When is a child, especially a girl, old enough to marry?
Different cultures have different answers.
In Malaysia, child marriage is often considered to be confined to rural Muslim communities due to frequent media reporting cases of underage girls undergoing marriage to older men. It’s regarded by the mainstream as old-fashioned and nowadays wrong.
Although it is indeed true that child marriage is prevalent in Muslim communities, it is also a problem in every ethnic and religious community in Malaysia, said Sarah Norton-Staal, Unicef Malaysia’s chief of child protection in the online launch of Unicef’s advocacy brief titled “Towards Ending Child Marriage”.
Unicef statistics show that between 2013 and 2017, there were 2,367 cases of non-Muslim child marriages recorded by the National Registration Department.
“Child marriage occurs in urban and rural settings, across all states in Malaysia and throughout all ethnic and religious communities,” Norton-Staal told MalaysiaNow. “Both boys and girls are affected by child marriage, but the impact is greater on girls.”
Although activists tend to speak of a child marriage “problem”, Noor Aziah Mohd Awal, children’s commissioner at the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam), said some religious authorities do not see child marriage as a sensitive issue or worth discussing, and certainly not a problem.
She cited the 2018 findings from the women, family and community development ministry which showed that half of the states in the country – Sarawak, Pahang, Terengganu, Kedah, Kelantan, Perlis and Negeri Sembilan – do not wish to change the age limit for marriage.
“Both boys and girls are affected by child marriage, but the impact is greater on girls.”
Noor Aziah said in 2020 Selangor changed its law and made 18 the minimum age for both boys and girls, making it the only state to have achieved a legal reform.
Child’s rights activists collectively urged legal reform to raise the minimum age of marriage to 18 in a recent event by Unicef.
Activists say the lack of a standardised minimum age for marriage is the main contributing factor to the “problem” in this country.
Child marriage is allowed under Islamic law, civil law and customary laws in Malaysia.
In Islamic family law, children under the age of 18 are allowed to get married provided that they have the approval of the shariah court.
In civil law, which governs non-Muslims, girls aged 16 and 17 are allowed to marry if approved by the state chief minister.
Under customary laws for non-Muslim indigenous people, there is no age limit for marriage.
Noor Aziah pointed out other factors that drive child marriage in Malaysia. These include lack of access to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services; poverty; cultural acceptance of child marriage; and lack of parental understanding of SRH.
The reluctance of religious groups to implement sex education and other issues that lead up to child marriage has been a challenge for years, she said.
Unicef’s Norton-Staal said some religious leaders are supportive of the cause and there is a clear recognition and acceptance of the importance of strengthening comprehensive sexuality education.
“Malaysia attended the Global Population Conference in Nairobi a few years ago and endorsed the commitments made, including strengthening sexual reproductive health education.
“So I believe the political will is there and that even among some religious leaders there is a recognition of that importance.”
Lee Lyn-Ni, child protection specialist at Unicef Malaysia told MalaysiaNow, “Setting the minimum age of marriage at 18 provides an objective rather than a subjective standard of maturity, which safeguards a child from being married when they are not physically, mentally or emotionally ready.
“It will also ensure that children are able to give their free and full consent and have the minimum level of maturity needed before marrying.”