Proper education can prevent child marriages, says activist

PETALING JAYA: A child rights activist today highlighted the importance of education in addressing the issue of child marriages, amid the public outrage over the marriage of 11-year-old Masaryu Mat Rashid to 41-year-old Che Abdul Karim Che Abdul Hamid.

Sharmila Sekaran

Speaking to FMT, Voices of the Children chairman Sharmila Sekaran questioned whether the parents and the “husband” were educated on issues relating to child marriage.

“Do the parents of the child understand the future impact on the child? Based on reports, the parents of the child are illiterate and what they think is best for the child may not be so.

“In their minds, they are thinking about how they would not be able to provide a better life for the child compared with the man who took her hand in marriage. But is this necessarily the case?”

Masaryu was reported as saying that she loved Che Abdul Karim and was happy to marry him.

She also said she was willing to wait five years, the length of time Che Abdul Karim said he would wait, before staying together as husband and wife.

Sharmila however asked whether a girl of that age understood what love meant in the context of marriage.

“Does she understand that this consent she is giving will bind her for life?

“For instance, how are we to be sure that she isn’t equating this love with her love for her teddy bear? Or her love towards her best friend? And what if tomorrow, she isn’t best friends with this person anymore?

“Does she understand that marriage also comes with the readiness to be a parent? Are her parents agreeing that she is ready to be a parent? All these come with education, and there is a huge lack of education especially among communities living in poverty,” she said.

Sharmila said she had encountered three other similar cases in the course of her work, within the Klang Valley and Negeri Sembilan.

“It isn’t a religious issue because it is happening across the board among people of other religions too. The population of Muslims is the largest in the country, that is why we hear more about it happening within the Muslim community.”

Sharmila added that there was a major link between poverty and child marriages.

“Why are these marriages happening more among communities that are facing poverty issues? Because the poverty level also determines if a child is getting an education or if the family can afford education for their children.

“Reports say that her siblings are not being educated, and it sounds like the 11-year-old too is not going to school at the moment.

“Without education, she will not be able to understand what she is giving consent to (marriage and becoming a parent).”

Giving the example of teenagers in relationships, Sharmila said such affairs generally did not last.

“If you speak to teenagers, most of their relationships don’t last and it is the parents who need to console them when a relationship fails,” she said.

Sharmila added that in her line of work as an activist with Voices of the Children, she had met individuals who were filled with regret over agreeing to marriage when they were teenagers.

“We have come in contact with individuals in their 20s, who were married in their teens. They tell us about how they wish they knew more about the decisions they had made, how they wish they had delayed getting children or thought about the consequences of getting a child,” she said.

She added that the government would need to update existing data on child marriages as these were outdated by 10 years.

“From what we read, Selangor has the most cases but that is based on the population of the state. It is followed by that of Sabah and Kelantan.

“Most of these cases happen in the more rural areas, like in Sabah, as there is very little structure within the home. Also, expectations within such homes are different from those in an urban home, largely because they are not educated in the school system.

“They don’t understand what ‘getting together in a relationship’ means.”

Sharmila also questioned the level and quality of education given in schools and whether adequate information was being disseminated to students.

“What does proper education mean? Throwing a bunch of books at a student does not mean they have been given proper education.

“Going to a school without proper educators also does not guarantee that students are well educated,” she said.