A social activist in Penang has called on the government to speed up the process to ban child marriages, claiming that he stopped one on Wednesday.
On Feb 6, Stanley Sudhagaran said he received a tip-off that an 11-year-old girl was about to be married off by her parents to a 21-year-old Rohingya man at midnight.
The marriage was to take place in Prai in a family home, conducted by an unauthorised religious leader from the Rohingya community.
He informed theSun, which then accompanied him as he lodged a police report at the Seberang Prai Utara district police headquarters.
“While I must acknowledge that the police were very helpful in assisting me in trying to stop the marriage, however, their power seems to be limited due to the laws in this country,” Stanley told Malaysiakini.
“The investigating officer of the case informed me that they had no power to stop the marriage if the family had consented,” he added.
According to Stanley, the police immediately swung into action, assigning a case officer from the criminal investigations department to probe the matter.
“The police tried hard to contact the state religious authority to intervene as they had the power to do so, taking into account that this marriage was not approved by the state religious authority and the victim is a Muslim Rohingya.
“Sadly, the police failed to get in touch with the state religious authority as it was already around 9pm and it was a public holiday,” Stanley said.
He said the police then agreed to accompany him to the venue and talk to the parents.
Upon arriving at the scene, they were shocked to see a rather big wedding feast with many guests, all from the Rohingya community.
The bride’s father told police that the family had no choice but to marry off their daughter due to financial constraints. They also have another young daughter.
“It is within our culture and my future son-in-law has promised to be a dutiful husband to my daughter,” the bride’s father said.
“I told him that he would be getting into trouble if he proceeded with the marriage, that it was illegal for a child under the age of 16 to get married in Malaysia.
“I also met the groom-to-be and informed him that he could be committing statutory rape if he proceeded with the marriage.
“The religious authority would also take action as they have not sanctioned the wedding,” Stanley said.
Hussain Ismail, a Rohingya community elder, said there were not many Rohingya women here, so it was logical for the men to opt for child brides.
It was learnt that the person (kadi) who was to solemnise the marriage was from the community, but he was not certified with the religious authorities.
Stanley told those present that Malaysian civil laws generally disallow child marriages and the government was working to put a stop to it in all states.
“It may be a practise and culturally accepted but it is morally wrong in this modern age. And you should respect Malaysian customs as you are living in Malaysia where such acts are regarded with contempt.”
Stanley pledged to help the family mitigate their financial shortcomings, but he insisted that the child bride be allowed to continue schooling, and the marriage postponed until the bride was at least 18.
The father later relented after three hours of discussions.
Police said they will refer the case to the state religious authorities for follow-up action.
Stanley said that he would liaise with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Kuala Lumpur on this matter, especially if the refugees ignored the advice given by the police and him.
“If they persist, perhaps UNHCR can revoke their refugees’ status and we repatriate them to Rakhine (Myanmar) despite the conflict there.”
He also believes that several such marriages have already taken place in Penang.
Stanley is the co-founder and one of the directors of the LifeBridge Learning Centre, a private school that provides free education to refugees in Penang.
He is also the northern region coordinator for the Centre to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4 Centre).
However, he said that he is handling the issue of the child bride in his personal capacity.
Meanwhile, Penang executive councillor in charge of women affairs, Chong Eng praised Stanley for his courage but admitted that it was largely a cultural issue as well as one of social status as such families are usually impoverished.
To overcome it, there must be a policy change in the country, with support from various authorities, including the UNHCR, said Chong Eng.
She added that children must be allowed access to education and in an ideal setting, each child must be able to dictate their own destiny.
But in reality, child marriages are still practised among the Rohingya and other communities, Chong Eng said.
“They have come to accept it and the Pakatan Harapan Government must come up with a comprehensive policy to address the issue as we deplore it.”