As the world marked International Day of the Girl and #EndChildMarriage trended briefly on Twitter, a 13-year-old Rohingya refugee girl was excitedly preparing for her wedding to her 20-something “cousin” in a quiet corner of Penang, Malaysia, totally oblivious to the irony of the date.
Child marriage is an issue in many parts of the world and for the refugee community of Malaysia, there are a unique set of factors that make it particularly complicated.
Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and therefore does not give any legal recognition or protection to refugees. Many Rohingya who fled persecution in Myanmar, where they are not recognized as citizens, came looking for safe harbor in a nearby Muslim country. Instead, what they found is a country that struggles to distinguish between “illegal migrant workers” and “refugees.” A UNHCR card is the only thing standing between a refugee and a Malaysian detention center and sometimes that is not enough.
With 161,140 refugees registered in Malaysia, UNHCR is arguably overstretched and under-resourced. They fulfil a role that is not required of their colleagues based in signatory countries. Their ability to reach out to faraway parts of the country, like Penang, is limited. Refugees must travel to Kuala Lumpur to seek registration, which, without a UNHCR card is itself a fraught and perilous journey. NGOs such as Penang Stop Human Trafficking Campaign serve as authorized referral agencies to try and bring the most critical cases to the attention of UNHCR.
Without the ability to work legally, it is difficult for refugee families to sustain themselves. Without the ability for refugee children to enter formal education, they rely on non-profit learning centers such as the Penang Peace Learning Centre to try and give children the basics. There are few, if any, opportunities to pursue learning beyond a primary school level of education.
So, what becomes of the girls?
In the case of the 77,130 Rohingya refugees registered in Malaysia, there is a natural desire to marry within their community and it is a necessity to preserve their endangered culture. There are also many more Rohingya males in Malaysia than females which puts pressure on teenage girls to be wed. Many Rohingya community leaders will tell you they are not in support of child marriage and yet economic and social pressures ensures that the problem persists. There is also a cultural legacy of girls marrying young.
In Malaysia, the laws regarding child marriage are not straightforward. The legal age of marriage for non-Muslim girls is 18, or 16 with the consent of the Chief Minister of their state. However, under Sharia, Muslim girls can marry at 16 and children of any age can marry with the consent of the Sharia court. Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail has said that Malaysia will make greater efforts to stamp out child marriage and will amend the Child Act 2016 and the Islamic Family Enactment to raise the minimum marriage age for all girls to 18. This commitment was also part of the election winning manifesto of Pakatan Harapan leading up to Mohamad Mahathir’s historic victory in May 2018.
Whether refugees in Malaysia are subject to these laws is unclear. A Rohingya imam will usually conduct a Rohingya wedding and the marriage certificate is not considered a legal document under Malaysian law. A change in the law will not change anything for the refugee community. Child marriage is but one of many challenges they face. The decision to “marry off” a daughter is often borne not of bad intentions, but of hardship.
And yet, regardless of economic hardship, they are children. And children have rights.
If the government is serious about stamping out child marriage in Malaysia, refugee children, who are already vulnerable to traffickers and exploitation, must also be protected. Malaysia ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1995. Article 22 makes clear that refugee children must have their rights protected.
In the case of the 13-year-old Rohingya girl, despite attempts at intervention, the marriage proceeded as planned. The family simply told local authorities that the girl was 18 and with a “willing” bride the authorities chose not to pursue an intervention. Without formal legal status in Malaysia, oftentimes the authorities are unwilling to act to protect a refugee child from marriage. This seems to have been one of those times.
The government could offer greater protection to refugee children from child marriage by granting refugees employment rights and access to education. Until refugees can provide for their families without carrying these heavy burdens of circumstance, young refugee girls will remain at risk of becoming child brides.
Without this support, no number of #EndChildMarriage tweets will stop it.
Kim Tatam is a contributor to The Diplomat based in Penang, Malaysia. She has a BA in Political Science and an MA in Politics & International Studies.