While we are relieved that Sabah Chief Minister Mohd Shafie Apdal has agreed to retain the current legal marriage age instead of lowering the age limit, it is a far cry from preserving the rights of children in Sabah.
If anything can be learned from the past, it is that child marriage has always been used as an escape route. It is the most often-used excuse to escape from poverty, by transferring the financial responsibility of raising a daughter to a male adult by giving her away through marriage.
Marrying off young girls is popularly seen as a means to dealing with premarital sex and unwanted pregnancies. However, marrying underage girls has also been used as a ploy to escape from prosecution for rape offences, like what child rapist Riduan Masmud did in 2013.
Sabah already has one of the highest incidences of child marriages in the country, according to Assistant Law and Natives Affairs Minister Jannie Lasimbang as reported by The Borneo Post last July. It is obvious that there is a large loophole in current laws that facilitates such marriages.
It is quite shocking that State Law and Native Affairs Minister Aidi Mokhtar had said that underage marriage was not an issue in Sabah, and that 15-year-olds being married off may be acceptable, as reported by Free Malaysia Today on Aug 25.
The Malaysian Penal Code outlaws sexual intercourse with a child below 16 years of age, with or without consent. Yet, marital rape is not a crime.
Therefore a man who lusts after children can marry a young, underage girl of his choice and thus be absolved of any wrongdoing once they are husband and wife. This is paramount to legalising paedophilia.
Marriage should be seen as a sacred bond between a man and a woman that is not to be taken lightly, regardless of religion. The government’s reluctance to increase the age limit to 18 without reservations is an act of mockery to the sanctity of marriage.
We strongly urge the government to look beyond puberty as a measure of maturity to guide it in determining whether or not a child can get married.
Marriage is more than just about the ability to procreate; it requires physical and mental maturity alongside financial and spiritual stability, none of which a child below 18 years of age generally has. By allowing children to be married off, we are in danger of permitting pedophiles and rapists to continue with their abhorrent behaviour without consequences.
Marrying off children to solve problems of poverty, baby-dumping and premarital sex is a very hasty and short-sighted action to take. Child marriages introduce more problems than it “solves”.
Early marriages and consequently, pregnancy, exposes girls to risk of death and disability, yet it does not resolve the cycle of poverty that many women are trapped in.
With limited opportunities to continue their education, teen mothers are stuck with low-paying jobs that don’t pay enough to live on. This situation is compounded if they are abandoned or divorced with children.
In 2014, it was highlighted that the number of single mothers and children growing up without the stability of family life was on the rise in Sabah by Karambunai Single Mothers’ Association president Zainaba Shukor.
Blaming abandoned babies on premarital sex fails to take into account the fact that Sabah had the highest number of incidences of incest in 2017 as announced by the former Women, Family and Community Development Minister, Rohani Abdul Karim.
To commemorate this year’s International Day of the Girl Child on Oct 11, we, civil society organisations and individuals of Sabah from all races, religions and backgrounds, are calling for the state government of Sabah to restore the sanctity of marriage by raising the minimum marriageable age for both girls and boys to 18 without reservations though amendment of relevant syariah and native laws.
Failure to do so is a reflection of Sabah’s disrespect towards the well-being of its women and girls.
We would also like to make the following recommendations:
Signed by the following civil society organisations, advocates and activists:
List of individuals