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Time for a change : Child brides in Malaysia

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By Manisha Umapathy

Photo Credit: The Star

Photo Credit: The Star

Shame is probably one of the most commonly used words in the English vocabulary in Asian society. Constantly as children we were brought up not to shame our parent, teachers and elders. I can still hear my parents saying in the back of my mind “Don’t do anything that will bring a bad reputation to this family”. As a child there are endless possibilities, you could be a doctor or a politician or an astronaut. You have your whole life ahead of you, yet we are obliged in an Asian society to achieve the approval of our parents as they did with their parents. This cultural trait has been the norm for generations that needs to be stopped.

In 2010, a United Nations report showed that over 82,000 married women in Malaysia were girls between the ages of 15 and 19. To make matters worse, the Deputy Minister for Women revealed that, for that same year, nearly 16,000 girls below the age of 15 were married. Why is this occurring?!  A large percentage is due to shame. Lack of education in safe sex leading to early pregnancies is prevalent in many of these marriages and in order to ‘save the name of the family” these girls are encouraged to be married. Religious and cultural beliefs of sex as a taboo in Malaysian society is largely to be blamed. The lack of awareness of sex education in teens have left many of these girls as young mothers way before their legal age putting them at high physical and mental risk.

Encouraging these children at such a young age to wed in order to preserve an image of the family and tradition, takes away their right of a childhood. Children should be able to be given the right to educate themselves and speak openly about sex in order to protect themselves from early childhood pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. They deserve to build and enjoy an independent lifestyle to meet, interact and learn without the stress of looking after a spouse or a child. Most importantly they deserve the right to have a childhood that is free from obligations to society.

In my opinion teaching a child their rights is one of the best gifts you could give them. Allowing them to make independent smart decisions on what they deserve is important. Even though I only spent a short period interning at Voice of the Children (VoC), I learnt the importance of these rights that I was surprisingly unaware of. I further learnt that a substantial amount of work needs to be achieved in Malaysia in terms of child laws and awareness. I am more than proud of the change Voice of the Children is trying to achieve and glad to have been part of it. I am also extremely thankful, that I had great parents that allowed me to be who I am, and that I didn’t have to marry the boyfriend I had when I was 16.

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Manisha is currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in an Australian university. She volunteered with Voice of the Children during her recent semester break.

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