Teenage dream and child marriage

APRIL 13 ― If I had been asked as a teenager if I wanted to marry my teenage boyfriend, my puppy-loved mind might have said yes.

Thankfully, the situation never arose, and I am glad for it. But it does scare me today how my 17-year-old self might have considered such a prospect.

If you ask me, I would say that at that age I did not know better. My world then revolved around school, MTV and my Melawati neighbourhood.

At 17, there is no way one could be really prepared to make such a grave and life-changing commitment. Even at 27, it is still not a decision to be made hastily.

Recently, an ill-conceived statement made in Parliament by the MP for Tasek Gelugor caused an uproar in the nation and once again got Malaysia into headlines all over the world for the wrong reasons.

Although I am personally appalled by what he said about rape victims marrying their rapists, I also cannot help but reflect about the kind of society that we have in Malaysia that has normalised such a thought.

It is not altogether uncommon for us to hear about under-aged girls being forced to marry their “rapists” after being caught for having sex out of wedlock, whether consensual or not. As crazy as it sounds, the MP’s suggested solution is something a number of families are willing to consider.

The thinking behind marriage as a solution to rape or sex out of wedlock is deeply rooted in the value society places on virginity, as if that is all a girl is worth.

And since they have been disgraced, the only way to “save” the victim’s future is to marry her off. After all, added the MP and former shariah court judge, they are also “wild and not interested to go to school.”

Such thinking is of course narrow-minded and parochial. Physical and emotional trauma aside, if a teenage rape victim, say a 15-year-old, is made to marry her rapist, what would likely happen to her?

In most cases, she would be made to leave school, stay at home and become a mother. At 15, the law (Child Act 2001) considers her a child. Her future career choices would become limited due to her lack of qualification and experience. If her marriage does not work out, how would she survive and fend for herself (and children)?

UNICEF findings show that girls who marry under the age of 18 are likely to leave formal education and experience domestic violence. They are also prone to health complications during pregnancy and childbirth due to their underdeveloped bodies and are mentally unprepared to become mothers.

In 2009, 70,000 girls from the ages of 15-19 died due to pregnancy and childbirth. If the mother is too young, the baby that she is carrying is likely to have health complications as well.

By marrying off a girl before she is ready, we are hampering her growth as a person. Surely dignity is not simply about “saving face” for the family but about the girl’s future as a human being.

In 2012, a 12-year-old girl in Kedah was made to marry a 19-year-old after he and his friends had raped her. Permission was obtained from the shariah court to marry, and police reports against her “husband” were withdrawn.

Subsequently, the girl was allegedly abused by her husband’s family and the marriage lasted less than a year. In other words, while still a child, she is already a divorcee.

Meanwhile, the rapists nearly got away with rape until the court ordered a retrial. I grieve for her, and for many others like her, who are not only victims of sexual predators, but also victims of society and a legal system that does not help them.

It also vexes me to hear the same MP opining that girls who reach puberty at the age of nine would look like they are 18 when they turn 12, by which time they would be physically and spiritually ready for marriage.

It is especially shocking to hear such a statement just as the nation celebrates the passing of the Sexual Offences against Children Bill 2017.

It is nothing short of disgusting for a people’s representative to make such a statement. To deliberately conflate puberty and maturity is irresponsible. Just because some girls may physically look older than they are does not mean they are mentally or emotionally ready to be adults and get married. This is only common sense!

So if child marriage isn’t the solution, what is?

I think we should not underestimate the impact of proper sex education. Whether we like it or not, the unfortunate reality is that most teenagers learn about sex from online pornography.

While YouTube is useful for learning many things, I don’t think the internet is the best or safest environment for children to be learning about sexuality and sex. It should be taught properly by trustworthy adults.

We should also not allow cultural values to be the reason to deny sex education to our children. In fact, studies have shown that sex education does not actually encourage teenagers to have sex. Rather, it does the opposite.

This is logical, because like everyone else, knowledge will empower them to make better decisions about sexual choices. At the same time, sexualisation of children can also be reduced when children are made aware of what they are facing.

I am sure if we had proper sex education in our education system, we would not have produced MPs who think 12-year-olds are ready to be married.

Children should not be brides. They are certainly not sexual objects. Criminalising child grooming and putting laws in place to protect those below 18 from sexual abuse are good first steps, but they are far from enough. Until we face the problem of child marriage square in the face, the battle will be far from over.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

Related Articles

Up Next