Activists: Bid to End Child Marriage in Doubt

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The progress made under Pakatan Harapan to address child marriage and raise the marriageable age to 18 is in doubt now that PAS is in the federal government, said activists.

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“Since PAS is a known supporter of child marriage, I personally don’t think the issue is going to progress. It might just stall,” said Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa, founder and director of islamic renaissance front.

The Monash University academic said PAS’ religious justifications for child marriage have not been supported by empirical data to show that it prevents sex out of wedlock.

“PAS’ argument has always been based on the sunnah about the Prophet when he married Aishah – that underage marriage would reduce the incidence of illicit sex among adolescents.

“But there is no empirical data to support this argument.”

On the contrary, research has shown that child marriage denies girls their right to an education, among other detrimental effects to their mental health and personal development.

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Farouk said the new Perikatan Nasional government’s stand on such issues is unclear, adding that he would not be surprised if PAS, which gravitates towards a conservative form of Islam, is to champion hudud, which it has been trying to implement in states under its rule.

“I’m not too sure where this new government is heading in terms of their Islamic agenda. I think we need time to assess them. But just based on their track record, I think they are going to be conservative in their vision.”

In its 22 months in power, PH worked to roll out a national plan to address child marriage and push for a change in laws to raise the marriageable age to 18 for boys and girls.

This could not be enforced nationwide as seven states – Sarawak, Pahang, Terengganu, Perlis, Negri Sembilan, Kedah and Kelantan – opposed the move.

Selangor, however, amended its Islamic enactments to increase the marriageable age for Muslims to 18 from 16.

In January, the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry introduced a five-year strategic plan to address the causes of underage marriage. It was aimed at getting wider acceptance from grassroots communities to oppose child marriage.

PAS has consistently rejected attempts to impose a blanket ban on child marriage, saying the move contravenes religious teachings.

Its Rantau Panjang MP, Siti Zailah Mohd Yusoff, is now deputy women and family development minister following the change in government, and she previously took PH lawmakers to task over their opposition to child marriage.

Sisters in Islam has stated its concern that PAS does not share the goal of ending child marriage in Malaysia, even though women’s groups have been advocating for many years to raise the marriageable age to 18.

Lawyer and civil rights activist Siti Kasim said with the PN government in place, she has little hope for women or fairness in respect of gender and religious issues.

“In 2013, Siti Zailah called for a dress code for women to curb rising levels of sex crimes and prevent sexual harassment.

“The progress of a nation is incumbent upon how they treat women. We all know where PAS stands with regard to women.” 

Sivanathi Thanethiran, executive director of the Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women, said advocacy for women and children’s rights has been made difficult because of the use of cultural and religious arguments.

“This has made it difficult for both politicians and administrators to navigate these issues successfully. And, this gap has been to the detriment of women and girls in the country.”

Association of Women Lawyers vice-president Meera Samanther urged the new government to continue engaging civil society and women and children’s rights groups on these matters.

“We will look to the different ministries to engage with us and explore how we can proceed with reforms. While there may be different political outlooks, as a government, there is a duty to serve the nation.

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“We hope this government will continue to work with the different organisations to achieve goals that will benefit women and children in this country,” she said in a statement to The Malaysian Insight.

She called for continued engagement on other reforms proposed under the PH administration that would benefit and protect women and children if they are enacted as laws.

These include the Sexual Harassment Act and Gender Equality Act, introduction of seven-day paternity leave, anti-discrimination provisions in the Employment Act, and amendments to the Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code to address anti-stalking laws. – TMI