The seven states that are not complying with raising the minimum age for marriage to 18 to curb child marriages are Sarawak, Pahang, Terengganu, Perlis, Negri Sembilan, Kedah and Kelantan.
The federal government is unable to enforce a ban on child marriages nationwide because seven states have disagreed with the legislative amendment, the Dewan Rakyat was told yesterday.
Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail said only Selangor has successfully amended its laws on child marriages.
“Enforcing any legislation on the minimum age for marriage can only happen if the states agree with it,” she said.
“Only Selangor has taken the necessary step while the Federal Territories is in the process of doing so. Five other states that have agreed to amend their respective laws are Penang, Sabah, Johor, Malacca and Perak,” she added.
“The seven states that are not complying are Sarawak, Pahang, Terengganu, Perlis, Negri Sembilan, Kedah and Kelantan,” Wan Azizah, who is also the Women, Family and Community Development Minister, said in her reply to Syed Ibrahim Syed Noh (PH-Ledang) during question time.
Syed Ibrahim wanted to know why the ministry has not been able to raise the minimum age for marriage to 18 to curb the child marriages while Indonesia has already raised the minimum age to 19 for women.
Wan Azizah added that her ministry is finalising the National Strategic Plan to Overcome the Reason of Under-age Marriage.
She also pointed out that for non-Muslims, marriages can only be registered if both partners are aged 18 and above, so there is no need to amend the law to specify the minimum age.
To a supplementary question from Syed Ibrahim if sexual grooming laws could be used to stem incidence of under-age marriages, Wan Azizah said it was difficult.
“Many parents believe it is good for the child to be married off, so it is very difficult to determine if it is a sexual crime,” she said.
She added that laws against sexual grooming are mostly aimed at preventing sex crimes against under-aged victims and online grooming.
Women’s rights group Sisters in Islam (SIS) called for Putrajaya to deal with the seven states in order to prevent harm to children,
The group also said that the seven states need to explain the rationale behind their decisions, as policymakers, child psychologists, healthcare practitioners, economists and even religious institutions have spoken about the harm of child marriage.
“In putting the best interest of children first, the Pakatan Harapan government needs to explain what is being done to compel the seven states that refused to cooperate,” SIS said in a statement.
“Stating that the Federal Government is unable to proceed just because seven states opposes reduces critical national issues to be determined at the state level.
“As harm to our children is clearly evident, it is the responsibility of the elected Federal Government to step in and act in their best interest,” it added.
SIS also said it is shocked by Dr Wan Azizah’s response that criminal elements in circumstances of grooming children for sexual acts under the Sexual Offences Against Children Act “cannot be proven” and that “many parents feel that it is good for the child to be married off”.
“These responses by the Deputy Prime Minister is not only irresponsible, but deliberately puts the lives and futures of these child victims in grave danger, where laws are supposed to be there to protect them,” it said.
It also asked if the National Strategic Plan to tackle the issue of child marriage had included engagements with civil society organisations, especially those working on women’s and children’s rights, especially the National Human Rights Commission’s (Suhakam) Children Commissioner.
“Malaysia’s neighbours Thailand and Indonesia have legally banned child marriage in December 2018 and September 2019, respectively. Other Muslim-majority countries that have banned child marriage are Egypt, Kenya, Pakistan, Iraq and Jordan.
“Sisters in Islam strongly reiterate our call that the minimum age of marriage must be raised to 18 years old for both boys and girls, Muslim and non-Muslims, with no exceptions,” it said.
The All Women’s Action Society (Awam) has also called on the government to put an end to child marriages for good by pursuing a zero-tolerance stance on the matter.
It claimed the lack of regulations and punitive measures on child marriages allowed gender-based violence to occur.
“At a time where the government has unveiled the Shared Prosperity Vision which aims to address some issues of gender-based violence, including sexual harassment at the workplace, increasing maternity leave, and incentivising women to return to the workforce, where does child marriage – a situation that provides the opportunity for a man to abuse a young girl – fit in?
“The government must not view child marriage as simply a religious matter but a social matter. Awam believes that there is a strong correlation between opportunity and violence,” the society said in a press statement today.”
Awam went on to note that from 2007 to 2017, there were 15,000 cases of child marriages in Malaysia.
“This equates to 15,000 lives that society has cheated of the rights of consent, education, sexual and reproductive health and rights, and to invest in a future of their own choosing,” it said.
Awam noted that this was not in-line with Pakatan Harapan’s manifesto, especially those with promises pertaining to security and dignity of women.
Awam has urged all ministers to tackle the issue before more Malaysian girls become victims of child marriages, noting that society cannot progress if such archaic customs are allowed to continue.
“Malaysia is better than this. Stop child marriage once and for all.”