Calls to End Child Marriages in Malaysia After 12-Year-Old Weds

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — The marriage of a 12-year-old Malaysian girl has outraged advocates for children and women, who called Monday for a ban on child marriage.

The girl, Nor Fazira Saad, married her boyfriend, Mohammad Fahmi Alias, 19, on Nov. 17 and the groom’s family held a celebration last Saturday, according to local news media reports.

In Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country, the legal marrying age is 16 for Muslim girls and 18 for Muslim men. However, they can marry before those ages with the permission of their parents and the Shariah courts.

For non-Muslims, the minimum legal age is 18, though a girl can marry as young as 16 with permission from her state’s chief minister. Azmi bin Abdul Rejab, a marriage registration officer at the Islamic religious office in Kulim, a town in the northern state of Kedah, confirmed that the Shariah court there had given Nor Fazira permission to marry.

“It is good that we are marrying early, rather than risk being in an illicit relationship,” Mr. Mohammad Fahmi was quoted as saying by The Star newspaper in its Sunday editions.

Nor Fazira told the newspaper that she had stopped attending school last year but now planned to resume her studies, as her husband had encouraged her to do so. The girl’s father, Saad Mustafa, supported the marriage, telling the local news media that it was better for the couple to get married than do something “improper.”

A report released this month by the United Nations Country Team Gender Theme Group found that in 2011, Malaysia’s Shariah courts had approved 824 marriages involving Muslims in which at least one party was younger than the legal age. The report did not look at marriages involving non-Muslims. Researchers suspect that the overall number of underage marriages is higher because not all couples who have taken part in religious weddings register with the authorities.

Ratna Osman, the executive director of Sisters in Islam, a Muslim women’s advocacy group in Kuala Lumpur, said that the 2000 census showed that 6,800 girls and 4,600 boys younger than 15 were married. The 2010 census did not include similar data.

Ms. Ratna argued that the government should raise the minimum marriage age for everyone to 18, rather than allow Shariah courts or state ministers to make exceptions for younger children.

“How did the judge determine that a 12-year-old was ready for marriage?” she asked. She noted that having sex with a 12-year-old girl who is not one’s wife is considered statutory rape under Malaysian law.

“Yet once you do it under the name of marriage, she is no longer a minor? Her body has suddenly transformed into an adult body?” Ms. Ratna said. “You would be charged under the law on statutory rape but get permission from the court and suddenly it’s O.K. to have sex with a 12-year-old.”

Sharmila Sekaran, chairwoman of Voice of the Children, a rights group in Kuala Lumpur, also said the government should outlaw child marriage.

“This should not be happening regardless of the fact that the parents had consented. I don’t think parents should be allowed to consent for children the age of 12,” she said. “There has been research done which shows that children at the age of 12 are not sufficiently mature to understand their role within a marriage and certainly in terms of becoming parents; they themselves are still children.”

Ms. Sharmila added that studies had found that young girls who become pregnant and their babies faced greater health risks than older women.

But Nazri Aziz, the government minister responsible for legal affairs, said the government had no plans to amend the law regarding the minimum legal age of marriage “because it concerns Islamic law.”

He said the government could not pass any law that would be inconsistent with Islamic law.

The United Nations report included Malaysian census data showing that in 2010, about 1.4 percent of married women, or more than 82,000, were 15 to 19, up from 1.2 percent, or about 53,000, in 2001.

The researchers interviewed six girls and one boy who married below the legal age and found that their reasons for getting married included to avoid premarital sex, which is forbidden under Islam; to avoid being arrested for khalwat, an Islamic offense in which unmarried men and women are found together in “close proximity”; coercion by family elders; and pregnancy.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: November 27, 2012

Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of the government minister responsible for legal affairs in Malaysia. He is Nazri Aziz, not Zziz. The article also misidentified the United Nations agency that produced the report on child marriage. It is the Country Team Gender Theme Group, not the Population Fund.