia:

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  • An 11-year-old Thai girl who had become the third wife of a 41-year-old Kelantanese rubber trader, as the man promised a comfortable life to the child's parents while his second wife revealed he provides insufficient financial support to the family;
  • A 15-year-old girl, who had become the second wife of a 44-year-old Kelantanese People’s Volunteer Corp (Rela) member. The child had 13 siblings and due to poverty, her parents had married her off.

Interestingly, both instances share a commonality: they both occurred in the state of Kelantan.

Furthermore, as recently reported, Kelantan recorded 533 registered underage marriages in the past four years.

Could this imply that there is an inadvertent endorsement of immoral human rights practices in the state? The Malaysian Child Act 2001 [Act 611] defines a "child" as an individual who is below eighteen years old. While federal involvement in the state jurisdiction is limited, the federal government should be a signatory of the “Convention on the Rights of the Child”, 1989, to reduce the prevalence of child marriages as a child is accorded protection under:

  • Article 6 - Ensuring survival, well-being, and growth;
  • Article 19 - Safeguarding against violence, abuse, and exploitation;
  • Article 24 - The child has the right to optimal healthcare, emphasising primary care and preventive measure;
  • Article 28 - The child has the right to education, which should be achieved progressively and with a commitment to providing equal opportunities.

In addition, the patriarchal social structure in Malaysia contributes to the high rate of child marriages, which highlights the larger problem of female autonomy in decision-making and participation in the nation.

The fact that child marriage remains “still LEGAL” in Malaysia may have unintended “normalisation” effect on the rape cases. Men who rape young children can escape prosecution and punishment simply by opting to marry the victim as was the case of a 13-year-old girl who was raped by a 40-year-old restaurant manager who then legally married the child.

In another case, a 35-year-old Negeri Sembilan man wed a disabled 14-year-old after he was accused of raping her. The guy then allegedly compelled his wife to record on camera him raping his sister-in-law, who was eleven years old. Shockingly, Datuk Shabudin Yahaya, former Tasek Gelugor MP and a former Syariah court judge, opinioned that the act of a rape victim marrying the perpetrator, viewed as a potential solution to escalating social issues, did not inherently pose a problem.

Implication on the physical, mental and emotional well-being of the child

The study by Susan Mayor indicates that pregnancy and childbirth complications are the leading cause of death in 15-19-year-olds in developing countries, resulting in 70,000 annual deaths. In addition, these girls face twice the risk of dying from pregnancy-related causes compared to women in their 20s, and their infants face a 50 per cent higher likelihood of mortality.

Another study by Prof Caroline with 22,188 respondents involved found that children whose mothers were 19 years of age or younger had a 20-30 per cent higher risks for preterm delivery and low birthweight, associating teenage motherhood is detrimental to newborns.

Subsequently, pregnancy and child marriage will have a greater detrimental impact on the mental health of the victim. For instance, while 6.5 per cent to 12.9 per cent of women in high-income countries experience perinatal mental health issues, in developing nations like Malaysia, the rate jumps to 48.5 per cent.

Hinders education opportunities and personal development of the child

Often overlooked, child marriages might contribute to intergenerational poverty by restricting educational and economic possibilities. Early marriage frequently leads to school dropout, impeding skill development and future employment opportunities for young brides.

According to former Deputy Education Minister Lim Hui Ying, the dropout rate for female students in Malaysia increased from 0.40 per cent in 2019 to 0.71 per cent in 2022, while for male students the rate decreased from 0.72 per cent in 2019 to 0.29 per cent in 2022. Based on the ministry's Student Database Application System from 2019 to 2023, it is found that one of the many reasons was due to marriage.

After marriage, child brides or grooms, but especially the brides, may be prohibited from going to school as typical gender roles are frequently prioritised by societal norms and expectations.

The recent emphasis by the Malaysian government on compulsory secondary education for all is commendable. However, it is crucial to prevent the immoral practice of child marriage from undermining this envisioned brighter future.

Hence, EMIR Research proposes the following to supplement the current National Strategy Plan in Handling the Causes of Child Marriage (2020-2030):

1. There is a need for reliable data and extensive research on the root causes of child marriages and mitigation pathways.

Beyond merely compiling data on the incidence of child marriages by local and state governments, there is a crucial need to establish a centralised and systematic database of detailed case studies— a crucial resource for developing workable strategies towards the eradication of child marriages in Malaysia.

Moreover, close collaboration between the Department of Social Welfare (JKMM) and MWFCD is essential. They should jointly analyse and offer support to victims of child marriages, which includes conducting periodic home visits to evaluate living conditions and standards of living. It is also vital to inform victims about their rights and legal protections under Malaysian law, especially in cases involving violence.

This collaborative initiative aims to expedite and improve the implementation of solutions for protecting and supporting victims of child marriages while empowering the victims to make their own decisions.

Additionally, creating such a centralised database would facilitate civil society (i.e. activists, think tanks etc.) in conducting thorough research on child marriages, contributing to efforts to eliminate this immoral practice from society.

2. Creating decent jobs in rural and sub-urban areas to break the cycle of poverty

Poverty is one of the key drivers of child marriages. Thus, creating employment in industries suitable for our rural communities, such as community-based tourism, handcraft manufacturing, and agricultural entrepreneurship, will empowering the family heads and enhance the overall well-being of the family while also providing economic expansion.

In addition to fostering skill development and financial security, such efforts decrease dependence on the immoral and often exploitative practice of child marriage.

Creating a wide variety of good jobs—especially in industries that complement local resources—can lead to a significant economic uplift in rural and suburban areas, breaking the persistent cycles of poverty.

3. Improving access to quality maternal care for pregnant and parenting girls and women

Adequate healthcare empowers young mothers while also minimising health risks and infant mortality. Education and support offered during maternity care raises understanding about reproductive health, stopping the cycle of misinformation.

Prioritising maternal care and community support for young mothers' actions and autonomy subverts social norms endorsing child marriage and fosters an environment conducive to healthier futures.

Additionally, emphasising the importance of family planning allows couples to manage family size, promotes economic stability and education, and reduces child marriage likelihood.

It is certain that eradicating child marriages requires reforms in law pertaining to child marriages and the reproductive rights of girls and women. Such a gap in law and policies must be addressed and not overlooked.

After all, the persistent support for child marriages among Malaysian lawmakers and religious leaders reflects same-old identity politics play and misuse of religion but, as we can see from the above analysis, has nothing in common with healthy national development.

Jachintha Joyce is a Research Assistant at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research. The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Sinar Daily.