Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Asian Child Marriages - Paedophilia by another name

THERE are many terms to describe a girl below the age of consent. But mention "Lolita" -- after the protagonist in Vladimir Nabokov's novel of the same name -- and images of a young, nubile nymphet, 12 years old and wanton, immediately appear. In the story, Lolita's step-father Humbert Humbert lusts after her. After his wife's timely demise, Humbert and Lolita consummate this desire and enter into a marriage of sorts. But it ends badly because Lolita is still a child in need of a childhood and is denied it by Humbert. "Lolita" describes the forbidden.

Out of art and into reality, the recently revealed cases of the 11-year-old "married off" to a 41-year-old, and the 10-year-old to a 40-year-old, both in Kelantan, have generated shock and disgust. More disturbing, however, is that part of the discourse over whether or not the marriages had been sanctioned by the Syariah court. For, under syariah, a girl under 16 years can marry, provided she has permission from the Syariah court. In this country, as with many around the world, the age of sexual consent is 16. Anything below that is considered rape, regardless of whether sex is consensual. However, rape does not apply in a marriage. But under the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act, which applies to non-Muslims, marriage is only allowed for people 18 years and above. However, a girl aged 16 years and above may marry, conditional upon a licence being obtained from the chief minister or menteri besar.

It is ironic that in this country, a child of 16 years -- or even younger -- is allowed to decide on a life partner, yet has to wait until turning 21 before being considered mature enough to decide on the country's leadership for the next five years. In 2001, Malaysia enacted the Child Act to protect children; and in it a "child" is defined as anyone aged under 18 years. So, whether for Muslims or non-Muslims, under Malaysia's laws, child marriages can appear to be lawful. This should not be the case. There are reasons why children are a different classification to adults and need extra protection, and neither sex nor marriage makes a child an adult. Both the syariah and civil law need to be brought into line with international standards. Malaysia's laws start out to protect children, but through loopholes in the guise of discretion at the hands of the courts or ministers, it can end up violating children. Editorial, New Straits Times

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