Kaylene is a first year LLB Law student from Malaysia. Her interests are politics, feminism and racism against Asians. Outside of university, you can likely find her in a Waterstones or exploring London.
‘Love is like the ocean. It’s not easy to stop when the waves hit.’ or so says the Terengganu government when asked about the banning of child marriage.
Child marriage refers to any formal marriage or informal union between a child under the age of 18 to an adult or another child. Though child marriage affects both sexes, it affects men and women differently and disproportionately. Child marriage has been an issue for many years; however with the pandemic, this issue has skyrocketed. Prior to the pandemic, 100 million girls were at risk of child marriage in the next decade; however, it is now predicted that there are an additional 10 million girls at risk of child marriage due to Covid-19.
Child marriage is caused by a variety of issues such as poverty, religion, social and cultural norms, patriarchy, lack of a minimum age of marriage and laws which allow and facilitate child marriage. Child marriage also leads to a myriad of issues: the perpetuation of the cycle of poverty, girls at greater risk of forced pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, mental disorders, violence, etc.
Countries in Southeast Asia are no exception to the rates of child marriage rising during the pandemic. Whilst child marriage is a common occurance across the globe, this article specifically aims to highlight child marriage in Southeast Asia, specifically Malaysia, where child marriage has been a recent topic of discussion.
Malaysia has thirteen states and 3 federal territories, and in seven of the states there has been no wish to change the age limit for marriage. There are currently two different sets of laws in Malaysia regarding child marriage: civil marriage law and Islamic family law. Under civil marriage laws, which applies to non-Muslims, females between the ages of 16 and 18 can marry with the permission of the Chief Minister of the state. Whereas Islamic law, which applies to Muslims, states that though technically females below the age of 16 are not allowed to marry, a Syariah court judge can allow the marriage of any child under these ages. Therefore, whilst there are laws in places, they are arguably pointless.
The government of Malaysia has recently been discussing the possibility of banning child marriage, though not much progress has been made on it yet. Instead, the government plans on implementing programmes under the National Strategic Plan for Addressing the causes of Underage Marriage. This program will focus on addressing the causes of underaged marriage through education, health, strengthening of family institutions and socioeconomic support for the public.
In Terengganu, the state government has been concerned with the divorce rates amongst child marriages and the state’s plan is to work to educate teenage couples through religious programmes to decrease the divorce rate. This was, as expected, not well received by netizens and it is extremely concerning that the government would rather focus on lowering divorce rates than preventing child marriage.
In Southeast Asia, many other Southeast Asian countries such as Philippines and Indonesia have taken legislative strides to ban child marriage yet Malaysia remains impassive. Whilst the government clearly recognises the issue of child marriage and their programme would undoubtedly tackle some of the issues which cause child marriage, their method of prevention is arguably impractical without the definite changing of legislation. Legislation will make child marriage illegal and a punishment will be created for those who continue to pursue child marriages, though it will arguably take a ‘multicultural and multilevel mindset’ revolution to firstly bring about legislation to protect children. Until then, the question of how many children are still faced with the possibility of child marriage remains whilst the government runs these programs without any real consequence for child marriage.
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