Pitfalls of early nuptials

Pitfalls of early nuptials

More and more Malaysian children are marrying early, derailing not only their education and career potentials, but also the nation's plans to reach developed status.

According to the United Nations State of the Population Fund 2014 report, over 150,000 Malaysian children - 70,000 boys and 80,000 girls - had tied the knot before the age of 19.

This is bad news for the country's national growth and productivity, seeing as married children are usual­ly incapable of continuing their education or taking up professional jobs later in life.

Unicef (United Nations Children's Fund) child protection specialist Phenny Kakama says the issue of child marriage, if goes unaddressed, will incur a heavy economic cost.

"If young people have no chance to go to school and no skills opportunities to be gained, we will have a big chunk of a very unproductive population. If this is not addressed, what is going to be the cost? Evidence shows that the cost will run up to billions of dollars," he says.

Children who marry are likely to drop out of school, and the low-level educational qualification means they will not be considered for professional jobs.

Kakama also believes that child marriage perpetuates the poverty cycle, as child couples are most likely unable to earn high salaries with the limited education and skills they have.

"Unicef is looking at the next course of action in economic terms, because if you look at the situation, the child couples are growing up poor, and no thanks to their low income, their children are also going to be poor.

"The effects on national economy may not be seen in the short term but in the long term, we will have to take responsibility for our inaction," he says.

Many child rights activists have termed child marriage as a "life sentence" for the children, leaving them marginalised and lacking basic rights.

United Nations Population Fund programme adviser Saira Shameem says a middle income nation aiming to propel itself to a high-income nation status, like Malaysia, has to think long term when dealing with the child marriage issue.

"Middle income countries have no luxury of dealing with child marriage as a point-in-time problem, and there is no justification whatsoever for compromising the future of young people and their children too.

"Child parents are not in the best possible situation to deal with the needs and requirements of bringing up their kids because they themselves are kids," she says.

In Malaysia, the legal minimum marriage age is 18 for non-Muslims and 16 for Muslims.

Muslims aged below 16 can marry with the consent of the Syariah Court, while non-Muslims between 16 and 18 years old can marry with parental consent and written permission from the Chief Minister or Mentri Besar of a state.

Malaysian society is long accustomed to early marriage, and the older generation of parents are known to urge their children to marry during their college years, if not sooner.

Child rights advocates are against early marriages, citing a lack of physical, mental and emotional readiness to deal with the responsibilities of marriage.

"The child husband will be pressured to feed the family, and when he can't hold down a well-paying job, the financial pressure may lead him to vent his frustrations on his wife.

"The child wife has to contend with societal pressure to be 'the good wife', and if she gets pregnant, the matter is worse because her body is not ready for the complications associated with pregnancy and childbirth," says Saira.

Child psychologist Datuk Dr Chiam Heng Keng says data shows adolescents being at greater risk of pregnancy complications.

"Imagine a girl of 12 or 13, carrying and delivering a child. Even with grown-ups, pregnancy is not easy and labour pains can be unbearable.

"Does a child have the energy and endurance to push the baby out of the womb during labour?" she asks.

Dr Chiam adds that feelings of insecurity are heightened in a child marriage, as girls are possibly treated as inferior and not given a say in decision-making, while boys will find their mental well-being affected by financial problems and inability to handle responsibilities.

In April, a short video clip of a 17-year-old mother repeatedly slapping and kicking her five-month-old daughter went viral, leading to a police investigation.

It was revealed that a fight between the teenager and her 18-year-old husband, both unemployed, had been the reason for the abuse.

"Very, very few children who marry are ready for the responsibilities of married life. Even for adults, the adjustments to married life will not be easy.

"The responsibilities of parenthood are even tougher because they have to be responsible for the well-being of a human being who is totally dependent on them," says Dr Chiam.

On why child marriage is still pre­valent in Malaysia, Kakama pins it down to parents or guardians who believe it is a way to cover up "accidents" like premarital sex and pregnancy out of wedlock.

"This is not solving the problem, but making it worse because these children are often married off to the same people who sexually abused them in the first place," he says.

Women groups have spoken up against marrying off children to prevent them from committing sin or shaming the family, saying that the practice did not protect the mental, physical and even economic security of children.

In 2013, Sabahan restaurant manager Riduan Masmud, 40, raped a 13-year-old girl and later took her as his second wife, allegedly to escape a court trial.

Riduan's actions caused a public outcry, and he was eventually sentenced to 12 years' jail and two strokes of the cane earlier this year.

Kakama questions the logic behind child marriage, saying the children are being forced to give up a host of child rights in order to receive only one right - one which should be for adults.

"What rights do child marriage leave children with? Almost none. Their rights to education, health, leisure and others are all compromised. The only right they obtain is to have sex legally. Is this the right we want to prioritise over all the violated rights?" he says.

Now that the problem is identified, what must Malaysia do to help children ensure their education and career opportunities are not marred by the possibilities of early marriage?

A revamp of the legal framework to examine the loopholes and amending them appropriately, says Saira.

"The move to stop child marriage should transcend religion and any basis of justification, because when the minimum legal age is fixed and enforced without any exemptions, it will positively impact many children who otherwise may have been married off because a legal provision allows for it.

"Child marriage is a form of sexual abuse, as far as we are concerned. That's why we have to ensure all decisions made by the authorities for children are guided by the greater good for their welfare and future," she says.

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