Child marriage, a recurring phenomenon in Malaysia that permits parents to marry off their offspring with the consent of authorities, is no longer to be allowed under any circumstances, the government has ruled.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has issued a directive to all state authorities that the legal minimum marriage age is now set at 18 for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
It comes after a national outcry following the exposure of a marriage between a 41-year-old Malaysian Muslim man and an 11-year-old Thai girl in June.
Until now, the minimum legal marriage age for Muslims was 18 for men and 16 for women. For non-Muslims, it was 18 for both men and women.
While Muslims and non-Muslims in the multicultural country are governed by different marriage laws, child marriage had been permitted under special circumstances under both civil and Islamic laws. As Muslim marriages are governed by Islamic laws enacted to fit social norms in each state, different versions of the law were practiced around the country.
Child marriage required the approval of a Sharia court judge for Muslims or the chief minister of the state for non-Muslims. Marriage of non-Muslims below 16 years was banned but Muslims were exempt until now.
According to studies, child marriage is not a fringe issue in Malaysia. Government statistics revealed that nearly 15,000 marriages involving underage children were reported from 2007 to 2017, consisting of 10,000 cases involving Muslims and 4,999 cases involving non-Muslims, according to Hannah Yeoh, a deputy minister.
The government figures, though not comprehensive, revealed that of the child marriages that occurred between 2013 and 2017, Sarawak recorded the highest number at 918, followed by Sabah and Kelantan at 793.
The outcry over the 11-year-old’s marriage led Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah, the head of Islam in Selangor, one of Malaysia’s most developed states, to decree that the marriageable age for Muslim males and females in the state would be raised from 16 to 18.
While it is the prerogative of each of Malaysia’s 13 state governments to process the directive, the decree of the sultan, one of the guardians of Islam, is influential.
The swift move by the government to address the issue follows a visit last month by Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, U.N. special rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, when she urged the authorities to protect the rights of minors, particularly young girls.
Married underage girls were at higher risk of domestic violence and were often denied the chance to pursue an education, she told reporters.
“By marrying them, you are denying these girls their basic human rights,” de Boer-Buquicchio said.
The lack of protection for children in Malaysia is also seen in the number of sex abuse cases, deputy minister Yeoh said when advocating for transparency in data and statistics.
“We are dealing with a generation of cases swept under the carpet,” she said while warning that victims could be desensitized to crimes without counseling and intervention.
She said the government is holding discussions with stakeholders including doctors and childcare operators to draft standard guidelines and regulations on offenses against children and also to build a registry of offenders.
Some conservative Islamic leaders have argued that early marriage provides an answer to social ills like premarital sex and pregnancies out of wedlock.