GEORGE TOWN: Police and local Islamic religious authorities held an “intervention session” last night with the parents of an 11-year-old girl, who was nearly married off to a 20-year-old man, in Perai on Wednesday.
Central Seberang Perai police chief Nik Ros Azhan Nik Abdul Hamid said six members of the local Islamic religious authority discussed the welfare of the young Rohingya refugee with her parents.
On Wednesday, a local activist had alerted the police that the girl was about to be married off to a 20-year-old Rohingya man. The ceremony was subsequently called off after insistence by the police.
The 46-year-old father of the bride-to-be had told police officers that he had wanted to marry off his elder daughter as he was facing financial difficulties and that this was a common practice in the Rohingya community.
Nik Ros said the intervention session last night was for the religious authorities to learn more about the family of the girl, whose father is a contract labourer and the mother, a housewife.
He said the state Welfare Department and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had been alerted of the matter and would help the family where possible.
“The father of the bride has agreed with the police and religious authorities that he will only marry off his child after she reaches legal age.
“The state Welfare Department’s child services section has agreed to monitor the girl constantly,” he said.
Activist stops another child marriage
K Sudhagaran Stanley, who tipped off the police on the case, said this was not the first time a child bride was to have been married off.
He said a few months ago with help from the UNHCR, he stopped a 12-year-old girl from being married off to a 30-year-old man in Penang.
Sudhagaran, in explaining how he learned about the most recent case, said the young girl was a pupil at a school he runs, which gives free education to refugees in Penang.
After learning about the impending marriage, he lodged a police report and accompanied policemen on the night of Feb 6 to the location where the girl was to be wed in a nikah ceremony at the stroke of midnight.
As police have no power to stop a marriage, they appealed to her father to call off the wedding. After three hours of chatting on the sidelines of a big feast at the Rohingya’s family home at Taman Senangin, Perai, he agreed.
The young girl has a sister, aged four.
“I met the father of the child and told him that he would be getting into trouble if he proceeded with the marriage. I told him that it was illegal for a child under the age of 16 to get married in Malaysia.
“I also told the bridegroom-to-be that he might be committing statutory rape if he proceeded with the marriage,” Sudhagaran said when contacted.
Rohingya girls stop school after puberty
He said the young girl was once a student at the LifeBridge Learning Centre, a school he co-founded to educate refugees for free in 2011.
However, the parents stopped sending the girl to school after she reached puberty last month, he said.
Sudhagaran said it was a cultural norm for young Rohingya women to stop schooling once they reached puberty so that they could be married off.
He said while two child marriages had been prevented, there might be many others taking place without any consent from the authorities.
Sudhagaran said it was important for parliamentarians to enact a federal law to stop child marriages and to include foreigners residing in Malaysia too.
He said they should also address the fact that Rohingya children were not allowed to sit for government exams, resulting in their education being “wasted”.
“It is time the Pakatan Harapan government rolled out protection policies for refugees in our land, spanning employment, education and healthcare.
“We need to change the environment and conditions refugees are living in today. There is no point in shouting for Palestinian rights when they are thousands of miles away from us, while right on our doorstep, Rohingyas continue to be ignored and treated poorly.”