I READ with concern the statement by Deputy Prime Minister and Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail that seven states in Malaysia have refused to amend state enactments that would raise the minimum age of marriage to 18 years for Muslim girls.
It is hoped that the government’s efforts to address the issue of child marriage holistically will soon bear fruit. As has been stated by child rights coalition Girls Not Brides, “Child brides are neither physically nor emotionally ready to become wives and mothers. They face more risks of experiencing dangerous complications in pregnancy and childbirth, contracting HIV/AIDS and suffering domestic violence. With little access to education and economic opportunities, they and their families are more likely to live in poverty.”
While it is good that the government is trying to raise the minimum age of marriage to 18 years and is attempting to convince the resistant seven states to also do so, we must also ensure that everything possible is being done to stop child marriage. This requires a multi-pronged approach as legislation alone cannot change mindsets.
To properly address child marriage, the government must also address the root causes, which include education and poverty, and also societal norms regarding girls’ sexuality and virginity. Any holistic plan to address child marriage must therefore include programmes to engage with communities on these issues, in addition to addressing the legal structures that allow child marriage to continue. These programmes can commence immediately.
We are pleased to note that the Deputy Minister has stated that a National Strategic Plan to address child marriage is in the final stages of drafting, and it is hoped that it will be completed and released soon.
Efforts in other countries such as Ethiopia, India and Egypt include programmes targeted at girls aged 10 to 19 that provide education about subjects such as reproductive and sexual health, communication and decision-making.
The programmes also involved community discussions about child marriage, including its causes and consequences, and alternatives to marriage.
Some child marriages occur in Malaysia due to teenagers becoming pregnant and the young couple marrying to avoid the baby being declared illegitimate, which has legal consequences in relation to inheritance rights. The laws regarding illegitimacy must therefore also be reviewed to ensure that families do not feel pressured to compel their children to marry before they are ready.
There are immediate legislative steps within the Federal Government’s power that are possible. One such step was suggested by a member of the legal support team of the Institutional Reforms Committee (IRC) Andrew Yong. He proposed that the marriage exception to statutory rape in Section 375 of the Penal Code be removed (with an amendment to provide for “Romeo and Juliet” type cases where both individuals are teenagers). At the very least, this will provide protection to girls under the age of 16.
As the Penal Code falls within the purview of the Federal Government (Federal list), there is no impediment to the government proceeding immediately to amend the law.
Above all, the government must be unequivocal in its stand against child marriage and must show the political will to address it quickly and effectively. While we prevaricate, we are exposing our children to the possibility of physical danger every day. Surely that is reason enough to act immediately.
DATUK AMBIGA SREENEVASAN
Former Bar Council chairperson/ Commissioner of the International Commission of Jurists
Read more at https://www.thestar.com.my/opinion/letters/2019/11/22/do-more-to-protect-children#MCxLymPMya1DRdHV.99