When a 41-year-old Malaysian Muslim took an 11-year-old Thai girl as his third wife recently, the underage union was publicly trashed. But, in many ways, it was also textbook. The case seems to encapsulate the main drivers of child marriage. Defined by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) as a union of a girl or boy before the age of 18, child marriage is considered a violation of a child’s rights.
Poverty, lack of education and loose minimum age of marriage across the region are all cited as a reason for underage unions. Girls with no education are three times as likely to marry by 18 as those with secondary or high school education, according to Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of over 700 civil societies to end child marriages. And the Islamic laws in Malaysia sidestep the civil law that sets the minimum age of marriage at 18 years old. Syariah court judges may use their discretion to permit marriages below the legal age, as long as their parents or guardian agree.
The 11-year-old bride, known only as ‘Ayu’, checks all the boxes. The migrant girl lives in a wooden house with no running water and does not attend school. She tied the knot with the polygamous 41-year-old, Che Abdul Karim Che Abdul Hamid, under Islamic law.
On one hand, the widely-criticised union is a neat narrative laying out why underage unions happen. The region sees one of the highest prevalences globally, with Indonesia ranking 7th, the Philippines 12th, and Thailand 19th. On the other hand, the case may be a little too neat – forces behind child marriage in the diverse region resist simple explanations.
Take the Islamic law factor. According to a parliamentary reply by the Malaysian Women, Family and Community Development Ministry, there were 1,845 marriages under the age of 18 recorded last year. Of this figure, more than half (52%) were actually non-Muslim marriages. “We [Malaysians] have always been led to believe that it is a Muslim issue. It is not,” says Meera Samanther, vice-president of the Women’s Aid Organisation in Malaysia.
Poverty also makes shaky reason when taking into account that nearly one in six girls among the richest households in Indonesia marry before turning 18. Thailand, an upper middle-income country, has higher child marriage prevalence compared with poorer Cambodia and the Philippines. Meera believes that framing child marriage as problems of a particular religious or economic group obscures the real driver of underage marriages – our teens are having sex, and getting pregnant.
Southeast Asian youths may enter different types of unions. One, traditional child marriages that are arranged, usually without the kid’s consent. Two, love marriages between peers that both parties consented to. Three, circumstantial marriage to accommodate a circumstance like pregnancy, whether a result of consensual sex or rape. As Grace Agcaoili, child protection specialist of Unicef’s East Asia and the Pacific Regional Office, puts it, “it is not all about the traditional forced child marriage” in our region.
There are also prevalent double standards in the region that expect women to remain chaste before marriage while men are egged on to initiate or even coerce sex. Gender norms and legislative barriers in the region further impede unmarried, adolescent girls’ access to reproductive health services and contraception.
When pregnancies happen, shame kicks in because unwed girls are expected to be virgins. The social stigma on a teen mother typically spurs her into marriage, sometimes to her own rapist. She would face little resistance, or a lot of pressure, to do so if her parents think that a girl’s value lies in being a good housewife and mother – a common Asian belief that also drives people, often fathers or grandfathers, to force or arrange marriage for young girls. All these show that, amidst the tangle of factors behind each union, they are tied together by a common thread: patriarchy.
“The implication of underage marriage is like a saw blade: it will eat whether you push or pull. There’s good and bad,” a Syariah court judge in Malaysia told researchers of a working paper on child marriages for Unicef Malaysia this year. The researchers, Noor Aziah Mohd Awal and Mohd Al Adib Samuri, found that many judges they spoke to are in two minds about child marriages. But this hardly stopped them from greenlighting the nuptials.
Analysis of case files from the Malaysian Syariah courts of seven states showed that out of 2,143 applications for child marriage from 2012 to 2016, only 10 were rejected. These marriages, according to the working paper, were approved on grounds including avoiding the birth of an illegitimate child, protecting a pregnant girl’s reputation, reducing shame, controlling daughters and avoiding illicit contact or behaviour. In other words, they believe getting married is for the adolescent girl and her baby’s own good – an assumption steeped in gender bias.
This is not distinctive to Muslims. Across Southeast Asia, parents and authorities of various religions and cultural backgrounds justify child marriages with similar reasons. But underage unions are neither in the best interest of the child brides nor their babies. The hiked chances of conceiving from these marriages mean higher chances of death – obstetrics and childbirth complications are the global leading cause of death for girls aged 15 to 19, whose bodies are barely mature enough for pregnancy.
This is on top of the higher risk of depression, sexually transmitted infections and cervical cancer. Their offspring also incur more risk of premature birth and, subsequently, neonatal or infant death. Studies show that child marriage usually spells the end of a girl’s education, which cages her in more poverty and exclusion.
Patriarchy translates into an even darker fate for minor girls in Vietnam – they are sold as brides to China. The illegal but thriving trade commonly involves children, according to Vietnamese police. In Vietnam, the prevalence among girls aged 15 to 19 years who were married almost doubled between 2006 and 2014, according to United Nations numbers.
“There can be little doubt that bride-trafficking is, at its core, a profound expression of gender discrimination,” writes Heidi Stöckl, director of the Gender Violence and Health Centre at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, in an article. Stöckl had done a study last year on bride-trafficking in Vietnam. During her interviews with the trafficked women, including teens, nearly all reported sexual violence by their Chinese husbands. A higher proportion also reported physical violence and no freedom to leave their lodgings.
Escaping such marriages offers no respite. “Returning to Vietnam, they face stigmatisation because they were married to a foreigner, even though (some were tricked into the marriage). Vietnamese women are also commonly trafficked for prostitution, so when someone comes back from being trafficked, they are assumed to have worked as a prostitute even though that may not be true,” Stöckl tells UNRESERVED. She adds that these women are often in “worse economic conditions than before they left”.
LOOKING TEEN SEXUALITY IN THE EYE
Southeast Asia is getting a wake-up call on the burden of child marriages. Indonesia, where child marriage costs 1.7% of the GDP, is preparing a presidential decree to amend its marriage law that allows minors to wed. Malaysia’s newly elected government is also under pressure to fix the minimum legal age of marriage at 18 in the country, as promised in its election manifesto. Selangor recently passed amendments to several Islamic laws to raise the permissible age for Muslim girls to marry in Selangor from 16 to 18, although minors can still obtain permission from the Syariah court to marry.
Agcaoili adds that currently, there is a lack of legal and policy commitment to recognise adolescent sexuality. She emphasises that comprehensive sexuality education must be provided at an early age to girls and boys both in and out of school. Contrary to popular assumptions, it does not increase sexual activity, but is core to empowering teens to protect themselves from teen pregnancy and address early unions.
She praises Thailand’s Adolescent Pregnancy Bill which states that schools will provide sexuality studies conducted by trained teachers, set up protection nets for pregnant students and improve youths’ access to reproductive health services. “The youth themselves must be at the heart of the solution. Young people know what information they need and how to reach one another,” she says.
According to a study in India, cash transfer programmes to support young girls to stay in school were also able to delay their marriages until 18 years old. Stöckl believes that any measures to curb child marriages should be accompanied with retraining of gender norms. One big step could simply be teaching parents of adolescents to make decisions together.
In the Unicef Malaysia study, among underage female participants who were pregnant but did not marry, the researchers found that “decision about the marriage was often made collectively within the family and was not monopolised by a male voice, such as the child’s father”. Half of these participants revealed that the voice of opposition against marriage was female – usually a mother, sister or an aunt – who was of the opinion that they were too young and needed to continue their studies, or get a job.
A woman also played a pivotal role in the case of Che Abdul Karim taking an 11-year-old wife, which has sparked local and international media attention, viral social media discussions, scrutiny on marriage laws and a police investigation. Amidst the hubbub, it is easy to overlook that the first ‘whistleblower’ was not a lawmaker or civil activist or journalist. It was the one who leaked the photos of the wedding ceremony online, and later lodged a police report against the man for marrying a preteen – his second wife, Siti Noor Azila.
This feature was first published in its entirety in the November 2018 issue of UNRESERVED.