Sisters in Islam (SIS) expresses its utmost concern over news reports of a 14-year-old child married off to an adult man in July this year. This only came to light when the child and the man who married her participated in a mass wedding celebration at the Federal Territory Mosque on 4th December 2010, where couples were given RM1,000 and Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Jamil Khir Baharom was in attendance as guest of honour.
SIS reiterates its stand in calling for the Government to end child marriage and raise the minimum age of marriage to 18 years for all Malaysians. We note that the recent case is only the latest in a series of cases of child marriage, and follows a decision by the Malacca Islamic Religious Council to relax the conditions for Muslim girls under the age of 16 and Muslim boys under the age of 18 to marry. Many more cases of child marriage go unreported. According to a statement by Deputy Women, Family and Community Development Minister Heng Seai Kie in October, 16,000 girls aged below 15 in the country are married.
That the practice of child marriage continues to exist in Malaysia, often feted as a model Muslim-majority nation, should have prompted emphatic action by the authorities to address individual cases and more generally the root causes of child marriage. While we applaud Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil’s long-standing condemnation of child marriage, we deplore statements by other government officials and religious authorities giving tacit approval to the practice or passing off responsibility to the Syariah Court to determine its “permissibility”. No marriage of a minor child can be deemed acceptable.
The onset of puberty is no indication of sufficient maturity for marriage. While the Qur’an does not state a specific age as the age of marriage, Surah an-Nisa’ 4:6 requires that when orphans reach the “age of marriage” or “a marriageable age” they can be tested for “sound judgment” or “maturity of mind”. This indicates that a marriageable age is linked to soundness of judgment and maturity of mind. A child below the age of 18 cannot be said to have the life experience necessary to assume marriage responsibilities. There is no sound reason why her family and her intended groom cannot wait until she reaches the age of majority before asking for her consent to marry.
We note that Muslim-majority countries globally are taking steps to address child marriage as a problem. A man was jailed in Indonesia for sexually abusing a minor after he married a 12-year-old girl, and even Saudi authorities are mulling over a ban on child marriage. These follow the example of other Muslim countries despite opposition from conservatives, mindful that studies on child marriage point to harm suffered by children, particularly girls: the loss of childhood and adolescence, the denial of freedom and personal development, difficulty in accessing education, health problems due to early pregnancies, and abuse.
Finally, SIS further calls on all levels of governance and religious authority to respect and implement the Child Act 2001, and honour Malaysia’s commitments in ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).