27 Jan 2011

Malaysian government says it cannot legislate against child marriages allowed under Sharia law, activists disagree

Asia Works Television - December 8, 2010

Malaysia minister rejects call to end child marriage

by Newswire - AFP

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) – Malaysia’s law minister on Wednesday shot down calls to ban underage marriage, despite an uproar over the recent wedding of a 14-year-old Muslim school girl.

Siti Maryam Mahmod wed 23-year-old teacher Abdul Manan Othman last weekend in a mass wedding at a major mosque, after being given permission in an Islamic Sharia court.

Malaysian Muslims below the age of 16 are allowed to marry as long as they obtain the permission of the religious courts. Sharia law runs in parallel with civil law in the multi-ethnic country.

Nazri Aziz, a minister in the premier’s department in charge of legal affairs, said the government has no plan to review laws allowing for underage marriages because the practice is permitted under Islam.

“If the religion allows it, then we can’t legislate against it,” he told a press conference.

“Islam allows it as long as the girl is considered to have reached her pubescent stage, once she has her menstruation,” he added.

However, Siti Maryam’s marriage has sparked criticism including from Women, Family and Community Development Minister Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, who insisted the government did not condone the practice.

Activist groups have also called for the laws that allow underage marriage to be repealed, saying that the practice is widespread with some 16,000 Malaysian girls aged below 15 already married.

“The onset of puberty is no indication of sufficient maturity for marriage,” pressure group Sisters in Islam said this week, citing a passage in the Koran which also requires “maturity of mind”.

“No marriage of a minor child can be deemed acceptable,” said the group’s spokeswoman Yasmin Masidi.

Muslim Malays make up about 60 percent of the country’s 28 million population and on certain issues, including family law, they are subject to Islamic justice.

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Sisters in Islam - December 6, 2010

Press Statement on Child Marriage

Sisters in Islam (SIS) expresses its utmost concern over news reports of a 14-year-old child married off to an adult man in July this year. This only came to light when the child and the man who married her participated in a mass wedding celebration at the Federal Territory Mosque on 4th December 2010, where couples were given RM1,000 and Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Jamil Khir Baharom was in attendance as guest of honour.

SIS reiterates its stand in calling for the Government to end child marriage and raise the minimum age of marriage to 18 years for all Malaysians. We note that the recent case is only the latest in a series of cases of child marriage, and follows a decision by the Malacca Islamic Religious Council to relax the conditions for Muslim girls under the age of 16 and Muslim boys under the age of 18 to marry. Many more cases of child marriage go unreported. According to a statement by Deputy Women, Family and Community Development Minister Heng Seai Kie in October, 16,000 girls aged below 15 in the country are married.

That the practice of child marriage continues to exist in Malaysia, often feted as a model Muslim-majority nation, should have prompted emphatic action by the authorities to address individual cases and more generally the root causes of child marriage. While we applaud Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil’s long-standing condemnation of child marriage, we deplore statements by other government officials and religious authorities giving tacit approval to the practice or passing off responsibility to the Syariah Court to determine its “permissibility”. No marriage of a minor child can be deemed acceptable.

The onset of puberty is no indication of sufficient maturity for marriage. While the Qur'an does not state a specific age as the age of marriage, Surah an-Nisa' 4:6 requires that when orphans reach the “age of marriage” or “a marriageable age” they can be tested for “sound judgment” or “maturity of mind”. This indicates that a marriageable age is linked to soundness of judgment and maturity of mind. A child below the age of 18 cannot be said to have the life experience necessary to assume marriage responsibilities. There is no sound reason why her family and her intended groom cannot wait until she reaches the age of majority before asking for her consent to marry.

We note that Muslim-majority countries globally are taking steps to address child marriage as a problem. A man was jailed in Indonesia for sexually abusing a minor after he married a 12-year-old girl, and even Saudi authorities are mulling over a ban on child marriage. These follow the example of other Muslim countries despite opposition from conservatives, mindful that studies on child marriage point to harm suffered by children, particularly girls: the loss of childhood and adolescence, the denial of freedom and personal development, difficulty in accessing education, health problems due to early pregnancies, and abuse.

Finally, SIS further calls on all levels of governance and religious authority to respect and implement the Child Act 2001, and honour Malaysia’s commitments in ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

Yasmin Masidi

Senior Programme Officer for Media and Communications

Sisters in Islam

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