Photo taken from http://ewn.co.za/2017/02/15/sold-into-marriage-how-rohingya-girls-become-child-brides-in-malaysia, credit AFP
by Janice Ooi
When I was 9 years old, I was moaning the first tuition class my parents had sent me. It was the first year I had BM Penulisan (Writing) and being a person who stepped into primary school knowing only one word (‘bola’) in BM (because it is similar to its English counterpart, ball), I was obviously anxious and requested my parents to send me to tuition class – only to find out that tuition is immensely boring, as any 9-year-old would.
But if you were to ask my 9-year-old self, or any other 9-year-old girl, I don’t think she would say that she is “physically and spiritually ready” for marriage – I was barely ready for my BM Penulisan test in June. Perhaps some young girls might enthusiastically say yes to marriage – heads full of fantasies created by Disney Princesses and their happily-ever-after lives. But we can’t take those “yes” statements seriously – because we, as adults, understand that they do not come from complete understanding of what marriage truly entails. These ‘sweetheart’ cases often end in divorce, or severe hardship due to the many lacking circumstances young brides face – such as lack of education, poverty, the physical burden marriage places on her tiny frame whether from the sexual activities expected or household work to be done.
Sexual Offences Against Children 2017 and the proposed amendment on child marriages ban
Last April, just two months ago, the Sexual Offences Against Children bill was passed in Parliament – which included important provisions on child pornography and sexual grooming. However, a proposed amendment by MP Teo Nie Ching on banning child marriages was defeated – the debate in which produced controversial remarks by MP Datuk Shabudin Yahaya. He emphasised that rapists don’t always remain as bad people and the girls who were raped may have a better, healthier future if she gets married to their rapists because “at least they would have their husbands”, and this would further serve to “remedy” other “social problems” – which were never identified. Indeed, it is “dangerously misogynistic and perverse to make a rapist seem like a hero, painting a picture as if he had ‘manned up’ to his act” after taking a conscious step to ruin a young girl’s life.
By defeating the proposed amendment to ban child marriages, the Malaysian Parliament seems to be confused on their stance regarding what exactly is to be called as “sexual offences against children” – because surely, allowing rapists to marry their traumatised victims as a way to avoid punishment must be an “offence”, if not to the law, then to our basic humanity. If sexual intercourse with a child is statutory rape, how can the existence of the rape offence retroactively vanish by a vow of marriage? Marriage, for the victim, merely translates to a daily re-enactment of the nightmare with her attacker.
The state of the law in Malaysia
In Malaysia, marital rape is not an offence – a situation that has long called for reform. It is through this loophole that child rapists are able to avoid punishment. Since most child marriages occur in rural and traditional communities, the parents’ poverty and/or conservative mindset which believes that sex out of wedlock brings shame to the family and thus their daughter is of no value since she has been “soiled” by the very evil man who is apparently extending a generous arm in “taking responsibility” for his actions, often compels them to hurriedly marry their daughter off the offender. The power to nullify such an atrocious act is not one the law should have, less still desperate parents who do not know any better.
The conditions to marry are different for non-Muslims and for Muslims. The legal age to marry for non-Muslims is 18, requiring parental consent for those below 21 years of age – with an exception for girls who are 16 years old and have obtained the state’s chief minister’s authority to get married. For Muslims, the legal age for marriage is 18 for males and 16 for females, however those below the legal age can still get married – with no apparent minimum age for marriage – as long as they have obtained the consent of a Shariah court, in which the Shariah court maintains wide discretionary powers to consider all relevant factors such as levels of maturity of the applicants and merits of the marriage. While the consent of the Shariah court may be a good counterbalance to mitigate widespread occurrences of child marriages, one truly wonders whether such “wide discretionary powers” are exercised to their fullest extent before allowing a child to marry, considering the fact that there have been instances in which rapists have married their victims.
Child marriages – normal and widespread or exaggerated?
The Joint Action Group for Equality (JAG), citing UN reports, have stated that as many as 15 000 Malaysians are married off before the age of 19. According to a 2000 census, there were 10 267 children between the ages of 10-14 who were married, 304 who were widowed, divorced or permanently separated – with girls outnumbering boys at 58%. Strangely enough, the 2010 census does not show any figures on child marriages, instead recording all children as “never married”. In fact, child marriages do not only occur within the local community, but there have been allegations of child refugees being sold into marriage as child brides in Malaysia.
Around the world, child marriages are allowed in more than 100 countries, including the United States as the exception rather than the norm. However, as social values evolve, should we not strive to emulate the better rather than follow the majority?
Child brides and consequences
There is a reason for the legal age for marriage being set at 18 as the norm – 18 being an acceptable age at which a person would reach both physical and emotional maturity while being able to obtain a means to generate income. Child brides are robbed of their childhood, health, education and dreams. There is a high risk of death during childbirth, premature births and diseases relating to the urinary tracts and reproductive systems for young mothers. Most young brides also come from poor communities, and often would be stuck in poverty for the rest of their lives due to a lack of opportunities to better their lives through education. It has also been shown that child brides have an increased risk of intimate partner sexual violence.
Child marriages are the norm in traditional communities where their perception of life is based on their upbringing and life experiences – and in such an environment, it is difficult for them to empathise with contemporary thought without appropriate knowledge. The key to moving forward is for legislation to recognise that child marriages do not “remedy” social problems, but may in fact create more as children are essentially stuck in abusive relationships or are traumatised by intimacy to such a level that divorce is a permanent state for them. Through the law we can normalise better values for the society, and through it, allow better understanding to bridge the gap between those stuck behind the veils of tradition and contemporary knowledge.
Because when you think of a 9, 10, 11, or 12-year old child, the word “wife” is not the first word you’d associate with her. You think of silly fantasies and giggles and a never-ending ball of energy that keeps running around while playing tag with her friends. A child deserves a childhood, and with that, the opportunity to learn and grow as an individual not defined by an unwanted, unsolicited sexual act. There should not be any exceptions to individual consent in this regard, marriage is a deeply personal and life-changing matter.
Today, the special court for child sex crimes is due to be unveiled. The Sexual Offences against Children Act 2017 has been a positive step forward in recognising atrocities committed against children that goes against their human rights, but in the past, ministers have denounced the Sexual Offences against Children bill as “not the forum to discuss” the issue of child marriages. Here’s to hoping that an appropriate forum will be created soon. Child marriages may not be the hottest social issue in the media, but it is a serious issue that deeply affects each and every child who is compelled into marriage – regardless by parents, traditional societal norms, or even by deluded fantasies of sweetheart love.
Janice is a second year law student at UCL.
Both cynical and idealistic, she is one contradiction away from being the living dead (as all law students are).