Malaysia outlines a five-year plan to tackle the problem, including raising the minimum age for marriage for girls from 16 to 18. Several Malaysian states are opposed however.
Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Poverty, limited education (especially in reproductive health), and social pressure to marry to solve problems are some of the factors identified by the Malaysian government as the main causes of underage marriages.
To address the widespread problem, federal authorities yesterday outlined a five-year plan (2020-2025) with seven goals, 17 strategies and 58 programmes and actions.
Speaking at a press conference, Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail said that the plan would not merely tackle the causes of underage marriage, but also indirectly help overcome other social issues affecting families and children.
“Underage marriage,” she explained, has “a profound effect on the health of a teenager and there are studies that found that girls aged between 15 and 19 who are pregnant face a higher risk of death during pregnancy or birth.”
Dr Wan Azizah, who is also Minister of Women, Family and Community Development, noted that 61 agencies would be involved in implementing the government plan.
The latter includes strengthening the existing socio-economic and outreach support programmes, increase the minimum marriage age to 18 for girls as well as providing children-friendly, reproductive health services.
To achieve its goal, the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development will set up a steering committee to monitor the plan.
Deputy Women, Family and Community Development Minister Hannah Yeoh said the government would also engage with non-Muslims, the Orang Asli[*] and natives of Sabah and Sarawak in order to get every community onboard to stop child marriages.
“Getting states’ consent to change the law is only for the one that affects Muslim marriages,” said Hannah Yeoh. “Our data, however, shows that customary marriages in Sabah and Sarawak are equally high. Underage marriage is also high among the non-Muslims too.”
So far only the State of Selangor has raised the legal marrying age for Muslims to 18, whilst the process of changing the law is underway in Federal Territories.
Penang, Sabah, Johor, Melaka and Perak have agreed to amend their marriage laws but seven other states – Sarawak, Pahang, Terengganu, Perlis, Negri Sembilan, Kedah and Kelantan – have not agreed to change theirs.
Fuziah Salleh, Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, announced that the government was introducing guidelines that would require applications for underage Muslim marriages to go before the Syariah (Sharia) High Court.[†]
“Parents must present medical and mental health reports from healthcare officials and the Social Welfare Department to the court,” Fuziah Salleh explained. “They would also be interviewed by Syariah High Court judges to determine the underlying factors surrounding their applications.”
In Malaysia, Islamic and civil laws allow minors to marry. Under civil law, non-Muslim can only marry when they are 18; however, non-Muslim girls can marry at 16, provided they obtain the consent of the chief minister of their state of residence.
For Muslims, the minimum age for marriage is the same as for non-Muslims, but Syariah courts may allow marriage below those ages.
According to official figures, some 10,240 child marriage applications were made between 2005 and 2015, an average of 1,024 each year.
Among non-Muslims, 2,104 girls aged 16 to 18 got married between 2011 and September 2015, i.e. 420 per year.
[*] Indigenous people and oldest inhabitants of Peninsular Malaysia.
[†] Syariah Courts have jurisdiction only over Muslim in the matters of family law and religious observances.