COMMENT | Over the last week, the story of a 41-year old man who married an 11-year old girl as his third wife has hogged the headlines in Malaysia. The incident put the spotlight on the incidence of child marriage in Malaysia.
Child/early marriage is defined by the United Nations as a formal marriage or informal union before age 18, and is a practice widespread in developing and lower-income countries.
Child/early marriage affects both boys and girls, though girls are disproportionately the most affected. More often than not, it leads to a lifetime of disadvantage and deprivation.
The Convention of the Rights of the Child defines any person below the age of 18 as a child, and by Malaysian law, the age of majority is attained also at 18.
Global advocates often highlight that the term early marriage is a better term, because in many societies that do practise child marriage, once a girl attains puberty, she is no longer considered a “child” per se, but rather a “woman” despite her age.
The most common drivers of early marriage are poverty and a lack of access to education and employment opportunities. However in a country like Malaysia, where access to education is heavily subsidised, we also need to consider other drivers as key.
Key drivers of early marriage
Without doubt, in this particular case, poverty is a key driver. However the additional vulnerabilities and marginalisations that this family faces must also be taken into consideration. That they are migrant workers from a neighbouring country, who are usually denied access to subsidised health and education. They work as rubber tappers in a farm, or a plantation, which is a hard-to-reach, even isolating community with its own rigid hierarchies and limitations.
The family’s income is derived from selling rubber to this man in particular, and as such, he does hold some form of power over them. Hence, they fall below the poverty standards, as migrant workers are paid less especially in the plantation sector. There is no possibility of social mobility for this family, due to this lack of access to education and other forms of employment.
Child/early marriage occurs due not only to poverty, but is also caused by the low status of girls within our society. One proverb goes, “Raising a daughter is like watering your neighbour’s garden” and girls, once married, cease contributing to their parents and their birth families.
Poor families then tend to spend less educating their daughters, compared to their sons, because of social expectations of girls contributing or belonging to the families they marry into. This social norm is also replicated in inheritance laws across many Asian societies which favour sons over daughters, as well as ownership of family businesses and professions.
Within families and households, gender roles also predominate. Girls are brought up to do care work within the household – cooking, fetching water and firewood, caring for younger siblings, cleaning, washing and doing the laundry.
Regardless of educational attainment, girls and women are still expected to perform most if not all of the care work and the reproductive labour in the household: “If you study, you have to make roti; if you don’t study, you have to make roti.” Educational attainment alone cannot bring the necessary transformation for more equal gender roles in the family and household.
In situations of poverty, educating girls and allowing girls to be free from care work comes with an economic cost that poor families cannot afford.
Hence, not only do poor families need to be given additional subsidies to enable them to send their daughters to school, they also have to be taught to think about and view their female children differently. A study in Bangladesh notes that when girls were able to have some form of gainful, monetary employment, families deferred marrying them off young.
Biology as destiny
Besides poverty and the low status of girls in our society, the third key driver, in my opinion, is the tight control over girls’ sexuality that is exerted by family and community.
Adolescence, the period between 10 and 19 years of age that is marked by puberty, is often the period of sexual awakening. Both boys and girls experience crushes and different feelings of love, form relationships, and experiment with their bodies and with sex. This is part and parcel of the biological process.
However, boys and girls experience adolescence differently. Boys usually get more freedom and autonomy to explore and define their sexual identity, whereas girls usually experience curbs and limitations on experiencing and exploring their sexuality.
In many traditional societies, the onset of menstruation signals availability for marriage, and the period of adolescence for girls is far shorter, and sometimes coincides with marriage. Hence, many who profess a conservative viewpoint will point to menstruation as readiness for marriage, rather than perceiving the pubescent girl as an adolescent who is just discovering herself and her identity.
For girls then, biology is destiny. The end goal for any girl, socially and culturally, is to be a wife and mother. The idea is that since that's where girls are headed (and should be headed), there is nothing wrong in getting them to reach that destination earlier.
The sexuality of girls is meant to be expressed only within the framework of marriage, and the emphasis on virginity (and a protection of that virginity) is an onus placed on families.
Again, those who are in vulnerable social positions who feel they cannot adequately safeguard the “honour” of their daughters find it easier to marry them off young. Research by the Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (Arrow) shows that families living in areas affected by climate change, which increases economic and social vulnerability, also fall back on marrying off their girls young.
Since the sexuality of girls needs to be tightly controlled and curtailed, families also resort to marrying girls off before 18, to “protect” girls from sexual promiscuity - since these girls may have been dating, socialising, having a boyfriend, having sex or are pregnant.
The general thinking is that since girls are having sex, let's get them married because that's where they can and should legally be having sex. Hence, marriage and sex are perceived as one package for girls, which is not necessarily true for boys.
In common lingo – this is “halalkan yang haram” which means making permissible that which is forbidden. Girls’ needs for sexual expression and discovery is not at all recognised as part of self-development, which it should rightfully be.
A flawed assumption
There is a flawed assumption that marriage and family for women and girls are sites of protection and care.
However, research denotes that girls who are married off young suffer from higher rates of maternal mortality, domestic violence, HIV transmission, divorce, and have higher birth rates.
Hence marriage and family is often, especially for vulnerable girls, the site of further discrimination, violence, and oppression. We are not doing better by our girls by marrying them off at an early age.
Ensuring that the law unequivocally states that the age of marriage stands at 18 years of age, without exception, will do much to protect and elevate the status of girls in our society.
It sends a signal that social norms need to be modernised. That girls have a right to continue their education, to be gainfully employed and economically empowered, to have choices and options beyond marriage and motherhood in our society. That girls are autonomous beings in their own right, and are not mere chattels to be kept and traded between men and families.
SIVANANTHI THANENTHIRAN is executive director of the Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (Arrow).
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.