MP SPEAKS | Over the past week, I have read many articles calling for an end to child marriages in Malaysia and with the gathering of hundreds of international civil society organisations for the Girls Not Brides meeting this week in Kuala Lumpur, I hope that greater action will be taken to eliminate child marriage here in Malaysia.
Openness and honesty about the extent of child marriages are absent in certain quarters of our society and there is still a strong sense of denial as shown by the lack of official data on child marriages made available by the previous government.
What’s more, it was only last year that a former MP had openly declared that there was nothing wrong with rape victims marrying their rapists.
This dangerous attitude contributes to the general lack of awareness among the public about the seriousness of child marriage.
We cannot hide the fact that child marriage in Malaysia is still a very big problem.
A recent report by Asian Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (Arrow) and Sisters in Islam (SIS) have recently stated that nearly 153,000 persons below the age of 19 (of which 80,000 were girls) were married in Malaysia.
For non-Muslims, the legal age for marriage is 18 for girls and boys. However, exemptions for girls as young as 16 to marry is allowed with the approval of the menteri besar or chief minister of the state.
Muslim children are less protected against child marriages as the decision lies in the hands of the parents.
Although the minimum age for marriage for boys is 18 and girls is 16, the Syariah Court may approve the marriage of a child at any age. This means that there is effectively no minimum age for marriage for Muslims.
Married girls are often deprived of education and have limited economic opportunities.
Child brides are also often placed under the control of the husband which often limits her ability to voice her own opinions and put an end to her own aspirations.
Child marriage often results in early pregnancy and girls aged 15 to 19 are twice as likely to die during delivery than women ages 20 to 24, according to the Human Rights Watch.
Pakatan Harapan's manifesto includes a promise to set the legal age of marriage to 18 years old for both boys and girls.
We need to ensure that this includes both civil and Muslim marriages, with no exception.
There is a need for more dialogues with community leaders about the urgent need for family law reform and women empowerment.
Child marriage is not just a violation of the child’s rights but also perpetuates the cycle of poverty, poor health, illiteracy and domestic violence in our society.
By ignoring this problem, we are likely to condemn most of these children to a life of isolation, poverty, fear and violence, and taking away their participation and decision-making ability.
I, therefore, call for more awareness dialogues between the government, civil society, parents' groups and other interested parties to better understand the issues surrounding child marriages in the country.
I also hope for more action against child marriages and urge the government to fix the legal age for marriage at 18 for all Malaysians, with no exceptions.
MARIA CHIN ABDULLAH is Petaling Jaya MP and former Bersih chairperson.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.