Monday, June 21, 2010

New Sunday Times - Jun 20, 2010: Too young to wed?

Too young to wed?

New Sunday Times  - Jun 20, 2010
THERE was an increase in marriages involving underage Muslims in the Federal Territory last year. This goes against the assumption that child marriages are now on the decline due to changing cultural trends.

Last year, 49 Muslim girls under 16 years of age and 39 boys under 18 tied the knot.

According to the statistics provided by the Federal Territory Religious Department, this number was higher compared with the previous year.

Under Islamic family law, only girls and boys aged at least 16 and 18 and above respectively, can marry.

Only the syariah court can grant permission for younger children to marry.

In 2008, 40 girls and 28 boys below the permitted age registered their marriages.

Chief Syariah Judge and Malaysian Syariah Judiciary Department director-general Tan Sri Ibrahim Lembut said, however, that the Syariah court does not "simply grant" its consent for marriages involving individuals aged 16 or below.

He said the conditions for Muslim marriages differed from that for non-Muslims and the syariah court would protect the interests of minors in marriages.

He added that chances of approval for children below 16 to marry were slim, and that applicants would have to meet strict criteria to prove that they were capable of building a solid and lasting marriage.

"We conduct an interview with both sets of parents present. We ask questions and find out if the child is mature enough to enter into marriage mentally and physically.

"We deliberate for a week before we give consent. Some girls, even at the age of 16, look frail. We will disallow the marriage as she may not be able to handle the burden of pregnancy and marital duties," he said when contacted.

Last week, the New Sunday Times reported that 479 Muslim children below 15 were found to be ready to tie the knot last year as revealed by the premarital HIV screening conducted by the Health Ministry, raising concern as to whether the concept of child marriages was alive and well in the country. Of the 479 children, 32 were below 10 years old.

Ibrahim said, however, that such cases were rare.

"Sometimes, in a year, there are no cases at all. In fact, when I was working in Malacca, there was only one such case.

"There are various reasons for young marriages. Some parents see it as the only option their daughter has"

Ibrahim said the procedure for underage couples who want to get married was similar in other states.

However, it has been reported that while most states require the consent of the girl and do not allow marriages by compulsion, the Kelantan enactment allows a Muslim girl's marriage to be solemnised without her consent, when the wali is her father or paternal grandfather.

Ibrahim warned Muslim parents that they could be charged if they married their children off without the syariah court's permission.

Selangor Islamic Religious Department director Datuk Mohd Khusrin Munawi said underage children who wanted to get married needed to go through the same procedure as other couples.

However, the couple's marriage application can be approved only by the syariah court.

"The couple need to fulfil the criteria - an agreement from both sides and the consent of the girl's father. With these, the court will know whether the couples are entering into the marriage willingly."

Khusrin said the department had recently received an application from a 14-year-old girl from Hulu Langat and the court permitted her to tie the knot as she was the one who wanted to get married.

"We also had a case where a boy below 18 applied to get married and his application was granted by the court.

"However, such cases are rare because today, couples cannot be forced into marriage."

He said the main reason for early marriages was that "it is the request of the couples themselves".

It was also reported last week that, according to the 2000 Census, there were 11,400 children below 15 years of age who were married - 6,800 girls and 4,600 boys.

Of the 6,800 girls, 2,450 were Malays. The remaining were non-Malays, comprising 1,550 other Bumiputeras, 1,600 Chinese, 600 Indians and 600 others.

Early marriages, early endings

It is not appropriate to marry off underage children as they are not equipped to face challenges, says Universiti Sains Malaysia social psychologist Dr Intan Hashimah Mohd Hashim.

She said early marriages were not advisable as there were many divorce cases involving young couples.

"The first few years of marriage are the most challenging, so underage children who get married may less likely succeed in their relationship. It is challenging for a 20-year-old to be married, what more if the couple is 15 or 16 years old."

She said early marriages were not an issue from the local perspective as it was not seen as something wrong.

"It is considered sacred and acceptable even though the couple are young. Our cultural expectation sees it as something positive."

Intan said underage children had no power to decide on their own lives. As such, the decision to marry them off was usually made by their parents or guardians.

"There are many factors which lead to the decision (to marry off the children) and one of them is security," she said.

Universiti Malaya psychological medicine department Associate Professor Dr Stephen Jambunathan said parents may give away their children for marriage at a young age due to their culture, history or tradition.

He said even though the cases were not that rampant nowadays, some parents still subscribed to the old traditions as they may also have got married at a young age.

"People used to marry at 13, so it might be a cultural thing. I do not see the act of marrying off young children as an excuse for parents to escape their responsibilities."

Jambunathan said underage marriages had been going on for a long time now but the trend was changing.

"I think it is no longer an issue because the trend is heading the opposite way. People tend to get married at a later age these days."

Becoming an `adult' too early is hard

Children who have reached puberty may be physically able to engage in sexual intercourse, but having sex and getting pregnant at such an early age has risks for the child's emotional and physical health, said Malaysian Medical Association president Dr David Quek.

"There have been medical reports which show that young-age mothers suffer more pregnancy complications, have smaller babies, and suffer from psychological and mental stresses which many cannot cope with.

"They are also young and have much growing up to do mentally, especially psychologically. Unfortunately, with a pregnancy so early, these young people are forced into becoming adults when they are not yet prepared.

"Most haven't got over their temper tantrums and child-like behaviour, and are much less able to actually cope with mothering and fathering."

Because they have yet to develop adult-coping mechanisms, there was also the question of whether these children could impart proper values to their children.

"Many of these children are not yet competent, not educated sufficiently or had their education prematurely terminated.

"Bearing children generally means the progression from childhood to adulthood for most. Because many are also not yet mature enough, they become poor parents, have poor skills, and may breed children who are also psychologically defective or incapable of coping in this increasingly complex world."

Instead of a gradual progression from childhood through youth and then into adulthood, marriage at such an early age puts a lot of stress on a child because it pushes the person from childhood straight into adulthood.

"For males, marriage marks full adult independence and its associated responsibilities. Many boys cannot assume strenuous or full manual jobs early in their adolescence, and few, if any, can earn enough to support a family until their early to mid-20s.

"This combination of biological, social and economic factors limit pregnancy and parenthood for most teens.

"So, childhood marriages unfairly forces these young people into a situation with which they can hardly cope or, worse, which they cannot cope with at all.

"The MMA believes child marriages should be discouraged and frowned upon.

"Child marriages disempower the young people involved, and prevent their full intellectual and educational development. They would suffer from too early a thrust into adulthood and all its responsibilities and duties.

"Education and other healthy fun childhood pursuits for the female or male child are also prematurely disrupted."

Dr Quek said most doctors were quiet on the issue of child marriages and especially if a child went for premarital HIV screening because "in our society, the Muslim majority clearly have a greater influence on the matter of marriageability of young people".

He said the acceptable age of marriage was culturally and religiously defined and was not based on health and medical concerns.

However, he added, most medical authorities frowned upon any form of sexual practice below the age of 15 years, or before some degree of mental maturity.

"As a medical profession, the MMA feels other aspects of such practices should also be debated and discussed, putting the rights of the child above the rights of personal or religious interpretations.

"It is perhaps time for enlightened doctors, lawyers and other social activists to speak out and help protect the sanctity and developmental happiness and experience, and ensure the minimal educational development of the child.

"Becoming an 'adult' too early is too hard, too premature and not good," said Dr Quek.

"It is also not an enlightened symbol for a progressive Malaysia."

`I don't want to see his face'

Sometimes, the mind of girl who almost became a child bride, tends to go blank.

Eleven-year-old Aini (not her real name) was freed from the clutches of a 41-year-old man recently.

"I think it could be because of the pills I was forced to take when I was kidnapped," she said, as she related how she was drugged during a journey from Kelantan to Kuala Lumpur in March.

During the trip, Aini said she spent long hours in a state of unconsciousness.

All Aini wants to do now is put the traumatic experience behind her. For a start, she has gone back to school.

"I do not want to see his face ever again," Aini said, referring to the man, known as "Sudin Ajaib" who had tricked her father into letting him marry her.

"I feel much better now, whether at home or in school. There are some pupils who tease me about it but I try to ignore them.

"Sometimes, I do not know what is going on in the classroom. Everything becomes blank. This happens on and off," said Aini.

The incident took place only days after her father brought Sudin Ajaib home as a guest for a meal.

According to news reports, she was taken from her home in Kota Baru on Feb 19 on the pretext of being enrolled at a Quran school in Wakaf Baru in Tumpat.

A police report was lodged by her family over her disappearance. Aini was later found disoriented and weak after being abandoned in Kuala Lumpur on March 13.

Aini said her family had placed her in her uncle's care now. She said his house was also nearer to her school.

On how she fared in her latest school examination, she said she had no idea what her results were.

"I used to be second or third in my class previously."

Aini said the doctor who diagnosed her told her she would be "okay" during an appointment at Sungai Buloh Hospital in Selangor on Monday.

Ministry to launch 6-month study

Concerned with the issue of child marriages, the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry will launch a six-month study on the phenomenon next month.

"The study will examine the practice and prevalence of child marriages in Malaysia, and will determine its position in respect of Malaysian civil law and syariah, as well as Malaysia's Cedaw (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) obligations," said a ministry statement to the New Sunday Times.

"Its aim is to ensure the welfare and protection of those involved, in particular the girl child.

"The study will also include policy and programme recommendations for both at government and community levels."

The ministry is currently exploring options to involve relevant international agencies in all the areas of this study.

"The ministry hopes this study will help raise public awareness on the need to harmonise the various social practices of Malaysian daily life in ensuring better and stronger protection of children."

Next week, the Malaysian government is scheduled to remove all reservations to the Cedaw, the de facto international bill of rights for women.

Article 16(2) of the Convention, states, "the betrothal and the marriage of a child shall have no legal effect, and all necessary action, including legislation, shall be taken to specify a minimum age for marriage and to make the registration of marriages in an official registry compulsory", will have direct impact on child marriages.

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