KOTA KINABALU: It might have happened decades ago but the pain of being married off at the age of 13 by her father still cuts deep for housewife Sail Ayu.
“I didn’t know anything. I only knew that a man came. I wasn’t even wearing any underwear. I was told to wear something for the wedding but I didn’t know anything about marriage.
“We just wore everyday clothes. There weren’t any wedding pictures. I didn’t even know that the man was my husband,” she said while wiping away tears during a video interview by the Sabah Women’s Action-Resource Group (Sawo) at her home in Tenom.
Coming from a poor family in Kemabong, Tenom, Sail who is now 59 said before that fateful day, she had always wanted to further her education and attend secondary school.
She loved to study and her grades were much better than most of her classmates’.
Sail had hoped to be a teacher someday.
On the day of her wedding, Sail said she was terrified and cried the entire day.
“My father saw me crying and he caned me. I told him, Dad, I really want to go to school. I held on to my mother. I said Mum, please persuade Dad, I want to go to school. When my father heard me, he beat me again,” she said.
Sail knew she was not ready for married life and that she was too young to understand the meaning of marriage.
The future scarred her and her life was so unbearable at times that her mental health was affected.
By the time she turned 20, she had considered suicide numerous times and even attempted to kill herself twice.
“At the time, I really wanted to do it but I lacked the courage. If I drank the poison, who was going to take care of my child? I didn’t forget those times, but what could I have done? Maybe that was God’s will for me,” she said.
She admitted to feeling envious of former classmates who went on to become teachers and nurses.
Sail’s husband was 16 when they were married and the couple have four children. Her husband has since passed away.
“All this while, I have never talked about this to anyone. But today I find that I can talk about it. In the past, I was really heartbroken.
“If I wasn’t forced to marry at such a young age, maybe my husband wouldn’t have married me. I would be in a better place right now. But I don’t blame him. What could we have done?
“Nonetheless, I am still grateful because God is still blessing me with good things. Maybe God has intervened in my life. I have been through many obstacles, many problems, but I am grateful.
“I am always strong. So everything I have been through, I have already forgiven them. I am at peace with it,” she said.
Sawo secretary Yasmin Ooi told FMT the organisation felt it was pertinent to create the video now because there were politicians, policymakers, civil servants and individuals who still think that child marriage is acceptable as a solution for poverty or to keep the family’s dignity or just because custom allows it.
“When there is an uproar in society or objections from civil society organisations and individuals, these politicians, policymakers and civil servants call for a study by experts.
“Sawo wonders who are the experts they consult. Often the very women and children who are child brides are never consulted.
“Surely the survivors of child marriages should be the experts about the situation they purportedly wish to research,” she said.
For this reason, Ooi said Sawo wished to help amplify the voice of child brides and let everybody, including religious leaders and politicians, hear for themselves how a child bride feels.
“We want them to know what a child bride’s entire life has become – or not become – thanks to being removed from school and forcibly married off at a young age. In Aunty Sail’s case, at 13,” she said.
Two weeks ago, Sabah mufti Bungsu @ Aziz Jaafar came under severe criticism from women’s groups as well as political parties such as Umno after he proposed that the legal Muslim age of marriage be reduced to 14 for girls and 16 for boys.
Sabah Chief Minister Shafie Apdal was at the time non-committal on the issue but insisted he would take all views into consideration before admitting that he sometimes felt the age of 18 is a bit “lanjut” (late).
He later said Bungsu’s proposal would not be taken up and that the state government would stick with the present law.
In Sabah, the legal age for marriage is 16 for Muslim girls and 18 for boys but those younger who wish to get married can get consent from their parents and the shariah court.