THE recent announcement by Malacca Chief Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam that Muslim children in the state will be allowed to marry just boggles the mind. According to Ali Rustam, who is also Malacca Islamic Religious Council chairperson, allowing child marriages will help curb teenage pregnancy and baby dumping, and prevent pregnant teenagers from being thrown out by their families. He also said it would prevent these teenagers from becoming prostitutes in order to earn a living.
Correct us if we’re wrong, but since when was allowing children to marry a solution to teenage pregnancy and prostitution? How exactly did Ali Rustam and the religious council reach this decision? What factors did they take into account?
Did they look at studies about what causes teenage pregnancies and what are the best ways to prevent them? What evidence do they have that allowing child marriages will decrease the number of children born out of wedlock or incidences of baby-dumping? Are there any successful precedents in the world or history of child marriages helping to curb teenage pregnancies?
It seems ludicrous to even have to list out the negative consequences of child marriages. Extensive studies and research have shown the deleterious effects of such marriages, especially for girls. Child marriages may results in girls being forced into sexual activity when they are not yet physically or emotionally mature, with long-term negative consequences.
Early marriage has also been shown to have a direct correlation to the level of education a girl child receives. A low level of education increases the child’s vulnerability to abuse, poor health and acute poverty. It is thus unsurprising to find that child brides are more likely to experience domestic violence and least likely to take action against such abuse.
United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) studies indicate that child marriages are often a reaction to extreme poverty in mostly rural areas. And yet, here we are in Malaysia, supposedly on its way to high income economy status, propagating child marriages as a solution to teenage pregnancies.
Allowing child marriages also clearly flies in the face of local and international best practices. “Child marriages amounts to paedophilia,” Women’s Aid Organisation executive director Ivy Josiah points out. “We should not condone child marriages.”
Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil and Puteri Umno chief Datuk Rosnah Abdul Rashid Shirlin have also made strongly worded statements against child marriages.
The verdict, internationally and locally, is clear. Child marriages have serious consequences on children’s wellbeing and opportunities. It also goes against the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), both ratified by Malaysia. So why then, did Ali Rustam and the Malacca religious council make such a decision?
Abstinence-only sex education
Before we answer that, let’s consider the decision of another government that ignored extensive research into the causes and best prevention methods for teenage pregnancies.
In 2003, President George W Bush‘s administration allocated a budget of US$135 million for abstinence-only sex education programs in schools. Such programs taught students to abstain from sex before marriage. They, however, generally they did not include information on the use of condoms or the prevention of sexually-transmitted infections (STIs).
This was despite numerous well-respected studies that indicated that comprehensive sex education was more successful at curbing teenage pregnancies and STIs. The studies also showed that teaching children about contraception and STIs did not increase the frequency of sex or decrease the initiation age for sex. In fact, some studies showed that comprehensive programs delayed the age of sexual initiation and decreased the frequency of sex compared to abstinence-only programs.
These studies, however, were completely ignored or conveniently sidestepped by the Bush administration. Sure enough, five years later, a Centre for Disease Control and Prevention report indicated that despite, or because of, Bush’s abstinence-only programs, teenage pregnancies and STIs in the US were once again on the rise.
So, why did Bush’s, and now Ali Rustam’s, administration ignore established research that clearly show their plans of action to be flawed? Here are some possible reasons:
Misplaced religious fervour
Sex outside wedlock is generally frowned upon both in Christianity and in Islam. Perhaps Bush was and Ali Rustam is trying to use their respective positions of power to influence public policy in a manner consistent with their own religious beliefs.
But whatever a leader’s beliefs, decisions which influence individual lives, especially the lives of children, require more than a political leader’s own interpretation of what their religious belief calls them to do. It requires a thorough consideration of what impact their decisions would have especially on those affected by them. This thorough consideration is clearly lacking in both the Bush and Ali Rustam case.
The question then is, do leaders like Bush and Ali Rustam believe that their respective faiths call on them to act in ways which defy fact-based research, expert evidence and social realities?
Bush and Ali Rustam both seem to be living in a fantasy world as far as their decisions on preventing teenage pregnancies are concerned. Just because students are told to abstain from sex doesn’t mean they will do so. Denying them information about contraception and STIs merely means teenagers will be unprepared and uninformed when they do initiate sex or find themselves in situations where they don’t know how to say “No”.
And as for allowing child marriages as a way to decrease teenage pregnancies, surely, having sanctioned sex within a marriage would result in more, not less, teenage pregnancies?
Calculated political move
More insidiously, Bush and Ali Rustam may just have been playing to a gallery whom they assume is populated with religious conservatives who will applaud their respective decisions.
Conservative Christians have become increasingly influential in US politics and played a part in keeping Bush in office for a second term. Similarly, Umno has a long history of trying to out-Islamise PAS and this may just be yet another attempt at boosting Umno’s Islamic credentials. In proposing child marriages, Ali Rustam may be trying to prove he is a champion of Islam, going even where PAS does not tread.
It is alarming that our leaders appear willing to place their own political interest over the well-being and development of the nation’s children. It’s time politicians like Ali Rustam realised that policy-making is not their personal political playground, but involves serious thought and consideration due to the consequences it brings to individual lives.
Slapping the term “Islamic” on a decision doesn’t mean that the policy need not subscribe to the realities on the ground or that it can ignore proven research and international best practices. After all, what religion, be it Islam, Christianity or any of the faiths practised in Malaysia, would allow its adherents to abuse their beliefs to formulate stupid, irrational or harmful policies?
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