Considering the rights of the child and examining the real reasons behind the abhorrent and cruel practice of child marriages that are so often justified by perpetrators with religious doctrine.
I’ve come across many comments justifying child marriages as an attempt to emulate the sunnah of our Prophet Muhammad. I find remarks of such nature not only offensive but also inaccurate. Having said that, I don’t think the 40-year old man’s intention to marry the 11-year old girl in Kelantan has anything to do with following the steps of the Prophet himself.
In fact most of the cases documented from all around the world showed that the child bride syndrome has nothing to do with religious doctrines. Girls are married off by their family to settle financial debts, to protect the family’s honor and in some disturbing cases, to pay homage to some distorted belief that it is best to marry fertile young virgins.
The fact that the Prophet’s marriage with Aisyah is being used to justify such an inhumane and cruel practice and attempting to “purify” such practice is a mockery to Islam. To understand what was really involved in the Prophet’s marriage requires a closer look at the sociological and cultural implications on how the idea of sexuality, puberty, and procreation was formulated during that time not only in the Islamic but also Western civilisation.
But to indulge in such debate would be pointless in dealing with the current realities of the child bride issue. As we let our socio-religious arguments take centre stage, more and more girls are being married off for reasons that are anything but religious. I would like to suggest for this troubling phenomenon to be analysed and condemned through the lenses of human rights and social justice.
The United Nations Children Fund’s (UNICEF) 2005 Report on “Early Marriage: A Traditional Harm”, amongst others, states how the existence of customary and religious laws in a society is one of the factors that encourages child marriage. However, the global assessment revealed that two of the main factors that may put a child at risk of being marriage early are poverty and lack of education.
In the study conducted, child marriage is most prevalent among the poorest 20% of the population in the countries analysed. The report suggested that the greatest disparity can be found in Peru where 45% of the poorest 20% compared to 5% of the 20% of the richest were married before they reached the age 18. The same trend was identified in the African continent. The poorer the women are – in countries like Zimbabwe, Nigeria, and Ghana – the higher the likelihood for them to be married as children.
Another important point made by the report is how the level of education increases the occurrence of early marriage. In the 42 countries where the study was conducted, women who at least received primary education were found to be less likely to be married by age 18 than those who do not.
The study further examined the profile of the married girls. Girls who are married are found to be living in the rural area, belong to the poorer section of the community, lack of access to primary education, and information pertaining to contraception and birth control, and have little or no decision making power at all. The small percentage of decision making power held by the married girls was attributed to decisions related to household chores but major decisions in the marriage are dictated by their spouse.
Some of the frightening effects of early marriage mentioned in the report are – the occurance domestic violence and the spread of HIV/AIDS. It is heart wrenching to read how young wives admitted to experiencing domestic violence and believing that such violence is justified.
I am of the view that the report further strengthens the notion that child marriage is not sanctioned by any religion but a practice motivated by economic pressure, patriarchal values, and human ignorance.
It is undeniable however, that during the controversy of the child marriage in Kelantan, one of the source of justification used to validate the marriage is the Kelantan Family Enactment. Although the specified Section referred to did not explicitly allow such marriages to take place, the State Enactment provides convenient lacunae for such practice to happen.
By allowing grounds such as “maturity” and “fertility” as reasonable determinants of marriage eligibility, the law has impliedly allowed for underage marriage to take place as the age of majority under the Syariah law is determined by the age of puberty and not 18 as determined under the civil law.
On that note, it was due to this very reason, too, that Malaysia reserved Article 1 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) upon accession of the treaty as the Article reiterates that a child is defined as a person aged below 18. (Emphasis by LoyarBurok)
Little do we realise that a child needs all the 18 years of space and time in its life to grow and develop. Even if a girl menstruates and hence technically has reached puberty at the age of 9, it is in her best interest and well being not to be coerced into a marriage which will isolate her from experiencing childhood and education. In some sad cases, once becoming a wife, the child’s freedom of movement and participation in society will be restricted and subject to the approval of the husband. One can only imagine how a little girl struggles to handle household chores, bearing and raising children of her own, and fulfilling the carnal desires of the husband.
Looking at the seriousness of the problem, it is important for one to understand that the crux of the matter is not religion but adults who have no regard and respect for the interest and well being of the children. These people can be anyone; Muslims, Christians or Hindus.
Therefore we must come out as one unified voice in solidarity against child marriage and to call for the repeal and elimination of laws or customs that support such practice.
Convention on the Rights of the Child (Malaysia acceded to the Convention in 1995 with seven reservations that are yet to be uplifted)
Conscience of a human being
Editorial Note: This post first appeared in the author’s blog here.