Brunei urged to raise minimum age of marriage

National 3 minutes, 16 seconds

BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN

THE United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has urged Brunei to raise the minimum age of marriage to 18, honouring its commitments as a party to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

Wivina Belmonte, UNICEF’s representative to Malaysia and Brunei, said the Sultanate’s laws are not consistent in delineating the legal marriageable age.

Under the Marriage Act, which applies to non-Muslims, both parties must to be at least 14 years old. The Chinese Marriage Act provides 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 provide a minimum age of marriage for Muslims.

“One of the challenges in Brunei and Malaysia is that there is a dual legal system, both civil and Islamic. Sometimes these systems are not aligned, and in the case of marriage it is not,” said Belmonte.

The CRC states that the minimum age of marriage must be 18 in order to safeguard the rights of the child.

“The international convention says 18. Local law has a different age, and sometimes a different age for girls and boys. So that’s the kind of discussion we would have (with the Brunei government),” said Belmonte, who is in the country for a consultation with NGOs, ahead of the Sultanate’s submission of a periodic report to the CRC Committee.

The UNICEF representative said the debate on minimum age of marriage does not have to be framed in the context of a “clash of cultures”, and that differing ideas can be reconciled.

“The way we’ve done it in other countries is we invite religious authorities into the discussion so that it doesn’t become a clash of ideas, it becomes a discussion on what’s in the best interests of the child.

“Is a 14-year-old really able to be a married person? Especially if children are having children. We know scientifically that a teenage girl having a baby is not good for the mother, and it is not good for the child either. So you have to advance the conversation around things like that.”

She added that it was hard to obtain statistics on child marriage in Brunei. In 2011, the last periodic report submitted by the government stated that in 2010 there were 225 Muslim marriages where at least one party was under 18.

In the same report, the government said “as it currently stands, there are no plans to increase the minimum age of marriage”.

UNICEF recommended that Brunei take steps to amend legislation so that “minimum age requirements are gender neutral and explicit” and to increase the minimum age, making it the same for males and females.

Grace Agcaoili, child protection specialist with UNICEF, said as a country that has ratified the CRC as well as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Brunei has an obligation to honour its international commitments.

“Children have rights. How can you imagine your daughter getting married at a very young age when Brunei has so many facilities for education and health?”

She added that sometimes pregnancy out of wedlock was a key factor in child marriage, but that children should not be forced into a union. “Of course there are the prevailing cultural norms, and the shame associated with it. People make mistakes and it’s better that children have the chance to grow (before marriage), and that their own children will not suffer the lack of parenting skills.”

Local NGO the Council on Social Welfare jointly organised a series of consultations between UNICEF and local non-profits, as well as students, to review Brunei’s status on implementing the CRC.

Brunei is due to submit its next periodic report to the CRC Committee by the end of the year. The government ratified the treaty in 1995, and it is the most widely-ratified instrument within the United Nations.

The Brunei Times