MAY 5 — I was referred a four-year-old girl recently, who was accompanied by another “girl” in her early twenties.
This twenty-something had a toddler of about two years towing behind her.
Upon asking whether they were all sisters, and the whereabouts of their parents, the eldest giggled, shook her head and said, “No doctor, these are my children. My parents are at work.”
I froze, not so much because I was playing the “guess my age” game in my head, but wondering if she was younger than she looked.
So with much hope and trepidation, I asked, “How old are you?”
My heart sank.
Tip of the iceberg?
I read one United Nations report in 2010 that said over 82,000 married women in Malaysia were girls between the ages of 15 and 19.
And another report quoted the Deputy Women, Family and Community Development Minister as saying there were about 16,000 girls below 15 married in the same year. A total of 15,849 pregnant teens recorded in 2004, 17,600 in 2008 and 19,310 in 2012.
And they were all aged between 15 and 19.
We know official and unofficial figures vary. Since these figures were of teens who gave birth in a healthcare facility, I can’t help but wonder about those who delivered at home, from shame of conceiving out of wedlock and other reasons?
Are the numbers truly representative of where we stand as a society, or is this just the tip on the iceberg?
Education, economics and beyond
The National Center for Biotechnology Information America in 2010 published a paper on early teen marriage and future poverty. It had, among others, found that teenagers are two thirds more likely to divorce within 15 years of marriage compared with others.
These teenagers are also 50 per cent more likely to drop out of high school, and four times less likely to graduate from college.
In another paper by The Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy titled Teenage Births: Outcomes for Young Parents and Their Children published in 2010 found that children born to teen mums do not perform as well in school as children of older mothers.
They also score poorly on school preparedness indicators including communication, cognition and social skills.
Needless to say, the students start school at a disadvantage and perform worse than those born to older parents, leading to higher unemployment rates and following closely behind them are potential social problems.
The paper also found that the children of teenage parents are almost three times more likely to be jailed during their adolescence or early twenties.
Given these numbers, it goes to show that teenage marriage, pregnancies extend beyond the teenager, to her children, society, and nation as a whole.
But what drives them to brave the odds at such a tender age, when the numbers are clearly stacked against them?
Lust before reason
If lust supersedes reason when deciding whether or not to get married, the answer should be obvious to the judge weighing the case.
And if I were the judge, I would send the groom for a cold shower, and tell him to get good grades before even thinking of getting married.
Before you say that the onset of puberty is a good enough age to marry, please ponder since when puberty becomes the equivalent of emotional, psychological and financial maturity that is prerequisite to any successful partnership?
Just because a person is sexually attracted to the opposite sex doesn’t mean that they are ready to raise, protect, educate, feed and clothe a child. Just because they can produce a child, doesn’t mean that they should.
Just because they want to, doesn’t mean they get to.
And those who cite Islam as a reference, there is nothing Islamic about marrying off a child. It’s historical and at best contextual. It is wrong to marry off daughters by force without their consent, or to someone she dislikes in Islam.
So one wonders at what age will she develop the ability to judge character, one of the important terms to consenting to a marriage?
Given our education standards, I’m not even sure if 18-years-old is a good age in this country. So imagine those younger?
Expecting a child to have the necessary experience and intellect to choose her life partner, when even those much older, more educated have problems doing so is neither Quranic nor Islamic.
Those who argue otherwise have a lot of learning, reading and soul searching to do.
Marriage is not a solution. Nor is it a race
Most, if not all, of the teen marriages involve those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Parents, and even their children take it onto themselves as an informal race of “who gets married first”, and “who’s next”, be it for financial or other reasons.
And any serious attempt to challenge the status quo will have to include measures that uplift living standards beyond BR1M and the minimum wage.
Beyond bigger apartments, to minimise the occurrence of incest and rape.
We need to emphasise the importance of education, an essential ingredient towards a balanced, mature, intelligent citizen which, if correctly administered can serve as a tool that sharpens their ability to make good decisions.
While the minimum age of a marriage should be raised to 18 or higher for all Malaysians regardless of race and religion, the government should also look into making secondary education compulsory for all Malaysians.
Whether they are single, married, widowed or even divorced.
Those who live in poverty must be actively engaged by government agencies, to end the cycle of early marriage among them. Ensure adequate hostels, school allowances, free textbooks, good food and uniforms are given to all students who need them.
Sell the government jets if you have to.
Children should not be viewed as a burden that needs to be disposed of by poor families, but assets who determine whether or not their family remains in poverty.
Sure, these will not necessarily guarantee a successful marriage. But where would you rather err? Educated youths making decisions based on an intelligent understanding of what is expected of them as husbands, and a member of the community living in a competitive, progressive and expensive society?
Or youths choosing life partners blinded mostly by raging hormones? Shoot first and worry later?
I am sure there are cases where a teenage marriage ends happily for all parties. But they are the exception, and not the norm.
According to a report by The Star, one 15-year-old boy, who married his 17-year-old sweetheart of two months was unsure whether or not to continue with his studies.
If that is what we take as a sign of maturity in this country, we might need to raise the minimum age.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.