Putrajaya’s recent move to maintain the marriage age at 16 for Muslim girls falls short of the expectations of Malaysians, especially educators, parents and civil society groups who had anticipated that the marriage age would be raised to 18.
The government had previously planned to increase the marriage age limit – which would be in line with a policy adopted by many countries, including Asean nations. Indonesia, for instance, abolished child marriage by pushing up the minimum age for brides from 16 to 19 in 2019.
Detractors feel that adolescents, irrespective of ethnicity and religion, deserve to realise their full potential instead of being tied to marriage at such an early age.
A Women’s Aid Organisation survey titled “A Study on Malaysian Public Attitudes and Perceptions towards Violence against Women” found that 70.3% of respondents agree that boys and girls should not be allowed to marry before 18, while Sabah and Sarawak respondents strongly object to child marriage, with only 8.1% in favour.
Child marriage robs children of the opportunities to pursue studies and sports and engage in important areas of life that can contribute to the common good of society. We will be all the poorer if these talents are left untapped.
Child marriage disrupts education and replaces lessons learned in the classroom with adult responsibilities – such as forced pregnancy for which a young girl is not prepared. This not only violates her human rights but also risks her life, her children’s and the wellbeing of her community.
What is also worrying is that these girls will be vulnerable to abuse and violence.
The achievements of young people, such as Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, should serve as a useful reminder that they can make a big difference if opportunities are made available to them at an early age. She became an active champion of education for women and girls after she escaped death following a gunshot wound to the head caused by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, who oppose education for girls. Her grit and work earned her a Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.
Malala’s determination, as well as that of other people, in ensuring education, particularly for girls, should spur the powers that be to encourage girls and their parents to stall marriage plans and instead pursue dreams of becoming high-calibre professionals and productive citizens.
Putrajaya’s decision on child marriage is out of sync with the demands and expectations of the modern world.
Undoubtedly, increasing the marriage age will require a mindset receptive to the idea that women have as much a role to play as men in helping to develop the society.
To reiterate, the government’s priorities should be to provide girls better access to education, healthcare and jobs so they reach their full potential and have a better future.
Let our girls have the chance to develop themselves in meaningful ways before eventually tying the knot. – The Malaysian Insight