APRIL 6 — UNICEF is outraged by statements uttered during the debate on the Sexual Offences Against Children Bill 2017 claiming that it is okay for children to marry their rapists and that girls as young as 9 or 12 years old are ready for marriage.
It is not acceptable for a child to get married. Under no circumstances should child marriage be used as an excuse for rape or as a defence by alleged child sexual perpetrators to avoid facing prosecution. UNICEF does not condone in any way and is against using child marriage to cover up or ‘normalise’ rape, sexual abuse or teenage sex or worse to avoid the prosecution of perpetrators.
Scientific and medical evidence indicate that a girl who is not yet 18 is not physically and mentally ready to have children, to care for them and look after a family. Complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death among girls aged 15 to 19 worldwide, accounting for some 50,000 deaths each year. Girls between 10 -14 years of age are 5 times more likely than women aged 20 - 24 to die in pregnancy and childbirth.
Marriage before the age of 18 is a fundamental violation of human rights that impacts all aspects of a child’s life, especially girls. In Malaysia and elsewhere in the world, child marriage denies girl and boys their childhood, disrupts education, limits opportunities, increases the risk of violence and jeopardises health.
UNICEF supports the firm stand against child marriage by many state officials, ministries, several civil society organisations and religious leaders in Malaysia and elsewhere. Such positions are in alignment with the definition of childhood applied to individuals under the age of 18 years as provided by the Convention on the Rights of the Child ratified by Malaysia in 1995.
According to a joint report by UNICEF and Al-Azhar University in Egypt, “child marriage is no more than a custom; it is not part of Sharia or worship and it leads without doubt to significant adverse effects. Therefore, the preferred age of marriage is after the age of 18 years. Marriage is a religious and social responsibility that demands the ability and willingness of both husband and wife to bear its responsibilities, so it is not right to apply this burden to children.”
Based on the 2010 Census Data, over 82,000 married women in Malaysia were girls aged between 15 and 19. Over 73,000 married men were boys aged between 15 and 19.
Nationwide, child marriage constitutes an obstacle to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals which Malaysia is committed to and which includes a target in SDG 5 to “eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilations.” If not addressed, child marriage will also negatively impact the attainment of other Sustainable Development Goals, including on poverty, inclusive and quality education, health and peace.
Alongside many others in Malaysia, UNICEF reiterates its call for the age of marriage to be set to 18, without exceptions, by amending the Child Act, the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act and the Islamic Family Law in each state in Malaysia.
In response to recent calls to integrate child marriage in the new Bill on Sexual Offences Against Children, UNICEF advised that criminalising the practice without addressing the causes of child marriage risked driving the practice underground.
Beyond legal reform, ending child marriage should also include prevention efforts to change the social norms through education and awareness-raising campaigns at schools and with parents, early intervention for at-risk groups, age appropriate quality reproductive health education, and interventions to support children who have been subjected to child marriage.
UNICEF promotes the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere.
* Marianne Clark-Hattingh is the UNICEF representative in Malaysia.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.