Today in a parliamentary written reply to Petaling Jaya MP Maria Chin Abdullah, Women, Family and Community Development minister Rina Harun said that child marriages are on a downward trend. In 2018, the Statistics Department reported 1,856 child marriages. This figure dropped to 1,459 in 2019 and to 1,124 in 2020. No figure was provided for 2021.
The written reply briefly touched on the National Strategy Plan in Handling the Causes of Child Marriage and announced the formation of a steering committee to monitor the Plan’s implementation, which will continue till 2025. However, no insights on the Plan’s status were provided.
This raises questions. First, what is the figure for 2021? A Malaysian Insight article reported that child marriages still occurred despite the Covid-19 pandemic. Pandemic-driven poverty saw families marrying off their daughters to reduce financial stress. Another pandemic trend was an increase in school dropouts. Between March 2020 till July 2021, 21,316 students dropped out of schools. As it already stands, most child brides drop out of school or college, especially in poorer areas.
As a result, we have teenagers – not even yet young adults – starting families, without education qualifications which may cost them decent jobs later in their lives. This traps families in a cycle of generational poverty, as well as having long-term implications on the state and productivity of Malaysia’s workforce.
Second, how is the Ministry measuring the progress of the Strategy Plan? What are the metrics and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for the 6 factors outlined in the Plan?
Third, who sits in the steering committee? Is there sufficient and diverse representation among the relevant ministries such as the Ministry of Education (MOE), Ministry of Health (MOH), NGOs, state religious and community leaders?
The Minister can and must take full opportunity of the fact that two states have successfully increased the minimum age of marriage to 18 years old.
On 6 September 2018, Selangor led the way, becoming the 1st state to amend the Islamic Family Law (state of Selangor) Enactment and Syariah Court Civil Procedure (state of Selangor) Enactment to increase the minimum marriage age (from 16 to 18). Kedah recently followed, with an exception that allows Muslim girls under 18 to marry provided that the Syariah court approves.
Instead of relying on individual states to change, the Minister and her deputy should tackle child marriage more aggressively instead of providing generic written replies in Parliament.
Our children deserve to enjoy their childhood, to receive quality education, and be empowered to make their own decisions as to when and who to marry in the future.
LIM YI WEI
Kampung Tunku State Assemblyperson