A 15-year-old girl from the city of Kota Bharu in Kelantan, Malaysia, was married off as a second wife to a 44-year-old man, prompting outrage and condemnation.
The girl’s father, Che Rahim Che Deraman, said he consented to the marriage in the hopes that his daughter would escape poverty and live a better life with the man.
“Life had been tough for us. I raised my 13 children with a measly income from my small sundry shop. I could barely make RM300 (S$99) a month,” he local media outlet the Star. "But, I have managed to raise my children and they are all now married. My youngest daughter is also happily married although she is still a minor," he said.
The marriage has been met with public outrage — but it’s not illegal.
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Malaysia has dual legal system, which accommodates the religious practices of its diverse population. Under civil, secular law, the minimum age of marriage in the country 18, but girls can be married before they turn 16 under civil law with the permission of the chief minister of their state. However, with the approval of a Sharia court, Muslim girls can be married in Malaysia at any age. A married man seeking to enter into a polygamous marriage must also obtain the permission of the Sharia court and his current wife or wives in Malaysia.
The girl’s father said that the marriage was approved and formalized in the Tumpat district of Kelantan in July, the Star Online reported.
The union, and Che Rahim’s justification for it, have both been heavily criticized.
“It now appears that poverty can also be a reason accepted by the Sharia court to approve an application for marriage of an underage child, which in turn seems to treat children as mere commodities,” Razali Ismail, chairman of Malaysia’s Human Rights Commission, said.
UNICEF also weighed in on the case and called on the Malaysian government to ban child marriage.
The teen told the Star Online that she is not worried by others’ criticism of her marriage.
“People can say what they like … I am happy and I will try to keep my husband happy. That is all that matters to me,” she said.
Malaysia also made international headlines in July over the marriage of an 11-year-old Thai girl to a 41-year-old Malaysian man, which took place in the same state. However, the marriage was deemed illegal as the man did not get court permission to marry the child.
Despite the public outcry and violation, he was fined just 1,800 Malaysian Ringgit (about $450) — a slap on the wrist.
These recent high profile cases have renewed calls for stronger child protection laws and for child marriage to be banned in Malaysia and the government has said it is working with Malaysia's top Islamic body, the National Fatwa Council, to raise the minimum marriage age to 18.
But doing so means navigating the country’s complex dual justice system, which could slow efforts to reform the law.
“We want to raise the age of marriage to 18 years and above,” Wan Azizah Wan Ismail — Malaysia’s deputy prime minister and minister of women, family and community development — told the New York Times in August. “We have the political will to do that, but I have to engage all the stakeholders. That takes some time.”
Approximately 16,000 girls below the age of 15 were married in Malaysia in 2010, according to the country’s family and community development deputy minister. But globally more than 650 million girls and women alive today were married as children.
Poverty and lack of education are major drivers of child marriage worldwide. And though both boys and girls around the world may be victims of child marriage, young girls are disproportionately forced to marry before they are ready.