When you were 11, you were probably most concerned with homework, puberty, and staying up past bedtime to watch cartoons. In Malaysia, however, an 11-year-old girl married a 41-year-old man this summer.

The case, hardly isolated, aroused strong, passionate debates across Malaysia about child marriages, which are often means to cover up cases of rape, sexual assault, and unplanned pregnancy. Just last month, the United Nations urged Malaysia to ban child marriage after a 44-year-old man took a 15-year-old girl as his second wife.

So what is the definition of child marriage? Both UNICEF and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) see marriage under 18 as child marriage. The 1976 Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act of Malaysia likewise defines child marriage (Kahwin bawah umur) as marriage under 18. In Malaysia, Islamic (Syariah) law and Customary Law defines marriage under 18 for boys and under 16 for girls, respectively, as child marriage.


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Malaysia's Federal Court building.

Although there are differences in these definitions of child marriage, there are two commonalities shared by these three pieces of law: a special permission for extraordinary circumstances, and no stipulation determining what, if anything, constitutes “consent” of the children involved.

Under Malaysian marriage law, with the permission from heads of state or ministers, females can get married if they are over the age of 16. Syariah Law stipulates that with the permission of the Syariah Court, both men and women can marry below the legal age. The Customary Law specifies that as long as parents or legal guardians agree, both men and women can marry below the legal age.

Notably, there are no requirements within these laws saying that children must agree to being married. While children are regularly married off well before any reasonable age of consent, this leaves children even more helpless as exploitative adult guardians can decide their marital fate.

Considering these exemptions, how serious is child marriage in Malaysia? According to Wan Azizah, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Women and Family Development, there were a total of 968 non-Muslim child marriage cases in 2017, while there were 877 Islamic cases in the same year. This goes against the commonly held assumption that child marriage cases are predominantly Islamic.

However, the figures seem problematic. According to government statistics on child marriage in 2015, there were 328 non-Muslim child marriages and 1,025 Islamic ones in that year. Even if the number of non-Muslim child marriages was likely to increase, it seems impossible that it would have more than doubled within a mere span of two years.

Wan Azizah explained this in the parliament on July 31, 2018. She claimed that these statistics came from the Registry of Marriages and the Syariah Court, respectively. The 968 non-Muslim child marriages, she said, include statistics on marriages between 18- and 20-year-olds. There are only 212 marriages that are under 16 or 17.

If even Wan Azizah, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Women and Family Development, cannot obtain the accurate statistics on child marriage, how can civic organisations and the general public thoroughly and correctly understand the situation? Moreover, this was not the first time there has been confusion over these figures.

A 2018 report on child marriage jointly published by Sisters in Islam and ARROW (Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women) also reveals statistical chaos.

The report attempts to consolidate the situations of child marriage from 2000 through 2017. But there is a lack of accurate statistics for several years; instead, only overall statistics are available. That is, these statistics do not list in detail gender, state, age, household income and percentages of adult marriage and those of child marriage. Besides, the statistical results of some government agencies conflict with each other, so the report cannot be accurate.

Finding accurate statistics on child marriage is important. Without full data, analyses cannot be done to understand the real situation of child marriage, nor can the true severity of the problem be known. With accurate statistics, the government can find the right medication for this social illness and completely resolve the child marriage problem rather than attributing it to religion. People often consider religion to be the cause of child marriage, but the problem is separate in nature – religion is conveniently used as a shell to hide this.

Take the verdicts by the Syariah Court for example. Many verdicts on child marriage emphasized the priority of children’s best interests. Yet, the majority of the verdicts would explain: The girl already got pregnant; both parties have engaged in premarital sexual intercourse; “the girl was sexually assaulted, and marriage is required to defend her reputation and virtue”; the kid is too ‘wild’ and debauched, so make her get married earlier to avoid engaging in premarital sexual intercourse later on. These verdicts, however, have all become ‘shame-covering cloth’ to conceal sexual scandals.

Doing this sweeps the problem underneath the carpet and allows us to ignore it. Letting underage people to get married legally cannot make children and teenagers less sexually active. Delivering correct sex education at school, such as how to have safe sexual intercourse or teaching about the risks that come with teenage pregnancy, is the only real solution.

Another main cause for child marriage is poverty, which mirrors a common phenomenon seen in many countries. Because of economic pressure, poor families are considered unable to support girls in the household. As a result, these girls are made to marry those who can provide income for their maiden families.

Most children involved in child marriage face the problem of dropping out of school. Marriage is seen as a way to ‘guarantee income,’ but in reality, when these children grow up, they lack the job skills that others of the same age possess. This causes them to be unable to support their families after they get divorced or their husbands pass away, and fall back into the cycle of poverty.


Credit: Reuters / TPG

People eat near a public housing estate in Kuala Lumpur on April 21, 2018.

So which governmental department is responsible for solving the problem of child marriage in Malaysia?

Currently, it seems that all fingers point to the Minister of Women and Family Development. Yet how can the Prime Minister’s Department (which oversees religious affairs), the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Rural Development and the Ministry of Youth and Sports keep themselves out of it? This ultimately is not the problem of one single department because of the complexity of causes of child marriage and the scope concerned being wide.

To completely resolve the child marriage problem, not only are long-term and comprehensive policies urgently needed, but each government department must be aware of the root cause of the problem and proactively take action.

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This article previously appeared on the Chinese-language ASEAN edition of The News Lens and can be found here. It was republished with permission from Contemporary Review; the original article can be found here.

Translator: Lin Ying-jen

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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