The government and the legislature should urgently reform the law to end rape and child marriages, says Heather Barr.
Survivors of rape often say they are left with devastating, sometimes lifelong, trauma. One woman who was sexually assaulted in Iraq described her feelings this way: “I have no past and no future at the moment. I am stuck in my anger and pain.”
Imagine how much worse this pain would be if you were forced to marry your rapist and share a home and bed with him.
This is the reality for some girls in Malaysia, where local organisations have documented cases in which men who raped underage girls – in one case a girl of 12 – have attempted to evade criminal charges by marrying the girl.
They can do this because marital rape is not a crime in Malaysia. While under the current law men who marry their victim can still be prosecuted for rape committed before the marriage – which has happened in a few high-profile cases –the law makes it easier for rape to be swept under the carpet through marriage. “It’s not a rare occurrence,” the chair of a nongovernmental organisation said. “It’s happening often.”
This escape route is even used by those who rape children, as child marriage is also permitted.
True, Malaysian civil law sets the minimum age of marriage at 18, but the law is riddled with exceptions. Girls 16 and older can marry with permission of their state’s chief minister. For Muslims, Islamic law sets a 16-year minimum age for girls and permits even earlier marriages, with no apparent minimum, with the permission of a Syariah court, Malaysia’s Sharia court.
These laws violate authoritative interpretations of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which Malaysia has ratified. The United Nations considers the minimum legal marriage age 18, with exceptions granted solely under exceptional circumstances to mature children 16 or older, with a judge’s authorisation.
Government officials have condemned cases where rapists have sought to evade prosecution through marriage. But Malaysia has resisted making marital rape a crime, and in April 2016, its legislature ignored calls from rights groups to ban child marriage.
In May, the government admitted that more than 9,000 children married in the previous five years were younger than 18. The government claimed this number is falling, but there is no proof of this, as Malaysia is one of the few countries in Asia that does not provide annual data on child marriage to UNICEF, the UN children’s fund.
Malaysia’s girls and women deserve protection from both rape and child marriage. The government and the legislature should urgently reform the law to end these terrible practices.
Heather Barr is a senior researcher in the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch.