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Couple in controversy: The 11-year-old bride and 41-year-old man. FILE PIC

A FORMER schoolmate married right after we finished sitting for the Malaysian Certificate of Examination in 1979. She admitted at one school reunion that while we were studying for the exams, she was busy preparing her “hantaran” (wedding gifts).

We were 17 years old, going on 18, at that time. She was married before the end of the year when some of us started working part-time while waiting for the MCE results.

“I wasn’t forced to get married. I wanted to marry. Dah penat belajar (I’m tired of studying),” she had said back then.

Despite meeting the legal age of marriage in Malaysia, we still thought that she was too young to get married.

Here, the minimum age of marriage is determined by either the civil or syariah (Islamic) law. Non-Muslims may marry only after reaching 18, but the girls can be married as early as 16 provided they or their parents have the permission of the state. The minimum age of marriage is 16 for Muslim girls and 18 for Muslim boys. Exceptions, however, can be made for girls or boys to marry at a much younger age as long as they obtain the Islamic courts’ consent.

Despite this, there have been alarming reports of marriages involving girls below the minimum age in Malaysia.

It was reported that the 2010 Malaysia’s Population and Housing Census showed that 82,282 married women in Malaysia were between the ages of 15 and 19, while another 1,000 in this age group were widowed and 842 separated or divorced. It was also revealed that for the same year, nearly 16,000 girls below the age of 15 were married.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), in a statement issued last month, said about 650 million females alive today were married before their 18th birthday. But the organisation sees the practice continuing to decline around the world. During the past decade, the proportion of young women who were married as children decreased by 15 per cent from one in four (25 per cent) to one in five (20 per cent).

However, Unicef Malaysia, in a statement issued last year, said that scientific and medical evidence indicates that a girl who is not yet 18 is not physically and mentally ready to have children, to care for them and look after a family. Complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death among girls aged 15 to 19 worldwide, accounting for some 50,000 deaths each year. Girls between 10 and 14 years of age are five times more likely than women aged 20 and 24 to die in pregnancy and childbirth.

It also said that marriage before the age of 18 is a violation of fundamental human rights that impacts all aspects of a child’s life, especially girls. In Malaysia and elsewhere in the world, child marriage denies girls and boys their childhood, disrupts education, limits opportunities, increases the risk of violence and jeopardises health.

Citing a joint report by Unicef and Al-Azhar University in Egypt, it said that “child marriage is no more than a custom; it is not part of Sharia or worship and it leads without doubt to significant adverse effects. Therefore, the preferred age of marriage is after the age of 18 years. Marriage is a religious and social responsibility that demands the ability and willingness of both husband and wife to bear its responsibilities, so it is not right to place this burden on children”.

I have heard of stories of some parents who want to marry their daughters off as fast as they can so that they are freed from the burden of looking after them. They will accept any proposal for marriage as once married, the daughters will be taken care of by their husbands and in-laws.

Marriage is, apparently, the only solution to solve the families’ financial problems and to protect the families’ honour and reputation.

The recent case of a child marriage between an 11-year-old girl and a 41-year-old man prompted Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail to announce that the government will amend the Child Act 2016 and the Islamic Family Enactment to increase the minimum marriage age for women from 16 to 18.

Dr Wan Azizah, who is also women, family and community development minister, should also consider amending the minimum marriage age under the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976.

But merely increasing the minimum marriage age will do nothing for the 11-year-olds. They are already protected under specific sections of both acts.

The ministry should consider imposing a heavier penalty on the offenders. Under the Islamic Family Laws, couples who marry without permission from the syariah court can be punished with a fine not exceeding RM1,000 or jail term not exceeding six months or both, while under the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976, offenders are liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years and to a fine not exceeding RM5,000.

On the contrary, the Penal Code imposes a heavier sentence on those who breach the age of consent, which is the minimum age at which an individual is considered legally old enough to consent to participation in sexual activity. Such activity involving individuals aged 15 or younger is considered statutory rape. Offenders not only face imprisonment for a term of not less than 10 years and not more than 30 years but are also liable to whipping.

A heavier punishment, which should also include whipping, could serve as a deterrent.

After all, the best interests of the child should be the basic concern.

The writer is associate editor, digital/features, of NST

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