WHAT a historic year this has been for women and girls. The international #MeToo movement catalysed the long-awaited reckoning of powerful male figures guilty of sexual crimes.
At home, this coincided with the election of a new government in May, and the country’s first woman deputy prime minister, Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail. Her stewardship of the Women, Family, and Community Development Ministry signals the present government’s determination to prioritise issues about women.
But the initial optimism waned with a spate of reports on underage marriages. In July, the media reported the marriage of an 11-year-old girl to a 41-year-old man. Reason for marriage? To “protect and provide”, as she was uneducated and came from a poor family. Similar reasons were cited for the marriage of a 15-year-girl to a 44-year-old father of two last month.
Although these may seem like isolated incidents, approximately 82,000 child marriages have been recorded in Malaysia up to 2010. The reasons for the prevalence of the practice are unclear.
Malaysians are unequivocal in their disapproval of the practice. The issue has been the subject of intense debate on all platforms. The public wants a firm response from lawmakers.
But what do Malaysian youth think about child marriages? In a recent survey conducted with hundreds of Form 4 students in 10 schools in Taiping and Kuala Lumpur, most of the male and female respondents disagreed that it was acceptable for girls to be married before the age of 18.
Female respondents said marriage would “prevent them from achieving their full potential” — an opinion echoed by their male counterparts.
In the same study, respondents agreed that delaying marriage for the sake of career advancement was acceptable. This shows that the respondents reject child marriages and are aware that it limits their life choices.
Policymakers, activists and concerned citizens have renewed their call to raise the minimum age of marriage across all states, especially for Muslims. For Muslims, marriages with persons under 16 years old are permitted with approval from the syariah court. For non-Muslims, the consent of the chief minister of the state is required, except in cases of customary marriages conducted within the indigenous communities.
Opponents of the move to raise the minimum age argue that such reforms would contravene religious teachings. Such an interpretation is dangerous and misleading. Compounding the problem, Malaysia’s dual legislative system (civil and syariah) places Muslim family and marriage laws under the purview of each state. A uniform amendment to each state syariah enactment would require the consent of each of the country’s nine sultans, as well as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong.
The minimum age of marriage is different under the civil and syariah laws, with the age for males set at 18 and females at 16. Why does such disparity exist? Is it for the benefit of males over females, from the standpoint of education and labour markets? These are questions that merit further scrutiny alongside solutions to the issue.
In this historic year for Malaysia, this practice has blighted the country’s goal to become a global example for women’s empowerment.
Ending child marriage and gender inequalities is the key target of the Sustainable Development Goals. Therefore, the challenge before the new government is to ensure that, regardless of race, religion and gender, no girl by 2030 looks to child marriage as a ticket to better days ahead.
M. Niaz Asadullah is a Professor of Development Economics at Universiti Malaya, while Wan Farihah Ahmad Fahmy is a Universiti Malaya graduate student and alumni of Teach For Malaysia