Malaysia Struggles With Baby Abandonment

Reactions to the steady stream of headlines about unwanted babies have ranged from an expansion of sex education in schools to calls for stiffer penalties and the opening of the country’s first “baby hatch,” where infants can be left to be cared for by others. One state government has offered financial support for younger teenagers to marry, angering women’s groups that have been campaigning against child marriage.

Under the Shariah, or Islamic, law that applies to the Muslims who make up 60 percent of Malaysia’s population, premarital sex is forbidden, with penalties including up to three years in prison, a fine of up to 5,000 ringgit, about $1,600, or six strokes of the cane. Premarital sex is not punishable for non-Muslims, but it remains socially taboo.

Abortion is illegal unless the woman’s physical or mental health is endangered. Anyone who abandons a child under 12 faces up to seven years imprisonment, a fine, or both.

Despite recent news media attention to the issue, the number of babies being abandoned in Malaysia has not shown a significant spike this year. The police have recorded 76 cases from the beginning of this year through Oct. 1, compared with 79 cases in 2009 and 102 in 2008.

But in August, the cabinet asked the attorney general’s office to look more closely into cases where babies died after being abandoned, to determine whether those responsible should be charged with murder, a crime that carries the death penalty in Malaysia.

Taking another approach, Mohamad Ali Rustam, chief minister of Malacca State, south of Kuala Lumpur, recently announced plans to give 500 ringgit to couples under the age of 18 if they marry.

In Malaysia, Muslim girls under 16 and boys under 18 may marry with permission from a Shariah court. Non-Muslims must be at least 18, unless they have permission from their state’s chief minister, in which case they may be as young as 16.

From 2000 through 2008, 1,654 marriages were registered involving girls aged 16 and 17, although women’s rights advocates believe the incidence of child marriage may be higher.

A Unaids report released this year showed that 7,176 Muslim girls and 2,029 Muslim boys aged 19 and below underwent H.I.V. screening in 2009, which is compulsory in most states for Malaysian Muslims who are applying to marry.

Mr. Mohamad said he hoped that providing teenage couples with money to help pay for a wedding ceremony would discourage premarital sex and thus reduce the abandonment of children born out of wedlock.

Groups that advocate raising the marriage age to 18 for all Malaysians, regardless of gender or religion, have condemned Mr. Mohamad’s move.

Ivy Josiah, executive director of the Women’s Aid Organization, a nongovernmental group, said that allowing those under 18 to marry contravened Malaysia’s obligations under the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child and the country’s own legislation. “Child marriage is against every right of the child,” she said.

Both the U.N. convention and Malaysia’s Child Act define a child as anyone under the age of 18.

The Ministry for Women, Family and Community Development is investigating reports that a 14-year-old girl was recently given permission to marry by the Shariah court, but there are no plans to raise the marriage age to 18 for Muslim girls.

“We hope that the Shariah judges will continue to exercise their discretion judiciously,” said Heng Seai Kie, deputy minister for Women, Family and Community Development.

Other efforts are focused on education and logistical support.

The number of teenage pregnancies, regardless of marital status, has risen slightly in Malaysia in recent years, with 16,207 live births registered in 2007, compared with 15,752 in 2005.

Nongovernmental organizations have long called for schools to provide students with more knowledge about sex and how to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. Currently, students learn only the basics of anatomy and reproduction in biology and physical education classes, and abstinence outside marriage is promoted.

Starting next year, however, primary school students will spend 30 minutes a week and high school students will spend 40 minutes twice a month in “Reproductive Health and Social Education” classes.

The lessons will continue to emphasize abstinence before marriage, but secondary students will also learn about contraception and sexually transmitted diseases.

Ms. Heng, the deputy women’s minister, said that while the government wanted to discourage premarital sex, it did provide support for unwed women and girls who became pregnant. It operates four shelters for unmarried girls under 18, and two for pregnant women 18 and older, at which free food and accommodation are provided. She said the country also maintained up to 60 welfare centers that offered assistance to unwed mothers and their babies.

The government’s response has failed to impress advocates like Ms. Josiah of the Women’s Aid Organization. While she welcomed the greater focus on sex education, she deplored the attempts to encourage young teenagers to marry and said punitive measures, like charging people with murder if the baby they abandoned died, would not help address the problem of child abandonment.

“If the message is that you might get caned for having sex outside marriage, or you might even be executed because you have abandoned a baby and the baby dies, or we will force you to get married — never mind if you are under 18 — if these are the messages that are going out, then certainly no one is going to come forward,” she said.

To increase the chances of survival for abandoned babies, Malaysia’s first “baby hatch,” a place where mothers can leave their unwanted babies, opened in May. Fifteen babies have been left so far.

The hatch, based on a design already in use in Germany and Japan, features an alarm that is activated when a baby is placed inside. It is located on the premises of Orphan Care, a nongovernmental organization that arranges for the babies to be placed in children’s homes or adopted.

Orphan Care is hoping to open another baby hatch in Kuala Lumpur and a third at a government hospital on the outskirts of the capital. “I think if more hatches open, if they are more accessible and in different cities, we can save a few more lives,” said Adnan Mohammad Tahir, the organization’s president.

Part of a longer article at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/09/world/asia/09malay.html?_r=1&src=twrhp

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