The new government of Malaysia, led by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, elected last May, says no to child marriages. This was revealed by the UCANews agency in an article published on October 22. On October 10, the government of the 93-year-old Prime Minister—Mahathir Mohamad was born on July 25, 1925—announced that he wanted to abolish the death penalty.
The government official of the Southeast Asian country has in fact issued a directive addressed to the authorities of the individual states—Malaysia is a federal state—in which it sets the minimum age of marriage at 18, both for Muslim and non-Muslim citizens, and this without any exception.
As the Catholic agency based in Hong Kong explains, there was already an 18-year threshold, but the law allowed exceptions. As far as non-Muslims were concerned, girls could marry at the age of 16 with the permission of the Chief Minister of their state of residence. On the other hand, Islamic law set the minimum age for girls at 16, but with the “dispensation” of an Islamic court it was possible to contract a marriage at a lower age.
From the government statistics cited by UCANews, it appears that in the decade 2007-2017 almost 15,000 marriages involving minors were contracted in the country. In two thirds of cases, i.e. 10,000, it was a question of unions involving Muslim faith partners, while in the other third, that is 4,999 cases, they were people of other religious faiths.
What motivated the prime minister?
Various elements have prompted the Malaysian executive to act. A first reason was undoubtedly the strong outcry at the end of June that a young girl of Thai origin was married to a 41-year-old man who already had two wives and six children.
“If it’s true, it’s shocking and unacceptable,” commented the representative of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in the country, Marianne Clark-Hattingh (quoted by the English newspaper The Independent) who consequently exhorted the new parliament of Malaysia to change the law. Laying the groundwork for Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s government’s decision was also a fatwa (religious decree) issued in 2014 by the National Fatwa Council, saying that marriage of minors was an “unhealthy practice” that causes “more harm than good, especially with regard to the health and psychology of the children involved.”
Special envoy from the United Nations
Perhaps the most incisive element was the recent visit to Malaysia by the UN Special Rapporteur on the trafficking of minors, child prostitution, and child pornography, Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, who stated firmly that “to help a child climb out of poverty, you must educate her, not marry her.”
“I recognize the complexity of the parallel legal systems in Malaysia, including the differences between laws at Federal and State level. Child marriage practices in Malaysia are often driven by poverty, patriarchal structures, customs and misconceptions around pre-marital sex,” said the UN special envoy, quoted by The Star (October 4).
On this occasion, the Dutch human rights expert praised Malaysia’s efforts to strengthen online security and stop the dissemination of child pornography through the adoption of the Sexual Offences Against Children Act (SOACA) in April 2017, and the creation of special tribunals for sexual offenses against children.
The situation in Bangladesh
Although declining, the number of child marriages remains high in another Asian country: Bangladesh. According to a report released during the Week of Children’s Rights 2018 by the NGO Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK), Bangladesh has the highest child marriage rate in the world, writes the Dhaka Tribune (October 19).
While in 2017 over half of the girls in Bangladesh were married before reaching their 18th birthday, an inquiry conducted in 2016 to 2017 in 19 districts showed that the rate of marriages of children under the age of 15 has dropped from 62.8 percent in 2015 to 10.7 percent last year. On the other hand, the decline in the rate of marriages of minors under the age of 18 was very slow, from 62.8 percent in 2015 to 59.7 percent in 2016.
In its report, the NGO recommends that, in order to avoid any abuse, lawmakers should close the gaps in the Child Marriage Restraint Act, approved by the Dhaka parliament in February 2017, and clarify the so-called “special circumstances” mentioned, which allow minors to contract marriage before the statutory age.
Widespread phenomenon in Africa
In Africa as well, the phenomenon of child brides “stubbornly persists,” writes the Economist (September 25). In Niger, for example, three out of four girls get married before their 18th birthday, as recalled by the English weekly. While the minimum age set by the law is 15 years, some child brides are much younger: just 9 years old!
It is also estimated that of the nearly 700 million women in the world married before their 18th birthday, almost a sixth—that is, 125 million—are African, the weekly continues, which emphasizes the rural character of the phenomenon. At the global level, almost half of the child brides will be African by the middle of the century, the Economist continues.
But from Africa also comes a good example, which shows that it is possible to significantly reduce the phenomenon. In Ethiopia, which is one of the countries that in the past had one of the highest rates on the entire continent, in the last decade has had the greatest decrease recorded of the whole globe: that is, of a third. One of the secrets is education: the government of Addis Ababa is the one in Africa that allocates the largest share of public spending to education.
Risks related to early marriages
Early marriages, which in themselves already constitute an abuse, not only harm the rights of the children involved, forcing them to leave school, for example, but also have a negative impact on the health of girls, who “are more vulnerable and more exposed to suffer violence and sexual abuse,” emphasizes the NGO Plan International. Furthermore, pregnancies and births are the leading cause of death among girls aged 15-19.
Early marriage is a risk factor for the offspring of brides. According to the latest edition of the Levels & Trends in Child Mortality report released by UNICEF last month, children born to mothers who are still adolescents are 1.5 times more likely to die in the arc of the first month of life compared to children born to mothers of the 20-29 age group.
This also applies to children born to mothers who have not had any formal education. In fact, they are 2.6 times more likely to die before reaching five years than children of mothers with secondary or higher education.
Together with the vicious circle of poverty that characterizes the phenomenon, these are all arguments that indicate that the road chosen by the Malaysian government is the right one. The result of early marriages are girls excluded from education and then forced to raise children at an age when many of their peers in other parts of the world are still playing with dolls.