Activists, lawyers believe making SPM mandatory can help curb child marriages

(From left) Social activist Syed Azmi Alhabshi, child rights lawyer Srividhya Ganapathy, Rohingya community worker Hafsar Tamesuddin and moderator Ajeet Kaur at the child marriage forum in Publika October 6, 2018. — Picture by Razak Ghazali
(From left) Social activist Syed Azmi Alhabshi, child rights lawyer Srividhya Ganapathy, Rohingya community worker Hafsar Tamesuddin and moderator Ajeet Kaur at the child marriage forum in Publika October 6, 2018. — Picture by Razak Ghazali

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 6 — Lawyers and activists agreed the best way to discourage child marriages is to provide better education and support infrastructure for children, aside from legally raising the minimum age to marry.

Speaking at a Bar Council Forum titled “Child Marriage: Happily Never After” today, activist Syed Azmi Alhabshi argued that, based on his experience in managing a transit home for young girls, it is far more important to make it compulsory for children to finish their secondary education.

“A lot of people say it is safe for kids to be in school and if that isn’t in place, it isn’t possible to keep them safe. With education, these kids will have more opportunity and can increase their potential and be given better choices. They will also be more aware of their rights.

“We have all scientific data and reasons why kids shouldn’t marry at a young age. But when you go to the ground, for instance, in places like Tumpat or Gua Musang, everyone (there) is okay with it.

“They (the children) will ask, ‘if I do as you say and not get married, what can I do? Where will I go and who can I ask for help?’ One of the reasons behind child marriage is poverty and lack of opportunity, options and choices and opportunity for education,” said Syed Azmi.

The activist has encountered cases where under-educated teenagers planned on marrying, thinking that they are ready to for a lifetime together as they were ignorant of other opportunities in life.

He recalled meeting a girl around the age of 14 or 15, who thought that her school dropout boyfriend, a fisherman, was already a successful because he earned around RM300 to RM400 a month.

“The real way to stop child marriages is for the kids themselves to say I don’t want to get married and my option is not running away,” said Syed Azmi.

Bar Council Child Rights Committee member Srividhya Ganapathy pointed out that by banning child marriages or putting a minimum age at 18, the government might end up criminalising young girls who marry, particularly in out of reach rural areas in Sabah and Sarawak.

“When we dictate terms, are we thinking of the 13-year-old Penan girl who went to boarding school from Standard One to Standard Six and at Form One she has nowhere to go because the nearest school is 200km from her house.

“She has to find money to go there where she has no support and is put in room with 20 other children without adult supervision,” Srividhya said, arguing that support infrastructure to ensure children can be educated until SPM level is also critical.

Furthermore, both Syed Azmi and Srividhya said sex education as early as Standard One is critical to ensure that unwanted pregnancies do not happen due to ignorant teenagers experimenting with sex.

Fellow panellist, Rohingya refugee and community worker Hafsar Tamesuddin also said outreach with all levels of the community is important to ensure the change can happen on a more organic level rather than merely as a legislation.

“As a community worker we also need to listen to the points of view coming from the religious authorities. If an ustaz disagrees with banning child marriage, we need to listen to his view and understand why.

“Then we can explain to him the benefits of ending child marriage and how by educating his community to a greater level can benefit his community as a whole. We have to remember the ustaz is also part of the community,” she said.

All three panellists came to an agreement that the minimum age for marriage should be raised to 18 with an absolute minimum of 16 with parental consent.

The government previously said it intends to standardise the minimum marriageable age in the country at 18.