UN urges Brunei to raise minimum age of marriage

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THE United Nations (UN) has once again urged Brunei to raise the minimum age of marriage to 18 for both boys and girls, regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliation.

Reviewing Brunei’s latest periodic report on child rights, the UN said it was “deeply concerned” at the low minimum age of marriage, which is 14 under customary law, 15 for ethnic Chinese girls, and not expressly defined for Muslims.

“The committee urges the state party to review and amend its legislation to set the minimum age of marriage to 18 for both boys and girls, regardless of ethnic or religious groups,” said the Committee on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

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

Brunei ratified the agreement in 1995, obligating the government to submit a report to the CRC committee every four years so it can review the sultanate’s implementation of the treaty.

The latest report was submitted in December 2015, with the CRC committee publishing its response in January 2016.

In the report, the Brunei government stated: “The minimum age for marriage varies between existing relevant legislation, taking into account the diverse religious and cultural background of the people in the country.

“Although the minimum age of marriage provided under the relevant laws is below 18 years, the laws lay certain conditions before a marriage can be concluded. These conditions are imposed to ensure that any party… has been fully qualified and ready in all aspects to enter into a married life.”

For Muslim marriages, such conditions include consent of the parent or guardian and permission from the registrar. For non-Muslims, the parties must “freely consent to marry each other” and be “capable of understanding the nature of the marriage contract”.

However, representatives from United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said it is not in the best interests of the child to be married as young as 14.

“Is a 14-year-old really able to be a married person? 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,” Wivina Belmonte, UNICEF’s representative to Malaysia and Brunei, told The Brunei Times in a previous report.

“The debate on minimum age of marriage does not have to be framed in the context of a ‘clash of cultures’, 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.”

Belmonte added that it was hard to obtain statistics on child marriage in Brunei. In 2010 there were 225 Muslim marriages recorded where at least one party was under 18, but the government’s latest report to the CRC committee leaves out an updated figure.

It only provides statistics for non-Muslim marriages, where just one under-18 union was recorded in 2015.

The report does, however, provide the number of married adolescent pregnancies from 2012 to 2014.

In 2012, there were 83 married teen girls who had their first baby, compared to 53 in 2013 and 63 in 2014.

In 2014, 53 per cent of those mothers were aged from 17 to 18; 39 per cent were from 15 and 16; six per cent from 13 to 14; and one aged just 11.

The data was derived from government clinics only based on adolescents receiving antenatal care.

The Brunei Times