Teenage murder charge shows ‘shortcomings’ in treatment of girls in Malaysia | News on women’s rights

In February, a 15-year-old girl was charged with killing her newborn baby after giving birth alone at a home in Malaysia’s eastern state of Terengganu.

The baby was found to have wounds on her body, including what appeared to be a stab wound. When the police arrested the girl, she told them she had been raped by a man in his twenties. A week later, she was charged with murder.

The intimately heartbreaking nature of the case has shocked many in Malaysia and has once again drawn public attention to the high rate of teenage pregnancies and related issues – including restrictive reproductive laws. , statutory rape and child marriage.

Many experts have expressed concern about the processing of the teenager’s file.

“I see the flaws in the system, the need to exercise a punitive approach without caring about the best interests of the child,” Hartini Zainudin, a child rights activist, told Al Jazeera. “Nothing is child-centered.”

Infanticide and baby abandonment are not uncommon in Malaysia – a multi-ethnic and largely conservative country, where 61% of the population is Muslim.

Over the past five years, the Ministry of Health has recorded 41,083 teenage pregnancies.

The Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development had also previously reported that around 830 pregnant teenagers were receiving services at government health facilities each month.

Such circumstances led to more than 1,000 cases of baby abandonment and infanticide between 2010 and May 2019, the ministry also reported.

“A lot of failures”

In the case of the girl, it was revealed by the Human Rights Commission Malaysia (SUHAKAM) that her family were unaware that she was pregnant as she was not at home and had abandoned the school because she did not have access to online learning when the pandemic-related closures closed her school.

“There are a lot of failures in the systems to support her well-being throughout, including during her pregnancy,” said Alyssa Wan Azhar, social worker at Women’s Aid Organization, an NGO that campaigns against gender-based violence. .

Campaigners have been calling for an end to child marriage for years, but the government recently said it would not ban the practice [File: Ahmad Yusni/EPA]

Young Malaysian women are often pressured to conform to a conservative and patriarchal culture, where sex education is also lacking. Abortion for reasons of rape, or even incest, is also prohibited unless a doctor considers that the pregnancy presents a danger to the physical or mental health of the mother.

If their daughter becomes pregnant, some parents see marriage as the best way to avoid family shame, even if she is just a child and even if sex with a minor is considered legal rape.

“We deal with many cases where a child is raped and then forced into marriage. Culturally, it is seen as a solution. But this only further traumatizes the survivor as she is now stuck with the abuser for life,” said Alyssa Wan Azhar.

According to UNICEF, there were 14,999 cases of child marriage in Malaysia between 2007 and 2017 across all communities, including 10,000 involving Muslims. In 2018, 1,856 children – including 1,542 Muslims – were married. The report defines child marriage as when at least one of the parties is under the age of 18.

Despite calls to ban child marriage, the Malaysian government recently announced that it would not, saying it preferred to address the problem by implementing public education and socio-economic programs.

Malaysia has a dual legal system, with civil and Islamic laws operating side by side. Cases involving Muslim family and marriage issues fall under Islamic law, which is the responsibility of individual states in the country.

This means that while the minimum age of marriage is set at 18 and the age of consent is 16, Muslim marriages fall under state jurisdiction – and they allow marriage below the minimum age to provided that the Islamic court approves it.

“Unfortunately, in Malaysia, child marriage has been used as a way out for perpetrators who hoped to avoid prosecution by marrying their victims,” ​​according to a 2020 UNICEF report on child marriage in the country.

To prevent instances of baby abandonment, the government has conducted sex education campaigns focusing on abstinence from sex outside of marriage and has introduced baby traps where mothers can anonymously leave their babies. There are also specialized schools for pregnant teenagers to continue their studies.

Salmi Razali, head of the department of psychiatry at Universiti Teknologi MARA, previously interviewed nine imprisoned women – including a teenage girl – convicted of filicide (killing a son or daughter) in Malaysia. In an article published in 2018, she indicated that they did not find the initiatives useful.

“It may be because these services aim to change girls and women and not their social context,” she wrote.

Young Malaysian girls, including Muslim Malays, ethnic Indians and Chinese, sit in a school hall in their school uniforms
Malaysia’s population is predominantly Malay Muslim, but there are also significant communities of ethnic Chinese and Indians. [File: Bazuki Muhammad/Reuters]

Hartini says the approach needs to change.

“We exercise our cultural beliefs and biases, tell children and young people not to do this or that, but we don’t give them enough information and support so they know better, and punish them when they don’t live up to our societal beliefs and values,” she said. “Why didn’t we learn from the last high-profile example?”

The best interests of the child

The young girl, meanwhile, remains in police custody, in pre-trial detention by a magistrate on February 9 while she was still receiving post-natal care at the hospital. The following day, she was released and transferred to a police station ahead of a court appearance a week later, where she was charged with murder.

The crime carries the death penalty in Malaysia, but those under 18 convicted are imprisoned for a term determined by the king.

In a public statement, Noor Aziah Mohd Awal, SUHAKAM’s Children’s Commissioner, said the girl should have received “appropriate postpartum treatment, including psychological treatment” before being prosecuted, and appointed a social services officer to protect her throughout the legal process.

Noor Aziah told Al Jazeera that police often do not make sufficient use of the Children’s Act, which aims to better protect children who come into conflict with the law.

“When a child is arrested, this often happens: the child is detained in a police station and spends the night in a police cell. The police will question them without telling their parents or social services officers, and there is no legal representation,” she said.

The girl only got legal representation when a few lawyers stepped in to represent her after reading media reports about the case, while Hartini funded her bail request.

AG Kalidas, President of the Malaysian Bar Association, pointed out in a public statement that the National Legal Aid Foundation has the power to provide free legal aid to any child in conflict with the law from the time of their arrest or detention. – if only the police and the courts would inform the child and his parents. Even so, as Noor Aziah and Hartini point out, there is a shortage of experienced lawyers taking on legal aid cases because the work is largely pro bono.

Azalina Othman Said, chair of the parliamentary special committee on women and children and social development, suggested that a charge of infanticide would be more appropriate in the teenager’s case, since it involved “the killing of a baby by its mother within 24 hours of its birth”.

The Penal Code states that a woman can be charged with infanticide if, at the time of the crime, “she had not fully recovered from the effect of childbirth” and “the balance of her mind was then disturbed “. The offense carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years.

Yet the murder charge remains. And despite the arguments of her lawyers – that she is under 16, that she is a girl and that she is ill after having recently given birth (which can constitute grounds for an exception for offenses not giving rise to bail such as murder and infanticide) – his bail application on February 15 was denied without cause, and again denied on appeal three weeks later.

Instead, she was granted a psychiatric evaluation at a government hospital by the Kuala Terengganu High Court. Under Malaysian law, a court must refer a defendant for a psychiatric evaluation if it suspects he may be insane.

Her lawyers have filed a new bail application, but the teenager remains in custody pending trial.

The Attorney General’s office has since issued a statement saying the charge could be reconsidered pending further developments – including the results of the investigation into the girl’s rape allegation.

However, the alleged perpetrator, who was identified by police and told to turn himself in to help with investigations, remains at large.