BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has once again urged Brunei to raise the minimum age of marriage to 18, in light of the Malaysian government saying it will take steps to eradicate child marriage.

Marianne Clark-Hattingh, UNICEF’s special representative to Brunei, said the UN Committee on the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) had already made this recommendation to the Brunei government before.

“This is an issue in this country and others in ASEAN — it’s a violation of the child’s rights and not in their best interests,” she told media on the sidelines of the ASEAN Children’s Forum being held in Brunei from August 6 to 8.

Marianne Clark-Hattingh, UNICEF’s special representative to Brunei, speaks to media on the sidelines of the ASEAN Children’s Forum on Aug 6, 2018. Photo: Rasidah Hj Abu Bakar/The Scoop

Clark-Hattingh stressed that marriage was not a solution to social issues such as teen pregnancy, and that access to “age-appropriate information” on reproductive health could prevent girls becoming pregnant when they are not ready to be mothers.

“Given poverty and teen pregnancy, we need to address the root causes and not see marriage as the solution. It really is an infringement of the child’s rights, it stops the opportunity to go to school and it isolates the child. And if you look at the statistics, those marriages don’t last.”

Under Brunei’s Marriage Act, which applies to non-Muslims, both parties must be at least 14 years old to enter into a marriage. The Chinese Marriage Act states that a female must be at least 15, and is silent on the minimum age for a male. Meanwhile, the Islamic Family Law Order does not expressly define a minimum age of marriage for Muslims.

Reviewing Brunei’s last periodic report on child rights in 2016, the UN expressed hope that the age of marriage for all children would be unified at 18, regardless of ethnicity or religious affiliation.

In its written response to the UN, the Brunei government said it had no immediate plans to raise the minimum age of marriage, explaining that Islamic law as well as the diverse religious and cultural backgrounds of people living in the country must be taken into consideration.

The state added that consent of both parties, as well as parents’ consent, is necessary for minors to enter a marriage. And in the case of Muslim marriage, permission from a Syariah judge is also needed.

In a previous report, UNICEF said that debate on the minimum age of marriage does not have to be framed as a “clash of cultures”, and that countries with dual legal systems, like Brunei and Malaysia, can align both civil and Islamic legislation.

The Malaysian government in July said it was moving to raise the minimum age of marriage to 18, following public outcry over a 41-year-old Malaysian man who recently married an 11-year-old girl in Kelantan. The Islamic Religious Council of Selangor also said it will amend its Islamic Family Law to raise the minimum age of marriage to 18 for both Muslim men and women.

Statistics on child marriage in Brunei are hard to come by: the last available statistics dated 2010 show that were 225 Muslim marriages recorded that year where at least one party was under 18.