Sisters in Islam (SIS) is alarmed by claims made by Terengganu Sharia Court chief judge Wan Mohd Zakri today that there were 444 applications for underage marriages from 2013 to 2018 in the state, 397 of which were approved.
According to the Terengganu Sharia Court Department, the applications involved 522 children. SIS is extremely concerned that these numbers tell us that at least 125 underage marriages in the state involved marriages to spouses who are much older in age.
This number is clear evidence that injustice and abuse is being perpetuated in the state.
We are also worried that more than half of the approved applicants were below the age of 15, with up to 10 applications at the age of 13 approved.
Where reasons for marriage is concerned, we are surprised that the department had approved applications simply on the basis that the couple were “in love” and that the child “wanted” to marry (totaling 252 applications).
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We strongly believe that the court has an obligation to ensure that the needs, rather than the wants, of the child are prioritized, and the primary need for all children should be education.
We are also alarmed that 20 applications were approved to alleviate the “burden of the family”, 11 applications were approved because the child had dropped out of school and experienced personal issues and one application was approved because of rape. These cases indicate that the child may have been forced into marriage and is unwillingly exposed to harm.
The chief judge also claimed that 72 applications were approved because of pregnancy out of wedlock and that 39 applications were approved on the basis that the child had previously had sex.
We find this to be a dangerous trend as it sidelines the serious issue that sex (consensual or not) with an underage child is considered a statutory rape crime in our country, and that the adult perpetrator is allowed to bypass the law simply by marrying his victim.
It is important that the court protects children who are unable to understand the meaning of consent and the harm associated with sex, especially when coaxed by a much older person.
SIS is dismayed that Terengganu’s chief Sharia judge intends to allow underage marriages to continue in the state despite clear evidence of harm and danger to the child.
We strongly urge the Terengganu Sharia Court Department to prioritise both the education and protection of children by raising the age of marriage for all children in the state to 18 years with no exceptions.