Sarawak Women for Women Society (SWWS) recently held a forum entitled ‘When Relationships Go Sour’ to highlight common problems and consider what changes are needed.
Avoid marrying too young, stay in school
A very glaring problem in the state was the high number of early marriages as these unions often led to early divorce.
Dr Farah Nini, a law lecturer from Universiti Malaya who has researched child marriage, shared that Sarawak has amongst the highest number of child marriages in the country.
This, she believed, was connected to the high school drop-out rate leading to young teens, often bored, drifting into marriage. Their parents may have married young too so the pattern was repeated across the generations. To break the cycle more had to be done to keep children in school. She was particularly worried about how young some of the mothers were. There had even been incidents of girls under 14 giving birth.
Datu Nillie Tangai, from Majlis Adat Istiadat, agreed, adding that after separation the grandparents were often left looking after the babies born to the teenage mothers. He also noted that it was rare for the penghulus or the district officers to query such early marriages during the registration process despite increased concern in the state.
Educate youngsters to prevent pregnancies
As one teacher in the audience shared, the reluctance of officials to refuse permission for early marriages was often as the young teenage girl was already pregnant and the parents were keen for her to marry to avoid embarrassment to the family.
She agreed with the view of SWWS, expressed earlier by the moderator Ann Teo, that discussing relationships and reproductive health in an age-appropriate way was needed in both primary and secondary schools so unplanned pregnancies could be reduced.
However, she lamented that the parents and not the teachers were the ones blocking this. Many were in denial about how much today’s youngster knew and how early they were becoming sexually active. She urged that the public be educated so young people could be given the information they need.
Another member of the audience suggested social media was used to educate youngsters. Videos could be made showing the consequences of early pregnancy. Given the difficulty of taking training courses to young people, especially those who had already dropped out of school, this method could reach more teens.
For those in a relationship, Margaret Bedus, SWWS’s president, stressed the importance of effective communication. Often people go into a marriage she said with different expectations. They need to talk these through and come to an agreement that suits both parties.
Society should also challenge negative expectations such as wives should just put up with men having affairs. Women facing problems in their relationships needed a safe place to talk through their options without anyone judging them or telling them what to do. SWWS’s phone line was such a safe place.
She also pointed out that it was not just affairs that could cause tension between couples. Handling in-laws: adjusting to parenting and balancing work and family life were common factors which could create a gap between couples unless there was good communication and time given to each other’s needs. For those who faced violence in their relationships she encouraged them to reach out for help.
Laws need to be just, accessible and enforced
Datu Nillie Tangai raised the difficulty women had in obtaining maintenance from their ex-husbands. Tracing the husband was one problem but once in court he might agree to pay but after a couple of payments defaulting was common. For her to chase him through the courts was expensive, especially for rural woman. Also if he was caught and refused to pay she would be legally obliged to pay for his imprisonment as it was a civil not a criminal case.
In situations where one partner converted after marrying under Adat, the stand of the Majlis was all matters relating to maintenance; child custody and division of assets needed to be settled under the law by which they were married.
This was welcomed by Dr Farah, who supported the stand of the menteri besar of Negri Sembilan who had stated that Muslim converts should go back to the court under which they were married to settle their divorce and related matters. More such bold statements were needed she said, as Islam is a religion of justice and peace so the spirit of the law should be followed.
Many civil laws, she noted, were good but the enforcement was lacking. She cited the Domestic Violence Act, which includes sexual abuse, and its recent amendments, which has extended coverage to emotional abuse. However, the enforcement was weak as within the law enforcement agencies there was still an attitude that it was a private not a public matter. This needed to be changed so protection could be a reality as envisioned when the Act was passed
With regard to maintenance and child custody, she felt civil courts could learn from the Syariah court which has a separate department called ‘Khidmat Sokongan Keluarga’ to check on the enforcement of rulings. As for disputes over the custody of children and enabling more amicable arrangements the family courts were a good new development but these had yet to reach Sarawak but could be proposed in places which had a High Court.
In the Sarawak context, the civil courts are difficult to access for rural communities due to the cost and time to reach them. Traditionally, district officers in Sarawak have helped to resolve disputes but current officers, according to Datu Nillie, complained they are not trained and do not have the time to undertake these duties adequately.
Instead some have advised people to seek the help of the Legal Aid Bureau to enforce court orders but as these services are only based in major urban areas this is not a realistic option.
SWWS urges the government to ensure the rural people are well served so they are not disadvantaged compared to their urban counterparts when it comes to enforcing court orders pertaining to divorce. This would require a review of the DO’s role and the resources, including training, to undertake it plus exploring other means of dispensing justice.
SWWS also urges the urgent extension of the Married Women and Children (Enforcement of Maintenance) Act 1968 (revised 1988) to Sarawak and hopes that the Majlis Agama Islam will consider favourably the recent proposal that before a marriage can be registered in the Syariah court all matters related to a previous marriage needs to be resolved.
“Whether focusing on prevention; reconciliation or fair dissolution of marriages, there is much work to be done” Margaret said after the forum, adding “To reach across the state there needs to be concerted teamwork between government departments, community leaders and NGOs. Resources will be needed but they will be a good investment. Special attention needs to be given to how to prevent teenage marriage.
“It is SWWS’s view this has to start when they are in school and we also need to address the issue of school drop-outs so this troubling problem is reduced.”
Members of the public with further ideas are welcome to contact SWWS at firstname.lastname@example.org before they publish the recommendations arising from the Women Calling for Change Series of Forums. Women who wish to confidentially discuss relationship problems can phone the crisis phone line on 082 422660 during its operating hours.