By Iskandar Zulkarnain and Nisha David
The Malaysian government will not raise the legal age for Muslim girls to get married, from 16 to 18, after many states rejected the proposal, the minister for Islamic religious affairs said Thursday when questioned in parliament about this.
Idris Ahmad told MPs that the federal government had studied the proposal to raise the minimum age through forums with state governments and had reached a decision in September.
“Based on the feedback and views that we have received, in principle most states have decided to maintain the current legal marriage age,” Idris said.
He said the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia met on Sept. 22 to evaluate feedback to a proposal made under the former Pakatan Harapan government to raise the minimum age for marriage.
“The [Sharia Legal Policy] Secretariat was of the view that there was no need to amend the minimum age of marriage for Muslim women,” he said in response to a question from Kasthuri Patto, a lawmaker from the opposition Democratic Action Party. DAP was a partner in the Pakatan government, which lasted from May 2018 until February 2020.
Women’s and other rights groups questioned the current government’s inaction.
To date, only the state of Selangor amended the minimum legal marriage age. The federal territories (Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya and Labuan), Penang, Sabah, Johor, Melaka and Perak had agreed to, but did not change their laws.
Seven states, namely Sarawak, Pahang, Terengganu, Perlis, Negeri Sembilan, Kedah and Kelantan have not agreed to the proposal.
Slight drop in statistics
Explaining the government’s stance, Idris told MPs there had been a slight downward trend in the number of child-marriage applications among Muslims approved during the past three years because of strict procedures.
He noted that the number of applications fell from 2,885 for a three-year period ending Aug. 31, 2018, to 2,098 during a slightly longer period ending on Oct. 31.
Idris said because of new procedures, those who apply for child marriage applications would go through a strict evaluation, including background checks, to protect all parties.
“If the application is filed by the girl’s side, they have to provide the reasons, the background of bride and groom, sexual and academic background and the wali (legal guardian),” Idris said in reply to a question by a Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party lawmaker, Shaharuzukirnain Abd Kadir.
“If the application is filed by the groom, they have to provide the reason for the application, background, level of understanding on marriage matters, a report by Welfare Services Department and the Royal Malaysian Police if necessary.”
In January 2020, the Pakatan-led government unveiled what it called a five-year road map to eradicate child marriage in the country.
Then-Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail said the plan was developed after identifying six factors that contributed to child marriage, according to local news reports at the time.
Wan Azizah, who also served as Women, Family and Community minister, acknowledged that it would take years to amend laws and customs with regard to child marriage.
She had said road map which listed 17 strategies and 58 programs was developed by the ministry with the cooperation of 61 government agencies, NGOs and UNICEF.
In its report at the time, UNICEF estimated that about 1,500 children married every year in Malaysia as of 2018.
An opposition lawmaker asked about the status of Pakatan’s plan.
“I will ask Rina Harun (Women, Family and Community minister) and Siti Zailah this again – what happened to the five-year road map to eradicate child marriage launched by Wan Azizah?” DAP lawmaker Hannah Yeoh tweeted.
In March, minister Harun had pledged the government’s commitment to address child marriage to meet at least eight of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals relating to poverty, food security and health.
Rights activists respond
Idris’ comments on Thursday drew challenges from human rights activists, who slammed Putrajaya for lacking political will to put an end to child brides.
Lawyer and rights activist Latheefa Koya said it was a shame that successive Malaysian governments had failed in their duty to protect the young and vulnerable.
In a string of tweets, Latheefa hit out at the government, lamenting its “failure of morals, of courage, of political will, of basic decency!”
“This is a license for pedophiles to run wild and prey upon Malaysian children! The grooming (which is criminal offense) will start way before these children even turn 16!” she tweeted.
Sisters in Islam (SIS) joined those criticizing Idris.
“The statement by Sen. Idris Ahmad showed that he doesn’t read and he was ignorant of the fact that Malaysia is a signatory of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1995 and the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1994.
“In May 2021, Malaysia was placed at the 112 out of 156 countries in the Global Gender Gap Index 2021 and at the same time Malaysia was placed at the bottom ranking for Southeast Asian nations,” SIS said in a statement on Thursday.
It pointed out that most ASEAN nations, including Cambodia, raised the minimum marriage age for marriage to at least 18.