This month, Malaysia’s lower house amended the country’s Child Act 2001 without banning all marriage by girls and boys under the age of 18, as called for by several members of parliament and rights groups.
Absent from the debate was any appreciation of the core problem with child marriage - the real and lasting damage that early marriage causes to girls.
Around the world, there is overwhelming evidence that child marriage has devastating consequences for girls.
Married girls are unlikely to stay in school, and more likely to live in poverty. Married girls are more likely than women who marry at a later age to be the victims of domestic violence.
Child marriages often result in early pregnancy, which carries serious health risks - including death - for both girls and their babies.
Girls ages 15 to 19 are twice as likely to die during delivery than women ages 20 to 24.
Babies born to mothers under 20 years of age in low- and middle-income countries face a 50 percent higher risk of stillbirth or dying in the first few weeks, compared to babies born to mothers aged 20 to 29.
Permitting early marriage
While Malaysian civil law sets the minimum age of marriage at 18, the law is riddled with exceptions.
Girls 16 and older can marry with permission of their state’s chief minister.
For Muslims, Islamic law sets a 16-year minimum age for girls and permits even earlier marriages, with no apparent minimum, with the permission of a syariah court.
Statistics on the rate of child marriage in Malaysia are hard to pin down, but in 2010, the women, family and community development deputy minister reported that 16,000 girls aged below 15 in the country were married.
After a country visit to Malaysia in 2014, a United Nations special expert expressed concern about the prevalence of child marriage, noting that he was “very worried about information received indicating that, in an attempt to reduce the incidence of premarital sex, children born out of wedlock, and child abandonment, certain authorities are encouraging underage marriage.”
Globally, there has been increasing attention in recent years on the need to end child marriage.
Resolutions on child marriage in the United Nations Human Rights Council and the General Assembly helped pave the way for including child marriage in the 2016-2030 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
Sustainable Development Goal Five, on gender equality, includes nine targets, one of which is, “Eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage, and female genital mutilation.”
Countries around the world have developed national action plans on ending child marriage, and there has been significantly increased donor support for work to end child marriage.
Malaysia, by refusing to even reform its law to make child marriage illegal, is going against a global tide of progress on child marriage.
Marriage to cover crime
The persistence of child marriage is only one of a number of abuses of the rights of girls and women in Malaysia.
The Joint Action Group on Gender Equality, a coalition of Malaysian non-governmental organisations, has raised particular concern about situations in which rape victims have been forced to marry the rapist or another man to hush up the crime.
Children conceived, or suspected to have been conceived, out of wedlock are stigmatised.
A law making sex outside of marriage a crime isolates unmarried people, especially youth, from sexual and reproductive health services, and drives them into marriage through fear of prosecution.
In spite of a 2012 national policy on reproductive health and social education, girls and women struggle to access information about contraception and family planning services. Female genital mutilation - removal of external female genitalia for non-medical purposes - continues to be widely practiced.
After the lower house’s inaction on child marriage, the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) urged the government to amend all domestic laws to raise the legal age of marriage to 18. The Dewan Negara, the upper house of parliament, will now consider the version of the bill - Child (Amendment) Act 2015 - passed by the lower house.
Malaysia committed to ensuring equality for women and men when it ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 1995.
Prohibiting child marriage is a key element in making equal rights a reality in Malaysia.
The upper house should act to protect Malaysian girls of all faiths by amending the Child Act 2001 or adopting a new law making 18 the minimum age of marriage for all women and men, with no exceptions.
Heather Barr is a senior researcher on women’s rights at Human Rights Watch. Linda Lakhdir is a legal adviser in HRW’s Asia division.