Child marriage: Sanctioned child molestation?

APRIL 25 ― As many Malaysians already know, MP Tasek Gelugor Shabudin Yahaya made the careless mistake of saying on record that it is okay for rape victims to marry their rapists as it could serve as a “remedy” to societal ills.

He also said that girls as young as nine years old are “physically and spiritually” ready for marriage and that some 12- to 15-year-old girls have the bodies of 18-year-old women.

It seems like he did not realise that there is a difference between puberty and physical wholeness and readiness, and eligibility and maturity in managing life affairs.

After much public scrutiny and backlash, it is now to our understanding that when he said all this, it was within the context of a young girl (16 and more) who commits consensual sex with her older lover, which under the Penal Code is considered statutory rape.

Under this premise, Shabudin Yahaya said that we should not abolish child marriage.

Firstly, a lawmaker like him should understand the weight of his words and consider all possibilities before making such a statement.

There are many instances in which an actual rapist may choose to compensate for his mistakes by marrying his victim against her will but with permission from her family, and this can cause mental and psychological distress for the young child.

However, technicalities aside, this is no longer about what he did or did not say. This is about our lack of knowledge and concern regarding the implications of child marriage and the widely held misconception that marriage is the be-all and end-all to societal problems.

Earlier this year, I wrote a column titled ‘Let’s talk about sex’ in which I explained the importance of reproductive health education by stating that, “Sex education is not about giving youngsters permission to have sex, but it is about teaching them about the human body, about reproduction, hazards of unsafe sex, and unwanted pregnancies. Not only that, but it also concentrates on the mental, emotional, and social aspects of puberty.”

In the same column, I mentioned that we cannot stop people from having sex. However, we can teach them about the consequences and effects of it. It is highly misconstrued to think that by marriage, the adolescent will automatically learn how to be responsible adults. That is not how it works.

I am not only against the ludicrous idea of asking rape victims to marry their rapists, but I am also against child marriage in general, even if it is between two consenting individuals who like each other. Children are not ready for responsibilities like that.

The international consensus of the legal age of consent being 18 years and above reflects a scientifically based conviction. Also, the practice of marrying at an early age is not mentioned in the Quran. The only unchanging criterion for marriage is the reaching of maturity.

Child marriage is still practised in some regions with support from its societies. Some mothers and fathers encourage their sons to practise it, and may even force their girls into it to protect family honour or to reduce the burden of sustaining them.

However, scientific evidence has shown that child marriage has more negative implications than it does the positive.*

1. Repeated and overlapping pregnancies and nursing periods before the girl’s body is fully developed may lead to a condition called nutritional depletion.

2. Maternal mortality rates are high among young mothers, as is the incidence of premature births and some other diseases that afflict the urinary tract and reproductive system of young mothers.

3. The risk of infection with HIV during sexual intercourse is higher in females than in males. Such risks increase among young girls whose growth is not fully complete but are subjected to sexual relations with husbands who are older than they are and have had previous sexual experiences.

4. Emotional, familial, and social problems related to child marriage are caused by incomplete physical maturity and the emotional immaturity of husband and wife.

Some supporters deduce the permissibility of child marriage from the Sunnah, where they say that the Prophet PBUH married Aisha RA when she was a six-year-old girl and consummated the marriage when she was nine.

Muslims should understand that this was a unique situation (for the Prophet PBUH) and that the matter is a specific case not meant to be generalised.

It saddens me to know that there are still many Muslims out there who try to sanction child molestation under the pretence of “halal marriage” and think that they are emulating the Prophet PBUH by marrying young girls.

This is indeed a disgrace to one of Islam's foremost aims to fulfil the rights of the child and also to the international agreement that is the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Even though MP Kulai Teo Nie Ching proposed that child marriages should be addressed in the new Sexual Offences Against Children Bill, Unicef Malaysia Representative Marianne Clark-Hattingh has said that child marriages should not be included in it, but instead should be dealt with via proposed amendments to the Child Act, the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act, and within Islamic Family Law.

The Star reported, “She (Clark-Hattingh) said complications from pregnancy and childbirth were the leading cause of death among girls aged 15 to 19 worldwide, accounting for some 50,000 deaths each year.”

Clark-Hattingh then mentions that Unicef favours the approach to raise the age of marriage to 18, without exceptions ― and I wholeheartedly agree with this. Do you?

It is time that we have a serious talk about child marriage and not only when cases of it appear. As long there are still people who are in favour of this obvious exploitation and manipulation of children, those of us who do not agree with this practice should keep our voices loud and heard.

* Information is taken from “THE ISLAMIC PERSPECTIVE: On Protecting Children From Violence And Harmful Practices” by the International Islamic Centre for Population Studies and Research Al-Azhar University ― in collaboration with United Nation’s Children’s Fund (Unicef)

** This is the personal opinion of the columnist.