: Underage marriage is a problem which usually stems from families facing economic hardship and can only be overcome through a concerted effort to solve socio-economic problems in the country.
According to economist Prof Madeline Berma, the prevalence of child marriages in remote areas in the country among those from the lower income group, is a sign that the problem stems from socio-economic hardships.
"There are several factors that lead to child marriages in Malaysia, but the most striking one is economy. Poor families from rural areas tend to have a higher number of children, and parents marry off their daughters early so they do not become a 'burden' to the family.
"Their lack of education also prevents them from earning decent wages and working outside the village," she said.
She said the marriages were usually made out of convenience "because there is nothing left to do or aspire to."
"It is a tragic reality but one that can be solved. Before we resort to judging, we need to understand how these communities think. If we fail to look at the problem correctly, we risk wasting time debating without actually coming up with solutions," said Berma, who is also Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia's Tun Fatimah Hashim Women's Leadership Centre director.
Berma was responding to the uproar over last month's incident of a 41-year-old Kelantanese man taking an 11-year-old Thai girl as his third wife. READ: Peraih getah kahwin budak 11 tahun didenda RM1,800
According to the United Nations, child marriage was a toxic product of poverty and gender inequality. Many impoverished parents believed that marriage would secure their daughter's future. Some also mistakenly believed that marriage would protect their daughters from sexual violence.
Berma said, to eradicate child marriages in Malaysia, the government needs to have the political will to solve the socio-economic imbalance among the people.
"We can't solve the problem by giving poor families cash handouts. They need quality education, quality jobs and opportunities that allow them to look beyond marrying off their children for convenience.
"At the same time, existing laws need to be strengthen to protect those vulnerable to opportunists. When the generation is better educated, they will make better choices.
"The government and civil society must work together to ensure we can reduce and eventually eliminate child marriages in Malaysia," she said. READ: Nikah budak 11 tahun: 'Saya ikat sahaja, belum tinggal bersama'
Meanwhile, Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (UPSI) Counselling Unit head, Dr Fauziah Mohd Saad, said in the case of the 11-year-old Thai girl, her 'husband' needs to consult a psychologist to assess his mental state.
She said he might suffer from a personality disorder that prompted him to take interest in having a 'romantic' relationship with a minor.
"For a middle-aged man to have interest in an 11-year old girl is abnormal. I would suggest for him to undergo a mental health assessment.
"Paedophiles are usually abusive in nature, they will sexually exploit their victims and coerce them to keep silent. In this case, they have not had sexual contact. But it is still twisted if he thinks he was doing the right thing by marrying the girl through a 'halal' path.
"We also cannot set aside the fact that he kept the marriage a secret from his other wives and he married on foreign soil without going through proper channels. It's a submission of guilt; in his mind, he's trying to do the 'right' thing via unconventional ways," Dr Fauziah told Astro AWANI
. READ: Nikah budak 11 tahun: Pasangan diminta hadir di mahkamah READ: Isteri terkilan suami kahwini kanak-kanak 11 tahun
Asked if there was the possibility of sexual grooming in the case, Dr Fauziah said it was highly possible.
"There are parallel similarities to sexual grooming such as gaining the trust of the victim's family until he can bring her to vacation with his family.
"However, I am not privy to details if they had conversations with sexual suggestions or undertones to properly assess whether he has been grooming her for a sex," she said.
On July 9, the man was fined RM1,800 by the Gua Musang Syariah Court after he was charged with solemnising a marriage and polygamy without obtaining a court permission.
He pleaded guilty to charges under Section 19 and Section 124 of the Kelantan Islamic Family Law Enactment 2002 that carries a RM1,000 fine or two months' jail.
The case shed more light on the reality of child marriages in Malaysia. Based on the Malaysian Syariah Judiciary Department data, the states which recorded the highest number of Muslim child marriages between 2011 and 2016 are Sabah, Sarawak and Kelantan.
Sabah and Kelantan are two of three states (the other being Kedah) which have the highest poverty level in the country.
Although the number of such cases has been declining over the years, the UN projected that population growth in areas where child marriage is prevalent, might mean that the number of cases would increase by 2030.