THIS IS NO LAUGHING MATTER MADAM MINISTER!
Malaysia opens ‘hatch’ for abandoned babies
By Jennifer PakBBC News, Kuala Lumpur
The cries of an abandoned baby boy echo in the nursery at Orphancare, a Malaysiancharity that helps orphans find adoptive parents.
He is the only child here and does not have a name. But in many ways he is seen as one of thelucky ones.
He was left in a baby “hatch” – the first in the country – designed to allow mothers to leave theirbabies anonymously.
The charity hopes it will rescue more unwanted newborns, as the authorities seek to stem the rising number of abandoned babies.
Close to 500 babies have been found abandoned since 2005. Some were left in Muslim prayer halls, on doorsteps and even in rubbish bins. Many are found dead.
It is thought these children are mainly abandoned by single mothers. Having achild out of wedlock is still seen as deeply shameful in this Muslim-majority country, where sex education is mainly focused on abstinence.
‘The only solution’
The Orphancare office is located in a quiet suburb outside Kuala Lumpur.
Noraini Hashim of Orphancare demonstrates the baby hatch
Next to the front entrance is a small door that opens to a tiny cot. Once the baby is placed in the cot, an alarm is triggered and the air conditioner turns on. When the door closes, the baby is safely locked inside and a caretaker fetches the child.
This way, the baby is kept safe, and the mother‘s identity will never be known.
Critics say the programme will make it too easy for mothers to abandon their babies, encouraging extra-marital sex.
But Noraini Hashim of Orphancare says anonymity is the only way to ensure parents will use the hatch rather than toss their babies in a bin.
“We’re not out to prosecute the mother or the couple who brings the baby in,” she says.
It is illegal for Muslims to have sex outside marriage in Malaysia.
The country has a dual track legal system where Islamic law applies to Muslims. Non-Muslims are covered under civil law.
But the stigma of having a child out of wedlock is what drives single mothers todesperate acts, says Ms Noraini.
She says the pressure is greater for young girls when their boyfriends leave them and they feel unable to confide in family or friends.
“In that state of depression I suppose the only solution they have is to abandon the baby,” Ms Noraini says.
The government, concerned by the rising number of abandoned babies, has asked police to start investigating these cases as attempted murder or murder, which carry the death sentence.
Close to the busy centre of Kuala Lumpur is a shelter for unmarried, pregnantwomen.
The Kewaja refuge is one of the few places they can turn to since abortion is not readily available.
Mila, 28, is engaged and has a steady job but still feels that she cannot keep her child
It is made up of a row of single-storey houses at the end of a dirt road, partly hidden by banana trees.
The women all wear headscarves and oversized T-shirts to hide their swollen bellies.
They will stay at the shelter until their babies are born.
Three women agreed to tell me their stories under condition of anonymity.
One 19-year-old girl, who calls herself Su, says she went to the shelter when she was five months pregnant so she wouldn’t shame the family in front of the neighbours.
Siti, 18, gave birth to a baby girl at the shelter. Her father thinks she is away studying. She can’t return home until her mother calls her back. She’s been waiting for over a month.
Mila is 28 and came to the shelter in her final month of pregnancy. Unlike the other two she is engaged and has a steady job but she still feels unable to keep her child because having sex before marriage is forbidden in Islam.
“If the baby knew he was born out of wedlock he will carry the shame for the rest of his life,” she says.
All three women told me they knew about contraception but were too ashamed to buy it.
The shelter is run by Yahya Mohamed Yusof and his wife.
He says shelters like his and the baby hatch help to save lives, but it doesn’t tackle the problem of unwanted pregnancies.
Mr Yahya says they are seeing an increase every month.
“When we started 14 years ago, we had fewer than 10 girls at the shelter. But now, we have at least 70 pregnant women under our care,” he says.
To keep their pregnancy secret, most of the women who stay at the Kewaja shelter will give their babies up for adoption.
In this country, unwed mothers still feel they have little choice.
dren’s Day, in Shah Alam
Child marriages , jihad for sexual health and education is a must,what you sayminister for woman affairs?
It seems that we as a nation are full of contradictions. It sometimes feels as though many of our leaders, their cohorts and organisations are suffering from a weak form of schizophrenia. They appear to be holding two conflicting views simultaneously.
On the one hand we all abhor the abandoning of babies left to die in some drain or dump. At the same time we cane Malay women for illicit sex who actually don’t leave their babies to die. All of this while also offering single Malay mothers financial help. What are we to make of all this?
Bear in mind that on average, there is an illegitimate Malay child being born every half an hour in Malaysia last year. This statistic is according to a Berita Harian report dated March 21, 2010 which said 17,303 Malay children were born out of wedlock in 2009 and given birth certificates.
By that number we would have to cane a Malay woman every half an hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Surely that can’t be right.
What we should do is encourage the legitimisation of the child. The punishments should not be so severe as to actually encourage the abandonment of the innocent baby or the concealment of the identity of the father. Perhaps a token fine for the father will do so that he will own up to his responsibility. Scaring him with canings, prison and the like would be counterproductive. The mother and child, of course, deserve our utmost sympathy and support
Two girls attend a carnival marking the United Nations Universal Children’s Day, in Shah Alam Nov 22, 2009. — Reuters pic
— Child marriages are a hot issue in Malaysia. Sometime in March 2010, the media blasted news of a Kelantanese man who married an 11-year-old, and to all and sundry, it would seem that it is a common practice, though rarely disclosed to the public. Another case of a 14-year-old married to an older man was reported, too.
The personal histories of Malaysians are rife with stories of an older generation andancestors married off at a very young age. From fixed marriages to brokered ones, very few elderly relatives married at a more mature age. Even the men married young, as compared to today’s generation of men who marry at a much later age.
So why the hue and cry, when it was a more acceptable and common practice before? If one is to cite abuse and violence towards young women, then one can argue abuse and violence exists in every generation. No one is trivialising the issues of violence in this matter, but perhaps in this day and age, with even more complex health matters such as sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS, child marriages are not to be encouraged.
Why do child marriages happen and where?
Child marriages happen in disenfranchised and poor countries. It is at most an economic decision. One way for a family to off-load a daughter who is considered a burden to them is to marry her off. The husband could be young or old.
Despite the many articles found of the Internet on how Islam forbids child marriages, the practice can be found in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The numbers may not be as many as before, in countries that are progressive such as Malaysia, but it does happen.
For many aghast at the phenomenon, they question whether this is part of a growing “Islamisation” trend; it is not. It is unfortunate that such a practice is happening in Muslim countries, and many Muslims abhor the very idea.
In the case of Shamsudin Ajaib who married an 11-year-old girl, it is a clear case of a paedophile who hid behind the veneer of piety and a religious cult.
Those uneducated on Syariah matters and faced with a charismatic “religious” personality may fall into the trap of allowing their young daughters marry very much older men. A very misguided interpretation of the Prophet Mohammad’s (PBUH) marriage to Aisyah is used and bandied about to the parents and men. Get this right: Child marriage in Islam is abhorred.
The history of child marriages in Malaysia so far has been oral and anecdotal. A quick research on the Internet revealed very little of the phenomenon in the country. However, many researchers acknowledge that the practice is still happening, but it is not recorded.
Page 42 of the 2010 UNGASS Country Progress Report on HIV, disclosed the following: It would appear that almost 500 girls under 14 years of age were, at least, planning or preparing to get married in 2009. Premarital HIV screening has been made a requirement by the respective State Religious Departments for all perspective Malay Muslim couples wanting to get married. It is evident that these girls took the necessary tests and the tests were recorded.
The following data from the 2000 Malaysian Census revealed that:
• Of the estimated 3.6 million girls under-15, 0.2 per cent were recorded as married, amounting to an estimated 6,800 girls. 26 per cent (an estimated 1,800 girls) were in Selangor, 20 per cent (1,350 girls) in Sabah and 10 per cent (700 girls) in Sarawak.
• The highest incidence was in Sabah (0.28 per cent of population below 15), followed by Melaka (0.27 per cent), Penang & Selangor (0.24 per cent), and Johor, Pahang and Sarawak (0.21 per cent). Kelantan had an incidence of 0.10 per cent, Kedah 0.06 per cent, both lower than Perak at 0.16 per cent.
• The ethnic composition of girls under-15 who are married, with incidence in brackets: Malay — 2,450 (0.12 of total population under 15); Other Bumiputera — 1,550 (0.33); Chinese — 1,600 (0.24); Indian — 600 (0.26) and others — 600 (0.36).
One can only assume these young girls are married to boys slightly older than they, or in their 20s. The ages of their partners were not disclosed. What are the sexual histories of their husbands? It would be idealistic to say that all these men were virgins and faithful to their young wives. It would also be presumptuous to make a blanket statement that these men were not faithful, virgins and did not practice un-safe sex. Who’s to know?
However, it would be foolhardy not to consider their sexual histories in this day of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS, The Ministry of Health Malaysia found that as of December 2009, less than 10 per cent of the overall 87,710 reported HIV cases were women and girls (2010 UNGASS Country Progress Report Malaysia).
Young women and girls lack negotiating power which puts them at risk of sexual exploitation and violence. Sexual health studies indicate that more young people in Malaysia are engaging in sexual intercourse before the age of 18 (WHO 2005: Sexual and Reproductive Health of Adolescents and Youths in Malaysia: A review of literature and projects 2005. WHO — Western pacific Region)
To add more fuel to the fire, the ignorance among young Malaysian women is worrying. The Kotex Bodylife IQ Test, which was conducted regionally in 2009, found that Malaysian young women were most ignorant about pregnancy. They also ranked the lowest when it came to knowledge of virginity issues. Some snapshots from the survey:
• 24 per cent young Malaysian women believe you can lose your virginity by riding a bike;
• 38 per cent do not know that menses and urine do not flow from the same hole;
• 57 per cent do not know where their hymen is.
From the health aspect, child marriages are a time bomb waiting to go off.
Legally, for non-Muslims under The Law Reform (Marriage & Divorce) Act 1976 which came in force on March 1, 1982, under Section 12, a groom aged below 18, is not allowed to marry; if aged between 18 to 21 the parents must consent to the marriage and if he is 21 and above the consent of parent is not required.
If the bride is below 16, she is not allowed to marry; aged between 16 and18, the chief minister must consent to the marriage; aged between 18 and 21 the parents must consent to the marriage and if she is 21 and above, the consent of the parents is not required.
Both parties must willingly consent to the marriage. It’s an offence to force or threaten someone to compel him/her to marry against his or her will. (Section 37)
For Muslims, marriage of an underage girl can only occur with the consent of the Syariah Court. Under the Islamic Family Law (Federal Territories) Act 1984 (Act 303), Section 8 no marriage may be solemnised under this Act where either the man is under the age of 18 or the woman is under the age of 16 except where the Syariah Judge has granted his permission in writing in certain circumstances.
As mentioned earlier, while the Syariah stand is clear, this could be misconstrued and used by paedophiles. Arguing on the religious context is one thing, but it is apparent that child marriages deprive children of a future. They will be unlikely to go to school and learn lifeskills (refer to this UNFPA factsheet).
As the reproductive systems of these children are barely developed, it is likely that they face immense complications due to pregnancy resulting in complications such as obstetric fistula and even death.
Girls ages 10-14 are five times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than women aged 20-24. Girls aged 15-19 are twice as likely to die. The vast majority of these deaths take place within marriage.
Many of the marriages are to men between 30 and 40 years old. They would have been sexually experienced and there is a chance of STDs other than HIV (HIV is screened at premarital stage) and these girls are more prone to gender-based violence. Women who marry younger are more likely to be beaten or threatened, and more likely to believe that a husband is justified in beating his wife.
Child marriages in Malaysia and anywhere else in the world rightfully spark anger and indignation on moral grounds. However, there is a great need to understand why they also affect the health and psychological make-up of a country.
BY KATHERINE WILSON, JUNE 4, 2010
“Do not bring shame to the family,” warned Elham Mahdi al Assi’s mother before Elham died from internal bleeding due to days of sexual torment by her new husband. Abed al Hikmi had taken his new bride to Dr. Fathiya Haidar, who advised the groom to stay away from his bride for several days in order for her to heal. Instead of following the doctor’s orders, al Hikmi continued his assault, assuming his wife’s screams had to do with spiritual possession and not because of the pain or torment that he was inflicting on her.
While Elham Mahdi al Assi’s case may seem extreme, it is not rare. Muslim societies attach great importance to male virility and even more to the virginity of young women and girls. The focus often leads to ignorance and hardship, mainly for females whose virginity rules even their earliest years. From not participating in sports or using certain kinds of feminine hygiene products to securing their virginity by opting for a surgical procedure that ensures tearing and bleeding on the wedding night, females bear the brunt of this sort of patriarchal traditionalism.
The very same traditionalism also limits the development of educational curriculum that answers questions about the basic anatomy and physiology of both males and females. Although the governments of some Muslim countries, such as Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Bahrain, have approved of basic sexual health education curriculum, most teachers shy away from providing this education due to lack of understanding coupled with embarrassment about the subject at hand (PDF). The teachers’ inhibitions are understandable and beg the question why don’t these governments facilitate the training of teachers expected to educate intermediate aged students on their bodies.
Some Muslim countries deserve credit for having taken the lead on sex education. The Indonesian government designed a sex education program after witnessing a rapid increase of teen pregnancies. Plus, the government discovered that the youth are eager to have their questions answered. Turkey has also permitted a limitededucational program in response to teachers noting that girls wanted information about their bodies and how they function.
Sex education should not be seen as corrupting youth, but rather instrumental in building a healthy society; such honest dialogue was certainly a part of the early Muslim community. Critics often cite the perceived hedonistic societies of the United States and Western Europe as the failed models of sex education. Though most of these critics have little background in biological or reproductive health, they continue to guide the discussion. Often citing sexually deviant behaviors, they claim the need to protect the family unit and its morals. Ironically enough, many of the societal ills that these detractors fear—teen pregnancies for one—could, in fact, be resolved through kids making informed choices and decisions.
Early Islam, whether through the study of Qur’anic verses or the Hadith, taught Muslims about menses, sexual etiquette, fluids, discharges, and relationship problems that could lead to a miserable sex life. Muslims found it natural to educate themselves about healthy sexual practices and relationships because intimacy was seen as a beautiful gift from the Almighty. This gift was also the subject of Muslim literature, both allegorical and scholarly, for centuries, as sexuality was not seen as heretical or shameful.
Although this liberal attitude toward sexuality may have been the norm centuries ago, it is no longer part of the Muslim social fabric. Al Azhar University Professor Dr. Ahmed Ragab published a study (PDF) which examined the attitudes in Egypt and North Africa toward HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases, and general sexual knowledge. According to the findings, Egyptian adolescents knew very little about the maturation of their bodies, even though some had already begun the awkward transition from childhood into puberty. In Tunisia, over 50% of male students and over 70% of female students believed that varying birth control methods caused serious health risks. Even more worrisome was the lack of testing for HIV/AIDS and STI’s, as most did not understand how they are contracted or prevented.
In 2007,the Population Reference Bureau (PRB) released a comprehensive report (PDF) entitled Young People’s Sexual and Reproductive Health in the Middle East and North Africa. The report painted a picture that is rarely seen due to the louder, although less informed, voices of the critics of sex education. Across the board, younger people wanted more information about anatomical and physiological functioning, along with the prevention of AIDS and STI’s. Approximately 73% of female respondents wanted information about menses, physiological development, and reproductive health. Most felt that they could not talk to their mothers or were encouraged to not ask questions.
Although sexual education should be made available to both males and females, teaching girls/women about their bodies often stirs up more suspicion and opposition than does educating young men. This is likely due to the idea that a woman’s body and virginity are tantamount to her family’s honor. As a result of many governments’ and families’ stubborn refusal to offer sex education to Muslim women, we find a disturbing number of women suffering from reproductive health problems. Over 70% of Saudi Arabian women who are diagnosed as having breast cancer die because they could not seek treatment or the cancer went undetected in its early stages, due to lack of female-only services. Fifty-six percent of Egyptian women surveyed had some sort of reproductive tract infection (UTI, PID, etc) but assumed pain and discomfort were a normal part of the female experience and failed to visit the doctor.
Such ignorance does not honor Islam or the Muslim family. Critics must stand aside or offer solutions based on facts. The Muslim obsession with child bearing and sexual pleasure can only be seen as hypocritical if the Muslim population remains uninformed. Today’s Muslim youth are bombarded with pornography, temporary marriages, and misinformation. If they continue to be ignorant, we risk both their physical health and their spiritual wellbeing.
(Photo: Ben Beiske)
Katherine Wilson is working on a BA in Justice Studies with a focus in women’s issues. In her spare time, she volunteers for a grass roots domestic violence program and is a parent volunteer. She lives in Providence, RI.
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