Underage marriages continue to haunt Malaysia

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Sisters in Islam (SIS) is appalled to learn that Kelantan Sharia courts had approved 10 underage marriages between January 2018 and January 2019. When averaged, this indicates that at least one underage marriage took place almost every month in the state.

It is therefore ironic that Kelantan Sharia Court judge Abu Bakar Abdullah Kutty mentions that “underage marriages must be prevented from early on because it is feared that couples will face countless problems.”

We are disappointed that Kelantan and Terengganu have opted to retain child marriage in the states, with Kelantan citing last November that the practice is regarded as a “necessity” in the state.

Such a reckless stance not only reflects an irresponsible government whuch is willing to endanger the future of children, it also shows a disregard for the pursuit of education as a means for economic emancipation among the more impoverished communities in the state.

Kelantan’s further rejection of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in November 2018 is also a shameful decision, considering Malaysia’s ambition to be a progressive and inclusive country with developed nation status.

PM’s directive

We are concerned that most states has not made the move to comply with Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s order for all state governments to raise the minimum legal age for marriage to 18 years for both Muslims and non-Muslims.

The prime minister issued the directive after chairing the 132nd meeting of the menteris besar and chief ministers at Perdana Putra in October 2018.

READ MORE:  Move to end child marriages in Malaysia

Imperfect implementation

The prime minister’s directive was confirmed by Penang’s Women, Family, Gender Inclusiveness and Non-Islamic Religion Committee chairperson Chong Eng. While she announced that the Penang Legislative Assembly has been instructed to process the directive, she mentioned in October 2018 that the Penang Islamic Religious Department had not yet submitted its report for the decision to be finalised. There has been no official announcement from the Penang government since as to the status of this legislative amendment.

In September 2018, Selangor Menteri Besar Amirudin Shari announced that amendments to increase the age of marriage in the state were passed by the state assembly. Amendments were made to the Islamic Family (State of Selangor) Enactment and Sharia Court Civil Procedure (State of Selangor) Enactment to raise the marriageable age limit of Muslims from 16 to 18. According to Amirudin, the new enactments, which would include a set of ‘strict’ SOPs, were to have come into effect in January 2019. Until today, however, there has been no indication of what criteria has been included in the SOPs.

Earlier this month, the Sabah cabinet agreed to set the minimum age of marriage at 18 in the state, citing that a review of the law would involve amending the Native Courts Enactment. Nevertheless, there is no indication if amendments will be made at the state’s Sharia level to include Muslim children.

Need to move forward

We are encouraged by how the marriage of an 11-year-old Rohingya girl child to a 20-year-old man raised the concern of a member of the public as well as enforcement and religious authorities in Penang recently.

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This incident reflects not only the social will to end child marriages in the country but also how anyone can be empowered to play a role in ending the practice of child marriages in Malaysia. This incident should provide an impetus for more concerted efforts at the state government level to raise the age of marriage to 18 for all children.

Federal and state governments and elected representatives including MPs and state assembly members have a responsibility to protect the most vulnerable amongst us, including children. This includes keeping them safe from harm, inculcating a positive social mindset and ensuring that they have the best possible chance of a bright future by prioritising their education. Child marriage poses an obstacle to all the above.

SIS is also concerned about the politicising of the issue of child marriages at the expense of the welfare and wellbeing of the child. We emphasise again the urgency for laws to be amended and for these laws to include all children, boys and girls, regardless of race and religion, with no exceptions.

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