LAST_UPDATEWed, 20 Jun 2018 12pm

Child Brides: Legal Marriage, Illegal Age?

un.orgun.orgStudying and worrying about exams and school grades, gossiping with friends about love interests past midnight especially on weekends, hanging out in shopping malls browsing for the latest fashion, blasting loud music in the room, singing in front of the mirror while no one is watching, catching the latest movies with buddies − these are among the common activities in the ideal life of a child.

For some however, their childhood has been compromised, as they are forced to grow up too quickly, a result of being married at an early age. A curse, or a blessing, the bigger question is, do children know what they are getting themselves into?

All For Love?

Love. Everyone wants to be surrounded by this feeling and make sense of that very word as they perceive it to be. While the ideal approach to embrace love is through marriage, would a child at the age of 16 require the feeling of ‘love’ when they cannot really make sense of most things around the world, and have yet to grasp the different characters they meet, what more their intentions?

Logically, children know nothing of love other than it being a mere feeling. Obviously, at 16, they are still deemed illegal to go behind the wheels, what more watch 18+ rated movies. But surprisingly, law has it that they can get married legally in this country.

A young female adult unwraps her sentiment towards young love and marriage.Masshiela Ahmad,in her early 20s,feels, “The act of marrying at an early age is so wrong on so many levels. Girls should enjoy their lives and live it to the fullest, not worrying about marriage or being forced to serve their husbands at such a young age.”

“A child does not know what the real world demands, it is not all fairy tales. Marriage is a huge responsibility, being a wife is already a challenging task, let alone bearing a child at such a tender age. Even I as a young adult, don’t think I can shoulder such responsibilities, what more a child below the age of 18?

“Love is not at all the question. It takes hard work to actually know what love means. If it is about religion, if you really love someone, you would be willing to wait for them and be understanding towards its consequences,” she shares.

The Rise Of Underage Marriage In The Country

Throughout the years, there has been a rampant increase in the application for underage marriage according to a report by the Malaysian Syariah Judiciary Department (JKSM).In 2010, a United Nations report also showed that over 82,000 married women in Malaysia were girls between the ages of 15 and 19. For the same year, the Deputy Minister for Women revealed that nearly 16,000 girls below the age of 15 were in a marriage.

In 2012, there were about 1,165 applications for brides younger than the legal age of marriage. The following year, the nation was bitten by the shocking news of a 40 year-old man who purportedly took a 13 year-old girl in Sabah as his second wife with consent of both his first wife and her parents.

Since early 2014, JKSM revealed there were approximately 600 applications forunderage marriages pendingthe approval of the Syariah Court. And so far, approximately 446 out of those applications were approved. The numbers suggest that it is a common practice among Muslims especially, as well as indigenous communities; however the ‘trend’ is also prevalent amongst the Indian and Chinese communities.

When Does Religion And Law Come Into Play?

With these findings, one is bound to wonder does religion really play a role in determining the statistics of underage marriages? Are Muslims more confined to marrying at an early age to curb adultery?Lakshmi Sundaram, global coordinator for Girls Not Brides believes that child marriage is not officially endorsed by any religion.

“People often use religion and tradition to justify certain practices but it’s not really a religious obligation by any means in any religion in the world. It must also be noted that child marriages happen in all religions in the world. It is a problem across the world,” she was quoted saying in a report.

According to civil law, the legal age of marriage would be 18 years old. However, in Syariah law Muslim girls under the age of 16 must get consent from the Syariah Court, as the court will do a thorough assessment of a couple’s readiness to be married. Section 8 of the Islamic Family Law (Federal Territories) Act also states that the minimum legal age for Muslim boys to be married is 18, and 16 for Muslim girls.

In a recent case in Johor, a 15 year old boy dropped out of school after marrying a 17 year old girl following a two month courtship.We spoke to Selangor Mufti, Datuk Seri Mohd Tamyes Abdul Wahid to further understand why such arrangements were allowed and made permissible by the Syariah Court.Photo: news.abnxcess.comPhoto:

“Islam does not prohibit underage marriage, as long as the couple are mature enough and understand the circumstances and responsibilities that come along with the act, as husband and wife. They need to be clear of the reason they are marrying each other.”

Even the Quran (4:6) equates, “And test the orphans [in your charge] until they reach a marriage-able age; then, if you find them to be mature of mind/sound in judgment, hand over to them their possessions…”

He continues to share, “Imagine getting married at the tender age of 15, how would one possess the knowledge required to be a responsible husband or wife? When for most, they are only fulfilling their duties as a student.”

Marriage is no child’s play. It requires a huge amount of responsibility, something children are definitely not ready for. Before deciding to get married at a young age, children must remember,“A marriage is a solemn pledge, and one needs to have the similarity of belief systems and common ground to establish a healthy relationship. Islam also makes no exception of this as one must be psychologically and physically fit in all aspects to get married,” he stressed out.

Too Little, Too Late

Underage marriage denies the rights of children to realise and achieve their true potential.In our conversation with 15-year-old ‘Anis’, she shares her experience of marrying a guy she barely knew, only for a few months, and described how her marriage ended in less than a year.

“He was my friend and I knew him for a few months. We were in love, and next thing I knew he asked for my hand in marriage.At first I thought he was joking, but then we talked it out with our parents and I realised then that he was serious,” she said.

She tells us how she felt that she was ready to be a wife to her husband who was 20 years of age. However, reality hit her hard when she realised that she was not ready to bear children and become a mother.

“While I was living with my in-laws, my mother-in-law asked me of when I would conceive a child? That’s when I realised that I couldn’t bear the thought of becoming a mother simply because I wasn’t ready to become one.”

After her divorce, ‘Anis’ now continues to lead her life as a student. She is currently waiting for her SPM results and speaks of how glad she is to once again lead a single life, without having the burden of carrying a second role as someone’s wife.

Is Prevention Really Better Than Cure?

While protecting dignity and preventing adultery are main concerns where child marriages are involved, a better question to raise would be − Are children able to provide proper childcare and offer the right qualities of parenthood?

Muhammad Fauzul Fahmi, a banker in his early 20s points that underage marriage may curb the society from promiscuous behaviour, “The world is exposed to many social problems these days. I believe a marriage would be the best solution to avoid unwanted social illnesses.”

“I feel that underage marriage is acceptable once both sexes have reached puberty.With the right level of maturity, they would be able to make sense of what’s right or wrong. Responsibility will naturally come with experience, and financial matters will surely be sought after once a marriage is properly consummated. All these problems are tiny hurdles, but it is better than carrying a child out of wedlock,” he claims.

Is It Worth The Risk?

Photo: jpnet.usm.myPhoto: jpnet.usm.myIf underage marriage is seen as a cure, then why does it come off as a threat, affecting the health of young girls, especially, in so many ways. After girls are pressed into marriage, they often become pregnant. Child birth among young girls could also lead to obstetric fistulas (a hole in the birth canal). Mothers who are younger than 20 years of age face a 50% higher risk of death when giving birth. Aside to this, other implications include higher prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases, HIV and cervical cancer.

As young girls are still in the process of physical development, they are just beginning to learn and understand about their bodies and its functions. Some, barely have knowledge about sex.Dr Noraida Endut, Associate Professor and Director of Women's Development Research Centre (KANITA), Universiti Sains Malaysia, further elaborates how younger girls are more vulnerable and are unaware of the implications of having sex at a young age.

“Powerless and without the skills to negotiate for safer sex, these young girls’ lives are jeopardised by their early marriage.

“Children are not exposed enough to sex education, and it’s definitely not right for them to have sex at such a young age. They probably do it based on instinct,” she expresses.

Research also shows that complications in pregnancy and childbirth are among the leading causes of death in girls aged 15 to 19 in low and middle income countries. Apart from physical health problems, underage marriage itself will make little impact on the lives of young girls.

The dangers and health risks of underage marriage surely needs to be thought through. Comprehensive public education and awareness should be imposed, in addition to law and judiciary enforcements in deterrence of this harmful practice. Clearly, there is a greater need to convince parents too that a better future exists for their children through education, and not through marriage.