KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 4 — 543 child marriages, including applications, were recorded in Malaysia from the first nine months of this year, with Sarawak being the state with the highest reported figures, the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry has said.

In a written parliamentary reply yesterday, the ministry said the Syariah Judiciary Department Malaysia’s (JKSM) records for Muslim couples showed that there were 520 applications for underage marriages recorded from early January to September 2020, with the highest number of such cases recorded in Sarawak (83 cases), followed by Kelantan (80 cases) and Sabah (63 cases).

The ministry however did not say how many of these applications were approved, and did not provide the number of child marriage applications by Muslims for other states.

As for non-Muslim couples, the ministry said the National Registration Department’s (NRD) records showed 23 underage marriages recorded in the same January to September 2020 period, with the highest in Sarawak (seven cases), followed by Selangor (six cases).

Again, the ministry did not provide the number of child marriages among non-Muslims for the other states.

The ministry appeared to indicate possible gaps and deficiencies in Malaysia’s official child marriage statistics, noting: “As you know, data on underage marriage recorded by various agencies differ in definitions and have different age ranges, including non-Muslim customary marriages not recorded by the NRD.”

“In relation to that, the latest data that can provide an accurate picture about marriages as a whole under the age of 18 is 2018 data based on statistics from the Department of Statistics Malaysia.

“In 2018, a total of 1,856 children were involved in marriages under the age of 18, with 1,674 of Bumiputera ethnicity, 100 of Chinese ethnicity, 20 of Indian ethnicity, and 62 from other ethnicities,” the ministry said in its parliamentary reply.

The ministry was replying to Batu Kawan MP Kasthuri Patto, who had asked for the child marriage statisics in both the civil and Shariah courts since January 2020 and their locations, as well as the progressin government’s efforts to curb child marriages and towards the seven states in Malaysia that disagreed with fixing the minimum age for marriage at 18.

Previously, the ministry had on August 16, 2018 in the Dewan Rakyat said that JKSM’s records showed that there were 5,362 applications for marriages below the age of 18 for Muslim couples from 2013 to 2017, while the NRD’s records showed 2,367 marriages below the age of 18 for non-Muslim couples from 2013 to 2017.

What the ministry is doing about child marriages

Referring to the five-year National Strategy Plan in Handling the Causes of Child Marriage which the ministry had launched in January 2020, the ministry yesterday told Kasthuri that the implementation of the plan is monitored by a steering committee chaired by the ministry’s secretary-general, with the steering committee also enabling continued cooperation between the ministry and the related agencies in handling the causes of child marriage.

With the steering committee to carry out its functions during the plan’s five-year period of 2020 to 2025, the ministry said this steering committee is also required to meet twice a year and had met on August 24.

As for the states which have resisted fixing the lowest age that one can be married at 18, the ministry yesterday said: “Since Malaysia is composed of a mutliracial society which has different customs, cultures and religions, therefore talks and engagement sessions with the relevant experts including child experts, culture experts and Syarie experts still have to be conducted to ensure views from all are taken into account in the fixing of the minimum age of marriage at 18 years old, especially in states that have yet to agree.”

Previously, in a November 17 written parliamentary reply to Muar MP Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, the ministry had also said that the fixing of the minimum age of marriage is also subject to the powers of the state Islamic religious councils.

The ministry had also said then that the August 24 meeting was intended to monitor the progress in the programmes and actions for each of the national plan’s strategy, and said the ministry had also prepared a communications strategy plan and a comprehensive advocacy programme for the national plan.

In that reply, the ministry said it was committed to continue efforts to tackle child marriages, stating that it was holding on to the principle that children should be given a chance to realise their full potential, in line with Malaysia’s obligation to the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child.

“Marriage at a young age contravenes with the principle of child development and should be avoided as it can affect the child’s rights to education, reproductive health, emotional and mental health,” the ministry had said.

Which are the seven states refusing to revise laws?

In a parliamentary reply on November 19, 2019, the ministry said only Selangor had changed its state laws to fix the minimum marriage age at 18 and that the Federal Territories was in the process of doing so, while the five states of Penang, Sabah, Johor, Melaka and Perak had agreed to do so, while seven states (Sarawak, Pahang, Terengganu, Perlis, Negri Sembilan, Kedah and Kelantan) do not agree with amending the related laws.

As for marriage laws relating to non-Muslims, ministry had in the November 2019 reply said that the Home Ministry said there was “no need” to change the minimum marriage age in the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976, as the existing law there already provided for the minimum marriage age for both male and female at 18, but with exceptions allowing girls aged 16 and 17 to marry if permitted by a state’s chief minister or mentri besar.