Sabah to launch study on child marriages to assess problem

KOTA KINABALU: Sabah will launch a thorough study on child marriages which are prevalent in the state’s rural areas, said state Assistant Minister of Law and Native Affairs Jannie Lasimbang.

She said the ministry was aware of the issue but needed data before it could deal with the problem.

“I will study the issue of child marriages and definitely look at how we can ensure that this does not continue to happen. It’s a concern definitely for me and the ministry. I have to bring up to the minister and see how we can push for this,” she said after the state assembly sitting today.

Jannie said the problem did not exist only among the Muslim community but also involved other native groups.

She said it was part of local custom to matchmake young girls at an early age.

“It doesn’t happen very much now but it was one of the practices before. Children who are 18 years old and below must be protected,” she added.

She was commenting on the uproar over child marriages following reports of a rubber tapper in Kelantan who took an 11-year-old girl as his third wife.

Meanwhile, Jannie’s younger sister Jenifer, who is state Education and Innovation Assistant Minister, agreed that an in-depth study of the problem should be carried out because it involved customary laws and matters like poverty and teenage pregnancy.

She said in Pensiangan in Sabah’s interior, for example, girls could be betrothed in arranged marriages when they were young.

“There has been no proper research on this yet. Previously, when I was doing work as a consultant for Unicef, my colleagues thought it was the custom that made these numbers high.

“But then when we went down to the ground and actually interviewed the young mothers, it’s not actually custom but economic hardship – they can’t go to school, so what can they do?

“Actually the parents couldn’t afford to send the girls to school, so they married them off so they would have their own families to fend for them. So they are forced to take care of themselves,” Jenifer said, adding this practice was still quite common.

Based on her first-hand experience, she had seen 12-year-olds who were already married.

But all these were raw data, she said, driving home the need for thorough research.

“We need better research to get the numbers which I don’t think is the ultimate priority. The importance is to look for the root cause of this problem as well as the ways and means to ensure this will stop.

“We need to get our girls to school and not as mothers at the age of 14 or 15. And we need proper education. When you’re 18 and below, you’re still a child – that has to be ingrained into every part of society,” Jenifer said.

She said that legislation alone would not solve the problem.

“It will not solve the problem here – it is the community’s work to ensure the girls are in school and don’t get pregnant.

“We’ll let the ministry concerned discuss this with data and evidence on the ground where the direction should be,” she said.

Uda Sulai, who is also an Assistant Minister of Law and Native Affairs, acknowledged there had been a lot of backlash on the issue lately but pointed out that a study was needed before the next course of action could be taken.

“We know there are a lot of NGOs against child marriages… but in Islam, these matters are the prerogative of the Shariah Court.

“Let us conduct the research before we bring this to the state Cabinet because we can’t be rushing into this as it involves sensitivities,” he said.

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