Prioritise the lives of girls; end child marriage — All Women’s Action Society (AWAM)

NOVEMBER 19 — The All Women’s Action Society (AWAM) strongly urges the Deputy Prime Minister, who is also Minister of Women, Family and Community Development, Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail to pursue a zero-tolerance stance to child marriage in Malaysia.

Regardless of the lack of cooperation in this issue from  the Islamic legislative councils in seven states i.e. Sarawak, Pahang, Terengganu, Perlis, Negeri Sembilan, Kedah, and Kelantan (all of whom should know better), the DPM should put a stop to an act that robs a child of his/her right to a full and healthy life.

From 2007 to 2017, the government has recorded 15,000 incidents of child marriage. This equates to 15,000 lives that society has cheated of the rights of consent, education, sexual and reproductive health and rights, and to invest in a future of their own choosing. AWAM would like to note that this is not in keeping with the Pakatan Harapan’s manifesto, especially those with promises pertaining to security and dignity of women.

How is it, in 21st century Malaysia, that we are allowing councils to take away the right of these young girls to a proper childhood? When they should be playing on swings and playgrounds, child brides are busy becoming mothers and wives, very often to older (but not necessarily mature) men.

In Malaysia, many young people — particularly, but not limited to, Muslims — marry early in order to prevent maksiat. In the case of child brides, they are married off to prevent them from having sex outside marriage and bringing “shame” to the family. Families resort to child marriage as a method of coping with poverty, financial struggles  and teen pregnancies.

Hardly any of the justifications bring up the potentially negative health consequences that child brides have to go through. This includes the physical aspects, with forced sexual intercourse, pregnancy and delivery (which may be complicated by underdeveloped pelvic bones). It is recognised that the risk of complications in early teen pregnancies are much higher than in mature adults. Research demonstrates that child marriage also increases the risk of human papilloma virus transmission and cervical cancer. Then there is the mental and emotional aspects, which can include impaired psychological development and depression.

The lack of regulations or punitive measures with regards to child marriage allows for the opportunity for gender-based violence to occur, because the child is so vulnerable. At a time where the government has unveiled the Shared Prosperity Vision which aims to address some issues of gender-based violence, including sexual harassment at the workplace, increasing maternity leave, and incentivising women to return to workforce; where does child marriage — a situation that provides the opportunity for  a man to abuse a young girl — fit in?

Child marriage is at once a cause and consequence of gender inequality, which an indicator of sustainable development. The government must not view child marriage as simply a religious matter but a social matter. Despite the lack of data collected by the ministry, AWAM believes that there is a strong correlation between opportunity and violence. The only difference in child marriage is that they may take longer to seek help as they are almost always financially dependent on their spouse.

AWAM urges all ministers in the Cabinet to tackle this issue head on. Kelantan’s religious department had given a comment in July stating that they see no need to revise the minimum age. This justification is unacceptable. According to a 2016 survey by Khazanah Research Institute, Kelantan was considered the poorest in terms of household income with 85 per cent of households earning below RM6,000. This statistic supports the proposition that child marriage is one measure that families employ to cope with financial struggles and warrants proper consideration.

If the government does not take a hard stance on this, how many more Malaysian girls will we allow to become victims to the institution of child marriage? And how do we as a society progress when we continue to allow the practice of archaic customs? Malaysia is better than this. Stop child marriage once and for all.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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