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Child Marriage & Teen Pregnancies: Addressing the Root Causes, Not the Symptoms

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The G-Blog’s forum on Child Marriage: Setting Our Children Up To Fail was held at the recent Art For Grabs at Urbanscapes House, Kuala Lumpur. The conversation that flowed from the forum was incredible. The combination of speakers, topped off with a clearly invested audience, proved the forum to be successful in all the ways the team had imagined it to be when they cracked their heads together and decided to do another one this year.
For those who did not follow the event, the speakers were (in no particular order): Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) youth leader Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, DAP lawmaker YB Teo Nie Ching, former Terengganu mufti and chief Shariah judge, Datuk Ismail Yahya, and Vice President of Voice of the Children Dr. Hartini Zainudin. It was a great blend of youthful opinions and experiential wisdom.

Understanding the definition of a “child” and “maturity”

Before we start, I must pose to you this question – how do we define a ‘child’? Just take a second to think about the question, when did you cease to become a child and become a woman, or a man?
Under the Child Act 2001, a “child” means a person under the age of 18, or, if in relation to a criminal proceeding, means a person who has attained the age of criminal responsibility as prescribed in section 82 of the Penal Code. The age of criminal responsibility under the said Code is 12 years old. Under Malaysian civil law, it is illegal for a girl to get married if she is below 16 years old; under the same law, she can be legally married at 16 with the permission of the state minister. Under Syariah law, however, the laws are more ambiguous and circumstantial, with Syariah judges holding the power to provide consent to marriages below the age of 16. So 12, 16, or 18 – at what age do you cease to become a child?
The purpose of this question is to set context for this discussion.
I think it is extremely pertinent to note the difference between teenage pregnancy, teenage marriage, “child” pregnancy, and “child” marriage. Each of these scenarios may very well exist in silos independent of the other – and it all depends on how we define the word “child”. The question of a person’s “maturity”– one that was posed several times to the speakers – could not seem to garner a universally agreed definition. Saddiq offered his views, saying it is subjective and dependent on a number of factors, to which I agree.
It is interesting to note that half a century ago, girls at the age of 15 were already married off and already started bearing child at 16 years old, sometimes younger. One could rationalise that the mental state of women back then were drastically different than the women now. At 14, most were already trained at domestic skills and housekeeping duties, preparing them to fulfil their sole purpose in life as a home maker – a societal norm that was a lot more entrenched back then.
Arguably, perhaps due to the expanding average life span of an individual, as well as the increase in educational and economic opportunities presented to women, we find that nowadays women are discovering that there are an increasingly varied ways to live one’s life, not just as mothers and wives, but also as a career-oriented individuals with personal goals and aspirations.
So what exactly are the harms of early pregnancy and marriage? We can attempt to explore this question from a myriad of angles. At the forum, a question was asked by a researcher from the University of Nottingham: “has there been any research or attempt at research done to provide insights unto the medical harms of early pregnancy?”
This question piqued my interest. With the objective of providing a well-informed and balanced opinion, I set out to do some light research. The conclusion I drew was this: it is a difficult question, one that has been debated many a time in the process of constructing public policy. While there is a general consensus that girls between the ages of 13-15 are more predisposed towards fatal pregnancy outcomes due to gynecological immaturity, the evidence is wide and varied for those aged 16 and above due to external factors.
You can see why this would be a difficult question to answer – factors such as the mother’s physical and nutritional health, access to clean facilities and modern medical services (which would be lower in developing or third world countries) play a part in affecting low birthrates, preterm, and neonatal and maternal mortality. In most research papers I came across, the results always contained a caveat of external circumstantial factors, such as the ones mentioned above.
From a psychological perspective, I believe most of the mental and emotional problems faced by teen mothers are due to an inadequate support system, lack of opportunities, societal stigma, and undue pressure. We need to ask then – is the baby the cause of the psychological implications? Or is it the absence of economic and emotional support from her husband, family and society the cause of this stress?
More so than anything, this points to the most salient implication of socioeconomic risks and disadvantages that teenage mothers face. Low educational achievement, socioeconomic deprivation, poor transition to work from school, sexual abuse, and drug abuse are some of the factors stemming from teenage pregnancy. In these cases, one needs to ask – would she not have had her baby, had she known of these risks? Another question would be, had she known the full risks, but had a support system and a supportive partner, would she have thrown away the baby?
If a mother is left to defend for herself and her baby alone should her young husband leave her (which happens in a significant number of cases), what are the available avenues that she can turn to? Dr. Tini so aptly also questioned the absence of census on divorce rates. We have the statistics for marriages below the age of 18; why don’t we have the divorce statistics?
In addition to asking why does teenage pregnancy happen, we should also be asking why aren’t the fathers of these children being held accountable?

Is early marriage the solution to pregnancies out of wedlock?

Dato Ismail stated that in most Shariah court cases, the application for child marriages are usually made by parents when their daughters are impregnated out of wedlock. This is due to the societal and religious stigma attached to sex outside of marriage, and is driven by the belief that by marrying their daughters off, they might somewhat salvage their family name and dignity. YB Teo also stated that this is a similar issue faced by the non-Muslim communities as people feel that child marriages are the solution to the increasing numbers of teen pregnancy and baby dumping cases.
So if such a mindset pervades the very core of our society – our family structure – will implementing a blanket ban work if we do not address the root causes of this issue?
In Malaysia, the legal age of consent is 16 years old. Below 16, it is considered statutory rape, regardless of whether there was consent on the part of the girl. Here, I would like to share a piece of information gathered through my conversations with various female friends and acquaintances. It may startle some readers to know that: many girls have their first encounter with sex below the age of 16. This includes current working class professionals and business owners, whose backgrounds vary as widely as a politician’s opinion in a week.
From this, I can only comment on the law of nature; parliamentary law may dictate one thing, but if it goes against natural instincts or tries to inhibit the demands of a free market, humans will find a way to get to it, one way or another. So then, how do we stop teen pregnancy? We surely cannot stop teens from having sex – not even in (or perhaps especially in!) religious schools, boarding schools or rural areas.
What this means is that raising the age of marriage still will not solve the issue of teenage pregnancy, as YB Teo observed. Even a look at our statistics on child marriages shows a gaping flaw in our system. According to the 2000 Population and Housing Census, it was revealed that 6,800 girls under the age of 15 were married, with Selangor recording the highest number, followed by Sabah. Malays recorded the highest incidence of child marriage at 2,450, followed by other bumiputeras 1,550, Chinese 1,600, Indians 600 and others 600. There is a clear discrepancy between the law and implementation – how do such numbers exist?
While implementing a blanket ban on marriages below of 16 for both Muslims and non-Muslims may be a commendable move forward, it has to be complemented with a sustainable education strategy. For some rural folk, marriage is the only way out of poverty, a chance at a better life. Surely, these should not be aspirations for marriage! Yet, this belief holds true for many of them – more true than we urban folk could ever appreciate.
My greatest ask for us to function as a conscious society, is to identify the root cause of a problem and address it, instead of merely addressing the symptoms; we should not merely snip off the branches of a toxic organism, yet leave the roots to grow deeper. We need to ask the right questions: Why are we cultivating a society which villainizes sex outside of marriage, yet allows a rapist to marry his victim? Why is poverty so pervasive in parts of our nation that a young girl would believe she’d have a safer and more secure future by being married off to an older family friend? Why do we legally allow sex at 16, but provide no sexual education during the pubescent years leading up to that age?
To protect children, we must empower them. To empower them, we must educate them (I got this line from the Talisman Project, who came up on stage shortly after the forum ended). The key here is not just to provide a more comprehensive sex education to boys and girls, but also to educate a woman on her rights and opportunities in life, as well as provide sufficient support system to wives, mothers as well as children born out of wedlock.
Societal issues are not black and white – they cannot be resolved by attempting to cure the symptoms only. Let’s dig deep and keep the conversation going.

Where The Women At?

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By Tariq Maketab

Last Sunday at The School, Jaya One, a forum was organised by the G-Blog in conjunction with the latest edition of Art for Grabs. The issue at hand: the participation, or lack thereof, of women in the political arena. The seats were packed with a fair gender balance of audience members, intrigued to hear what the panelists had to say.

The 4-person panel featured members from both sides of the political aisle and had a mix of youth and experience: Yeo Bee Yin of DAP and the Selangor state assemblywoman for Damansara Utama; Dr. Faies, an advocate for mental healthcare and President of the Healthcare Bureau of Puteri UMNO; Jasmine Ho, an accomplished international debater and final-year law student from Universiti Teknologi MARA; and Aishwarya Adaikalaraj, award-winning public speaker and freelance writer. Emellia Shariff, founder of the G-Blog and advocate for women’s empowerment, moderated the forum.

KLAB of Bros: Is Indie Publishing Alternative Enough?

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by Lalitha Monisha

Last Saturday, the G-Blog in conjunction with the KL Alternative Bookfest 2016 + Art for Grabs conducted a forum that aimed to dissect the gender issues that revolve around the local indie publishing scene. Whilst there was some confusion surrounding the theme and focus matter of the forum, the event ran smoothly and served its ultimate purpose of creating an open space for dialogue and conversation.


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