Malaysia to raise marriage age of girls to 18, scrap Islamic courts' power to grant exemption

Rights activists say Islamic courts' waiver is misused by rapists who marry underage girls.

A woman stands in front of a shop which sells wedding dresses. Reuters

Malaysia has proposed to increase the minimum age for marriage from 16 to 18 for Muslim girls. The Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development said this move will not only enhance social protection for minors but also prevent teenage pregnancy which has become a rising concern in the Southeast Asian country.

According to reports in 2013, 2014 and 2015, the number of child pregnancies in Malaysia was 17,588, 17,588 and 13,800 respectively.

"Although the numbers seem to be trending downwards, there are cases that go unreported in this country," said Aegile Fernandez, a women's rights activist from Tenaganita, as reported by Channel News Asia.

Currently in Malaysia, Muslim girls below the age of 16 can get married with the permission of Islamic courts. However, child rights activists argue that this permission is too easily granted and often misused by rapists who marry their underage victims to avoid jail terms. The experts also say the girls as young as 13 years are married of to avoid disrespect in society.

"Now it's 16 for girls, 18 for boys...We are not very happy with that; we want to push it to 18 for girls. We are doing this through awareness campaigns, and by going around various states to let people know why we are proposing the age increase," Minister Rohani Abdul Karim said.

Will this curb child rapes?

While speaking at a child rights forum organised by UNICEF in Kuala Lumpur, the minister said that a special task force, with the country's law minister as the head, has been formed to look into the matter and make necessary amendments to the law.The department has also engaged several stakeholders, including various state religious affairs authorities, to push the proposed amendment for the existing law.

When the minister was asked if there would be specific laws prevent rapists marrying their victims and avoiding punishment, she said that it is also in the plan. "We are looking at it to the extent of defining what is rape, all forms of rape. We are aiming to further strengthen these laws," said the minister, according to the news portal.


Meanwhile, rights activists say the government has a mammoth task in front of it. Experts argue that the implementation of the new rules will be extremely challenging as society lacks change in mindset.

"The law is only one aspect, implementation is another...It's high time the country raise the minimum age and end all child marriages," said Mah Weng Kwai, commissioner of Suhakam (Human Rights Commission of Malaysia), as reported.

Shariha Khalid, co-founder of social enterprise Impact Hub Kuala Lumpur, said that until and unless there is a change in the outlook of society nothing much can be done. "It's really up to the society, it's not about fixing the minimum age for marriage, it's about raising public awareness," he said.