Four decades ago, babies could be openly bought for adoption. Single mothers, women with unwanted pregnancies, teenage mothers or parents who could not afford to feed another mouth, could sell their babies to those who wanted them.
This practice is now outlawed, with strict guidelines in place for the adoption of children.
This week, it was reported that another child marriage had taken place, between a 15-year-old girl and a 44-year-old man in Kelantan.
The girl’s parents, who have 12 other children, run a sundry shop which brings in RM200 to RM300 a month. Their daughter left school at the age of 13. When the man told them he could offer her a better life, they agreed because she would be lifted out of the poverty trap.
How different is this from the sale of unwanted babies?
In the past, babies were sold as a commodity. The mother had the “goods” – the baby – whom she would exchange for cash. Today, parents sell their daughters in exchange for a dowry. There is no difference between child marriages and the sale of babies.
On May 9, the nation voted for change. The people gave the politicians a chance to honour their promises and to look after the needs of the country.
We expected Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, the deputy prime minister and women, family and community development minister, to fully discharge her duties and protect the rights of children. But she has failed to do so.
Twice under her watch, middle-aged men from Kelantan have married children, ostensibly with their parents’ permission. In the eyes of the state, the marriages were legal as they had the consent of the shariah court.
The first child marriage, reported three months ago, was between a 41-year-old man and an 11-year-old girl from Thailand. The girl became his third wife.
The public outrage over this marriage prompted the Selangor sultan to increase the age of consent in his state from 16 to 18.
Wan Azizah meanwhile said her hands were tied as the girl was married in accordance with shariah law. Many see this as a feeble excuse.
The second marriage took place in July, but recent news reports revealed that the man had known the girl for many years.
Had the man been grooming her all this time? Was he cunning enough to avoid accusations of statutory rape by throwing her parents a lifeline and assuming responsibility for the child through his offer of marriage?
It’s been said before, child marriage is nothing more than state-sanctioned paedophilia.
Wan Azizah’s failure to persuade Putrajaya to act decisively on the issue shows that the government is afraid of opposing the ulamas. But child marriage should not be allowed in 21st century Malaysia.
Failure to act means that other men will be able to use the “get-out-of-poverty-trap” excuse to marry children.
The parents’ acceptance of the man’s offer to give their child a better life also shows that the education system has failed them. They have 13 children. What happened to family planning?
Their children will eventually become parents and perhaps have just as many children.
The man may marry still another girl and have more children. How many children will he have to feed? What makes him think that they will have a good life? Soon, he and his wife may also decide to marry off a daughter so that she will have a better life.
The young wife may be fine as long as her husband continues to provide for her, but how can he ensure that each of his wives and his children are well-fed and have a decent education? To achieve this, he will have to buy books, uniforms, shoes, school bags and exercise books, and pay for their transport to and from school, just to name a few. Will he have enough money to do this?
Last week, PAS said Putrajaya should declare Kelantan as a model state. For what? It has attracted worldwide infamy over child marriages. This is nothing to be proud of.
Mariam Mokhtar is an FMT columnist.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.