Malaysia: Increase in marriages involving underage Muslims in the Federal Territory

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News Focus

THERE was an increase in marriages involving underage Muslims in the Federal Territory last year. This goes against the assumption that child marriages are now on the decline due to changing cultural trends. Last year, 49 Muslim girls under 16 years of age and 39 boys under 18 tied the knot. According to the statistics provided by the Federal Territory Religious Department, this number was higher compared with the previous year.

Under Islamic family law, only girls and boys aged at least 16 and 18 and above respectively, can marry.

Only the syariah court can grant permission for younger children to marry.

In 2008, 40 girls and 28 boys below the permitted age registered their marriages.

Chief Syariah Judge and Malaysian Syariah Judiciary Department director-general Tan Sri Ibrahim Lembut said, however, that the Syariah court does not "simply grant" its consent for marriages involving individuals aged 16 or below.

He said the conditions for Muslim marriages differed from that for non-Muslims and the syariah court would protect the interests of minors in marriages.

He added that chances of approval for children below 16 to marry were slim, and that applicants would have to meet strict criteria to prove that they were capable of building a solid and lasting marriage.

"We conduct an interview with both sets of parents present. We ask questions and find out if the child is mature enough to enter into marriage mentally and physically.

"We deliberate for a week before we give consent. Some girls, even at the age of 16, look frail. We will disallow the marriage as she may not be able to handle the burden of pregnancy and marital duties," he said when contacted.

Last week, the New Sunday Times reported that 479 Muslim children below 15 were found to be ready to tie the knot last year as revealed by the premarital HIV screening conducted by the Health Ministry, raising concern as to whether the concept of child marriages was alive and well in the country. Of the 479 children, 32 were below 10 years old.

Ibrahim said, however, that such cases were rare.

"Sometimes, in a year, there are no cases at all. In fact, when I was working in Malacca, there was only one such case.

"There are various reasons for young marriages. Some parents see it as the only option their daughter has"

Ibrahim said the procedure for underage couples who want to get married was similar in other states.

However, it has been reported that while most states require the consent of the girl and do not allow marriages by compulsion, the Kelantan enactment allows a Muslim girl's marriage to be solemnised without her consent, when the wali is her father or paternal grandfather.

Ibrahim warned Muslim parents that they could be charged if they married their children off without the syariah court's permission.

Selangor Islamic Religious Department director Datuk Mohd Khusrin Munawi said underage children who wanted to get married needed to go through the same procedure as other couples.

However, the couple's marriage application can be approved only by the syariah court.

"The couple need to fulfil the criteria -- an agreement from both sides and the consent of the girl's father. With these, the court will know whether the couples are entering into the marriage willingly."

Khusrin said the department had recently received an application from a 14-year-old girl from Hulu Langat and the court permitted her to tie the knot as she was the one who wanted to get married.

"We also had a case where a boy below 18 applied to get married and his application was granted by the court.

"However, such cases are rare because today, couples cannot be forced into marriage."

He said the main reason for early marriages was that "it is the request of the couples themselves".

It was also reported last week that, according to the 2000 Census, there were 11,400 children below 15 years of age who were married -- 6,800 girls and 4,600 boys.

Of the 6,800 girls, 2,450 were Malays. The remaining were non-Malays, comprising 1,550 other Bumiputeras, 1,600 Chinese, 600 Indians and 600 others.