Reopen the child bride rape case, say groups

PETALING JAYA - Women's groups have demanded better rape investigation procedures and have called for the case involving a child bride who was allegedly raped by a youth whom she later married to be reopened.

Sisters In Islam programme manager Suri Kempe said the case of 13-year-old Nor Fazira Saad had highlighted a legal loophole in the law, which allowed rapists to escape investigation and punishment through marriage.

"Muslim and non-Muslim children must not be treated differently. It is deplorable that marriage is being used by alleged rapists as a way to escape prosecution.

"The government must stop rapists from manipulating religion and culture. We urge the government to make child protection a priority by amending this flawed provision in the law.

"The practice of child marriages affects many economic, social and health risks and does not protect our girls or secure their future," she said.

Suri said the best interests of the child "was clearly not a consideration" when the Syariah Court approved this marriage application.

She said the Child Act 2001 recognises a 13-year-old girl as a child but despite being legally a child, she is denied the protection normally afforded to children, including anonymity from public scrutiny, just because she is married.

"This is one of the perils of child marriage, a practice that has no place in a country that aims to be a developed nation by 2020."

Human rights lawyer and activist Honey Tan said as the crime of rape was against the state, a police report on rape could technically not be withdrawn.

"In theory, you can carry on even though the victim doesn't want to proceed. Ideally, we should not place so much weight on the complainant's evidence," she said.

"In other countries, police evidence, videos, photographs and doctors testimonies carry equal or more weight."

Tan, who is also part of NGO Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (Empower), said as it was common for young victims to have trouble testifying, it was important to have witnesses who were "completely objective" like doctors.

Women's Aid Organisation executive director Ivy Josiah said the case served to highlight the regressive idea that once a girl was no longer a "'virgin", she was regarded as worthless.

"If you're raped, you're seen as worthless and no one will marry you. There's a cultural belief that a woman is nothing after being raped, leading to some using rape as coercion into marriage."

Josiah called for the social welfare department to step in, adding that it was "appalling" that a child was allowed to wed.

"Where is child protection in this instance? The courts should be educated that child marriage should not be condoned at all."

Josiah, too, called for the police to re-open the investigation.

"Withdrawing a report does not mean the crime was not committed," she said.

Association of Women Lawyers executive committee member Meera Samanther also said that the police could pursue the case themselves.

"Competent police will go the extra mile to try and find out why there was a withdrawal.

"In this case, a social worker should have stepped in to interview the girl and find out more. It's the state's duty to find out what happened as it's their responsibility."

Meanwhile, Attorney-General Tan Sri Gani Patail said he would look into the case personally.

"We are now obtaining details of the case," he said, adding that the A-G's Chambers would respond to the issue soon.

Social Welfare department director-general Datuk Noraini Mohd Hashim said the department had to respect the wishes of Nor Fazira Saad's parents as she was a minor and was under their responsibility.

"We have to respect the wishes of the parents. She is divorced now, she has parents and she must go back to them first. The responsibility is with them, and we cannot encroach on their rights," she said.

Noraini said that if approached, the department would discuss the next step with the parents.

"If she needs counselling, we can provide that. If she would like to go back to school, we can help with that too.

"We don't want to encroach on a family matter. We will approach only if they seek our help," she said.