Malaysia has proposed to raise the minimum age for marriage to 18 for Muslim girls in a bid to reduce teenage pregnancy rates and enhance social protection for minors.
The Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development has engaged stakeholders, including various state religious affairs authorities, on the proposed amendment to the existing Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act, said its minister Rohani Abdul Karim on Monday (Nov 7).
In Malaysia, Muslim girls below the age of 16 must obtain the permission of Islamic courts to get married, but child rights activists say such permission is too readily granted. The system has reportedly been abused by rapists who marry their underage victims – some as young as 13 – to avoid jail terms.
The minister was speaking at a child rights forum organised by UNICEF in Kuala Lumpur. A special task force led by the country’s law minister has been formed to look into specific amendments to the law.
“Now it’s 16 for girls, 18 for boys,” said Ms Rohani. “We are not very happy with that; we want to push it to 18 for girls. We are doing this through awareness campaigns, and by going around various states to let people know why we are proposing the age increase.”
The minister was asked whether there would be specific laws to forbid rapists from marrying their victims.
“That’s also in the pipeline,” she said. “We are looking at it to the extent of defining what is rape, all forms of rape. We are aiming to further strengthen these laws.”
But rights activists said that while legal safeguards are important, implementation is key and without a change in mindset and parental support, the government faces an uphill task in ending child marriages.
“The law is only one aspect, implementation is another,” said Mr Mah Weng Kwai, commissioner of Suhakam (Human Rights Commission of Malaysia). “It’s high time the country raise the minimum age and end all child marriages.
Shariha Khalid, co-founder of social enterprise Impact Hub Kuala Lumpur, said: “It’s really up to the society, it’s not about fixing the minimum age for marriage, it’s about raising public awareness.”
In 2015, there were more than 13,800 cases of child pregnancies in Malaysia, with Sabah and Sarawak reporting the highest numbers. The figure however, is an improvement on numbers in 2014 (16,528) and and 2013 (17,588).
“Although the numbers seem to be trending downwards, there are cases that go unreported in this country,” said Aegile Fernandez, a women’s rights activist from Tenaganita.